The blame game

Cod Almighty | Article

by Ron Counte

15 May 2018

Many bad decisions and poor performances contributed to Town's near relegation this season. But who bears the greatest blame?

On that wonderful afternoon in May 2016 it seemed that the future was bright. As we celebrated our return to the Football League we could have been forgiven for thinking that the Conference was about to recede into the dark recesses of dim and distant memory. It seems incredible that less than two years later we were once again contemplating falling into the abyss, and safety was assured only in the penultimate game of the season. So where does the blame lie?

Chart of win percentage and points per gameClearly our sustained decline is a product of a combination of factors, a dismal stew cooked by many hands. Since 2016 we have had four full-time managers and two caretakers. The chart shows clearly enough that Michael Jolley reversed a trend of declining win percentages and points per game to save us from relegation. But to what extent, and in which ways, were his predecessors culpable?

Paul Hurst

Hurst we are considering only for his contribution after the return to the Football League in the summer of 2016.

Player retention: -3

Hurst allowed a significant portion of the nucleus of the promotion-winning side to leave the club immediately: Richard Tait, Gregor Robertson, Toto Nsiala, Jon Nolan, Pádraig Amond and Nathan Arnold. Arnold was willing to stay at the club but, after a very attractive potential offer elsewhere came to naught, missed Hurst's pre-determined signing deadline. So in an act of stubbornness he was pushed out of the door. Most disappointing of all was the departure of Amond, who had notched 37 goals the previous season and was apparently asking for the two-year contract that he had been offered earlier in the year.

No credit for keeping Shaun Pearson and Omar Bogle who were under contract, but at least Hurst hung on to James McKeown and Craig Disley. Nevertheless, the guts of the side departed.

Player recruitment: -1

Hurst gets points for bringing in Zak Mills, Danny Andrew and Ben Davies, though perhaps in the latter case the point should really be awarded to Davies' Cleethorpes-based girlfriend. His last signing was Danny Collins, who turned in some very creditable performances.

However, we have to wonder at bringing in James Berrett and Luke Summerfield, who had failed to stop York City from being relegated. Summerfield has become a recent fan favourite but, hampered also by long absences of the injury-prone Sean McAllister, we have been severely lacking in creativity.

Most of Hurst's other late signings never quite delivered: the questionable Andrew Boyce, the enigmatic Tom Bolarinwa, Ashley Chambers, Rhys Browne and Dan Jones; and a curious collection of loan signings, including Dominic Vose, Kayden Jackson, Shaun Tuton, Brandon Comley, and keeper Dean Henderson. The jury remains out, and now will never come in, on Scott Vernon.

Tactics and strategy: +4

There is no doubt that Paul Hurst is a very capable manager. Despite all of the squad changes we were on the fringes of a play-off position during his tenure. Though very defensive-minded, he organises teams well, and we were certainly difficult to beat under his stewardship.

Leadership: +2

Hurst is not a charismatic individual. The ear-cupping episode at Wembley was both unprofessional and unfair to the majority of Town supporters. Nevertheless, he does seem to get the best out of his players most of the time and got results from his reassembled squad.

Paul Hurst's total score: +2

Marcus Bignot

Player retention: 0

Marcus Bignot cannot be blamed for the sale of Bogle which was clearly an economic imperative over which he would have had no control. Other than that there were no other damaging departures during his brief tenure. He loaned out Browne and Summerfield in an attempt to save a few quid after he had brought in several new players.

Player recruitment: -2

Bignot brought in the unpredictable Gavin Gunning who occasionally terrified team-mates and opponents alike. Akwasi Asante, Chris Clements and Adi Yussuf were seldom seen. He also brought in three loan players who hardly set the world alight, re-signing Brandon Comley, and adding Luke Maxwell and Calum Dyson.

It is true that Bignot recruited Jamey Osborne and Sam Jones, two of the more talented players to join the club in the last two seasons. But he ended up adding no fewer than eight new faces in the January transfer window to create a bloated and unbalanced squad. The quality and potential of Osborne and Jones cannot entirely compensate for the minimal impact of the majority of his signings and an inflated wage. In fact it probably contributed to the pressure on his successor to move some of the higher-earning players out of the squad – to our clear detriment later on.

Tactics and strategy: -3

Bignot managed a couple of notable victories, but his selections and formations occasionally bordered on the bizarre with the players seemingly as confused as the spectators as they struggled to make sense of it all. One could be charitable and put some of it down to experimentation, but doing so when we still had a chance of a play-off place seems reckless in the extreme.

Leadership: -3

Effectively abandoning a promotion push shortly after Christmas was unnecessary. His apparently baffling and confusing communications to players, supporters and press alike occasionally created the impression of chaos.

Marcus Bignot's total score: -8

Russell Slade

Russell SladePlayer retention: -5

After Bignot's signing spree a clear-out of players was required, and Slade certainly did that – but, alas, threw out the baby with the bathwater. For the second successive summer there was a huge exodus. Among other departures Danny Andrew moved on to a higher division, and fan favourites Craig Disley and Josh Gowling reached the natural end of their Town careers.

It has often been said that the secret to a successful side is to have quality through the central spine of the team: goalkeeper, centre-half, central midfielder, and centre-forward. In McKeown, Pearson, Jamey Osborne and Jones, Slade inherited an excellent spine: a pretty good combination of youth, talent and potential around which to build a side capable of holding its own.

One of Slade's first mistakes was to push Pearson out of the club. There is little doubt that Pearson would have been very happy to stay, and that his leadership on the pitch would have been an asset. As if that were not bad enough, Slade also forced Osborne and Jones out in January. There may have been issues with the pair but any manager worth his salt should be able to manage his more talented players.

