The Lower League Week – Impossible to Predict
HMRC Tied up in Notts
It can be hard as a neutral to keep track of which lower league teams are well-ran financially and which simply haven’t fallen apart yet. But the latest financial problems at Notts County seems to have surprised everyone involved in the club – literally everyone.
Over the weekend, the HMRC brought a winding up petition against County – a less serious measure than a winding up order, which is what a large proportion of clubs go into administration to protect themselves against. The HMRC claimed that Notts County hadn’t paid PAYE bills since December 19th, while the Magpies say that their payments were entirely up to date. The petition was dismissed in minutes.
I’ve seen no solid explanation for what’s happened, but the relationship between Football League clubs and the HMRC has become toxic in recent years, with the tax authority usually the biggest losers under the football creditors rule whenever a club goes to the wall. HMRC’s reputation isn’t helped by the fact that County were only told of HMRC’s intent to bring a winding up on petition on Friday, one working day before the 11am hearing on Monday.
Worse than that, a frankly unbelievable rumour has gone round stating that they were informed not by the HMRC themselves, but by a Plymouth fan who saw their name listed and, surprised at having seen no media coverage of the process, contacted the club himself. (There are more details of how the process should work at that link.)
It’s perfectly right for HMRC to do what they can to protect the taxpayers’ millions against financial trickery, but creating enemies needlessly in this way won’t help their larger cause. Of course, there’s the chance all this came about because of some really god-awful miscommunication or misfiled paperwork somewhere along the lines. Perhaps the petition was intended for Nottingham Forest…
Does Anyone Want to Go Up?
In League One, long-time league leaders Tranmere have lost three of their last four. Doncaster’s midweek draw at MK Dons meant they’d gained one point from nine. Swindon’s excellent Christmas form (they scored 14 in three without reply) levelled out with one win and three draws from the last four, their win being 1-0 over relegation battlers Colchester. Brentford picked up their first win in five in midweek, their first since coming through an FA Cup third round replay to face Chelsea. And Sheffield United picked up victories in two should-win matches against relegation battlers Shrewsbury and Bury after defeat to bottom side Hartlepool had started a run of five without victory.
League One has been described as average, or even poor by many this year, but these teams do have quality.
Brentford’s Harry Forrester is a young goalscoring midfielder worth keeping an eye on, while Tranmere’s Andy Robinson is a player he can look up to – a throwback to the old-fashioned chubby but skilful and inventive winger. Sheffield United are a more pragmatic side this season after their loss of flair in the summer but still have goals and experience in their side, while Swindon, the di Canio and takeover circuses aside, are at their best a very watchable team, with an impressive combination of skill and graft.
But one thing none of them seem to have is a rock solid sense of self-belief, the kind that’s enabled Manchester United to wrap up the Premier League title already, despite not being a classic vintage.
Bournemouth’s rise is mainly due to Eddie Mitchell stumbling across the idea of putting their expensive squad in the hands of a manager who’d managed in some form in the eight years before his appointment. But Eddie Howe does seem to have drilled self-belief and high standards into them. Granted, it’s easier when you’ve already got the best squad, but the inconsistency of others does suggest an understandable amount of self-doubt from many of League One’s top teams.
One striker can make a massive difference in this kind of environment. Paddy Madden began the season as a reserve at Carlisle, having failed to put an injury-free run together since his move from Bohemians a year and a half previously. On October 4th he was loaned to Yeovil, who, after a strong start had lost six in a row, to drop from fourth to sixteenth. It looked like the Glovers would be forced to accept a year of mediocrity after escaping from relegation fears last season.
Madden, an Irish Under-21 international, made an immediate impact, scoring five in four and helping Yeovil to four wins in his first five games.
The move was made permanent in January and Madden now has 16 in 21 for Yeovil, including nine in the last six, in a seven game winning run.
Of course, Yeovil’s success isn’t a one-man effort. Most notably, his strike partner, the experienced James Hayter, has 11 goals for the season. But he’d only scored three in 11 in all competitions prior to Madden’s arrival, making it look like Madden’s helped the experienced former Bournemouth man roll back the years.
Success and failure, or at least the area of the table a team finishes, can seem pre-destined in retrospect. But particularly in a year like this, the difference between mediocrity and success can come down to a single calculated gamble paying off.
