The Lower League Week – Unreasonable People
di Canio Walks
After months of threats, Paolo di Canio has finally followed through and done the thing he’d threatened ever since Jeremy Wray was replaced by William Patey as Swindon chairman back in October – he’s walked away from the manager’s position. What’s more, the timing (his departure became public on Monday evening) was just over 24 hours before a six-pointer against Tranmere – given Rovers’ recent stumbling form, it was probably a must-win game.
This conflict has come about because of di Canio’s unhappiness with the incoming owners. His initial reluctance to work with Patey after being brought in by Wray (neither were the main moneyman themselves, being appointed by Andrew Black) indicate his reluctance to work with people he feels aren’t on the same page as him. So the actions by the prospective new owners in arranging for star playmaker Matt Ritchie to be sold on January 30th weren’t a great way to win his trust. Worse – the uncertainty over their financial resources appear to be the main cause of three prospective loan signings not being approved by the Football League on the final day of the window. di Canio has been consistently hot-headed since first taking charge, so it’s not that big a surprise to see him walk. And it probably makes sense for him to be installed as favourite to replace himself as the next Swindon manager.
Personally, I don’t think there’ll have been anything vindictive about di Canio’s timing. During his year and a half as a manager, he’s shown himself to be even more of a lunatic than he seemed during his playing career. But whereas other managers may consciously look for the way to guarantee they’ll be the centre of attention (most obviously Mourinho’s post-match actions when Porto won the Champions’ League) di Canio has always, to me, seemed to make his decisions from the heart, however irrational they may seem.
If you look beyond di Canio’s celebrity and melodrama, his high standards are the defining feature of his management style. This became apparent with the way he handled Leon Clarke, just a few months in.
Probably the most widely seen example of his demanding style was his treatment of Wes Foderingham. The 21-year old goalkeeper was subbed off 21 minutes into a match with Preston, and di Canio later declared that the England U19 international was “one of the worst players I have ever seen”. This is a player di Canio had signed, first on loan then permanently and selected in 41 games in the title-winning season, and then all of the first five games of this season.
But his harshest treatment was almost certainly the way he forced out Paul Caddis. The right-back was the club captain in the title-winning season, selected in the League Two team of the year, and aged just 24. But during pre-season di Canio decided that his standards had dropped, sending him out on loan. Caddis disagreed that he’d not been performing as well, but given that he’d just became a father for the first time, he at least had an excuse most managers would accept.
di Canio seems like many who’ve spent their entire playing and management career at the top level, to believe that it’s the place of the commercial side of the football club to subsidise the loss-making football side, and for the owners and backers to provide further assistance. (I’m thinking Mancini and Mourinho as two of the most notable examples – neither seem too bothered about spotting bargains or developing youth.)
Those of us who follow the lower leagues have generally accepted that it’s necessary for the manager to spend carefully and wisely, and for a star player to be sold every other season to provide extra income. But given that Swindon have been attracting crowds of seven to eight thousand, roughly similar to Barnsley and Peterborough a division higher, and Reading and Bristol City are the only ‘major’ clubs in the surrounding area, it can be argued that Swindon have significant capacity for growth, and di Canio wasn’t being unreasonable.
There’s basically three ways of looking at di Canio’s year and a half in management. There’s those who look in from a distance, see that he’s been demanding and moved the club up the leagues while playing entertaining football, and approve. There’s those who, with a particular focus on the high turnover of players, believe that he’s bought Swindon’s success, and probably consider him a bit of a diva.
My opinion is that by being demanding of his players and his superiors, and being a bit of an iconic figure for the fans to believe in, di Canio has united everyone at the club, created a sense of dynamism and achieved a bit more than could be reasonably expected, doing so with some entertaining and passionate football.
It’s hard to tell exactly what sort of money has been spent from a distance. But I’m inclined to believe that Black’s backing has been more along the lines of Steve Gibson and Jack Walker than Roman Abramovich and Shekih Mansour. Sheffield United, Coventry and Preston will all have naturally higher revenue streams than Swindon. It seems to me that at the most, Black’s backing has put Swindon in the same bracket as League One’s richest clubs, not enabled Town to dwarf them.
Swindon Go Top
Without di Canio, Swindon picked up a respectable 3-1 win over Tranmere, with a late 65-yard goal from Gary Roberts, after Tranmere keeper Owain Fon-Williams had went up for a corner. Immediately after the game assistant manager Fabrizio Piccareta announced that the staff would resign en masse, and would follow di Canio wherever he goes next, whether that’s “Real Madrid or Luton Town”.
An announcement from the club seems to indicate they’re taking the smart choice of assessing all options before appointing a new boss. As of Thursday the takeover has been completed, meaning di Canio’s conditions for not walking out have been belatedly met. While a decision is made, first-team players Darren Ward and Tommy Miller will manage the team, assisted by youth team boss Paul Bodin.
