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Born Offside

Lower League Week – The ‘I Couldn’t Think Of A Title’ Edition

Zola,_Calvin

Hillsborough

It’s not directly related to the lower leagues, but I’ll quickly add to my thoughts on the legacy of the Hillsborough tragedy.

Being of a younger generation, I’ve never been hugely affected by either hooliganism or the police assumption that all football fans are hooligans. The worst I’ve personally experienced is having to take a slightly different road to an away ground – the idea of the police being the match day enemy or grounds being death traps, like at Hillsborough and Valley Parade is more or less a thing of the past.

The sanitisation of modern football is often treated as a universal negative (I’m guilty of this, and I’m sure some readers are as well) but this week offers a reminder that some things have changed for the better. We’re lucky enough to live in an era when we can attend matches with almost zero fear that we won’t return.

Steve Evans’ Stadium Ban

Convicted tax cheat Steve Evans, spared jail because

“he is terrified of the prospect of even a day in prison”

is a little like a real life Sam Allardyce parody. After Rotherham’s first win of the season he said

“There will be a lot of disappointed people in the country when they see we have won”

and has insists his side haven’t spent much money, despite by the end of May, agreeing deals to sign five players who’d otherwise be playing first team football in League One. There’s no guarantee that money was the motivating factor of course, as geography and faith in a manager can have a bigger impact in the lower leagues. But the fact that so many players were able to quickly decide that dropping a division was the right move suggests money was a factor.

After defeat to Northampton last month, I considered covering his comment that

“If Northampton are the benchmark then we’ll be right up with them at the end of the season because we’re better than them.”

I decided against it, on the grounds that this kind of comment wasn’t remotely surprising from him.

Evans was banned from the touchline for 12 and 13 games respectively in 08-09 and 09-10, with 10 of the games coming right at the end of 08-09 and 13 at the start of 09-10, as the result of being unable to behave himself even with a suspended sentence hanging over his head. Which other football manager, from the grass-roots of England to South America’s top flights, has ever been suspended for 23 games in a row? Reports of him winding up opposition players and fans have been a regular feature at Crawley and Rotherham matches since.

This week, Evans was found guilty of

using abusive and/or indecent and/or insulting words and/or behaviour towards a participant in or around the dressing room area [a female steward] … which did include a reference to gender.

and was fined £3,000 and banned from stadiums for six matches.

This happened after the  Crawley – Bradford match last season, which infamously ended in a mass brawl, three red cards being shown to Bradford players and two to Crawley. There were even reports that Evans exposed himself to the female steward, though as only one notoriously sex-obsessed newspaper claims that, it’s more likely to be sloppy journalism than lack of corroborating sources.

Broadfield Stadium, home to Crawley. Courtesy of Hassocks5489

From a distance his record looks fairly impressive – though he’s had money to spend at Boston, Crawley, and now Rotherham, he led the first two to promotions, picking up a few cup scalps with Crawley, while collecting back-to-back promotions.

Bradford are in their fifth season in League Two, Luton their fourth in the Conference. So having a greater financial muscle than their rivals is no guarantee of success. Evans by contrast has generally made smart signings, (usually star players in his team’s division or a level higher, but still, with relatively few flops) then combined them into a combative but effective side.

But on the other hand, Crawley didn’t look as free-flowing as their personnel suggested they should, and according to one Boston fan, as soon as the money dried up there he became reliant on “hoof-ball football…a conveyor belt of players – emergency loan deals and academy kids too scared to stand up for themselves”. Also, he wore mascara for a television interview. (That’s not relevant, just thought it was too bizarre not to mention.)

Evans spoke of his intent to give the team talk at a nearby hotel and watch the match via live-stream in his living room, so it’s unlikely to have too much of an impact on a manager who seems to treat red cards as an occupational hazard. Beating Torquay without their manager at the weekend was a pretty good start.

Evans honestly comes across more as a parody than an actual human being, the number and range of his offences, were they created for a fictional character, would probably have to be scaled down to keep them believable. It’s a good thing that, as The Sun tells us, Evans became a changed man by January 2011. Who knows what he’d be getting up to if he wasn’t.

