AFC Fylde have done it the right way

It’s the business end of the season – well, in fact, some teams are already finished – and teams up and down the land are celebrating and commiserating at the end of a hard-fought campaign.

One team celebrating is AFC Fylde, who have been promoted to the National League for the first time in their history.

Formerly known as Kirkham & Wesham, the club based in Lancashire have gone on a meteoric rise through the non-leagues. BBC Sport did an article on them in the week (most media are only interested in non-league teams when they think they can get hits for it) and I must admit my response to their tweet was a touch on the facetious side.

However, since then, I’ve thought about that and it was perhaps a touch harsh, because AFC Fylde have made a far better fist of being minted in non-league football than many others before them.

Managed by Dave Challinor – who fans of a certain age will best remember for hurling footballs around for Tranmere Rovers long before Rory Delap made that fashionable – it has possibly been a longer road to the top flight of non-league football than they may have hoped.

They’ve lost in the play-offs in the past two seasons, but this year, they’ve finally made it.

But the project at AFC Fylde is not just about on the pitch. Their chairman David Haythornthwaite (belting name, by the way) has invested in the whole club. They have a new, purpose-built stadium, for a kick off, and their ambition has always been a long-term one. So good bloody luck to them.

At the other end of the same level of football sit Margate. Margate have been relegated from the National League South after a horrific season.

Gate are a club I have a real fondness for, having covered them for two seasons. I still know people at the club and to be honest I’m a bit annoyed at myself that I’ve only managed to see them play once this season – a 4-0 defeat at Ebbsfleet United back in August.

And while earlier on I praised Fylde for doing things the right way, I have to say that Gate did it all the wrong way – and are paying for it now.

They were bought by local businessman Bob Laslett in December 2013, and one of his first acts was to install Terry Brown as manager. Brown had success with AFC Wimbledon and Aldershot, and his appointment was a clear indicator that Laslett meant business.

It was too late for a promotion push in that first season, but they began the 2014/15 season as favourites for the title, having moved their training to London and cherry picked the best players from around the division – and even some from higher levels.

I started covering them that summer, and spoke to Laslett on a few occasions. Once he told me they could be “the next Southampton”. Ambitious, yes, but there is some potential in the area.

They eventually came third in the league, but snuck up through the play-offs. That summer, Brown signed a load more impressive players, some of them understood to be earning upwards of £800 a week – as part-time players. But while money was being thrown at things on the pitch, off it there was little progress. Thanet District Council probably didn’t help, but Hartsdown Park’s limited capacity was always going to hold Gate back. The matchday experience on a day where there was a big crowd wasn’t great, and average attendances never reached the levels they would have hoped for.

Maidstone United, just up the road, have taken a Fylde-like path, getting their new stadium in place first. They were promoted with Gate, but while they were getting crowds of more than 2,000 most weeks, Gate were getting around a third of that.

On the pitch, their new-look team wasn’t firing on many cylinders, and in December 2015 Brown was sacked, and replaced by Nikki Bull. Bull managed to rejuvenate the team and after a blistering start was named manager of the month and had Gate dreaming of the play-offs.

Away from the pitch though, all was not well. Laslett wasn’t at the games as often. I tried to call him a few times to get a story, but all I invariably found was his answerphone.

As these rumours started to whirr around, things on the pitch plummeted again, with defeat after defeat after defeat – and then in March, as top scorer Freddie Ladapo moved to Crystal Palace, it was confirmed that Laslett had left the club. The money that those players were earning simply wasn’t there any more. The club, so much potential and high hopes, was up against it.

In the end, a win over Hemel Hempstead in their penultimate game saved their skin, although not before a 2-0 defeat at Bath where Gate ended up keeping the ball in the corner to avoid conceding a third that would send them down.

Bull had a blank canvas in the summer. Not as much money to spend, but he worked hard recruiting top players. I was no longer covering them, but I was pretty sure they were going to be a force to be reckoned with.

