Time to write about another old organization arguably in crisis, Chesterfield FC…
After going away from the game for a number of years (I wasn’t missed), my inane response to the Spireites’ successful negotiation of the 2010-11 season – they were promoted from League 2 – or Tier 4 – as Champions, was to start watching them again.
I took a season ticket for the next campaign and was rewarded with one of the most shambolic seasons in their history. Major goalscorer Craig Davies had disappeared on a free and wasn’t replaced. The close season saw us lose another good player (Dean Smalley) & bring in virtually no-one. At the end of August a flurry of loan deals took place by which time we were bottom of the League, one point from five. A twitch of wins occurred thanks to this infusion of energy, including a 3-0 trashing of Bournemouth, no less. Then flop, flop, flop. Legend Jack Lester had some injuries and double loan injection from the Premier League was nothing like enough to lever us out of trouble. Relegated. [Note: many Spireites would say, “Don’t forget we won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy that season at Wembley, beating Swindon Town 2-0!” But this fan takes as much interest in that cup as a Liverpool or Manchester United fan takes in it. Sorry. And didn’t go, either.]
A lacklustre handful of games into the following season saw manager John Sheridan iced and after an interim period in the charge of his assistant, Tommy Wright, ex-Leeds, Oldham & Leicester goalie, Paul Cook, ex-Coventry and Wolves footballer of the smooth passing persuasion, was made gaffer.
In all probability Cook got the job on the back of the display of his Accrington Stanley team at the Whatever It Was Called Then Stadium during the Wright phase. Town (that’s Chesterfield FC, for the uninitiated) won 4-3 from five goal attempts and were roundly outplayed aside from few moments when the home attack managed to challenge the visiting defence near their penalty area. So good were Stanley that it didn’t take a genius watching the blizzard of slick passing & movement they created, a club who could only generate about 1,800 fans a time, to say, “For God’s Sake, who’s their manager? Get him to sign a contract before he gets back on the coach!” The very much non-genius owner, Dave Allen, scourge of Wednesday fans when he owned (effectively) that club, did just that. Or a bit later, probably.
Galloping through the history, he finagled the team up to 8th, just one outside the play offs at the end of that season (2012-13). Though never in true contention for promotion, he at least added a significant player: Liam Cooper, a centre-back, from Hull City, after a spell on loan. In the close season he quickly installed his own backroom team and acquired new players: Eoin Doyle, Jimmy Ryan, Gary Roberts, Sam Morsy & Ian Evatt, all of whom played major roles in the League 2 Championship win of 2013-14. And so back to League One! [Note: Town fans would again now want to shout, “Don’t forget we got to Wembley again in the Johnstone’s Paint where we lost to Peterborough United, 1-3!” It’s true: we did. Again I kept my money in my pocket.]
And so to last season, 2014-15. This began our having lost just one promotion player, Cooper, to Leeds United, for a fee of something between £500,000 & £750,000. Presumably this funded the wages of the clutch of good new signings of the previous Summer. By any measure, this was a remarkable season. Here’s why.
Firstly, the team spent most of it in the top 8. At one point, early on, thanks to a great loan signing, Daniel Johnson from Aston Villa, an attacking midfielder with fine skills. He struck up a great working partnership with the striker, Doyle. Secondly, the team progressed through continued improvement to the possession-based style that had won League 2. By the back end of the season during which Chesterfield swept into the top 6, the team were dominating games, even away from home. It’s one thing doing this in Tier 4: quite another when you’re doing it in even greater style, with virtually the same squad, in Tier 3.
It was apparent even during a 0-4 aggregate defeat to Preston North End (promoted at Wembley) where, in the first-leg face of an early onslaught and opening Beckford goal, they upped the speed of their game to play their best football of the season. An odd thing to say, perhaps, given their failure to score, but to watch them wrest control of the game from a big, strong, touch side which had finished 20 points above them in the regular season was amazing; moving, even. That this had all been achieved having sold 30-goal Doyle to Cardiff City in January, and him not being replaced, was absolutely startling.
But by the time the play-offs opened, Portsmouth had asked for permission for speak to CFC about making off with Paul Cook to the coast and Cook had taken to talking about “when, not if, I leave Chesterfield” in interviews. Odd, many of us thought: on the verge of Championship football, why drop down to League 2? It didn’t make sense. Surely his future would be in upwards direction!
Apparently not. Within a short time of Town losing at Deepdale, Cook was gone, and a chapter of club history was closed.
But the point about history is that it is contested terrain. There is no truth in the study of history, just individual versions of it. Although I think the above summary is pretty good, it’s the recent history of the club through my eyes, no-one else’s. Emphasizing this is the diverging reactions to Cook’s departure.
This reaction seems to have polarized into a binary, “Owner-made disaster” or “It’s over, we move on”, the latter tinged with “and he wasn’t that good anyway” or “he’s a deserter, don’t even mention his name”. Both are coping mechanisms for the most part, particularly for the latter group. Takers of this approach are also, naturally, members of the Let’s Give Dean Saunders A Chance Club. This flows organically from “drawing a line under the past” and while understandable if your main concern is avoiding therapy, as a serious approach to understanding football, it takes us nowhere.
Never having been a “happy clappy” fan where we go Ra-Ra-Chesterfield whatever’s happening at the executive end of things, I can only see our present situation as grim, having just thrown away the best opportunity to turn a lower division club into something far better. From one perspective, and certainly from mine, Chesterfield FC has been a failing football club for a very long time: since it was relegated from League Division 2 in 1951. Many undistinguished clubs normally associated with the grimy end of the Football League have been there since, including such great names as Scunthorpe United, Doncaster Rovers, Lincoln City and Stockport County. Our league position in May was our highest since 1981. That and the previous 1979-80 season were the only other where Chesterfield has finished in the 40s (out of 92) since fateful ’51. For us, the 2014-15 season was anything between really good and magnificent. So, it is surely impossible to argue that to lose its architect, Paul Cook, was a disaster. For while it is true that technically, anything can happen next season, the chances of the team ending up in the play-off positions are between small and non-existent. If we had replaced Cook with a manager with a track record of success, then this prognosis might be unduly pessimistic. If that manager had managed to maintained squad continuity, or even improved it, the disruption of a managerial change may have been minimal. But this has not happened: the Cook era has been truncated with ruthless finality. The structure he built has been completely dismantled and in its place is that of three-times-in-four-seasons relegated Dean Saunders. Two major components of the working machine have left, the sublimely artistic Roberts and the poor man’s Xavi Hernandez, Ryan. He has no managerial success save following a Doncaster Rovers demotion with half a season in the top two of the division below. Sorry, if any optimists are reading this, but that does precious little to rescue Saunders’ reputation. The only man interviewed for the position – “the only man I wanted” (Dave Allen) – his appointment is no more than a punt.
This is not how to run a football club in 2015.
[NEXT TIME: WHY DID COOK LEAVE? AND MORE ON HOW NOT TO RUN A FOOTBALL CLUB NEXT TIME]