The Lower League Week – Extremely Long and Incredibly Verbose Edition
Gillingham v Hereford
Football’s brilliant, isn’t it? On Tuesday 28th, playoff chasing Gillingham hosted relegation threatened Hereford.
The visitors raced into a two goal lead in the first seven minutes, the first a penalty from Rob Purdie. Despite some good goalkeeping, the Gills levelled the score with goals just before and just after half time. Hereford retook the lead with goals in the 70th and 80th minutes, Gillingham substitute Charlie Lee pulled this back to 4-3 a minute after Hereford’s fourth. The same man then equalised two minutes from time. Purdie had a second penalty in the 92nd minute…which was saved. Then, in the 93rd Gavin Tomlin scored an acrobatic winner for Gillingham, and seal a win that will have delighted all involved with the Gills, from the fans to the chairman to the YTS boys to the video analyst.
It was an end to end match that saw eighteen shots on target over the course of the match, thirty-one shots in total.
Talk of drama in football tends to centre around title charges, the stress and drama over the course of a season. But even single games, taken in isolation, can provide the sort of dramatic back and forth, with thin lines seperating joy and despair, that even preplanned fiction finds hard to create.
At the weekend Hereford put their midweek concerns aside to overcome AFC Wimbledon 2-1. Their third win in twenty pulled them away from the relegation zone, but there are still worries about their form, with a three game purple patch in October in which they won three in a row forming the backbone of their season.
Chairman David Keyte visited the players in the dressing room pre-match, with captain Rob Purdie saying it “pulled us together.”
Like Irena Demin’s visit to Bournemouth’s dressing room last week, this is worrying, but in slightly different ways. Pre-match is a less disruptive time to visit than at the interval, but it makes you wonder how much faith he has in the management staff to motivate and focus the minds of their players. A parallel had been drawn by Hereford fans with Steve Morgan’s visit to the Wolves dressing room, shortly before McCarthy’s sacking, and on Monday this turned out to be accurate – the former club physio was sacked to make way for Richard O’Kelly, formerly Hereford’s assistant manager, but taking his first managerial job.
The head of the supporters’ association spoke openly in midweek about the possibility of a managerial change so the change may well have been lined up before the weekend. Unusually, Pitman will stay on as coach to the man who was assistant manager during Pitman’s second spell as a Hereford player.
Sheffield Wednesday’s managers, old and new
After beating their rivals in the Steel City derby last week, Gary Megson was relieved of his duties as Wednesday manager. This despite the victory meaning the gap to the second promotion place was closing. Dave Jones was named as his replacement before the weekend.
During the week, in one of their games in hand Sheffield United beat 10 man relegation-threatened Scunthorpe with a goal eight minutes from the end. Not dropped points, but very, very close. All that Wednesday need is for United to find things a little more difficult than they did midweek, on two occasions more than Wednesday, and suddenly they’re under a lot of pressure.
When a team underachieves over a lengthy period, the pressure and the stress builds on them, you can see the tension the players feel on the pitch. As mentioned in last week’s LLW, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield have experience of being in a situation where only their very best is satisfactory, and anything below this is disappointing, even anger inducing.
When ‘big teams’ fall to the third tier (a loose term – generally a club with tens of thousands of regulars, based in a large city, usually with Premiership history) they generally struggle for a year or two. Eventually their superior resources win out, but not immediately. Sheffield United have coped with that pressure very well so far, but there’s no guarantee that it won’t kick in in the final months.
Wednesday have had some very disappointing results this season – they’ve been defeated against Exter, Walsall and Chesterfield (currently in or around the relegation zone), Bury (locked in mid-table), Bournemouth, and Carlisle (outsiders for the playoffs). A 5-1 defeat at Stevenage should have been closer at the very least.
On a run of three defeats going into last Sunday’s six-pointer (four if you include FA Cup defeat to Blackpool) there’s really no argument that Megson morally deserved more time. Especially when you take into account what he did to Leicester. 18 months after resigning from Nottingham Forest in League One and still without a managerial job, he was appointed by Championship Leicester. 41 days after being appointed, he walked out on the Foxes for Premiership Bolton, leaving behind Leicester and the chairman who’d shown faith in him… Milan Mandaric. Life’s poetic sometimes.
