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Born Offside

Lower League Fortnight – Of Managers and Money


Swindon Probably Not Going Into Administration

It’s  always hard to tell when a club’s financial plans are based on solid ground, particularly in the lower leagues. Directors will always insist that gambles aren’t dangerous, but the temptation to be ‘ambitious’ may encourage them to spend wildly, as well as the possibility of increasing the value of their stake in the club. In the year and a half since Paolo di Canio took over as manager, Swindon Town haven’t been reluctant to back their manager, with the dressing room more or less having a revolving door – players like Paul Caddis and Paul Benson being loaned out because of the Italian’s feeling that they wouldn’t be right for the future, despite doing well in the past.

There has been talk of Swindon being plunged into administration, with BBC Wiltshire reporting that majority owner Andrew Black, the founder of Betfair, deciding he doesn’t want to subsidise the club any further. However, further reporting seems to suggest that BBC Wiltshire, the publishers of that article, had jumped the gun. It looks like the only debts are to the major shareholders, with all payments to players, local businesses and the HMRC apparently on schedule.

Reporting from the Football League Paper that Swindon had effectively bought the League Two title, aren’t totally wide of the mark, given how far di Canio was backed. But slightly sensationalist language has prompted threats of legal action. While there’s a moral argument to be made over a club with decent resources being backed even further by multi-millionaire owners, there appears to be absolutely nothing legally wrong with what Black and his fellow investors have done. (Swindon were placed under a transfer embargo earlier in the season, but this was due to a tribunal forcing them to pay more than they’d budgeted for, rather than any deeper problems.)

It appears that it’s not so much that Swindon Town are up for sale to avoid administration but more that Black (who announced his intent to leave last summer) is no longer willing to pay the bills.


The Swindon fans await the next development. Courtesy of Gloworm44

Big Money Spending

Eddie Howe’s record since returning to Bournemouth has been pretty remarkable, displaying not just how well he fits with the club but how badly his two predecessors were underachieving. In the past year and a half since Maxim Demin joined the club as co-owner The Cherries have spent some big money. They’ve spent more in the window, capturing Scotland U19 international Ryan Fraser, twice named SPL Young Player of the Month this season, for £400,000 from Aberdeen. Young keeper Ryan Allsop was brought in from Leyton Orient as Bournemouth seem to be pursuing a policy of grabbing highly rated but young players. It’s a sensible way to spend, and given that Bournemouth have raced into the play-offs, one that doesn’t seem too dangerous, but there’ll always be the question of what happens if funding is withdrawn at the wrong time.

Meanwhile, another lower league team with a sudden influx of cash has been raiding the SPL. After Bradford failed to sign Walsall captain Andy Butler, they instead moved for Kilmarnock’s Micky Nelson, spending £50,000 on a 32 year old. Needless to say, it’s a decent amount for a fourth tier side, particularly for a player coming towards the end of his career and probably without any real resale value.

Bradford have earned a decent amount from their League Cup run, and Demin’s desire to invest so much is probably motivated (in part at least) by the riches on offer higher up the leagues. The economic shift away from Scotland to England happened a long time ago with only Celtic (and possibly still Rangers) able to compete with the poorest Premier League teams. But it’s possible to argue that we’re now seeing a shift away from Scotland to English lower leagues, with even more talent draining south of the border.

The story broke this week that, between the two League Cup semi-finals, Bradford approached Aston Villa to share the prize money for reaching the final. Despite the anti-Villa spin being put on the story, I’d take it as a sign of the far-sightedness and level-headed attitude at Valley Parade – a long way from the Geoffrey Richmond days.


Zoko’s Double Dissent

Notts County’s season is starting to fizzle out, with only three wins in 14 league games for a team who hung around the play-offs until October and started the season with four wins from five. Their attempts to get back on-form weren’t helped last week when they hosted promotion chasing Sheffield United. Francois Zoko did something that many people suspected was possible, but I’ve personally never seen before – he was sent off after being booked for dissent twice, refusing to back off after the first yellow.

