Jack Peat set out to tackle this season’s most pressing question; why weren’t Rovers relegated sooner?
In all my years of watching Rovers, I can recall only a handful that have felt as abysmal as this one. Indeed, off-field matters excluded, this has probably been the worst. Performances both home and away have been uninspiring. Players have struggled to gel. Any positive moments have been fleeting and all too often dissipated in the same puff of smoke in which they appeared. It has been tough, and few people reading these pages will need reminding of that, but what has been most perplexing of all in my view is that we weren’t put out of our misery sooner.
This season League One has been a tale of two poles. At the top are six teams that would all be occupying third place or better based on last year’s standings. At the bottom, six teams that, by the same method, would have been comfortably relegated with games to spare. But with one game left in the season (at the time of writing) Rovers are still in with an unrealistic but mathematical chance of staying up, which is frankly mad.
To figure out why we haven’t been cast adrift sooner, I talked to fans from across the bottom six to see whether there are crossovers, shared learnings, or whether we are all just as uniquely crap as each other. Here’s what I found out.
Pigott and Palmer – The talismen
Sam Neve works for LEGO and lives 86 seconds away from his season ticket seat at Plough Lane. His commute is fair, for London, and he’s a dab hand at Wordle, if his Twitter profile is to be believed. So all in Sam’s world is well, except, that is, for the fact that his football team is about to be relegated for the first time in their history, and it’s all thanks to two men; Joe Pigott and Ollie Palmer.
In July, ahead of the 2021-22 season, Pigott hammered the first nail into AFC Wimbledon’s coffin by announcing his intention to leave the club for the bright lights of Portman Road and Ipswich. The striker, who netted the first goal at the new Plough Lane Stadium against our fine selves said it was the ‘toughest decision’ of his career not to renew his contract at the end of the season, not least because of the strong partnership he had developed with his co-talisman, Ollie Palmer.
It fell on Palmer’s shoulders to maintain the club’s attacking style of play at the start of the season, which he did admirably for the first few months. Flanked by youngsters Jack Rudoni, Ayoub Assal and Luke McCormick (average age of 21) they staged an admiral comeback win at the Keepmoat in August and went on to put some good, high-scoring results together, including a 4-3 win at Morecambe, a 3-1 home win against Oxford and another impressive comeback to get a point against Wednesday after trailing 2-0 with 20 minutes to go.
But in January, Palmer was wooed by the bright light of Hollywood and Wrexham, where Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney had taken over as owners and (seemingly) inspired a surge up the league to put the club within touching distance of the automatic promotion spot, along with a day out at Wembley in the FA Trophy. Palmer signed for Wrexham for a club record fee of £300,000 and has scored 11 goals in 15 appearances.
Wimbledon, meanwhile, have been unable to replace either player and their over-reliance on youth has seen the wheels come off. In January, they scored two goals in seven games, a far sight from the club that was netting at least three a game at the start of the season (they scored 12 in three games at one point in September). So far this year, they have been unable to win a single game, losing 3-1 to bottom-of-the-table Crewe and conceding a late goal at home to Milton Keynes to surrender a slender lead. At the end of March Mark Robinson was sacked following a disastrous run of 20 games without a win that had left the club in the relegation zone. His replacement, Mark Bowen, has failed to turn things around. He, like Gary McSheffrey, now faces the prospect of rejuvenating a team without a spine, and stop the rot in the process.
Momentum (with a small M)
Matt has been watching Gillingham at Priestfield since 1989 when he was a wee boy and the club was regularly plying its trade in the fourth tier. Since then, he has had season tickets and followed the club up and down the country as well as hosting the podcast GillsInTheBlood, “so no, I wouldn’t put myself in the casual fan category”, he tells me, “I’m more the long-suffering idiot sort, probably”.
Three years of Steve Evans had solidified Gillingham’s standing as one of the longest-serving League One clubs, living a sort of purgatory existence with no threat of promotion and no real threat of relegation either. But signs started to emerge towards the end that he’d either “lost the plot or lost the dressing room”, Matt said – or both, I thought – and he was sacked by the club in January following a 4-0 loss to Ipswich Town (two less than the six we shipped against them).
If there was one word that could explain Gillingham’s position at the start of the year it would be momentum, or lack thereof. It was a Tuesday evening in October that I went to see Rovers lose 1-0 in an uninspiring game that lacked clear-cut opportunities at either end. There was, as I noted at the time, mistakes galore, sloppiness in abundance and, probably understandably, given the run both teams had been on, a lack of killer instinct. Since then, Gillingham picked up just three points until the start of February, all drab draws, with a scarcity of goals plunging them into the depths of the relegation zone.
