The Lower League Week – The Slightly Surprising Edition
Coventry Pluck a Thorn From Their Side
Coventry this weekend sacked manager Andy Thorn, after starting the season with three draws. Coventry chief executive Tim Fisher, in a club statement, said:
“Last season there were off-the-field matters that affected team affairs. We felt it was right to give Andy the chance to put that right but do not feel that has happened.”
Thorn was appointed as caretaker manager in March 2011, taking the unusual jump from Head Scout to caretaker manager. It’s not necessarily a bad idea – after all, a scout needs to be able to read and analyse the game, spot underrated players, among a range of skills that transfer to management. Thorn, an FA Cup winner with Wimbledon in 1988, took over from Aidy Boothroyd with Coventry near the bottom of the Championship. Thorn steered them away from relegation with three wins and three draws from his eight games as caretaker, pleasing most fans with the style of play in the process.
The sale of key players in the summer of 2011 appears to have been critical with Marlon King and Kieran Westwood among the departures, and the replacements not living up to the standard of players who’d left.
Coventry spent the majority of last season in the relegation zone, so, looking in from a distance, I would have expected him to be sacked in May, if not earlier. However, the summer signings look good. Adam Barton, a highly rated and technical midfield player came in from Preston, one-time Rangers wunderkind John Fleck was added, and experience came in Kevin Kilbane and Stephen Elliott. Holding on to Gary McSheffrey – who came close to double figures in a relegated team – is equally impressive, and Coventry came close to signing Jim Collins, an Irish U21 international and the 21-year-old scorer of 16 goals in Shrewsbury’s promotion, the deal falling through because of a transfer embargo.
But new signings will always take time to gel. A 1-0 League Cup victory over League Two Dagenham was reportedly functional, and while three draws from three in the league may not sound like promotion form, context makes them seem better. Yeovil, opponents on the opening day, currently sit top of the table having won two from three. In the second game Coventry led playoff finalists Sheffield United going into the last ten minutes. Coventry did throw away a 2-0 lead against Bury (and the manner they did so infuriated some of the fanbase), but they built it up first.
The nearest comparison I can think of in recent years is Bryan Gunn being sacked by Norwich after an opening day defeat. Even then though, that was a 7-1 loss to Colchester that will have been a shock to the system, rather than a moderately disappointing run results by a team just put together.
The sacking of Thorn is an odd one – given the financial and footballing problems at the club, the board were faced with a difficult choice on Thorn, and had a number of options with a sound logical foundation. But the Coventry board seem to have found one of the few options without one.
MK Dons Aren’t That Kind Of Team
At the weekend MK Dons travelled to Swindon, losing by one goal to nil.
The main talking point occurred just before half time – after a free kick was awarded against a team-mate for a tackle from behind near the halfway line, Dons captain Dean Lewington picked up the ball. When an opponent appeared to reach round him to try and get the ball back, Lewington swung an elbow at him. Predictably, the defender was sent off then, apparently just to make sure he gets a suspension, he confronted the fourth official on his way off.
Lewington’s was MK Dons’ fourth red card of the season, and chairman Pete Winkleman refused to let his manager or players talk to the media afterward. Winkelman spoke to the media himself, saying:
“We’re not a dirty team, we don’t play to get people sent off, we don’t play to hurt anybody, we try to play the better football.
After the previous game against Bournemouth, manager Karl Robinson showed why his chairman stopped him from speaking to the media, saying:
“I can’t say it, but it was 11 plus one against ten.”
Midfielder Stephen Gleeson was sent off against Cheltenham in the League Cup for a two-footed challenge in a game his side later took the lead in, before eventually winning on penalties. Antony Kay was sent off deep into injury time in a 2-0 win over Oldham, following a large-scale confrontation. And in midweek Alan Smith was sent off twenty minutes into their game at Bournemouth with MK already a goal down for a lunge, in a game his side came back to draw 1-1.
The League Cup highlights don’t appear to be on the Internet, but having re-watched the BBC’s League Show that I’d luckily not deleted, Gleeson’s challenge looked a definite sending off.
Alan Smith’s red could be described as throwing a foot and a half into a tackle – he makes the motion of jumping in two-footed, but makes sure one of them lands to the side of the opponent. A merciful referee may only give a yellow, but a red is totally understandable. And Lewington’s was plain stupidity – the opponent appears to be reaching for the ball to take their free kick quickly. Despite Winkleman’s claim that the opponent grabbed Lewington by the throat his hands appear to be moving towards the ball. The confrontation at the end of the Oldham match that led to Kay’s red doesn’t appear to have been properly recorded by the cameras, but getting involved in a confrontation when a game is as good as over with your team victors is dumb, at least. Bizarrely, Robinson said afterward:
“The Antony Kay one broke his nose but he shouldn’t have reacted like he did.”