Zoko seems to be moaning here too. Courtesy of Carlisleprogrammes

The dismissal came in the first half, with County already a goal down, but his team-mates snatched a draw ten minutes from time.


Sheffield United Getting Nervous

For an explanation of why The Blades failed to press home their advantage against 10 men, the manager may be the best man to consult. Danny Wilson said

“First half we played with good tempo and even with 11 men we pressed the ball well but second half we didn’t do that nearly enough and let them back in it. There is a nervousness about us at the moment in about three or four areas and whether that is the pressure that is on us I don’t know.

“We’ve got to get back to basics. There is a fear of making the wrong decision.”

At the start of the season, many League One fans (myself among them) didn’t expect Sheffield United to challenge as tightly for promotion as they have, despite their status as the bookies’ favourites. After picking up 90 points last season (enough to take them up in nine of the previous 10 seasons) they lost the play-offs on penalties. But the squad was then stripped of flair – star winger Lee Williamson leaving on a free transfer, and Matt Lowton and Stephen Quinn joining Aston Villa and Hull. Dave Kitson and Nick Blackman were added, but the team seems to lack the kind of flair and invention they had last year, being more reliant on toughness and a well-placed cross and header to snatch games they would have dominated last season.

Wilson is a talented manager and a good organiser, but across his career when the pressure of underachievement has built, he’s struggled to help his players deal with it. Despite starting well at Sheffield Wednesday things started falling apart; his Swindon team struggled without Charlie Austin and Billy Paynter, and his Bristol City team were noted underachievers.

None of that’s to say that I want to see The Blades fall out of the promotion race – they’re a good club, and seem to have a good bunch of people in the dressing room. But there are signs of tension there.


The Rochdale Return

In modern football there’s still a practical benefit to loyalty and emotion.

In 12 and a half years John Coleman took the reborn Accrington Stanley from the Northern Premier League First Division into League Two, before leaving last season for the opportunity to keep Rochdale in League One.

Despite a legendary status with Stanley, Coleman couldn’t replicate his achievements with his new club. In fact, after a run of four defeats saw Rochdale fall from fifth into mid-table, Coleman appealed for fans to meet him one-to-one. Whatever was said appeared to work, for a while at least. The meetings were followed by a 4-1 victory over promotion chasing Cheltenham, a narrow 3-2 defeat to Burton, and a 4-2 victory over Bradford. But a further three defeats were enough to see him sacked.

Coleman was replaced by Keith Hill, their flat cap wearing former boss.

Hill ended Rochdale’s run of 41 seasons in the fourth tier (at the time the longest serving team in that league) with promotion in 2010. He then left for Barnsley, where he did a pretty decent job with a tight budget. I think I may have been one of the few people not to expect Hill to return when Coleman was sacked – simply because it looked like he’d done well enough at Barnsley to get a chance with a League One side.

Coleman doesn’t seem to have ever got the fans behind him. His decision to release long-serving Gary Jones last summer (now running the midfield for Bradford) seems to have been particularly unpopular. Hill has returned to a club where the fans have a lot of faith in whatever he decides to do, and there should be a sense of optimism as Dale try to climb the six point gap back towards the play-offs.

Inside Spotland. Courtesy of Bill Boaden


Managerial Applicants Get Younger And Younger

Another vacancy was created when Dean Saunders walked out on League One Doncaster for Wolves, and with Doncaster Rovers riding high, there’ll have been a large and diverse range of applications. These included Mac Wilson, a young up-and-comer whose stated aim of reaching the Premier League won him an interview. Not bad for an eight-year-old.

Chairman John Ryan explained:

“One of the nicer sides of being the chairman of a football club is that sometimes you can make someone’s day. My daughter Claire was with me at the time that I got Mac’s letter and my first thought was to give him a ring.”