I was wrong. They stuttered, and were pinning all of their hopes on a FA Cup run – but a defeat to Ryman Premier Harrow Borough, costing them a lucrative trip to Northampton, was the final straw. The squad was decimated, and Bull was left with no budget and a squad that would probably have struggled two leagues down.

Bull moved on before the relegation was confirmed, but under new boss Steve Watt – and with a takeover completed today – they can rebuild next year.

One team they will face in the Ryman Premier is Billericay Town, who have been taken over by Glenn Tamplin, and have already splashed plenty of cash. Jamie O’Hara and Paul Konchesky are the big names, but most of the rest of their squad has dropped down levels to play for them. Long-serving boss Craig Edwards has departed, with Tamplin taking charge until the end of the season.

The Blues are another club I’ve covered. Their stadium is about the same as Gate’s, and you can’t help fear that unless Tamplin can move forward with improving that, they too could end up hitting a wall and being unable to move on. And then where does that leave them? I get the temptation to sort the team out first – that’s the “sexy” stuff, I suppose, but without the infrastructure, that’s just a complete waste of time.

I’m pretty sure if you ask a Margate fan right now, they are quite happy to be free of the moneybags tag – and if they can have a settled season next year, there’s no reason why they can’t get back into the National League South… But ultimately they will need to sort out the stadium more than anything.

So, yes, Fylde have splashed the cash, but at least they’ve built something sustainable. Good luck to them as they try to take the next step.

Taking on the Football Manager “Fergie Challenge”

Football Manager blogs are all the rage these days. Sadly, in my house, Football Manager is not “all the rage” – unless you take that literally, because the very sight of a laptop and Football Manager can, in certain circumstances, lead to rage.

That is part of the reason that I don’t actually own FM17, the latest incarnation of the world’s best management sim. I used to spend hours playing these games, up into the wee small hours taking on the task at many different clubs.

Those days are long gone, but when I play, I do like to have something interesting to take on, so I decided to take on the “Fergie Challenge”. The premise is that you go on holiday until November 6, then take over the team next to bottom in the Premier League and try and make a dynasty, as Sir Alex Ferguson did at Manchester United.

I thought I’d try and make things a little tougher, so I went “on holiday” for a whole season from the start of FM16, setting my return date for November 6 2016.

So, the game ticked on as I sat there. Just who would be waiting for me?

Well, it was Burnley.

Obviously the Clarets had, just as in real life, got promoted in 2015/16, and were now in the top flight. The Clarets had got promoted in the game with just a handful of loan signings, and in the summer had added James Wilson and Chupa Akpom on loan, as well as splashing out on Jake Livermore and Idrissa Gueye. In real terms, the challenge shouldn’t have been too different from real life.

The big sticking point though was that when I took over – from Shaun Dyche – Burnley were in a right old state. From 14 matches, they had a whopping five points. FIVE. And a long way adrift already. The only reason they were 19th – and therefore the team I took over – was that Brentford, promoted with them, were even bloody worse.

The differences between the Fergie Challenge and actual Fergie soon became clear. When the Scot took over at Old Trafford he could make transfers straight away, pick any of the players at his disposal and was, after all, at a big club. What he didn’t have was the transfer window and two players not even registered to play. The two – Dyche’s only signing the previous year Bradley Dack and striker Ashley Barnes – both came to me within days to say they wanted more first-team football. Dack was happy to accept my very reasonable explanation that everyone would get a chance to impress in my regime. Barnes, however, got the hump and asked to be sold. So I put the wheels in motion to do just that, only for the massive pillock to refuse to agree personal terms with Red Bull Salzburg. Tosser.

On the pitch, I stopped a five-game losing run at the first attempt, drawing 1-1 with Southampton, before in the next game moving on to nine points by dismantling Brentford 3-0. Easy this… Or not. I lost the next four, while also spending time trying to reshape a squad that was paying massively over-inflated wages to bang average players who were nowhere near the first XI. Sadly, I completed this task too late to actually bring anyone of note in during the transfer window.