However, the Owls will have been on a high after the derby victory, with momentum in Sheffield shifting back towards Megson’s men.
Megson had been in charge at Hillsborough for thirteen months, so perhaps hasn’t yet had time to fully drill his ideas into his players. It’s impossible to say with certainty what would have happened next had he remained in charge, but the positive psychology may well have carried over into last weekend’s and next weekend’s matches. In fact, with Megson’s sacking being announced shortly before United took to the field midweek, the news may have bolstered their spirits when the going got tough.
Megson has two promotions behind him, both with West Brom in the second tier, the same number as Dave Jones – automatically with Stockport from the third tier and through the playoffs in the second with Wolves. But Jones’ spells at Wolves, and Cardiff in particular, were characterised by near misses in their promotion chases – in 06-07 Cardiff led the table for a while before fading to mid-table, in 07–08 finished 12th (but with an FA Cup final appearance), in 08-09 finished just outside the playoffs, in 09-10 lost the playoff final to Blackpool, and in 10-11 lost in the playoff semifinals. Cardiff progressed under him but perhaps should have done so faster, given the talent coming through their academy, supplemented by big names like Fowler, Sinclair and Bellamy.
Speaking as a neutral, I prefer to watch Jones’ fluid but competitive style of football to Megson’s more purely physical style. Had the change been made during last summer, after the three league defeats, or after the good psychology from the derby had peetered out, I’d see it as a smart change, good for the club in the long-term.
But sacking Megson right after a big win distracts from the achievement, while setting the standards for Dave Jones very high. The timing also means he has little option to change the players who are more suited to his predecessor’s preferred style of play.
At the weekend, Wednesday, under caretaker manager Chris Evans, Wednesday drew with Rochdale, a result that won’t have helped the new manager.
Sheffield United v Oldham
Following up on their midweek win, Sheffield United raced into a 2-0 half time lead at home to bottom half Oldham. The midweek victory over Scunthorpe was their tenth successive home win in the league, so with a two goal lead against a side in the bottom half, things should have been rosy.
But an own goal from Richard Cresswell (an impressive diving header) was followed by Matt Lowton dribbling into the box, losing control of the ball, lunging in on an Oldham defender, and receiving a second yellow card. Which in turn was followed by an Oldham equaliser – all three of these events happened within five minutes. Then, in stoppage time, a penalty and second red card was given, Shefki Kuqi scored the winner in the 92nd minute.
A dramatic, chaotic match, which the Blades lost through their own mistakes. Can they handle the pressurised run in?
Financial troubles at Port Vale had resulted in them being placed under a transfer embargo, and, following a winding up order from HMRC, the Valiants are likely to be placed into administration. After falling behind with multiple debts, taking a loan with the local Stoke council then breaching the terms of the loan by taking out a second mortgage on the ground, administration was more or less inevitable.
There has been long supporter campaigns to remove all of the current four man board for the good of the club, though one of the four has resigned, leaving the remaining directors with limited scope for movement. Fans had gotten behind a bid from Mo Chaudry, owner of WaterWorld aqua park and named as one of the UK’s top 100 Asian businessmen, over the last two years. There have been accusations that the board first laid down terms for a buyout, and when these terms were met, still refused to open talks. A series of fans’ groups have pressurised the directors to sell, including Starve ‘em Out, who have been calling for boycott of matches, such is the seriousness of fan opposition.
Since talk of a potential buyout began, Micky Adams has left the managerial post for Sheffield United and returned, such has been the length of the conflict.
It’s clear just from looking at the struggles Port Vale have had to pay their bills (in fact, repayments for the council loan in December and January came in late) that the current board lack either the resources or know how to run the club.
Administration will leave Vale fourteen points off the playoffs, so the consequences are not good in the short term. Hopefully this will turn out to be the point when things finally turn around.