Will Robins Fly?
Given that the above teams are falling apart, and Swindon show the potential to do the same, it’d probably be smart to bet on the ‘form teams’ for promotion – those who’ve started badly but spent the last few months rising up the table.
Bournemouth are the nailed on favourites for the title in many people’s eyes (including the son of Tranmere’s manager and a former Tranmere player himself.
Think Bournemouth will win league 1, second place is up for grabs for anyone up to 10th, hopefully Tranmere! #bigrunin
— Ian Thomas Moore (@ianthomasmoore) February 12, 2013
Bear in mind that was tweeted while Tranmere were top of the table.
The other most notable risers are Coventry, Walsall and Yeovil, though there’s the possibility of Coventry falling away as Mark Robins appears to be on his way to Huddersfield at the time of writing. The Coventry Telegraph reports he pulled out of an interview with their paper while the local BBC reported that he’d cleared his desk, and has a £100,000 release clause in his contract.
It’s disappointing timing – just at the weekend, When Saturday Comes were comparing Robins’ start to that of Jimmy Hill, while Robins stated he was at Coventry for the long term when he was recently linked with Doncaster. WSC identified the mess over the club’s stadium as the potential storm on the horizon.
One of the problems with planning for success in the lower leagues is that the driving force can be lured away in the middle of a season, which is unlikely to happen to the likes of Ferguson, Mancini or Guardiola. The departure will leave the club with the choice between appointing a new manager who’ll need to change things to fit his way of operating, or specifically target a manager capable of working in the same set-up.
The decision to do the latter meant that Doncaster, after the departure of Dean Saunders, appointed Brian Flynn, who’d not worked as a club manager for nine years. (Though he had spent the first eight managing Wales Under 21s.) Flynn started well with two wins but followed this up with two successive losses then a draw to out of form MK Dons. It’d be understandable if his instincts were rusty.
While there’s only four points separating the top seven, Yeovil are a further seven points above Coventry in eighth. It’s completely possible that the next manager will be able to keep things ticking over, but you’d imagine that the momentum necessary to bridge such a gap will stall in the process.
Coventry have twice in the last four games picked up wins with the critical goal coming in the 87th minute or later, and have scored result-altering stoppage time doubles against both Stevenage and Preston since Christmas.
This appears to be a recent addition to the Sky Blues’ mental arsenal – they scored and conceded late goals in roughly equal measure before Boxing Day.
Robins is most famous for being the striker who scored the FA Cup goal that apocryphally kept Alex Ferguson in his job – he appears to be building the kind of same kind of tough-mindedness at his current club, necessary to get Coventry into the playoffs. Given that the habits Robins has drilled don’t seem deeply rooted, it’s a tough ask to expect a new manager to drill in his own demands without undoing Robins’ good work.
Westley Doesn’t Walk Away, Unless There’s a Big Bag of Cup Money to Take
Despite setting a club record run of home games without victory and taking his Preston side to the bottom half of the table, after a midweek defeat to Yeovil, Graham Westley announced that “You’ve never seen me walk away from anything in my life, so don’t expect me to.” But it seems Peter Ridsdale felt differently, the Chairman of Football sacking him the day after.
There are now a number of League One managerial vacancies, Alex McLeish, Simon Grayson and Rotherham’s lovable ball of fun Steve Evans being mentioned in connection with at least one. With four of the division’s more appealing teams looking to appoint (possibly more if, for different reasons, Paolo di Canio or Karl Robinson are tempted to walk) there’ll be a scramble to appoint the best of the available bosses and try to avoid the booby prize of Phil Brown.
Hartlepool United R – Portsmouth F.C. R
With four relegation places in League One, it’s not unusual for the first team to be mathematically relegated to come from this league, but it’d be a massive surprise if relegation doesn’t come to either Portsmouth or Hartlepool first this season.
Hartlepool United set a club record 22 games without victory on Boxing Day. That’s been turned around a little recently – a battling victory over Sheffield United followed and was recently built on with a 3-1 win at Portsmouth, 2-1 victory at home to Notts County and a strong point at Swindon. Tuesday saw Hartlepool host Portsmouth in a match called off just before Christmas, with Pompey needing a point to avoid a club record 10 defeats in a row and a victory to avoid a record 20 games without one.
