The thing with football fanzines is that they tend to be much easier to write when things are going badly. You’ve more material. More frustration and anger to channel. So with that in mind, it’s a long time since we’ve had it this good.
Comparisons have been drawn with 1997-98. I say comparison, I mean exaggerations. Things are not that bad. They’ll never be that bad again. If you’re older than 32 and claiming this to be the worst season you’ve ever seen, then you’re sabotaging your own argument, or more concerningly, you really believe the Esdaille brothers could do a job in this team. We’re bad, but we’re not mock funeral processions to the ground bad. Nor are we hand over the reins to a football agent and his murky world, bad.
But as I said in our last issue, for a club like ours, championing the idea that things could be much worse is a somewhat hollow reassurance. Our benchmark for that is just too low. It’s like sitting in a damp, blackened shell of what your house used to be and saying ‘Hey, at least we’re not on fire anymore’. We may not be at out nadir, but it’s little comfort as degrees of bleakness go.
If you want a more realistic, but no less concerning, comparison then I think you have to look at the second half of the last season we tumbled out of this division. An unfathomably bad run of 17 games without a win that took us from mid-table and whispers of play-off chances to relegation. It was a run during which we looked disjointed on the field, lacking in consistency and confidence, and the longer it went on, the harder it was to see us kicking the habit of defeat. Sound familiar?
There are two key differences now, between that season and this. One is that, at the time of writing, there are still 27 league games to turn it round, and the other is that the club have taken the step of relieving the manager presiding over the run of his duties. Richie Wellens’ sacking came three and a half days before this issue went to the printers; time enough for a hasty rewrite of this editorial, and a re-questioning of our Fan Panel, but probably not enough space for fully reasoned reflection.
Wellens was put in charge of a rebuilding job, and whilst he was correctly viewing that as a long-term project, you can only really expect to be given that length of time if the short-term shows signs of what you’re striving for. From recruitment to formation to tactics, nothing has really hinted at where Wellens ultimately wanted to take us, and though he talked a good game, and I don’t doubt his heart was very much in it, that is where he fell down.
‘From recruitment to formation to tactics, nothing has really hinted at where Wellens ultimately wanted to take us, and that is where he fell down.’
It’s much easier to buy into a long-term ideal if you can see the shoots of what’s being grown. Sean O’Driscoll’s opening games here were woeful too, but we could see what he was trying to do and that bought him the time to deliver it. For all Wellens’ positivity in interviews, including with us in issue 105, I’ve still no real idea of what he was hoping to do. Couple that with a terrible record on the field thus far – even allowing for injuries – and it’s hard to argue the case that he should’ve been given longer than he was. I’m a big believer in giving managers time, and I’m never one to celebrate a sacking, but this certainly felt like the right time to act, for everyone concerned.
A lot of accusing fingers have been pointed at the board for Wellens’ appointment, and that of Darren Moore previously. Of the four permanent managerial appointments the current board has presided over, the only one to be really questioned at the point of appointment was Grant McCann… and he proved the most successful; steering a swashbuckling side to a play-off semi-final and our best ever FA Cup run. Things under Moore may have been on the turn at the point of his leap into the Hillsborough fire, Wellens may have underwhelmed, but very few felt they were the wrong appointment at the point these two men were sat among red seats holding scarves above their head. If the board is only criticised when we start losing games then they’re probably not the issue. I appreciate that not everyone feels that way.
More than anything we’re in a Catch-22 situation; we all want to see the club led by a good ambitious young manager. But the problem with appointing managers like that is that they’re ambitious, and good. So when things go well, and bigger clubs start fluttering their eyelashes in their direction, they don’t treat them mean to keep them keen, but strip off their Rovers tie and hop straight into bed. Such is our lot as a third tier side that if we foster talent either on the field or in the dugout in a season without getting promoted then we’re going to lose those individuals. That’s not a failure of the board, nor is it a lack of ambition, it’s a consequence of modern circumstances.
As for what comes next, who knows. Ordinarily I wouldn’t baulk at the idea of a season in the fourth tier – it’s the level the club were at when they first entered my consciousness – but with the contracts dished out at the start of this campaign relegation now would have a much greater impact than it did in 2016. It’s hard to envisage us bouncing back with such confident ease this time round.
So whoever comes in has a two-pronged remit; first off, steady the ship and keep us up. And then get back to building something afresh from there. It’s not an impossible job, but it’s not an easy one either. As enthusiastic an evangelist for football’s aesthetics as I am, it’s hard to maintain that ethos when we’re clearly in need of some real horrible players to help bludgeon our way back into competitiveness. It won’t be pretty to watch, but anything that makes fanzine writing hard again will be welcome at this point.
by Glen Wilson
This piece first featured as the editorial of issue 106 of print fanzine popular STAND.