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Lower League Week – The Confirmation of Relegation Edition

Courtesy of Snowmanradio

Portsmouth’s Take Over is a Positive… For The Most Part

In a court case scheduled for last Wednesday, the Pompey Supporters’ Trust and their ‘high net worth’ backers (also referred to as ‘presidents’) were ready to force ownership of Fratton Park out of the hands of Balram Chanrai and his Portpin company. An eleventh hour deal was agreed meaning only paperwork and the collection of a majority of pledged fees stands in the PST’s way.

As south coast paper The Daily Echo explains, the current collection of pledges is going well:

About £2m has already been pledged by supporters, via the purchase of ‘community shares’ in the trust. These cost £1,000 each, with fans able to make a maximum contribution of £20,000. Initially, supporters were asked to deposit £100 to display their intent to buy a full share, with around 2,000 people doing this. Approximately 60 per cent of the pledges are said to have been fulfilled already. More money has come in since Wednesday’s court hearing. This is backed up by investment from wealthy individuals, who have put in about £1.5m through contributions of £50,000 or more. These fans will be known as “presidents”.

Stuart Robinson, a property investor and one of Portsmouth’s new ‘presidents’, owns the land around the stadium, and the ‘presidents’ alone or between them will certainly wield a large amount of power.

In League Two, Exeter, Wycombe and Wimbledon are all owned by their supporters’ trusts, as were York City before the need to gather more investment for a new stadium led to them diluting supporters’ ownership in the club to 25%. Is Portsmouth being owned 50ish% by fans more significant than Swansea being owned 20% by fans? 20 percent seems a significant enough presence to steer the club away from a tycoon’s more foolish ideas or to keep a decent chairman in touch with the fans’ concerns.

While football creditors will be paid in full, non-football creditors, both those from this administration and the last, will receive only a few pence in the pound, leaving Portsmouth FC free to spend all their natural income level on the football side of the club next season.
A totally idealistic approach would see PST offering to go beyond what the law requires, to pay back a bit more than pennies in the pound to companies who provided their services in good faith.

It doesn’t make Portsmouth any worse than other clubs that have been through the administration process, and much of the debt was ran up by owners who, amongst other crimes, robbed the club of £800,000 to pay themselves. But it does sully the idealistic vision painted by Pompey fans. In truth, the fan takeover is without doubt a positive step not just for the club, but for the game itself. It’s rare for fans to hold the power to shape their club into the organisation they want it to be – a worthy end to the revolution that has finally ousted Chanrai. But it’s a revolution that’s not quite as unprecedented as some would have neutrals believe, and has been paid for with the sweat and tears of fans, but also the blood of non-football creditors.

The fans are in charge now. Courtesy of Ben Sutherland

The fans are in charge now. Courtesy of Ben Sutherland

 

Bury-ed

Two places below Portsmouth in the League One table, Bury this week announced that they need £1m or will cease trading. The club have offered a ‘guaranteed payback’ and have said they’ll explain the business plan to interested investors, but the club statement doesn’t explain how they’re going to guarantee repayment. Given that lower league football is rarely profitable, that guarantee may not count for much.

Bury’s financial problems seem to have come more or less out of the blue this season – unlike many other financially troubled clubs, they’ve not paid dramatically high wages or fees and haven’t had the range of leeches Portsmouth have been cursed with. If their troubles have been a result of ‘chasing the dream’ of last year’s League One midtable finish, they’ve not overextended themselves in any obvious way. Bury’s financial struggle simply seems to be a case of the dysfunctional nature of English football. While the Premier League look after their own and those who were recently one of their own, there’s a reluctance to parachute down any of their TV billions (yes, billions,) to clubs like Bury. Clubs who enable our country to have a depth of professional competition unmatched anywhere in the world.

At the weekend Bury hosted Oldham, themselves just outside the relegation zone.