But momentum can both giveth and taketh away, and the appointment of Neil Harris has turned the club’s fortunes around and put them in a good position to build on next year. “I never saw it coming”, Matt says. “I thought we were going down and we’d be planning for next season in League Two”. But Harris went back to basics, he worked out that the Gills weren’t big scorers so sured up the defence and that resulted in a run of clean sheets that, crucially, put points on the board.
“It’s a staggering turn around with the same group of players,” Matt said, and not before time too.
The EFL’s Covid-19 emergency loan fund
In October of 2020, with fans barred from stadiums and pennies drying up for football clubs up and down the country, Fleetwood Town became one of eight clubs to receive money from the EFL’s emergency loan fund to prevent them from going bust. Trouble is, loans have to be repaid, and when they (understandably) came up short they were hit with a transfer embargo, joining Derby, Hull, Reading, Gillingham, Oldham, Scunthorpe and Swindon as a club forced to rely on free transfers and loans, so long as the wages of new players didn’t exceed £2,500 a week.
A fun fact about that is, of the eight clubs penalised by the EFL, seven of them have found themselves in a relegation scrap this season, with Swindon the only exception, currently mid-table in League Two. So for Ben, of Cods Vlogs, there was a degree of inevitability about the position Fleetwood Town now find themselves in. “I think it’s been a poor season, it was always going to be,” he said, with the limits placed on players kneecapping a club that already has its work cut out at this level.
A lot of the restrictions placed on Fleetwood barely make sense. “I’m a fan and I still can’t get my head around it,” Ben says, adding that there should have been more help to protect clubs in their position. “I don’t think they get enough funding as it is,” he says, before making a passing reference to their ‘sugar daddy’ owner Andy Pilley who is thought to have pumped in as much as £20 million into the club, legitimately or not, that has provided a state-of-the-art training ground, gym and a good youth academy.
Like Wimbledon, Fleetwood are not accustomed to being relegated having become a mainstay in the Football League since winning promotion from the Conference in 2012. It raises questions over their ‘bounce back ability’, which is of concern to Ben. League Two certainly isn’t beneath them, so to speak, but with sanctions still in place it could be a slippery slope for the Cod Army.
Glue, or lack thereof
“We haven’t won enough games this season”, Morecambe FC manager Derek Adams told reporters ahead of a crunch weekend for the Shrimps in April, saying a lack of victories “has to change if they are to remain a League One club.”
That level of insight can’t be bought, but Adams wasn’t wrong. Morecambe had only bagged two wins in 2022 at that point and, like others around them, were desperately in need of some momentum. Dave Salmon, of ShrimpsLive and iFollow, said a combination of things had created that dismal run, but changing their manager midway through the season didn’t help, with Stephen Robinson heading up to Scotland to manage St Mirren.
“But I think ultimately, as the season has gone by, we have to hold our hands up. Yes, we’ve been really unlucky, but the table doesn’t lie,” Salmon says, noting that Morecambe are the only club to have conceded more goals than Doncaster (87, at the time of writing, versus 81), which is hard to reconcile.
Another issue has been the glue, or lack thereof. Like many clubs at this level, the squad is a mishmash of seasoned pros, young loanees and lower-league punts which has been assembled very quickly over the summer. “So all that means it takes a lot of time to gel,” Salmon says, “it doesn’t matter how good the individual players are, if they haven’t all played together before it takes time”, both to bond and adapt to new styles of play.
Like Rovers, they have lost key players and not adequately replaced them. Defender Samuel Lavelle signed for Charlton and Carlos Mendes Gomes was bagged by Luton, and just like that *clicks fingers* your spine is gone. Building back for Adams won’t just be about ‘winning games’. It will be about getting the glue back.
It’s not hard to spot parallels with Rovers current dilemma. On the first count, an ever-changing squad has left us bereft of talismen and without a spine, a trend exacerbated by Tom Anderson’s long-term injury. It was, perhaps, a big ask for Richie Wellens to glue together nine new faces on the starting day of the new season, and it’s not unforeseeable that Gary McSheffrey will have to do the same again come the start of next season.
Momentum has been missing since Darren Moore and Ben Whiteman upped sticks half way through the 2020-21 season. The last time we saw back-to-back wins in the league was in March 2021, with the only back-to-back wins in all competitions coming against Scunthorpe, who are about to be relegated out of the League.
No one reason can explain why this has been such a woeful run for Rovers, but we certainly are contending with a number of big issues shared by other clubs in similar positions. By rights, the bottom six should be going down this year. We can only hope that our proven ‘bounce back ability’ will see us return in better shape in the not too distant future.
by Jack Peat
This article first appeared in print in issue 108 of popular STAND fanzine, which was published on 9 May 2022