There’s an oft-repeated story that Bradley was considered the main attraction when he and brother Shaun were signed to the Manchester City academy system, and that City had to agree to take Shaun in order to get Bradley in. I’m not sure how true this is, but, given the optimism at the start of his career, it’s fair to say that he’s not yet lived up to what was expected of him.
After leaving Manchester City with just two professional goals, Wright-Phillips transferred to Southampton where three years of mixed success ended with relegation, and release from his contract.
At Plymouth he looked to be finally putting his game together. While the club were in free-fall during his time with the Pilgrims, BWP’s overall goal record of 17 in 32 nearly equalled the 22 goals he scored for Southampton in less than a third of the games, in a struggling side.
It earned him a move to Charlton last January, where he scored a decent eight goals in the second half of the season, and started this season in similar form, scoring 14 in the first 18 games. If it hadn’t been for Jordan Rhodes, Wright-Phillips might have gotten similar attention.
But during the last few months, the Charlton forward’s goals have dried up almost completely – his goal on February 25th was his first since November. This is during a spell when, as mentioned last week, Charlton have found goals harder to come by (relatively speaking).
It’s hard to say, especially looking in from a distance, how much the attacking struggles are down to Wright-Phillips’ loss in form, and how much his loss in form is caused by others’ failure to provide chances. At his best, Wright-Phillips is probably League One’s second most natural finisher, but perhaps the pressure of leading the line for a title chasing team has affected him. But, with BWP scoring against Stevenage and following it up with a hat trick against Chesterfield, it looks like he’s re-found his shooting boots.
Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground is located on valuable land – near the heart of the city and not much more than a literal stone’s throw from Glyndwr University.
As a result, a range of dishonourable businesspeople have pursued ownership of Wrexham over recent years (seemingly all of them banned from acting as company directors at one stage or another).
Following a convoluted series of events over the past few years, former owners Geoff Moss and Neville Dickens transferred ownership away from the club and into a specially created company, Wrexham Village, supposedly to aid development of the ground. Moss moved Crusaders Rugby League, which he also owned, from the southwest of Wales to share Wrexham’s ground, despite Wrexham FC seeming to gain little from the move. The ground was later used as collateral for Crusaders to take out a loan with the Rugby League.
Eventually the ownership of the ground was taken on by the university, who said it would be “used by the University’s students, for sports provision, and by the people of Wrexham and north east Wales.” Given the range of villains pursuing ownership of Wrexham and their valuable land, there were doubts over how serious Glyndwr would be about allowing the ground’s historic residents to continue there – if the above looks bad, the full picture goes much wider and deeper.
But this week Wrexham announced a fifteen year lease to continue to play at the stadium. While it’s not the ownership that the club lost with no gain, the guarantee that Wrexham will have a ground to play at next season takes away one of the obstacles to promotion.
On the field things are going well for Wrexham – at least compared to most teams. 11 wins from 13 would normally see a team already at the top of the league pull away from the challengers. Unfortunately, Fleetwood’s form has been even better – picking up 17 wins from the last 20 games.
Rather than extend their lead, Wrexham have been knocked out of the one automatic promotion place, and have fallen five points behind Fleetwood – although with a game in hand, and the Dragons still to visit Fleetwood. Given the excellent form of both teams a minor slip-up could be enough to deny either team promotion.
The former Newcastle, Aston Villa, Peru and West Ham winger signed for Hartlepool from Hull in the summer, almost certainly the least glamorous transfer of his career. Brought to Hartlepool by Mick Wadsworth, his coach at Newcastle, Solano knew his playing days were numbered and wanted to make the most of them.
As a Hartlepool fan, it’s been a pleasure to see his at times fantastic range of passing and some very good movement. The skills might have faded slightly, but there was still invention and ability there – his free kick against Bournemouth probably the highlight of his half season. A series of niggly injuries stopped him from being in the first team consistently enough to form the understanding necessary to help lesser players rise to his level and read his intent, meaning at times his passes surprised his team-mates as much as the opposition. But there was always the promise of something better to develop.