With the two grounds being separated by just 12 miles and survival at stake, Oldham fans understandably travelled in numbers. But a significant number were turned away, with most reports claiming that between 200 and 300 fans were refused entry for safety reasons. One website has claimed that over 2000 Oldham fans travelled, which sounds a little fanciful, but the attendance figure is roughly that much higher than attendances earlier in the season. In fact the crowd of 4558 was Bury’s second highest home crowd of the season, higher than games against Coventry and Sheffield United.

I’m not claiming that extra fans should have been allowed in if it genuinely was unsafe. But given that Gigg Lane has an official capacity of over 11,000, surely space could have been found for the extra Oldham fans somewhere. Failing that, it would have been helpful to inform supporters’ groups how many tickets would be available before they traveled. Ultimately, it was bad administration, which in addition to preventing fans from seeing a game they had every right to see, cost the impoverished club money.

A goal from Oldham’s Matt Smith 12 minutes from time seperated the teams, making Bury the first team in the Football League to be mathematically relegated.

The site of Bury's relegation. Courtesy of Martin Thirkettle

The site of Bury’s relegation. Courtesy of Martin Thirkettle

Like Father, Like Son

You’ve probably seen this mentioned elsewhere, but Tuesday night Lee Johnson’s Oldham hosted Yeovil, managed by his dad Gary.
With Yeovil solidly in the play-offs and Oldham looking in a strong position to survive, in the build-up both seemed relaxed, with Lee joking about denying his mum the chance to see her grandson if she didn’t support his side!

Sons following their fathers into football management isn’t any rarer than in any other industry. The Fergusons are the most notable example, while Gordon Strachan’s son Gavin is youth team manager at Peterborough. Whether you see this cases as nepotism or just a family trade, there are a disproportionate amount of managers who’ve followed their dad into the role. In fact, there are as many managers of league sides who are sons of other current managers as there are black British managers. (If you look at offspring whose fathers managed in the past, Nigel Clough takes the total higher.)

However, it’s rare for the two to be close enough in ability to clash – it seems that the only precedent is the Dodgin family40 years ago,  though Bobby Gould had a spell as his son’s Assistant Manager in Australia.

Matt Smith, whose goalscoring record in the league has been less impressive than in the FA Cup this season, scored the only goal of the game just before half-time. It more or less guaranteed Oldham’s survival, sending Hartlepool and Portsmouth down.

 

Poolie Till I Cry

Oldham, Colchester and Shrewsbury can each be caught by Scunthorpe, who are five, five and six points behind those sides with two games to play. But realistically the bottom four are settled, with only the order uncertain.

Despite a run of five wins in seven games in February that made it seem Hartlepool would have a fighting chance of survival, a run of eight games without a goal meant that survival was unlikely, and successive wins against out of form Bury and Tranmere was too little too late.

Having lower income levels than initially estimated at the start of the season, the Football League blocked new signings, even when Colin Nish, Paul Murray and Steve Howard all left the club. This has had an effect on the depth of the squad – for a recent match at Stevenage, all seven substitutes were aged 20 or under. Prior to the match, Luke James had 42 professional appearances, Adam McHugh had played six professional games on loan at Forfar, and Greg Rutherford had 10 minutes of professional football.

The players’ lack of experience could be blamed on John Hughes’ selections, as he’s relied heavily on a settled XI even when playing twice a week in a high-tempo style. But in practical terms, relegation was more or less certain before Hughes joined the club.

 

It’s a Funny Old Game

At the weekend, Yeovil’s Dan Burn received a second yellow card for timewasting… and was rewarded for it.

After a bad first half tackle from Stevenage’s Bondz N’Gala on Ed Upson, a bit of handbags between the teams saw Burn booked – his 10th of the season, giving him a two match ban. With Yeovil leading 2-0 in stoppage time, Burn took an age over a throw-in, prompting a second yellow – which means Burn will be banned for just one match.