Hartlepool looked less disjointed, but the fear and lack of creativity from both was what was to be expected from two badly out of form teams. The draw leaves Pompey and Pools 10 and 11 points adrift, with 14 and 15 games remaining. Neither team has a capital R besides their name on the league table, but it’s really just a formality.
A day later, a High Court hearing necessary for Portsmouth to emerge from administration has been put back yet again, seemingly because of a dispute over payment to ex-players, guaranteed payment in full because of the football creditors rule.
Football League rules forbid a club starting two successive seasons in administration, while Conference rules are harsher, forbidding clubs to pass the annual AGM in even the first administration spell. There’s a serious chance that Portsmouth, FA Cup winners five years ago and a top flight team three years ago, could start next year in one of the leagues below the Conference South – relegation is the least of their concerns.
Port Vale have leaped over Gillingham in recent weeks, their four wins and two draws this year taking them to the top of League Two, to a large extent because of the goals of Tom Pope.
The 27-year-old has scored 25 goals this season, just short of his previous career tally of 29. Pope moved to his hometown club on a one-year deal in the summer, after a loan spell the previous season – despite speculation of other clubs coming in, he extended his deal by a further two years.
And yes, that awful pun did amuse me!
Bradford Nick a Win
It’s a cliche that when a team’s knocked out of one of the cups, they’ll have more time to focus on the league. In fact it’s such a cliche, it’s mainly used ironically nowadays. But, while taking on all-comers from the Premiership, Bradford’s recent league form has suffered.
From the 29th of December the Bantams went on a six game winless streak, including three defeats to teams in the bottom half. As a result they fell out of the playoffs and put their promotion bid in jeopardy.
On Tuesday they picked up a 3-0 win over Wycombe in a tight game, won with few shots on target (according to Sky Sports three shots, according to BBC, bizarrely, only two.) It was a game that saw the return of powerful centre half Andrew Davies to Bradford’s defence – who’d missed the last three months – and City having the bravery to rest their first choice forward line of Hanson and Wells.
It’s not a result that’ll grab attention in the same way as victories over Arsenal and Villa, but, given the context and Wycombe’s form, it may prove just as important.
The Race is on to Stay in the Bottom Division
It’s not unusual for one of the teams near the bottom of League Two to go on a great run of form and break away. What is unusual is that over the last few months, all of the teams down there seem to have put in a burst of promotion-worthy form.
Wycombe, relegated from League One last year, went bottom of the league in November, two games after Gareth Ainsworth was appointed permanent manager.
They then won the next three games and have won nine and drawn two from 14 since reaching rock bottom, making the playoffs a possibility.
Since losing 4-1 in Edgar Davids’ first game at the club, Barnet clawed back their seven-point deficit (they collected three points from 12 games) and have seven wins and six draws from 19 since.
John Ward returned for a second spell as Bristol Rovers manager in December, with The Pirates second bottom. A draw in his first game, a six-pointer against Aldershot, took Rovers bottom, but they’ve won five and drawn once in seven games under his rule.
Since John Sheridan took over second bottom Plymouth last month, they’ve won and drawn half of their four games.
The main counter-argument to the idea that it helps to sack your manager in League Two is Wimbledon’s Neal Ardley. The Dons have fell from 21st to bottom of the league since he took over, but a run of two wins at the turn of the year was followed by three successive draws with promotion chasers.
Teams are generally closer in ability in League Two, to the extent that an injection of positivity, organisation and self-belief can go a long way. Oh, and signing a former European Cup winner to run the midfield doesn’t hurt either.
Football’s Not a Matter of Life and Death…
Torquay manager Martin Ling has been absent from the touchline for several weeks, with Assistant Manager Shaun Taylor taking charge, assisted by the Youth Team Manager.
Torquay have only said that Ling has a ‘debilitating illness’ and are looking to bring in an experienced coach to help him for the next few weeks. Local BBC reporter Brett Pilnick has said that Ling was clearly unwell at the last press conference he took, three weeks ago, causing Torquay fans worry, but is ultimately a private matter.
It’s not been a good season for the Gulls – after missing out on promotion in the League Two playoff semi-finals last year, Torquay are 18th, closer to the bottom than the playoffs. But there are of course more important worries than Football League survival.
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