Eventually Ryan decided to play things safe with caretaker manager Brian Flynn, but Wilson’s self-confidence meant he was the guest of honour for the 2-0 win over Leyton Orient.


Sometimes a Banana is Just a Banana

During last Thursday’s televised League Two match between Port Vale and Wimbledon, a banana was thrown onto the pitch immediately after a black Wimbledon player had committed a foul. For a while, it was looking like attention was going to be diverted away from the football to the pathetic idea that either one race is inferior to another, or racial insecurity is an acceptable button to nudge.

But, it later turned out the banana had been thrown by a 74-year-old Wimbledon fan… at the white referee. It might not be the purest sign of progress, but…well, it’s something.


The Magic of the FA Cup

The FA Cup’s been overshadowed by Bradford’s exploits in the League Cup so far, but it was a really good weekend for the lower league teams.
As well as Luton becoming only the seventh non-league team to knock out top flight opposition post-war, MK Dons raced into a four goal lead against QPR, while Aldershot and Macclesfield went down to respectable defeats against sides two and four divisions above them.
In particular, Macclesfield dominated the chances, and it was only a penalty that separated the sides. This continued on Sunday, with Brentford’s combativeness and energy making them a little unlucky just to have got a replay against Chelsea, while Oldham outbattled Liverpool to progress.

While ITV’s highlights package lazily and moronically spent time on Saturday reshowing footage of the Manchester clubs (televised every other weekend, and earlier in the day) there probably wasn’t enough attention given to the more unusual stories that the FA Cup throws up.
But, regardless of attention, Leagues One, Two and the Conference were well represented this weekend.


The FA Cup. Courtesy of Carlos yo.

The FA Cup. Courtesy of Carlos yo.

Dickov Out?

Oldham’s 3-2 win over Liverpool at the weekend was impressive, particularly given Oldham’s slide towards the League One relegation zone. It was a performance full of fight, combativeness, tight defending, and tough mindedness. A typical ‘cup performance’. During half-time in ITV’s coverage, Gareth Southgate referred to Oldham as a team full of Paul Dickovs. But the common complaint I’ve heard from Oldham fans is that their team isn’t combative enough and don’t seem to have the required levels of fitness.

Wesolowski is a good ball winner in the centre of midfield, Jose Baxter can be eye catching even in highlights with his long-range passing and shooting. Matt Smith looked dangerous and combative enough against Liverpool to suggest that he should have gotten more than the three league goals he’s scored so far this season. Set against all that, the Latics have picked up one point from eight games as they’ve fallen close to the relegation zone.

Oldham have won 34 from 121 games in the league, and, though I can’t find the stats to back it up, I’ve heard the claim that Dickov has the worst record of any Oldham manager to get past 100 games in charge.

On January 1st the chairman placed all of Dickov’s coaching staff, besides himself, on gardening leave. As far as I’ve been able to tell, he’s currently doing all the coaching alone. The official line seems to be that Oldham’s assistant manager, reserve team boss and fitness coach were suspended to save money, though the chairman cited “the belief that the chemistry of our backroom team and coaches is not right” at the time.

It’s remarkable how hyperbolic and short-sighted the national media have been to reports that Dickov’s under pressure – The Mirror thought it was worthy of both capitals and an exclamation mark, and chairman Simon Corney handled himself well on BBC Breakfast when the perfectly reasonable point that league form hadn’t been good enough didn’t seem enough for the presenters.

It’s clichéd to say that a team are built in their manager’s image, but not all combative ex-pros are able to get light the fires in their players that burn naturally inside of them. Maybe Dickov is still going through a learning process, developing the ability to get his players as fired up as he was in his playing career. But, despite two very impressive cup upsets, it wouldn’t be a total surprise to see Dickov sacked in the next few weeks.



What do you think about what I have to say about your club? Are those mentioned under-appreciated or overrated? Did I miss someone or something that should be covered? Spread the word if you enjoyed what you read, or join in by commenting below, or find me on Twitter @Joe_Bloghead


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