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Born Offside

The Lower League Week – Bad Things Happening to Unpopular Managers Edition

Valley Parade, home of Bradford City FC.

The Embarassment at Valley Parade

As you’ve probably already seen, following Crawley’s 2-1 win over Bradford at Valley Parade a riot broke out, resulting in five red cards (three for Bradford, two for Crawley). Despite the fact it somehow made the national evening news on Tuesday, the fighting was more embarassing than outrageous, the kind you’d expect from eleven year olds.

Bradford defender Andrew Davies stormed across from right to left, where he was met by an elbow from Claude Davis, who Luke Oliver charged in on. Davis then backed away from the action, with Bradford goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin throwing punches through a crowd in his attempts to land one on Davis, Crawley’s Pablo Mills throwing punches back at him.

While not wishing to excuse Bradford, Crawley are a hyper-competitve team to put things mildly. In the last half hour of the game Crawley picked up five yellows to Bradford’s one, three for unfair challenges, one for timewasting, one for unsporting conduct, in addition to a first half yellow for an unfair challenge. Bear in mind that they weren’t the underdogs in this match, looking to upset a superior team in form – going into the match Crawley had won three in a row and sat in fourth, Bradford had one point from four games and were nineteenth. By the judgment of the referee, Crawley overstepped what was acceptable repeatedly in the second half, yet strangely were disciplined enough to all play from the start till the 84th minute and not get anyone sent off.

Having said all that, McLaughlin in particular was recklessly hot-headed. After a bad run of form and with the relegation zone beckoning, the players needed to suppress whatever desires for vengeance they had. In addition to their loss at a vital time of the season, it’s just embarassing as a football fan, never mind what fans of the clubs must think.

On Thursday the FA announced both clubs were to be charged with failing to control their players, Pablo Mills charged for another offence in addition to his red card, and Kyle McFadzean, a Crawley defender who wasn’t sent off, was charged with violent conduct for ‘an on-field incident which was not seen by the match officials but caught on video’.

Kyle McFadzen. Courtesy of Jonesy702

Bradford City

With the three suspensions kicking in, Bradford recalled former Hull keeper Matt Duke from his loan at Northampton for their relegation six-pointer at Plymouth. The weekend’s match was an open match where Bradford dominated the shot and possession count. But they couldn’t overturn a fourth minute goal from Juvhel Tsoumou, losing by one goal to nil.

Aside from the events of midweek, the Bantams have been underachieving for years, this being their fifth season in the fourth tier. When they first fell to the fourth tier, I personally had thought the problem was Stuart McCall doing an awful job, but he’s done well at Motherwell since – so well that he may end up taking them into the Champions League next season.

Terry Jackson and Phil Parkinson – both decent managers who’ve done well elsewhere – have failed to lift the negativity and underachievement at Valley Parade. Parkinson’s greatest managerial achievement is in leading Colchester into the second tier in 2006 with limited resources, but under his leadership they’ve beaten Torquay twice as well as Oxford and Southend this season. In addition they’ve defeated both Sheffield clubs and pushed Leeds hard in various cup competitions.

The most obvious reason for Bradford’s failures are financial – debt from their Premier League days when City were one of the first English clubs to break the £40,000 a week barrier in signing Benito Carbone, £1.3m annual running costs on Valley Parade, which has only once this season been more than half full. But they sit below Dagenham & Redbridge, Burton Albion and Morecambe, so the finances can’t fully explain their problems.

With six of the Bantams’ nine wins this season coming against teams currently in the top eight, accusations from fans that Parkinson’s safety first attitude is a big part of the problem hold some weight. Bradford are now just four points above the relegation zone, with sixpointers against Macclesfield and Northampton to come. The other four games are all against teams currently in the top seven – whether this is a cause for optimism depends on how positive Bradford fans feel.

Bury vs Tranmere

Bury hosted and defeated Tranmere, breaking a run of thirteen games without victory.

Many Bury fans have been unsure about manager Ritchie Barker’s future given the run of form. But the feeling amongst fans is that they created enough chances against Preston to get a win last week, eventually needing a late goal to snatch a point. With Bury’s remaining matches being mainly against teams whose outside playoff hopes have recently been crushed, they may face opponents who aren’t highly motivated, and should be able to build on their five point lead above the relegation zone.

The defeat broke Tranmere’s unbeaten run since Moore’s return, but four wins and two draws in his first six games sees them on 48 points, almost certainly safe.