Tranmere Top the Table

Les Parry, Tranmere Rovers’ previous manager, well and truly outstayed his welcome. Promoted from within after John Barnes’ sacking three years ago, Parry kept the Merseysiders safe from relegation. But fan opinion had well and truly turned against him when he was sacked on March 4th. By that point Tranmere had only one league win since October, a run of 18 games without victory, and many believed even the returning manager Ronnie Moore couldn’t reverse the decline.
Moore, who had been sacked to make way for John Barnes, made an immediate impact. Tranmere won four of his first six matches, drawing the other two then picked up another two wins from the last seven games to end the season in the top half of the table.

The view from the Cowsheds at Prenton Park. Courtesy of Curttrfc

It’s hard to be certain from a distance whether a turnaround like this is down to Harry Redknapp-style charisma or new tactical ideas, but from a distance it appears to be the latter. Parry was a manager who favoured physicality, effort, and directness, in an effort to force mistakes, wear down and exhaust opponents with superior technique. Despite the way his time in charge ended, Parry’s approach worked for a while, with Tranmere sitting in a play-off position after 15 games last season. But in going for such a pragmatic approach, Parry probably underestimated their key asset, Andy Robinson. He had brought Robinson back to Tranmere for his second spell (on loan) and his third (permanently in January 2011), but a more patient game would probably have benefited a man who, for all his dribbling and passing ability, doesn’t look remotely like an athlete.

Robinson was the key play-maker in Roberto Martinez’ Swansea team that won the 2008 title in style, helping to set the template that  would aid the development of Joe Allen and Scott Sinclair. In fact, if he hadn’t made the error of agreeing a move to Leeds before their League One play-off final (they stayed down and Robinson never really settled) he may have made a bigger impact on the Championship.

Though Coventry had spells of pressure at the weekend, and some decent chances (including Karl Baker hitting the post), Tranmere picked up yet another win. An incisive run down the left was followed by a dummy, which on-loan forward Jake Cassidy read, placing his shot neatly into the corner ten minutes from time. Andy Robinson played a pass from the centre out to the wing, before running into the box to dive onto the return pass, to seal the victory.

The only negative for Tranmere was the booking of Andy Robinson for revealing a ‘Justice for the 96′ shirt. Despite the letter of the law being what it is, you’d hope the referee could arrange to be looking the other way as Robinson showed his support for his fellow Liverpudlians.

Robinson scored three of his four goals last season under Moore,and matched that tally against Coventry, before netting his fifth and sixth from the penalty spot three days later. Moore and Robinson have been named League One player and manager of the month for August. It’s hard to tell how long Tranmere’s unexpected start to the season will continue, but it’s good to see the smaller teams rewarded for doing the right things.

Coventry Refuse to Pay Their Rent

SISU, the hedge fund running Coventry City, have overseen player sales and wage bill cuts during their time in charge, yet somehow have made total losses of £42m as the Sky Blues slid into League One.

As a result of this, the powers that be made the decision in April to refuse to pay rent to ACL, the company who own the stadium on behalf of Coventry Council and the Alan Higgs Charity.

Not only were they unhappy with £1.2m a year rent, City rejected an offer to lower the bill to £650,000 a year, wanting to pay “north of £150,000″ instead. And despite apparently being cash-strapped, an offer has been made to buy out the Charity’s half of the stadium, valued at around £10m.

As if squatting in a stadium owned jointly by the council and a charity to help under-privileged children wasn’t enough, the club have been trying to get councillors to conduct the debate in private, and sign confidentiality agreements. This would mean councillors wouldn’t be able to discuss whether they approved the 85% rent reduction SISU want.

The centre of the controversy. Courtesy of Richard Harrison

Whether it’s the truth or a negotiating ploy, City are apparently in danger of going into administration, with the division’s second highest wage bill. Much of the stadium income currently goes to the ACL in addition to the rent, so the club may well have a point in saying the rent is too high. It’s difficult to work out a ‘going rate’ for stadium rent, as such a rate would take into account matchday and commercial income, as well as the club’s division. But it seems the only plausible reason to keep talks secret is that SISU aim to pay a level that taxpayers won’t be pleased with.