Videos are linked above, so you can judge for yourself.
Like Winkelman, Karl Robinson has often taken the line that his side are one of the best footballing sides in the division, often being Wenger-like in insisting they deserved to win matches when they couldn’t convert chances. I’d take the Arsenal parallel further – the red cards appear more moments of petulance and entitlement rather than being consistently niggly across games. I’m not sure whether I wish MK Dons success given the nature of their origin, but they do play some nice football, some of the best in the division. The players and manager need to learn that diving into tackles, swinging elbows and breaking an opponent’s nose are sufficient to get them sent off.
Returning Managers Lead The Way
It’s a common saying in football that you should never go back. But with two wins and a draw, Ronnie Moore’s Tranmere are second in League One, bettered only by Gary Johnson’s Yeovil.
Both managers returned to their former club in the second half of last year, halting fears of relegation, and guiding their club up the table with time to spare.
Both had been sacked by League Two clubs in their previous jobs. Moore failed to take Rotherham to promotion, while Gary Johnson is considered a bit of a pariah at Northampton.
It proves that sometimes going back where you feel comfortable can be the smart choice.
Additions At Pompey?
Michael Appleton has this week asked for £60,000, which he says will allow him to sign three key players until January.
If we assume that ‘until January’ means four months, that’d mean signing the players on the equivalent of £180,000 a year combined, or £3600 a week, averaging £1200 a week each. It’s much harder to find even consistent rumours on players’ wages at this level than Premiership players, but one of the more publicised is Alan Smith, who was widely reported to be on £2500 a week.
There are outliers at clubs intent on trying to spend their way to success – Bournemouth loanee Lee Barnard is rumoured to have his full £15,000 a week wages paid by the Cherries, while player’s clubs like Sheffield United will have came down with contracts aimed at challenging for promotion to the Premiership.
I wrote last week about the wages paid by Portsmouth – my assumptions are mainly based on the quality of players they’ve attracted, and I’m open to the possibility that Williamson, McLeod and Rodgers aren’t on the wages I’d expect. However, Carlisle manager Greg Abbott, whose side finished just outside the play-offs on crowds around 6000 last season, has said
“We’re envious of the players they’ve brought in and the amount of money they’ve managed to stump up.”
Portsmouth currently have 12 professionals, five loanees, plus a youth team that were recruited (two to three years ago) with the lure of potential Premier League football. The aim at that time will have been that two or three of the youth team would be ready to push for a place in a Premier League squad by now, with possibly three or four others being loaned out to League One or Two teams to gain experience. It’s only an assumption rather than specific knowledge, but I’d assume Pompey will have a few youth team lads with the ability to make the match day bench.
The fans have a right to watch a competitive side, but surely that only competitive in terms of not being torn apart every match, rather than competing for promotion. Though it’s hard to tell from a distance, particularly with everyone pulling together, there appears to be some fan dissatisfaction about the amount of playing time youngsters have been getting.
It might seem a little harsh on Appleton after what he’s been put through, but there really are more important things for that money to be put towards.
Gillingham have started well, picking up four wins in league and cup. They’ll be further boosted by the move of their youth product Matt Jarvis from Wolves to West Ham – rumours state that the Gills are entitled to 15% of the profit.
The rush to get signings in at the last minute has led to some inflated transfer fees – for instance, Lukas Podolski went for less money than Steven Fletcher. But there will of course be recipients of those fees, and the money will be a massive amount for a team Gillingham’s size.
The transfer fee when Jarvis moved five years ago wasn’t officially disclosed, but with him being a lower league player who was out of contract, the fee is unlikely to have been more than half a million. (Transfer fees being required when under-24s move clubs at the end of their contract.)
If we take the reported £7.5m fee, potentially rising to £10.75m, Gillingham stand to gain £1.05m, possibly rising to over £1.5m.
It’s the kind of money that can make a real difference to a League Two club, whether spent on signings or keeping the youth academy running at a high standard, so after two successive eighth place finishes, Gills fans should be feeling more confident about a serious promotion push.
Provided it doesn’t get swallowed up in legal fees, of course.
Last minute transfer deals generally don’t occur with the same regularity for lower league clubs, who usually wrap up their deals during the summer. But late transfers do occur, with two interesting ones going through this week.
Cheltenham, a surprise presence in the League Two play-offs last year, have started well this year, picking up two wins and a draw (the latter being against fellow play-off losers Torquay) to sit third after three games. They’ve added Darren Carter, a powerful central midfielder who looked a strong prospect for Birmingham and Sunderland a few years back. After a year out with an injury picked up on trial at Brighton, he looks an interesting gamble.