Chesterfield

The Spireites followed up their Johnstone’s Paint victory with two successive 4-1 defeats. The first was at Sheffield United, but following it up with a heavy defeat at Scunthorpe was less understandable.

Chesterfield will be hoping for better luck soon. Courtesy of yellow book.

Over the Easter weekend Chesterfield have a double header against Walsall and Wycombe, currently in 20th and 21st places. Sitting bottom and ten points adrift, the reigning League Two champions need to win both to have a fighting chance of survival.

Ched Evans

Evans’ hat trick against Chesterfield in midweek was followed up with converting a penalty in the 1-0 win against Hartlepool at the weekend, meaning he’s now scored 25 league goals this season.

Evans has a criminal trial expected to start in April (he and Port Vale’s Clayton McDonald are accused of raping a woman in a hotel room). While it feels a bit tasteless to look at the football side of something so serious, with the margins between second and third being so tight, The Blades’ hopes may rest on how Evans copes with the distraction, or how his team cope without him.

The League One title race

There was a spell between January 31st and February 21st when Charlton drew three games from four 1-1, against Tranmere, Bury and Rochdale, pretty much as out of form as anyone in League One at the time of the matches. Including the weekend’s win over relegation threatened Leyton Orient, Charlton have won two and drawn one from the last six.

Sheffield United’s two wins in a week have moved them closer to the top, with the six point gap being closer than it has been for some time. Despite Charlton looking nailed on certainties for the title for much of the season, going into the final run-in there looks to be a genuine fight for the trophy.

Preston’s Civil War

After losing to Sheffield Wednesday, Graham Westley announced that he’d been told during the match that Wednesday already knew his team’s tactics.

In a practical sense it probably didn’t make much of a difference to the match. It’s quite common for a manager to talk openly about his tactics and plans in the prematch press conference. While it’s clearly not what Westley wanted, it’s not a hammer blow that makes victory impossible. After all, a large amount of Westley’s success has been based around being hardworking, and going further than the opposition are willing to. These aren’t strengths you can side-step simply by knowing they’re there. Playing centre-half Aaron Brown up-front was a surprising choice, but the match was goalless at half-time, which considering the form of the two teams, was a good position for Preston. And Wednesday would presumably have noticed the starting line-up by that point regardless.

At Deepdale there’s a lot of fan dissatisfaction at a style of play that’s thought of as excessively defensive and Westley has won only two and drawn six from thirteen matches. Caretaker managers Graham Alexander and David Unsworth won two and drew two of their five matches in charge, meaning Westley still hasn’t surpassed their win total.

In midweek Westley spoke about needing a summer clearout, as a large number of players are against his methods. He has long insisted on ‘double training’ - from 9 to 5, twice as long as is standard across most clubs – and there have been rumours of Preston players throwing up in their first session under him.

Given the high workrate he requires from his players, it’s clear that his methods will need time to drill in. But looking at the impact managers elsewhere in League One have achieved – Gary Johnson took over at Yeovil in January and won eight from his first 13 in charge to take them out of the relegation zone, Ronnie Moore took over at Tranmere a month ago and lost for the first time at the weekend, winning four of his first seven.

Dave Jones at Sheffield Wednesday has changed the style of play  and hit the ground running.
While Gary Johnson’s work at Yeovil has been a short-term sticking plaster of loans and will require deeper surgery in the summer, if Westley’s plan is to alter the culture of the club, he should have had a plan to deal with the short-term consequences.

While allegations that the four Preston players “revealed our team to them as a football club” are not defensible if true, the results of Westley’s new ideas, stripping Paul Coutts of Preston’s captaincy, his 3am texting and uncompromising attitude mean he’s a man who’ll make enemies easily. This is a man who in 2003 was named by the Observer as the ‘Sports Poisonality of the Year’ for his actions in sending Farnborough Town deep into debt.

Having said all that, it’s important to remember that Stevenage have just been promoted twice in a row, and were in a playoff position when Westley left. Despite what many Preston fans (and at least four players) think, he is a talented manager. But even his admirers will admit that Westley is not subtle in his thinking. He renamed his family’s management consulting business AIMITA (Attitude is More Important Than Ability) and the company is part of The Innoventive Group.

Yes, really.

It’s unclear whether Westley knows who the four players are. No interview or quote that I’ve seen has mentioned a name, and, in the absence of names, paranoia will run riot. Iain Hume for instance, has responded calmly to criticism and abuse from fans on Twitter, and he presumably won’t have been the only one to have received similar messages. It was probably a mistake for Westley to make an announcement before a full investigation, as it’s an approach that seems to have spread paranoia and distrust amongst the players and the fanbase.

