The Diary

Cod Almighty | Diary

The Conference is only calling. Only faintly, but it won't go away until we wise up

30 January 2018

Middle-Aged Diary writes: In An Inspector Calls, a wealthy Edwardian family's celebration is interrupted by a visit from Inspector Goole. He tells them he has come from the infirmary after the suicide of a young, working-class woman. One by one, Goole extracts from each member of the family an admission that each of them had mistreated someone meeting her description, from the millowner who sacked her for leading a strike to the chairwoman of a charity who refused her aid when she was pregnant. The head of the family complains that Goole has wrecked their evening. The inspector replies that they have wrecked someone's life.

At Burton in May 2010, we could do nothing but survey the wreckage of a football club. For a couple of seasons the team had been bulked up with old sweats seeking one last payday and the callow youths of other clubs' academies, taking the slow road to rejection. The heart of the club had not quite stopped beating. It was, though, at least heart-wrenching to watch Neil Woods – a bona fide Town man, a former youth coach who should have been the symbol of better times ahead – presiding over the loss of our League status. The heart was beating, but the pulse was slow and faint.

The learning of lessons was nothing like the cold certainty of a visit from the police. Truth be told, it happened by accident. We lucked on a manager with the fortitude to survive. He learned the lessons for us, recruiting a squad for character as much as talent. Slowly – one step forward, half a step back, right up until the very moment Paul Hurst left – we learnt some appreciation of what he was doing, what he had done. It rubbed off. The fans bought into it: literally and, more importantly, metaphorically. We could feel we had a voice in the boardroom; the number of inanities coming out from there reduced in proportion. In May 2016, we could declare that the club was out of danger.

In An Inspector Calls, after Goole has left, the family starts to recover its smug indifference. They take themselves off the hook. Rather than the chain of cause and effect that Goole had implied, they realise that each of their individual acts of selfishness might have been perpetrated on a different woman.

Voting for B teams despite boardroom disagreement and fans' opposition. Sacking a "valued" club employee for expressing his own views about the Checkatrade Trophy. Trying to appoint the wife of a club director as supporters' liaison officer. Getting into public rows with local journalists who insist on doing their jobs rather than simply acting as unpaid PR officers. Holding a fans' forum not to bring people together but to stress the them-and-us relationship between boardroom and fans. Undermining, and so losing, the supporters' liaison officer whose efforts had been appreciated and recognised nationally as well as locally.

Not one of those acts, individually, is enough to kill a club. But each is an act of arrogance, enough to send us back towards the sick bay.

And it gets worse. Not just failing to back the one manager who had turned the club around but publicly trivialising Hurst's wish to strengthen his support team. Boasting about building the squad one month then citing the bloating of that squad as cause to sack a manager after just six months. And then replacing him with a man who does little to cut the size of the squad, but instead fills it with old sweats seeking one last payday and the callow youths of other clubs' academies.

In An Inspector Calls, the family's retreat back into complacency is cut short when the phone rings. A young woman has committed suicide and the police want to ask them some questions, they are told. The Conference is calling again. Win tonight at Yeovil and it might recede to no more than a distant tinkle. We know this division is weak enough that Slade's strategy of hoping for something to turn up ("boomball", it is called in the trade) may eventually pay off. The Conference will be a distant tinkle. This year. It will still be there though, until we learn the lessons. Again.