Normally that’d be a quirk of the justice system, if it wasn’t for the fact footage of the way he took his time over the throw (the Burn incident begins at 50:40) seems to suggest that the left-back was deliberately taking his time. Still, unlike David Beckham, Burn didn’t go in late on an opponent then boast about how clever he was afterwards.

 

A Girl in Charge of a Football Club?

Last week Simon Baker stepped down as chairman of Torquay, in order to spend more time pretending to be a psychic (possibly). He was replaced by director and club backer Thea Robinson – the only woman in the Football League to hold such a role.

If anything, the appointment of a woman to the top job in a Football League club is overdue. Aside from Karen Brady at West Ham (and previously Birmingham), Delia Smith at Norwich, Nina Bracewell-Smith at Arsenal and Sophie Hicks at York, I can’t think of any women with a large amount of power at one of the leading 92 clubs.

Robinson, having received her millions through a lottery win rather than business success, is as close to an everyman (or everywoman) that you’ll get running a football club. In a statement Bristow has said she’ll be relying heavily on her ‘midfield’ of three vice chairs, one of whom is her predecessor. A strong spell in the hotseat could be a move in the right direction, not only in terms of encouraging clubs to be more open to female directors, but more open to fan representation on the board.

Possibly Thea Robinson's winning ticket - assuming she played the Dutch lottery. Courtesy of Bartosz Senderek

Possibly Thea Robinson’s winning ticket – assuming she played the Dutch lottery. Courtesy of Bartosz Senderek

 

The Blair Luck Project

Having already gone 1-0 up at Northampton, York’s Matty Blair spun round to connect with the ball, a yard out at most, near the centre of the goal. Still spinning as he connected, somehow he hit the ball against the post. It’s probably too low down the leagues to earn a reputation as a ‘worst miss ever’, but it was quite amusing.

Blair made up for his mistake later when, breaking through with Town defence at pace, he tried to slot the ball across goal. It worked, in a way – Blair hit the ball sideways, against a defender rushing back, and into the net. Having said that, it was an impressive upset. Not only are Northampton sitting in a play-off place, but their home form has been excellent – 10 wins in a row before that defeat.

While some York fans objected to the decision to replace Gary Mills, whose footballing philosophy was widely admired, with Nigel Worthington, the change seems to be having an effect – after the weekend’s victory, York have now picked up seven points from nine.
The battle to stay in League Two is still ludicrously tight. With between two and three games remaining (the bottom three all have three games to play), there are eight teams within four points of the relegation zone.

 

(Cheltenham v) Gillingham against (Rochdale v) Port Vale

After becoming the first side in the country to secure promotion last week, Gillingham had the opportunity to seal the League Two title if they could match Port Vale’s result at Rochdale.

Port Vale started the match more in the manner that recent months have gone than the first half of the season, with Chilvers heading a back-pass past his own keeper. However Vale equalised through Tom Pope, and Chilvers earned an amount of redemption by heading a corner in to give them the lead. It wasn’t quite enough, as Jason Kennedy grabbed a stoppage time equaliser.

It was a goal which denied Port Vale the chance to seal promotion, with Cheltenham in fourth as a result of Port Vale’s huge goal difference, the lowest team with a realistic chance of catching them. Gillingham’s 1-0 defeat meant their lead has been cut to six points, but with only two games remaining, it remains likely the Gillingham and Port Vale will be promoted from League Two as champions and runners up.

 

Blades can be Vicious

Last week, in a surprise move, Sheffield United sacked manager Danny Wilson.

It’s a surprise, but not because the football’s been flowing (it hasn’t) or results have been fantastic (the Blades had one win in six prior to this weekend’s matches). But for the most part, everyone seems to agree that Wilson was doing a decent job under the circumstances.

Last season, United finished 3rd with 90 points, finishing as the division’s top scorers, then lost the play-off final on penalties – all in all, a deeply unfortunate narrow miss. With between two and three games remaining, not one team in League One is capable of matching United’s points tally from last year.

