The Lower League Week – In Need of a Miracle
In a rehearsal for the FA Trophy Final, last Tuesday Newport County hosted York City. Relegation threatened Newport defeated play-off occupying York by two goals to one, a result that not only gave them a four point cushion above relegation with two games in hand, but left Bath City seventeen points adrift with five games remaining, confirming their relegation.
This was Bath’s second year in the Conference. After they finished tenth last year, signings were made during the summer with the aim of moving the club on, which ultimately didn’t pay off.
City have had crowds generally between 650 and 1150, and lacking a sugar daddy like Gateshead’s Graham Wood, it was always going to be difficult to improve on last season’s impressive finish.
Fans have been consoling themselves with the return to the cosiness of their lower non-league days, but with their hunger spurred by a taste of the relatively big time.
Paul Buckle was this week appointed as Luton Town’s new manager, and is under contract for this year and two more.
Buckle was sacked by Bristol Rovers in January, having moved from Torquay in the summer.
Torquay had finished in the Conference play-offs in Buckle’s first year in charge, and despite failing to go up, managed the feat the following year. Torquay finished in mid-table in League Two in 09-10, and narrowly missed out on promotion in 10-11, losing to Stevenage in the play-off final. Buckle left the Gulls for a club with “the potential to reach the Championship in the coming years.”
However his spell at Bristol Rovers was far from successful – he took over with the aim of promotion, and left Rovers closer to the relegation zone. Actions such as urging fans to lower their expectations, falling out with senior pro Stuart Campbell and a ‘perceived arrogance’ hinted that he was feeling the pressure.
An astonishing four-letter tirade against the club’s fans and Bristolians in general in the dressing room after defeat to Port Vale makes it virtually undeniable that he wasn’t doing his best thinking during his time at the Memorial Stadium.
Luton’s fortunes depend on which version of Buckle they get.
Nick Powell & Crewe Alexandra’s Finances
Nick Powell, Crewe’s latest wonderkid, has been linked with bids from some of the nation’s bigger clubs, with Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and both Manchester clubs reportedly monitoring him. Speculated transfer figures range between £1.5m and £5m. Goals this season have included a curler from outside the area against Wimbledon, a 25-yard shot against Morecambe, while generally having more control of games than would be expected for someone his age.
Meanwhile, Crewe this week have posted a record loss. This included, quite strangely, writing off a £1 million loan from the club to Norman Hassall, a former owner who stepped down as vice chaiman two summers ago.
Meanwhile fellow youth product Dan Smith has been the subject of interest from Manchester City, and a £300,000 fee was agreed. (The current status of the deal is a little ambiguous, but it appears that interest from Liverpool has motivated either Smith or Crewe to delay the switch.)
Given their financial status, Crewe’s academy is now needed more than ever. Their business model, which saw them rise as high as what is now the Championship, relies on them developing young talent to subsidise their relatively low income. It’s also been good for the English game – David Platt, Danny Murphy and Dean Ashton have all passed through Crewe in their teen years before going on to represent the national team.
If the upcoming EPPP rules had been in place fifteen years ago, would Danny Murphy have moved to the Premier League without having played first team football, rather than racking up more than a hundred appearances by the age of 20? And would he really be better off for it?
In both the recent past and the present, fans of the Alex have been able to watch future internationals then trade them in for cash to invest in longer term developments. Under the upcoming introduction of EPPP, the next generation’s Platt, Murphy and Powell could be taken from Crewe long before fans get to take a look.
The Conference Title Race
Wrexham began the Easter weekend eight points behind leaders Fleetwood with a game in hand, an easier match at the weekend and a showdown with Fleetwood on Tuesday. Wrexham were to play Alfreton, pulling away from the relegation zone, on Good Friday, with Fleetwood to face play-off chasing York the following day.
A first half strike from Alfreton’s Anthony Wilson was the only goal of Good Friday’s game, a match of very few chances and a lot of niggly fouls. The following day Fleetwood dispatched York 1-0, with Richard Brodie, non-league’s most expensive ever striker when he left York for Crawley in 2010, dribbling through the York defence before slotting away his ninth goal of the season. York had shots cleared off the line and the inside of the post, but Fleetwood managed to hold on.