The squad was uninspiring at best. No offence to them, but Scott Arfield and George Boyd are not the sort of wingers I like in my FM sides. I want pace. I’ve tinkered with formations, but I can’t seem to get the best out of these players.

After beating Carlisle in the FA Cup, we had a week to remember in late January as we hit five two games running, beating West Ham and Leicester City 5-0 and 5-2 respectively. I was still a long way from safety, but if we’d kept that up, the best escape act since I kept Hearts up from minus 15 points on FM14 was in sight. I went on to win the league with them.

Sadly, there was to be no repeat. Eight dismal defeats in a row put us on the brink, a win over Swansea – who could have been caught if, you know, you believed in bloody miracles – gave us a bit of hope, and a 3-3 draw at Watford where we never trailed but ended up hanging on with ten men after Gueye’s red card kept us mathematically alive.

Taking the lead at Southampton gave us some more hope, but losing 5-2 put the nail in the coffin.

The relegation being confirmed led to a revolt. Tom Heaton, Michael Keane and Arfield all wanted to go straight away. We beat Brentford again, and as the season came to a close, the board suddenly decided they hated me. I was called to two meetings in two weeks to discuss my future. At the second of them, I was ordered to get nine points in the next five games or I was gone.

The summer was brilliant fun. I sold and bought an entire squad. I had money to spend, and although I don’t normally, I splashed the cash. The wage bill was fun to play with as well. Heaton replaced by a keeper on £30k a week. Ki arrived from Chelsea, wages of £63k. They weren’t alone. I had built a squad more than capable of not just getting straight back, but winning the Championship at a canter.

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I spent a while planning what formations might work for this squad. When I got back to it, I’d lost a key man – attacking midfielder Marco Djuricin – to injury for five weeks, but I had the strength to deal with that.

Or so I thought. We opened the season at Leeds United, and were handed our backsides on a plate, losing by five goals to nil. The tough start continued against Crystal Palace, and we lost that one too, 2-1.

Next up, in a continuation of that tricky start, were my old mates Brentford. I’ve beaten them every time… But not this time. A 1-1 draw. Remember that ultimatum? Yep. That one. Yep. Sacked. Game over.

I left it running for a bit until I got another job. By that time – I was at struggling Brighton in late November – the Clarets were up to sixth. I may well have created that Ferguson dynasty… I’m just not there to oversee it.

Spurs stuck in a middle ground

They may have breezed through in the FA Cup, but the 3-0 win over Fulham ended a pretty ropey week for Spurs.

Beaten by Liverpool, and losing the first leg of a Europa League clash they don’t really want to be in, Spurs needed a pick-me-up. Harry Kane’s hat-trick did that, but I reckon Spurs are a team stuck in the middle.

I feel a bit of an affinity for Spurs. I don’t support a specific team. I haven’t done for five years now (long story, which most people who know me closely are aware of), but Spurs are a side I’ve always had a soft spot for.

It started after Italia 90 I guess, when Gazza and Gary Lineker were among the England heroes who reached the last four. Sitting with two Spurs fans either side of me in my last job also helped. There’s something about them, and their propensity for snatching failure from the jaws of success is something I feel an empathy towards. Mercurial players have always been a big part of life at White Hart Lane and that gives them a touch of magic.

But here’s the thing – Spurs have got good now. Very good – but somehow they keep coming up short. They came third in a two-horse title race last year. For all of the glamour of Leicester City’s title win, Spurs really had their best chance to win the title in decades. Yet they not only blew it, they managed to blow up so spectacularly that the Arsenal fans still got to have their St Totteringham’s Day.

Spurs are so close, but they need to go to the next level. But what is currently their greatest strength is what is most definitely their greatest weakness as they look to push on.

Spurs’ strength is their starting XI, which is definitely in the top two in the Premier League. There’s not a lot of players in other first-choice XIs who you would say could improve those players who make up Mauricio Pochettino’s side.