As a result of financial pressures, United had to make budget cuts. A new rule coming into effect limiting spending to a percentage of turnover was the main reason, though I’ve seen claims that backer Kevin McCabe also decided to cut the amount he’s willing to subsidise the club with. This resulted in the summer release or sale of first teamers Steve Simonsen, Matt Lowton, Lee Williamson, Stephen Quinn, as well losing the division’s second top scorer Ched Evans.

While the signing of Dave Kitson was a strong capture, reports seem to almost universally agree that this Sheffield United team is a much grittier, more functional side than last year. But despite the recent run, the Blades had remained in the hunt – sitting in a play-off place, six points behind the automatic places with two games in hand when the trigger was pulled.

I wouldn’t want to claim that all was sunshine and roses at Bramall Lane. But the situation struck me as a little like Fabio Capello’s 2007 season in charge of Real Madrid. All through the season, the side looked shambolic, always on the verge of collapsing in on itself, a side that surely couldn’t keep on limping more than a match or two further.

Yet somehow they did.

That’s not to say that I necessarily felt Sheffield United would go up (though I thought there was no chance of Capello’s Madrid winning that league title either). In fact, if the Blades were able to bring in a new manager to give the extra burst of energy to take them over the line, as Sunderland have just done and Sheffield Wednesday did last season, then in the tough world of football, the sacking could have been justified. In fact, with former manager Neil Warnock recently entering the job market, a man who’s been a promotion specialist, it looked as if there was a clear, strong option – even if Warnock was only interested in taking over until the end of the season.

Wilson before his dismissal. Courtesy of Jonesy702

Wilson before his dismissal. Courtesy of Jonesy702

Instead, former captain and current club coach Chris Morgan has been appointed as caretaker manager until the end of the season.
Referring to Morgan, a former Sheffield United captain, as the man who fractured Iain Hume’s skull may be a little reductive, but his style of play was always on the border between impressively dominant old-fashioned centre-half play and outright thuggery. Morgan may well prove to be a strong manager in the future, and he started with a win then a draw in a six-pointer against Brentford. Perhaps things had become staler than I’d realised, perhaps a fresh voice was needed. But Morgan will be doing things that he simply hasn’t done before in a high-pressure situation. Will he be able to read subtle tactical changes during matches? Will he understand how to calm young players through a frantic last few minutes?

 

Bizarre Bournemouth

League One’s big spenders Bournemouth have been on some weird runs of form this season.

After Eddie Howe was announced as Bournemouth manager, the Cherries picked up 50 points from the first available 63, then went on a run of five defeats, which has now been followed by a run of seven victories.

As far as I can tell, it must be psychological, with no obvious injuries or suspensions coinciding with the good and bad form.

With only a handful of games left, it’s still difficult to know where the League One promotion places will be decided. Doncaster and Bournemouth are in pole position for the automatic spots, while Brentford, Yeovil and Sheffield United are close enough (including games in hand) to be able to close the gap if either of those teams trip up.

Swindon, Walsall and Leyton Orient seem to be battling for the final play-off spot.

Sadly, after flying out of the traps and setting the pace for the first half of the season, it looks like Tranmere’s last impact on the promotion challenge will be their match against Bournemouth on the last day of the season.

 

A Matter of Principle

Coventry rent the Alan Higgs Centre, where the Academy train, from ACL, the same company who they’ve been refusing to pay rent on the Ricoh Arena to for the past year. As part of their withholding over a million pounds in rent for the Ricoh Arena, they’ve also been refusing to pay money charged for the Centre.

As of the Easter period, their Academy sides have been kicked out… because of a bill of £14,000 in total. That’s £12,000 was for equipment maintenance, £2,000 rent. Apologies to Coventry fans, but at least your owners’ wacky negotiating methods have the benefit of amusing fans of other clubs.

 

 

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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