Unfortunately, following Wadsworth’s sacking in December, a change of tactics first under caretaker manager Micky Barron then his full time replacement Neale Cooper saw a switch to a higher tempo pressuring and closing down game that didn’t suit Solano’s style. In Barron’s four games in charge and Cooper’s first two, Solano, who was available for all, was an unused sub three times, and appeared from the bench in the last twenty minutes of three others.
There were a variety of rumours of what was to come next – that he was going to retire, and that he had taken a coaching role at Newcastle Benfield in Northern League Division One, four leagues below the Conference, amongst them.
But official statements were unclear, beyond the fact that he wasn’t in Cooper’s first team plans.
Then, on Wednesday afternoon Solano was named in the reserve team for the trip to Hull, but didn’t show for the coach taking the team down. By Friday Cooper still hadn’t been informed of Solano’s whereabouts, but rumours claim he was spotted in Newcastle city centre, alongside Jimmy Bullard and Michael Chopra, at the time of the match.
If Solano has decided to call time on his career it will be understandable, but it seems a shame that such a talented player with such an impressive career has ended in such an anticlimactic manner.
Oxford v Swindon
Swindon have been on form in recent months, winning 1o games in a row to take them to the top of the league while local rivals Oxford have been hanging around the edge of the playoffs during the same time. Swindon are better off financially, partially as a result of money from the sales of Charlie Austin and Billy Paynter, (who had been League One’s top striking partnership in the 09-10 season), and Simon Cox before that.
There was talk in January of Swindon signing Oxford’s top scorer John Constable. But, for whatever reason Constable is still at Oxford. And with a host of players missing for Oxford, including fellow strikers Jon-Paul Pitmann and Tom Craddock, the stage was set for the man who scored twice in a 2-1 derby win back in August to do the same again, right?
It didn’t quite work that way. Dismissed after ten minutes – though it’s hard to see what the offence was in replays – the U’s coped well without their main strikers. Six minutes after the red they took the lead, and two minutes later doubled it. A tense game rather than a flowing one, the weekend’s victory was a win that will not only aid United’s playoff chase, but give them confidence they can compete with the division’s best if they get there.
With a potential change in ownership for Town and in the midst of a relegation battle, this wasn’t a good time for a points deduction. The result of a suspended sentence given in the middle of January and their continued inability to settle debts with football creditors, the deduction, together with the weekend’s results, strands Kettering second bottom, four points adrift of safety.
Following defeat at the weekend, Tranmere have now only one win in 20. It’s the kind of run that shows a huge amount of good faith from the chairman, but there was apparently little sign in the style of play of a turnaround coming.
On Sunday, Parry ‘parted company’ with Tranmere, a full day after it was being widely reported on Sky Sports and Twitter. He was replaced later in the evening by former manager Ronnie Moore, who returns for his second spell as Tranmere manager. Moore was sacked in 2009 after finishing two points outside the playoffs, when he was replaced by John Barnes.
Given Tranmere’s start to the season, picking up seven wins from the first 15 games to sit in 6th place, their squad should be strong enough to keep them up. And Parry, a well-respected physiotherapist who had turned around the mess left at Tranmere by John Barnes, shouldn’t have trouble finding employment in some form.
The rest of the news
Notts County won again to move into sixth, meaning new boss Keith Curle has won four from four without conceding.
Yeovil beat Brentford to take their recent form to four wins in six, moving them away from the relegation zone.
Wycombe followed up their 5-0 win over Hartlepool with a 4-1 defeat at Scunthorpe, who played half the match and scored half their goals with ten men.
Torquay beat Crawley 1-0, to end the two match losing streak that had followed their seven match winning run, and climb above the Red Devils to fifth.
Accrington picked up their first point under new boss Paul Cook, in his fifth game in charge.
Gateshead’s bad form – one win in six now – continued with a 3-2 defeat at Ebbsfleet that sees them drop further away from the playoffs.
Barrow have now won three games from four since the departure of their joint manager Dean Sheridan, a run which has included an upset over third place Luton, and leaves Dave Bayliss’ men four points off the playoffs.