In a wider sense, the win takes Swindon top of League One, and means things are really tight – there’s now four points separating the top seven, with Coventry and Walsall storming up behind them.
The Holdsworth Brothers Can Sign On Together
Given that Dean and David Holdsworth are twin brothers with the same upbringing in the same line of work, there’s likely to be similarities between their careers.
While Dean was a member of Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang, David carved out a respectable career with Watford, Sheffield United and Birmingham in the top two divisions. After playing, both went into management, both bobbing around the fifth tier with Dean again being slightly more successful, spending the last two years with League Two Aldershot.
But the latest parallel is uncanny.
On Sunday, David was sacked by Lincoln, three points above the Conference relegation zone, then three days later Dean was sacked by League Two Aldershot, who had the previous night moved out of the relegation zone.
This season Aldershot have won against Burton and Southend in the league, as well as beating Fleetwood 3-2 and Rotherham 3-1 in the first two rounds of the FA Cup – all four of those teams currently in or around the play-off places.
After both FA Cup upsets many of the players, notably top scorer Danny Hylton, came out with the usual ‘we’ve shown what we’re capable of today’ quotes, but the Shots haven’t replicated this form more consistently. In fact, in 37 games against League Two opposition, Aldershot scored more than one goal on only seven occasions. Aldershot averaged just over a goal a game as they finished 11th last season, so it appears the inability to score regularly is a long-standing problem.
The sacking, after a win and three draws from the last seven games, but after a win and a draw against Torquay and promotion chasing Cheltenham, makes it look like the decision was made in advance of Tuesday’s match. Ex-Wycombe boss Garry Waddock is among the favourites to return to the club he led back into the Football League.
Southend’s Prodigal Son Returns… For a While
During the summer, having finished one point behind automatic promotion from Leauge Two, Southend allowed key defender Bilel Mohsni to go on trial at West Ham. He scored for the Hammers in a pre-season friendly, but West Ham didn’t meet Southend’s asking price of £150,000, so Mohsni threw a Tevez and decided not to return to the club. He later walked away from a trial with Ipswich to spend more time with his Paris apartment, before returning to Ipswich on loan. Nothing came of a trial spell at Nottingham Forest, so the French defender decided to do the job he’s contracted to do.
Paul Sturrock has welcomed him back into the Southend fold and took the brave decision at the weekend to throw him in from the start against Northampton.
Mohsni is a strong defender who can play a bit, competitive and just a little bit psychotic – he could well have risen to the occasion and put in a great performance. Unfortunately for the Shrimpers, this didn’t quite happen – after 27 minutes Mohsni stormed into an opponent with one leg at hip height and got himself sent off.
Southend remained competitive, and only lost 2-1 to a 90th minute goal, but keeping all 11 on the field might just have helped.
Can We Play Your League Every Week?
In the FA Cup this year, Oldham have beaten Forest, Liverpool and drawn with Everton, while they needed six attempts from the turn of the year to win a league game. Matt Smith is the most obvious place to point to when contrasting league and cup form. The giant forward has scored three key goals in the cups but only three goals in 25 league games.
But since caretaker manager Tony Phillisirk stepped into the dugout, Oldham have beaten MK Dons and Stevenage in midweek to climb out of the relegation zone. Despite Phillisirk taking charge of the youth, reserve and first teams himself, chairman Simon Corney has admitted he’s “not very far” into the search for Dickov’s successor, two and a half weeks after the Scot left.
The lazy git.
The Caretakers Are Doing Okay
As well as Oldham’s impressive record under Phillisirk, under Chris Kiwomya, Notts County have recorded respectable draws against Crewe and Walsall.
While those teams have taken their time looking for a new boss, Preston North End have shown swiftness and smart judgement (despite the impediment of being run by Peter Ridsdale) by appointing Simon Grayson.
Grayson has developed into a League One play-off specialist, gaining promotion via Wembley in two of the last three seasons and three from the last six.
Huddersfield went on a losing run of 12 games before he was sacked last month. He was relieved of his duties as Leeds manager 18 months after promotion with the side treading water in the Championship, so doubts can be raised about his ability at that level. But in League One, he’s proven his ability to calm potentially chaotic environments and lead teams to promotion while playing a decent style of football. There was heavy criticism from the national media when Lee Clark was sacked by Huddersfield, and Leeds was a self-destructive basket-case for years until he took over.
With Coventry (a bigger name team in recent decades) and Notts County (apparently one of the division’s highest wage payers, and without Preston’s financial fears) also looking for a manager, it’s a minor coup for them to bring in Grayson.