As the Premier League has shown this season, the promise of a dramatic showdown quite often peters out anticlimactically.
Wrexham took the lead at Fleetwood early in the second half, only for the home team to quickly equalise. Wrexham’s Joe Clarke was sent off 15 minutes from the end, but Fleetwood were unable to get the goal they needed to secure the title, the game ending 1-1.
Fleetwood are an open but ruthless team who have won twenty-three from twenty-eight, drawing the other five.
Ian Holloway complimented their style after they faced Blackpool in the FA Cup earlier this season, and they play with an expansive style, with goals coming from all areas of the pitch.
Jamie Vardy, who has attracted interest from Crystal Palace, has scored 29 goals in the league, Andrew Mangan is level with Wrexham’s top scorer on 19, while Magno Vieira and Richard Brodie are both on nine.
Accusations that Fleetwood bought their title are a little unfair, but Fleetwood signed Wrexham’s top scorer last season, and their enigmatic play-maker Lee Fowler in January – not many teams have the resources to persuade their rivals to part with key players.
However, Luton Town have spent the season apparently set on proving it’s possible to be one of the richest teams in the league and still fall way short of the top – the difference being that Fleetwood have pursued a smarter transfer policy.
Fleetwood’s success shouldn’t overshadow just how well Wrexham have also done – the Dragons already have enough points to have won the league in one in the five seasons since the Conference changed to a 46-game league, five points behind in one other, and have enough points to guarantee second place in each of those seasons, even with games to play. Given their worst run of form has been in recent weeks – they won one from four before facing Fleetwood – disillusionment at seeing their rivals break further away may be responsible for them not picking up even more points.
Kettering played third placed Mansfield on Saturday, having lost ten from twelve and needing a win to stave off relegation. In recent weeks the Poppies have had no choice but to play manager Ashley Westwood at centre-half and once again couldn’t fill a bench. But at least this time they had four of the standard five substitutes. (There have been many times when they’ve had as few as two.)
The Poppies managed to hold back the tide for a while, being only one down at half time and still competing. Mansfield scored again half an hour from time, and added a third right at the end. Westwood received a second yellow in stoppage time, meaning that Kettering were relegated in an appropriately downbeat manner.
The reigning League Two champions have already won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy this season, but sat bottom of League One going into the Easter weekend. They had six-pointers against Walsall and Wycombe, both in and around the relegation zone. Wins were vital to help them close the massive gap that had built up.
On Saturday they visited Walsall, in a game of goals and even more chances. The Spireites took the lead, before Walsall struck twice through Emmanuel Ledesma, to lead at half time. Chesterfield equalised early on in the second half, which was cancelled out a few minutes later. The game ended with Walsall winning 3-2.
Manager John Sheridan was livid post-match, saying:
“We’ve created lots of good chances and should have scored three or four in the first half ourselves. If you leak goals like we do, it makes life very difficult. We just keep letting teams back into games.”
Failure to convert chances combined with mistakes in defence certainly explains why a decent looking side find themselves struggling badly.
After the first of two must win matches wasn’t won, you’d expect the Spireites to struggle to get any self-belief for the second. Wycombe, though still in the relegation zone, have beaten Hartlepool 5-0 and Bury 4-1 in the last couple of months, and went into this match off the back of three impressive draws in a row. (MK Dons, Stevenage and Carlisle all still have hopes of promotion through the play-offs, Wycombe drew 1-1 with each, bizarrely, scoring stoppage time equalisers against all three.)
Chesterfield led through Craig Westcarr at half time, and added two more in the opening minutes of the second half. Jordan Bowery rounded off the scoring for Chesterfield eleven minutes from time.
John Sheridan, perhaps in disbelief over the 4-0 win, left post-match interviews to his Assistant Tommy Wright, who said:
“Once we got the goal and the second goal just after, I thought we were excellent. We were like last year, when we moved the ball quickly.”