Portsmouth Takeover Delayed

Administrators had set a deadline of September 14th for the two bidding parties to submit their plans, with administrator Trevor Birch has expressing his belief that Balram Chainrai’s Portpin and the Supporters’ Trust are capable of concluding a deal. No official announcement has been made at the time of writing, with the administrators seemingly looking through the details of each – complicated by the fact that former Watford owner Laurence Bassini is rumoured to have made an eleventh hour bid.

Chanrai seems to be motivated by a desire to get back the estimated £17m he invested in the club, which raises doubts over whether he’d be willing to do the long legwork needed to sort out Portsmouth’s troubles. Bassini reportedly has been a director of ten different bankrupt companies, so is hardly an ideal alternative.

A trust is currently in charge at Wycombe, and supporters’ trusts led Wimbledon and York into the Football League, proving that there is a plausible alternative to putting faith in a single owner. Portsmouth have had to modify the model slightly, with the higher level they operate at meaning they’ve had to invite a handful of ‘high net worth’ investors on board, but the idea is essentially the same. Events at Fratton Park are still shambolic, but they could become the example held up nationwide to show that Trusts can bring success.

Fratton Park. Courtesy of James Denham

Balancing the Budget

After loaning Jamie Coppinger to Nottingham Forest late in August, Doncaster have had trouble getting Football League permission to increase the wage bill.

The problem lies in the fact that, with Coppinger only off the wage bill until January, Rovers have little room to maneuver, with targeted players understandably unwilling to sign just until January.
This week Portsmouth added Lubomir Michalik to their squad, meaning they have 16 ‘permanent’ players, and 4 loanees at the time of writing. (Though two loans may be terminated within days.)
Doncaster have 24 senior players including Coppinger, with five loaned out to non-league sides, leaving them effectively with a squad of eighteen. This is despite, to the best of my knowledge, not having worrisome levels of debt.

I really don’t want to continually bang on about Portsmouth’s wages. It has been pointed out to me that Pompey probably would have to pay higher than the going rate to whoever they sign, because of not being allowed to offer contracts more than a month in length. Really, my problem is more with the rule, than the fact clubs understandably want to sign the best possible players.

Under Financial Fair Play, clubs are limited to the equivalent of 65% of turnover (money into the club) on wages. The rule is based entirely on turnover, so the clubs with money coming in and going straight back out will have more flexibility in the transfer market than well-run smaller clubs.
While the intent of the rule is good, it could do with a little fine-tuning. Maybe a lower percentage for teams who’ve been in administration in the past X many years, or a higher percentage for clubs who are run in a way that would give them a strong credit rating.

Wales is like a Foreign Country

With the loan window re-opening, Bury caretaker manager Peter Shirtliff was prepared to let striker Andy Bishop head out on loan to sort his form out. Despite being in and around the Bury first team and grabbing a decent eight goals last year, the striker has yet to score this season. All parties had arranged for him to drop down two leagues to Wrexham. However, the transfer was initially delayed as it required international clearance.

There was a similar case a few years ago – Jermaine Darlington, who had retired when at Cardiff and moved to London, reversed his decision, signing for AFC Wimbledon. However, his registration was still held by the Football Association of Wales, and the original prescribed punishment was removal from the FA Trophy and deduction of every point gained with Darlington in the team. (This was later downgraded on appeal.)

This season saw responsibility for disciplinary matters covering Swansea, Cardiff and Wrexham transfer from the FAW to their Enlgish counterparts, it’d make sense to do the same for ‘international’ transfers of this type.

There are six Welsh clubs in the English pyramid and as most of their signings will be from English clubs, a large proportion of their transfers will need to go through FIFA. It’s a problem that will be a particular issue for Newport County, Merthyr Tydfil and Colwyn Bay, smaller clubs with presumably smaller admin staff.

A Manager Shows His Lack of Class

Crawley Town won at Preston at the weekend, ending North End’s run of four victories in all competitions.

However, it’s not just in the Premiership that managers try to take the focus off defeat by making vague accusations of rudeness against their opposite number. Although cameras showed Barker approach Westley professionally, only to have his arm grabbed by the Preston boss, Westley added another layer of insight:

“He was screaming his mouth off – ‘wahay we’ve won’! It was disrespectful. I made that point to him. You’ve won and fair play. I didn’t need him screaming down my throat as if he’s won the World Cup. It was a big ground for him to come to and win, but have some manners.”