Iain Hume in his Barnsley days. Courtesy of Ben Sutherland

But while I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Westley (anyone who tries to enforce radical change on an organisation but isn’t willing to soften the pain for those who find it difficult, deserves whatever blowback they get), the leakers can’t be defended. In principle, if not in effect, the leakers are only one step above match-fixing. Talking about undermining the purity of the competition in an age where the top clubs are effectively mega-corporations may sound a bit naive, but, if the leaks were deliberate and not a casual conversation with old team-mates, that’s effectively what they have done.

There's trouble brewing at Deepdale. Courtesy of CGormally

Next weekend’s match against MK Dons is to overlap with events to celebrate the 90th birthday of Sir Tom Finney,  the former England international who is perhaps one of the few individuals who, despite the cliche, actually is bigger than the club.

With their current underachievement, infighting, mistrust and paranoia, Preston are currently as far away from the Corinthian spirit Finney represents as it’s possible to be.

Kettering Town

Kettering Town are probably most notable for being the first football club to sponsor their shirts, when Kettering Tyres sponsored their kits back in 1976. With Kettering due to face a winding up order Betfair offered them a one-off kit deal for the weekend’s game with Stockport, with a somewhat unusual condition. The players would have to wear shirts from the era, tight seventies shorts, and take part in a slightly strange promotional video.

The deal fell apart – sponsorship of the Conference by Blue Square means that no other betting company can agree a sponsorship deal with any of it’s clubs. However, as Betfair say the offer was made to raise awareness of themselves sorry, Kettering Town’s plight, they’re happy to pay the money for the coverage the announcement got them.

The colourful events of the week didn’t carry over to the weekend when Kettering lost 3-1 to Stockport, leaving them nine points adrift, and almost certainly down.

Gary Brabin

As mentioned before, Luton’s manager Gary Brabin has been unpopular with fans for some time and after they lost to York on Friday, the Luton board’s patience ran out. It was the two teams’ third encounter of March, and Luton failed to win any. In addition, the defeat meant that Luton had not won in five in the league, hardly ideal form for a team hoping to gain promotion through the playoffs.

In fact, the loss meant that by 5pm on Saturday, Luton had slipped below the playoffs for the first time since December sixth (although they and York have two games in hand on all realistic playoff contenders bar Wrexham).

In the club’s official statement the board added that they “have also been dissatisfied and surprised with the attitude of certain members of the playing staff over the past month.”

Lil Fuccillo, who has managed Luton and Peterborough in the past as well as being head scout of Newcastle and Swansea within the last few years, was appointed as Technical Director to the board on Thursday, perhaps with the intent of being part of a new coaching set-up.

Paul Buckle, who failed at Bristol Rovers but did well at Torquay, and England C manager Paul Fairclough have been linked with the vacancy, while slightly fancifully, some fans have suggested Martin Allen might take the job until the end of the season.

Whichever way the club choose to go, as one of the clubs in the Conference with the biggest potential, and lacking the financial baggage of Wrexham and Stockport, they should have some high quality choices.

Carlisle United

The Cumbrians are a team who ‘play football the right way’. Greg Abbot’s men prioritise keeping the ball on the ground, and their commitment to attacking has seen them pick up big wins and big defeats. This season they’ve had 4-1 wins over Bury and Leyton Orient on one hand, and 4-0 defeats to Charlton, Hartlepool and Brentford on the other, balancing out to leave them with a goal difference of exactly zero.

Carlisle beat MK Dons midweek, in a match where Sunderland loanee Jordan Cook scored twice in the last eight minutes to win 2-1.

In their second sixpointer of the week Carlisle hosted Huddersfield. United had more possession and shots and drew far more fouls than Huddersfield. Carlisle were leading one nil until Lee Novak equalised from a tight angle ten minutes from the end. And then, deep in injury time, former Aberdeen and Middlesbrough forward Lee Miller headed up and over the goalkeeper to make it 2-1.

Carlisle United sit in the final playoff place, four points clear of Notts County who’ve played a game more, and five above Stevenage, and have this week proven their ability to succeed in high pressure matches. Carlisle aren’t one of the richer teams at this level but are succeeding with an open and attractive style. In a week of post-game brawls and accusations of sabotage, the continued possibility of Carlisle reaching the Championship is a genuine feel-good story.