Chesterfield have moved off the bottom, but are ten points adrift with four games to play. They visit Hartlepool United next weekend hoping to stay alive just a little longer.
Preston North End
Following Graham Westley’s allegations of sabotage last week, Preston made an official announcement that they consider the issue closed. The story settled on seems to be that the team WAS leaked, but not maliciously – probably in a conversational manner.
This makes sense – people within the same industry, particularly an industry where employees change employer regularly will be interconnected, and it’s natural they’ll chat with old friends. The accusation that not just one bad apple, but four professionals would seek to undermine their own self-interest was an unbelievable allegation – which makes you wonder why Graham Westley believed it.
Westley has made use of the phrase ‘Attitude is More Important Than Ability’ a few times – it’s the name of the office facilities business he runs, and he renamed Farnborough Town’s ground the Aimita Stadium during his time as chairman and manager. But ‘attitude’ doesn’t just apply to things like positivity and belief, but also to trust and respect.
At the weekend Preston achieved an impressive draw against MK Dons, then on his first return to Stevenage Ian Hume emerged from the bench to put North End 1-0 up in the 85th minute. But then Mark Roberts, the defender signed and made captain by Westley scored an equaliser for Stevenage…in the 94th minute.
Preston are now seven points above the relegation zone with four games left, so are almost definitely safe. But Westley has still failed to surpass in sixteen games the number of wins achieved by caretaker managers Graham Alexander and David Unsworth in five.
The list of people who love Steve Evans will have gotten much shorter this week.
In midweek, reports emerged suggesting Rotherham chairman Tony Stewart was believed to have made Evans their number one target for the manager’s position, made available when Andy Scott was sacked on March 19th.
When the two met on March 24th, Evans used his programme notes to describe Rotherham as a ‘very progressive club’ led by ‘an outstanding chairman’. A cynic may say that Evans’ intent was the same as Harry Redknapp using his press conferences to announce to the world that he likes a player.
Crawley director Susan Carter had announced at the back end of last year that the club’s mysterious benefactors wouldn’t be willing to subsidise the club to the extent they had been, and increased revenue would be needed from either attendances or player sales. Evans was reportedly unhappy with the sales of Tyrone Barnett and Matt Tubbs in January, and rumours suggest he’s been told he’d have to work with a reduced budget at Crawley next season.
In his interviews, Evans has talked about the potential of Rotherham being greater than Crawley, particularly with their move from the Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield to the New York Stadium in Rotherham next season.
But given that Crawley appointed Evans shortly after his Boston team were relegated from League Two, backed him with resources that saw Crawley described as ‘the Man City of the Conference’ despite him being deeply involved with the tax conspiracy that eventually gained him a criminal conviction, and convicted of impeding the FA investigation into his crimes, perhaps a little more loyalty isn’t too much to ask?
Sales of star players aren’t ideal, but are a necessity for most teams in the fourth tier. And his star strikers were replaced with Gary Alexander and Leon Clarke. The former is still the top scorer for Brentford this season, who are chasing for promotion from League One, so he can’t have been a cheap signing.
On Easter Monday morning, Evans’ appointment was formally announced, and Evans watched from the stands as his new side defeated Cheltenham 1-0.
Rotherham, who now sit four points below the play-offs as a result of four wins from five under caretaker manager Darren Patterson, are one of five teams competing for the two final spots. With Cheltenham, in fifth, in free-fall (their weekend victory over Barnet was their only win in nine) Evans coming up against his former team is a realistic possibility.
It’s been a tough week for Barnet – on Tuesday, Good Friday and Easter Monday, they played Swindon, Cheltenham and Crawley – all in the play-offs or higher. They lost 2-0 to top of the league Swindon, then dominated against Cheltenham, only to concede two goals in the last quarter of an hour, to lose 2-0.
The Bees then faced Crawley, whose manager had walked out the previous night. Barnet took the lead, but Crawley’s hyper-competetive nature and sense of self-belief has evidently been well drilled into them, even in the absence of their mentor. Crawley scored twice in the second half to leave Underhill with a 2-1 victory.