But that means the problem is that when Spurs want to improve their squad, you either have to be an exceptional talent to dislodge one of those in that first XI, or be happy being on the bench. When the transfer window is open, Spurs aren’t being linked with the elite players, and their improvement in recent years means that despite their stature, impressive new stadium and excellent squad, they are still viewed as less of a draw than sides they have finished above for a few seasons.

Pochettino has shown in the past few years that he can improve players and sell them on for a profit – as Southampton and one of those clubs Spurs keep finishing above can testify. But now he’s at a club that doesn’t want to be a selling club. It’s a club who wants to challenge for the title, go far in the Champions League and maybe even reach a first FA Cup final for the first time in 26 years.

And that’s why the likes of Georges-Kevin N’Koudou are finding it tough to make the breakthrough, as Clinton N’Jie did before him. Moussa Sissoko is a decent player, but the only other competition for his vastly overpriced move were Everton. Spurs are now higher than that level – that top half, challenging for Europe mentality is what they had, but now they need to push on.

In attack is their biggest problem area. Kane is magnificent, and keeps on getting better. He is the perfect fit for Spurs’ shape and formation, but as soon as he is out, they have nowhere to turn. Vincent Janssen arrived from the Dutch league with a big reputation, but the expectation was for him to hit the ground running – but only as a back-up. Kane’s early season injury gave him a chance, but he’s not the first man to find the step up to the Premier League tough going – and now he is left feeding off rare appearances from the bench to try and build up some confidence.

But that goes back to the same problem for Spurs. Who are they going to get in to provide competition for Kane or who would be happy playing second fiddle to him? It’s a big issue as their results away at the other big clubs are what is ultimately holding them back.

It’s a problem I’m sure Pochettino and those in the Spurs hierarchy are desperate to solve – and one they’ll definitely want fixed by the time their new stadium is completed in 2018…

TV Times

Football on TV has become a talking point in the past week or so, not least because Sky have reported a slump in viewing figures this season.

The 19 per cent drop was announced last week and certainly raised a few eyebrows – but if you think about it, the clues were there. Special offers aplenty being advertised, their on-demand services being offered to customers from other suppliers and the massive furore they made over Red Monday, which turned out to be more like Dead Monday.

I’m not a Sky customer anymore. Fittingly, the Virgin Media men were in my house arranging my exit from Sky as David Cameron quit as PM following the EU Referendum result. I didn’t actually leave Sky because of the cost, or the TV, but because of their god awful broadband service, and even worse customer service, which included one braindead operator advising me that my wifi would suddenly stop being disgraceful if I moved the router into the middle of the room, and another asking me if the washing machine may be affecting it.

With Virgin, I still have Sky and I also have the added bonus of BT Sport as well. But despite this plethora of Premier League live TV options, I don’t think I’ve watched a full game all season. Part of that is down to my own circumstances, and the fact that as I’ve got older, I’ve not felt the interest I once had in professional football, but at the same time, it’s down to the product.

Super Sunday last week comprised of Middlesbrough v Watford and Southampton v Burnley. No disrespect to any of those clubs, but, well, there’s nothing super about that line-up in the slightest. Then again, 24 hours later we had Manchester United’s trip to Liverpool, the fabled Red Monday, which turned out to be even bloody worse.

The excellent Football 365 summed it up pretty well, and I think the points I made about why England are so crap also ring true here. Entertainment isn’t the aim of the game anymore – not losing is. Jose Mourinho got dog’s abuse for how he set up his United side at Anfield, but in the current climate, that has to be seen as a good result for United.

Gary Neville was also on form with his comments about a picture of a section of Liverpool fans taking pictures of the Manchester United boss. Sometimes you just wonder if the money has gone into the game and ripped the heart of it. Liverpool v United was always a massive game when I was growing up, passion in the stands and on the pitch. Nowadays, it’s just not the same.

The last TV deal was mammoth. It works out at around £113,000 a minute. When I posted this Tweet, I got some flak because of the teams I mentioned, but, jeez, I wasn’t wrong, was I?