There already seems to be a feelgood factor in place at Preston. Caretaker manager John Dreyer made seven changes to the team to face in-form Bournemouth, including recalling Stuart Beavon. There’ve been rumours that Beavon’s recent ‘injury’ has been a cover after a falling out with Graham Westley. Beavon opened the scoring in a 2-0 win, as North End dominated possession and shots on target, in a game where Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe admitted his side were second best.
Almost immediately after Mark Robins walked out on Coventry last week, they were hit by further bad news – the club’s owners, hedge fund SISU, have decided to continue refusing to pay the rent on the ground. (In fact, Robins may still have been clearing his desk when the story broke.)
A compromise agreement appeared to have been reached last month, only for the club to decide they wanted a new agreement, one tilted significantly further in their direction. Arena Coventry Limited, the ground’s owners, pay the money received from the club to the Alan Edward Higgs Trust and Coventry City Council. Keep that bit in mind.
SISU had previously discussed moving temporarily to Nene Park, 45 miles away, or 80% of the MK Dons move, but they’ve now came up with another bright idea – building a new £30 million pound stadium.
Even if the maths did balance out into long-term profit, it wouldn’t exactly solve the immediate problem. A stadium will take several years to build, and during that time some sort of ground would need to be used, probably meaning continuing to build up rent owed to ACL, or moving to a smaller, out of town stadium, reducing income and annoying their own fans. In fact, as TwoHundredPercent points out, the construction of a new stadium would need the approval of Coventry City Council – one half of the body they’re trying to screw over. SISU and Coventry City don’t have any good options and should leap at the fact that ACL have offered them one that appears significantly less bad.
By putting forward these increasingly ludicrous alternatives, they’re not just scoring repeated PR own goals, making themselves look foolish to a wider and wider audience as the conflict drags on, but risk the withdrawal of a pretty reasonable offer.
The only reasonable way SISU’s strategy could pay off, that I can see, is if they delay their payments long enough to give ACL major cashflow problems, endangering their ability to carry out council services and help impoverished children in and around Coventry so much that they get really desperate.
More than that, by going back on an agreed deal, SISU have made what’s pretty much a public declaration of untrustworthiness. There’ll probably now be potential commercial partners unsure if the club can be relied on to hold their part in future deals.
There’s been speculation that Robins could have been informed of the owner’s… strategy, prompting him to opt out. Robins’ departure after only five months in charge at the Ricoh Arena makes him look extremely disloyal, but if the owners insist on being this dumb, an argument can be made that he’s been driven away.
After observing from the stands for Huddersfield’s weekend FA Cup game against Wigan, on Tuesday Robins took charge of his new team for the first time for a trip to Nottingham Forest. Under caretaker manager Mark Lillis, Huddersfield had performed remarkably well - in six games they drew with Cardiff, beat Crystal Palace, and drew with, then beat, Leicester in the FA Cup.
So Robins had a lot to live up to.
A 6-1 defeat was probably as bad as it could have gone. At least it means that Coventry fans, suffering through a double humiliation, had plenty of schadenfruede to console them.
On Their Way to Wembley
Midweek saw the second legs of the Football League Trophy area finals.
In the first leg of Coventry vs Crewe, the home side utterly dominated, with 25 shots, 13 on target, but failed to score - Crewe managed to grab three goals from four shots to win the first leg 3-0. Tuesday’s second leg was almost as bad. Their 14 shots, six on target was more than twice what Alexandra managed, but it took a stoppage time own goal to break the deadlock. Leon Clarke added another too late.
Meanwhile, League One Leyton Orient, a goal down from the first leg against League Two Southend, dominated the possession and shot count, but failed to make their superiority count. Twice they took the lead on the night, going level on aggregate, but had the kind of cutting edge that they probably should have done more with. Southend’s Ben Reeves made them pay for their wastefulness, grabbing a winner in the last minute.
Southend will travel to Wembley for the first time since 1930… when they played a league match against Clapham Orient.
One More Challenge for Bradford
My colleague James Murgatroyd will cover the build-up to the League Cup final in more detail tomorrow, so I’ll just give the Bantams a brief mention. It’s the first time a fourth tier club has made it to the final since Rochdale in 1962.
In theory, a team that can beat Arsenal should be able to beat Swansea. But I’d argue that the favourites are more likely to drop their standards in one of several routine matches they’ve got to play in quick succession, whereas in the later stages, because of the stage of the competition, the favourites will be excited and fired up. Bradford have done really well in the cups this season. But given that Sunday is Swansea’s opportunity for a first ever top class trophy, a Bradford victory in the final would be more impressive than their wins over Arsenal or Villa.
Recent league form has been poor, including conceding two late goals to lose 2-1 at Wimbledon last weekend – perhaps symptomatic of looking too far ahead. But they’ve kept on surprising people this season, maybe once more?
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