Barnet are now third bottom in a league where two teams go down. Macclesfield and Hereford are both three points adrift with better goal differences. Barnet’s game against Hereford next week is a must win.
The Health of Darlington’s Young Footballers
As covered previously, the Football Conference authorities have allowed Darlington to strengthen only with free agents and inexperienced loans, leaving them reliant on youth players and teenage loanees in the first team.
This week Rob Ramshaw was ruled out of action with a stress fracture in his back, leaving him potentially out for ten months, alongside fellow youth teamers Scott Harrison and Dale Hopson. Craig Liddle, currently filling roles as youth team manager and caretaker manager for the first team, has hit out at the Football Conference, blaming the huge number of games played by the teenagers for the injuries.
He may well be right – down the road at Hartlepool United, teenage striker Luke James has been rested from the first team because of growth spurts affecting his back – in the same scenario Darlington would have no choice but to select the players carrying injuries.
Lincoln vs Darlington
Darlington’s 3-3 draw in a six-pointer with Telford the previous Saturday was followed up with a goalless draw against top half Grimsby on Easter Saturday. Both decent results, but results that meant if the Quakers lost to Lincoln on Easter Monday, and Telford and an in-form Newport won at the same time, Darlington would be relegated. Lincoln’s 4-0 defeat to relegation threatened Stockport on Saturday will have led Craig Liddle’s young side to believe they could at least compete.
Newport took the lead at Kidderminster in the 1st minute, while Lincoln took until the 21st minute to go one up. Further goals were added in quick succession for Lincoln in the 33rd, 37th, and 39th minutes, while news will have been filtering through that Newport had doubled their lead at the same time. To compound it all, Darlington’s on-loan centre back Paul Johnson was sent off.
Fortunately, Telford’s game against Tamworth was abandoned just before half time, keeping Darlington safe for now. Not that Craig Liddle was satisfied by this:
“It was comical the defending. We got too tight, we didn’t drop off, we didn’t go and head it – everything you want your defenders to do, we didn’t do. It could’ve been six or seven at half-time, never mind four. I can’t explain what I’ve just seen, I’m shocked and saddened and embarrassed by it. I can’t defend myself because I picked the team and I can’t defend the players for their performance.”
The consensus seems to be that the second half performance was an improvement – 5-0 being the final score. Despite Newport looking in control in their game, Nick Wright emerged from the bench for Kidderminster and scored a hat trick in the last five minutes to end the game with a 3-2 Kidderminster victory.
Ever since former chairman George Reynolds embraced the wisdom of Kevin Costner by investing in the stadium while neglecting the first team, Darlington’s story has swung between a noble tale of a team battling against the odds, and full blown black comedy. As a fan of rivals Hartlepool United, I should be pointing and laughing at whatever misfortune they go through, but any humour at the ridiculous events at the Northern Echo Arena is tempered by the fact that it’s impossible not to feel sorry for those involved.
Darlington’s next game is at home to bottom of the league Bath City. It should be interesting to see what happens next.
Rest of the news
Defeats to Sheffield Wednesday and Bournemouth leave Huddersfield nine points off the automatic promotion places and aiming for promotion through the play-offs.
Carlisle drew winnable games against Wycombe and mid-table Scunthorpe, while Notts County beat Leyton Orient and Yeovil, leapfrogging Carlisle into the final League One play-off spot.
Rochdale lost to Yeovil and Sheffield United leaving them eleven points adrift with four games left. Dale have now won only three from fourteen since he moved from Accrington, and will almost certainly be in the same division next season.
Swindon have broken seven points clear at the top of League Two, leaving Torquay, Shrewsbury, Crawley and Southend to battle for the two remaining automatic promotion spots.
What do you think about what we have to say about your club? Are those mentioned under-appreciated or overrated? Did we miss someone or something that should be covered? Join in by commenting below, or find me on Twitter @Joe_Bloghead