Hopefully, in future Barker will remember his place when he visits the bigger clubs, and only experience the Westley-approved level of happiness.

Southend Start

With one point from the first three matches (and that coming from a stoppage time equaliser), it wasn’t a good start for the team who missed out on promotion by a single point last year.
But things have clicked into place since with three successive league wins and victory over Wimbledon in the Football League Trophy, aided by five goals in four league games from Watford loanee Britt Assombalonga.

It’s probably not a coincidence the Shrimpers’ run coincided with the close of the transfer window.
During the window, Kane Ferdinand moved to Peterborough, star winger Ryan Hall became unsettled, and after the window closed, began training with Blackpool with a view to a loan.
Bilel Mohsni, a defender who thrives on the borderline between physical and dirty, refused to return to Southend, played on trial for West Ham, who had a £150,000 bid turned down, and has now walked away from a trial at Ipswich to return to Paris.

With those kind of distractions, it’s not surprising Southend have taken a little longer than expected to get going.

Wycombe – Bristol Rovers to be replayed in full

The match between the two was abandoned last month. Rovers had led 3-1, with a 30 yard thunderbolt and an impressive volley from Eliot Richards three minutes apart putting the visitors two goals up. The game was abandoned after 65 minutes due to a waterlogged pitch, and reports of one of the stands being struck by lightning.

Bristol Rovers had argued that the game should restart from the last twenty five minutes, a request which has this week been denied. Although not normal in England, there is at least one precedent in the football world – in 2005 Real Madrid completed the last seven minutes of a victory over Real Sociedad after a bomb threat caused the game to be abandoned a month earlier.

However, conditions played their part in the original game – even the report on the Wycombe official site agrees that the visitors should have scored a fourth, were it not for the weather.
Starting from scratch will, whatever the fairness of the decision, give both teams the chance to play the match in ideal conditions.

Winter is Going

Sheffield United’s Chief Executive Julian Winter departed this week, just a few weeks after youth team manager John Pemberton left the club. Pemberton apparently left to return to his former club Nottingham Forest as a coach, having rejected the manager’s job at Crawley earlier in the summer.
United announced that Winter’s departure was part of a process of “reviewing operational structures”. Several players have been sold, or even forced out during the summer to lower the wage bill, so the Blades may have been forced into similar measures off the pitch.

Things haven’t been too bad on the pitch though. Courtesy of Mark Hawksworth

Winter doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on the fans, with few seemingly knowing how good he was at his job. In fact, with Winter spending fifteen months in charge, he may even have only been a temporary appointment to steady the club financially after relegation. However, the loss of the highly thought of Pemberton will act as a reminder of one of the harsh realities of lower league life – that there are a number of teams able to poach the club’s star assets, on and off the field.

Burton’s Goal of the Day Competition

Burton Albion won 4-0 at home to Oxford at the weekend, with every goal pretty spectacular.
The scoring began when Calvin Zola received a long pass, which he flicked over his head 30 yards out, then volleyed the ball on the turn. It was a finish that even his Italian namesake would probably be proud of.

A cleanly hit 30 yard Oxford ‘equaliser’ was ruled out for an earlier foul, before Burton’s Jacques Maghoma lobbed with power from the edge of the area. Maghoma made it 3-0 with a relatively dull free kick right on the line of the area, (relatively dull) then Zola back-heeled the ball past the defensive line before powering a bicycle kick past the keeper.

Burton have been training at the national team’s St George’s Park during it’s construction process – if training at such high quality facilities played a part in them being able to practice their skills, the next few internationals should be worth watching.

St George’s Park. Courtesy of redboxdesigngroup

The Rest of the News

Notts County stumbled a little at the top of League One, but picked up two draws, one with ten men, one against MK Dons.

Scunthorpe got their first win, to move off the bottom.

Gillingham kept up their good start with a 4-0 win over Bristol Rovers, and halted Southend’s resurgence.

Port Vale kept their focus on their on-field matters, beating Fleetwood 5-2 to move into second as League Two’s top scorers.

Barnet show no signs of putting their game together, with only one point from seven games.

 

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