Another useful midfield option disappeared when Clements was loaned out to relegation rivals Forest Green. It is hard not to conclude that we would have put more points on the board with these four players available.

Player recruitment: -4

We have to give Slade a thumbs-up for bringing Siriki Dembele to the club. However, this is a young lad who should really just be learning his trade rather than being thrust into the relegation scrap with huge expectation on his shoulders. Reece Hall-Jones, another credit to Slade, has thrived on the opportunity.

Overall, though, the squad Slade assembled was poor. Port Vale supporters could hardly believe their luck when we took Sam Kelly off their hands and Paul Dixon was a huge disappointment. For most of the season other Slade signings – Nathan Clarke, Mitch Rose, Martyn Woolford, JJ Hooper and Karleigh Osborne – were also serial under-performers.

Many of those players upped their game considerably under Jolley, proving that they were not as bad as they appeared to be for the first 40 games of the season. One could argue, therefore, that they were not all poor signings per se. But a key rationale for recruiting a player is to get him to fulfil a particular function in the team; signing players whose qualities you don't understand and can't deploy properly is as much a recruitment failing as it is a management one.

Slade was unlucky in that the best of the crop of January loan signings – Charles Vernam, Simeon Jackson and Mallik Wilks – picked up bad injuries which severely limited their impact. However, the bottom line is that the squad – which, until Jolley arrived, seemed to comprise slow, error-prone defenders, ineffective midfielders, and woefully inept forwards – was very much Slade's creation.

Strategy and tactics: -5

One example of tactical ineptitude will suffice. Consider the tactic of leaving no-one upfield while defending corners. As soon as the ball is cleared it often goes straight to an unmarked opponent with plenty of opportunity to play the ball straight back and maintain the pressure. I know that some will argue that it is a sensible stratagem, though Guardiola, Mourinho, Ferguson and most managers who have actually won something are not among them.

The last time I saw this tactic deployed was in December, freezing my nuts off watching the shambolic scrambled win against bottom-of-the-league Forest Green. Bear in mind that the village people had only nine outfield players at this point. Leaving a single Town player up on the halfway line would have meant that they would have to keep at least two players back themselves. This means they would have a maximum of six outfield players in the box against 10 Town players. But Slade, unable to vary his thinking according to the dictates of the game, stuck doggedly to his tactic. After all, his spreadsheet told him to.

Leadership: -5

During the interminable run of bad results after Christmas one of the most shocking aspects of the whole terrible pantomime was how uninterested many of the players appeared to be. Their heads dropped faster than guillotined opponents of the Jacobin regime during the French revolution.

Slade had long since lost the support of the fanbase, even those who had forgiven him for the dubious circumstances in which he departed in 2006. In the end he resembled nothing more than a shambling, lost, Nosferatu lookalike draining the life out of the club, the team and the entire town.

Russell Slade's total score: -19

Summing up

Michael JolleyBut wait, I hear you cry, if we are looking for culprits how about John Fenty? Fenty certainly controls the purse strings and so no doubt influenced the transfer market options and wage structure open to the managers.

But I'll duck for cover with my tin helmet on and say that, though he undoubtedly shares some of the blame, laying it entirely at Fenty's door is a little harsh. Two of the three people he appointed to manage the team post-Wembley could reasonably have been expected to have performed at a much better level.

It would appear that he was to some extent culpable in the departure of Paul Hurst which began the decline. But Hurst was ambitious and may well have left regardless. At the time, it appeared recruiting Bignot was the bold appointment of a promising up-and-coming manager. No doubt Fenty was as surprised as the rest of us at the way it turned out.

Even Slade, it could be argued, was a safe appointment. Two years earlier Slade had guided Cardiff to an eighth-place finish in the second flight. He had never been relegated as a manager and in fact had rescued both Brighton and Orient from seemingly certain relegations. There are those who point out that he had never won promotion. Gainsborough Trinity have existed for 145 years without ever achieving a promotion: maybe that should be Slade's next job; he would fit right in.

If we were to blame Fenty for the way Bignot and Slade turned out, we also have to welcome the appointment of Michael Jolley. Clearing up the mess created by Slade in the time available was almost a Mission Impossible that even Tom Cruise would baulk at, yet Jolley pulled it off.

Despite only taking on the job outside the transfer window, he managed to bring in Andrew Fox, a marked improvement at full-back. His substitutions and formation changes definitely turned the tide in the must-win game against Chesterfield, something none of his befuddled predecessors would have been capable of. He's also managed to tighten up a back four which had seemed incapable of keeping a clean sheet.

Jolley's biggest contribution by far, though, was to motivate the players to higher levels of commitment and performance. Four times in his five home games we scored late and earned additional points because the players did not let their heads drop. This would simply not have happened under Slade, Paul Wilkinson, Bignot or even Hurst. The slick one-touch attacking football in the final home game against Notts County was unrecognisable from the shockingly inept kick-and-hope show under Slade. Even though it came from the same group of players.

Those players, of course, must share some blame for the situation Jolley inherited. But it took several bad decisions – Fenty, Bignot and even Wilkinson (surely a forward of his pedigree could coach one of his forwards to achieve a shot on target every now and again) – by several individuals to bring the club to the verge of relegation so soon after our return to the Football League. But if we had to point the finger at the individual most culpable, that person is Russell Slade. His management of the club was totally disastrous.

Thanks to Grimsby Town FC for the pictures used in this feature.

Plenty to agree and disagree with here. How would you rate Jolley's predecessors?