It’s not good value for Sky and it’s not good value for the customers paying £100 a month either. That’s a lot of money for a lot of people, and all the time there is a sub-standard product being served up, that’s going to be the case.

The fact there are two TV deals is madness as well. I get the need for competition, of course, but the only people who lose out are the fans. When it was just Sky, it was a lot more manageable than it has been since you needed two subscriptions to watch all the football. The same has happened with cricket too – BT Sport are showing the next Ashes – and it’s always the customer who loses out.

It’s a never-ending cycle though. The money goes into the game, the passion goes out of it. Is the bubble going to burst? Ever? I don’t know.

The other thing I was going to mention was El Clasico. A game that until, what, 15 years ago, no-one in England really gave two hoots about. But now everyone cares, especially when it was announced that the first one of the season won’t be shown on British TV because it kicks off at 3pm (our time) on a Saturday. Another blow for Sky…

But it flags up an old rule which causes much consternation. No live football can be shown in this country at 3pm on a Saturday – the traditional time that most matches still start at.

There were some excellent points made in the debate around this – and the other issue of Sky’s dwindling viewing audiences – not least by this Liverpool fan (and I don’t like to agree with Liverpool fans at the best of times) who I assume means “streaming”.

As someone who has watched a lot of lower-league football in my life and a load of non-league in the past three years, it’s an issue I find interesting. I genuinely don’t think in this day and age, it would be such a big deal. The modern way of social media and smartphones means that goals and highlights can be seen in an instant. I have Match of the Day series linked out of habit – in truth, it’s something to delete later in the week. If I want to see a goal, I can watch it on my phone, or on Sky Sports News. When I do watch MOTD, I only watch the games. I barely bother with the dull interviews, and never with the punditry.

And that’s another thing – the level of punditry in this country is at an all-time low. All these people are getting slated for their dull views, but still the likes of Owen and Savage get work. I’ve done a few bits of radio summarising in the past year or so and I enjoy it, I think I’m not boring and I certainly don’t just state the bloody obvious at times as so many do.

But, hey, I’m just a journalist, what do I know?!

Will the transfer window save managers?

This time last year, three managers had been sacked in the Football League. Two more followed on September 28. In all, 32 out of the 92 clubs in the Football League and Premier League had made a change by the end of December – most of them sacked.

Yesterday – September 26 – saw the first managerial departure of this season when Andy Hessenthaler left Leyton Orient. The Os are 14th in League Two, certainly worse off than they might have expected to be, and Francesco Becchetti is hardly immune to making the odd change or two – Hessenthaler was the fifth to leave Brisbane Road in just over two years – so perhaps it was always on the cards.

But are there many other twitchy trigger fingers out there? This time around, I’m not so sure.

In the past, the loan window must have made a change of manager more appealing. The players not up to it? Well, change the manager, let him loan some in and see what he can do. That was certainly the case at Hessenthaler’s old club Gillingham in 2007, when Mark Stimson took over in November and promptly signed more than a handful of his former players on loan. They still went down, mind.

But this year, that’s not an option. Once the transfer window slammed shut, that was it. You have the players you’ve got and that’s that. The only out-of-work managers who can surely have any sort of chance are the type who will come in and reinvigorate what’s already there. And I’m guessing that most managers capable of that sort of turnaround are already gainfully employed somewhere.

So does that mean that instead of a third of clubs in the top four divisions changing manager by the time the new calendars are on the walls, we might see a bit more patience?

It might well make for a more interesting period with chairmen and boards who have backed their managers in the summer – which they had to do anyway to make sure they had a big enough squad to cope – are surely going to give them the time to turn it around with their own players.

Some – the LMA, I’m sure – have long said there is a need for a transfer window for managers, which is, frankly, absolute piffle. If the rot has set in, who wants to see it continue until a cut-off date determined elsewhere?

But in a time where managerial spells have become shorter than ever, the FIFA-enforced transfer window may just have forced a positive change.