And former Watford winger Lee Cook, who had two spells at QPR either side of a big money move to Fulham, has signed for Leyton Orient. He spent time on loan at both Orient and Charlton last year, so looks to be a well researched signing. One of the Championship’s top prospects as a youngster, Cook is only 30, so looks a decent capture.
Leyton Orient vs Hartlepool called off
Neither Leyton Orient or Hartlepool United have started the season well, having picked up from the combined six matches before the weekend, a draw, penalty shoot-out victory and four defeats.
Orient manager Russell Slade was talking up the workrate of the previous matches, while United’s Neale Cooper took to the radio to deliver a ‘I’m not angry, just disappointed’ speech in a tone halfway between rage and tears.
A fatal car crash on the morning of the match meant that, despite setting off from the hotel at 1pm, news came through that United hadn’t made it to the ground by 2:30. The journey eventually took four and a half hours to travel 16 miles from the hotel to the ground, by which time the referee understandably postponed the game.
Wimbledon can’t defend their results And possibly can’t defend
Last year, AFC Wimbledon finished 16th in their first year back in the Football League following their reformation. After holding onto Jack Midson, the division’s joint top scorer, they’ll probably have been optimistic of a play-off push.
Midson struck in a 1-0 victory over relegated Chesterfield (the 10-11 League Two champions) on the opening day, so omens were pointing in that direction. But this week… well, it’s not been a good week for Wimbledon. Burton, smarting themselves after an opening day 3-0 defeat to Rotherham tore through their guests, going 4-0 up before the half hour mark. They actually led 6-0 at one point, thought AFC managed to pull two goals back to make the score more…well, respectable probably isn’t the word.
The mental scars of that defeat appeared to be affecting the team at the weekend. Bradford’s Nahki Wells ran through a static defence after three minutes to give them the lead, and the third goal came from some abysmally misjudged goalkeeping. Sebastian Brown came off his line into a crowded six yard area, only to see defender Andrew Davies’ speculative long ball sailing into an empty goal, at the point where he had been. Wimbledon pulled a goal back, but two further strikes sent Bradford into the break 5-1 up, and meant that Wimbledon were four goals behind at half-time for two games in a row. Fortunately, things didn’t worse in the second half.
League Two is a division where form and morale can surge dramatically from one extreme to another. After beating Bradford 1-0 in October last year, Macclesfield sat in 10th, one point below the play-offs. They then won only one of the last eight, and went twenty-three further matches without victory as they slid into the Conference. Similarly, after beating Northampton in December, Burton Albion sat in fifth, solidly in the play-offs. It took seventeen games for them to win again, by which point their promotion hopes were over.
The most logical explanation for Macclesfield and Burton would seem to be low morale creating a vicious circle,which appears to have a bigger impact at this, more financially equal level, than higher up. A decent Wimbledon side should be hoping to turn things round quickly.
Wycombe Saved by the Weather
Wycombe v Bristol Rovers went from bright sunshine to the pitch being drenched, even with reports of a stand being struck by lightning. It made it only sensible for the match to be abandoned.
Eliot Richards had more reason than most to be annoyed – he’d scored a thirty yard strike and an impressive turning volley to put Rovers 3-1 up, goals that now officially didn’t happen.
They’re worth taking a look at though.
Nick Powell reunited with Crewe Team-Mate
It’s a cliché to describe Crewe’s academy as a production line, as if they could churn out brilliant players with that sort of regularity. But it appears to be accurate – Max Clayton has been called up to the England U19 squad, alongside his former team-mate Nick Powell. Clayton is one of four players playing for Football League clubs, and the only player from the lower leagues.
John Ryan’s Bentley Up for Grabs
Doncaster chairman John Ryan made his money in the plastic surgery industry, so he should have a good idea of how to appeal to people’s vanity. He’s this week told midfielder Kyle Bennett that if he scores twenty goals, he can have the chairman’s Bentley.
It might not appear that there’s much risk of a midfielder scoring that many, but Bennett scored 6 goals a division higher last year, and has two already, so it’s looking a decent motivational technique.
Crewe’s mixed start to League One is hit by a 5-1 defeat to Brentford, with their former striker Clayton Donaldson scoring twice.
Sheffield United’s experienced pair Richard Cresswell and Nick Montgomery have been transfer listed to reduce the wage bill.
Exeter overcome their opening day defeat with two away wins.
Port Vale’s administrators have announced that four parties are looking over the club’s books, and should be making a bid in the next fortnight.
Plymouth, Barnet, and Dagenham & Redbridge are once more at the bottom of League Two, having only narrowly survived last year.
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