Monday, 5 November 2012

I would love it if we beat them...

In October 2007, when John Ward walked out on Cheltenham Town after the defeat at Port Vale, I was the sports editor of the Gloucestershire Echo.
That night was a busy, and a memorable one. I left the office at 4am after re-arranging the paper to get news of the exit, reaction and a match report on the Vale loss into the paper.
Nights like that were why I loved doing that job, and why I wish I was still doing it.
The following morning, we sat down and came up with a list of other potential candidates for the job, aside from the man left in caretaker charge, Keith Downing.
One name stood out on that list we drew up - Martin Allen.
He was available as he had just left Leicester after only four games in charge, his dad used to manage the club, he had done well at Barnet and Brentford - he seemed an ideal candidate.
I phoned him up to sound him out. He said he couldn't talk about it as he was still negotiating a settlement from Leicester - but reading between the lines, he was interested.
I then wrote a piece for the paper championing him for the job. Looking back, it is the one article in 20-plus years of journalism that I regret sitting down to write.
We also ran a online poll. About 80 per cent of those who voted (about 1,000) plumped for Allen to get the job. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and as we know, Keith Downing got the nod this time.
He was too much of a gentleman to ever say it to me, but I don't think he really forgave me for writing that piece - effectively I was saying he should not be given the job.
But he was, and when we beat Doncaster to stay up in League One, I sought him out in the Nest bar, apologised for writing that piece, and thanked him for keeping us up.
The start of the 2008-9 season was a difficult one. We conceded four goals against Northampton on the opening day, then at home to Leicester, at Oldham, and finally - fatally for Keith - at Hartlepool on a Friday night.
I recall seeing him walking across the Victoria Park pitch after that game, looking a haunted figure. It was also the night Michael Townsend became embroiled in an argument with fans at the final whistle.
Myself and some friends were in Edinburgh the following day, watching Hibs play Dundee United. In the pub before the game, the news came through that Keith had gone. It wasn't a great surprise.
Post-match, in the same pub, we got the news that Allen had been appointed as the new manager. That was more of a surprise - not in the person who was appointed, but more with the speed it was done.
Paul Baker described him as the fans' choice, citing the Echo poll from a year before. Hard though it may be now, it is difficult to argue with the chairman's assessment.
None of us had any idea of the rollercoaster which we had just boarded.
We knew Allen was eccentric in his methods, as there had been stories from Barnet and Brentford.
The 'Mad Dog' moniker should have been a warning for us, and you are left to wonder now if we investigated why he left Leicester so abruptly.
The gimmicks started almost straight away - at his press conference, the phone rang halfway through, and we were told it was Gary Johnson confirming the loan signing of Scott Murray (a deal which Keith Downing had already put in motion, but Allen hijacked and tried to take the credit for).
Then the press corps were marched outside, and Allen had photos taken by a sign saying 'Safety Officer'. Apparently that was him. He was going to take us to safety. Right...
Murray's arrival was the first of a ridiculous stream of arrivals. Loan signing after loan signing after loan signing came in.
We could only play five in the matchday squad of 18, and at one point we had nine of them on the books.
In the meantime, the players he inherited at the club were marginalised, transfer-listed, alienated, discarded.
There were substitutions 15 or 20 minutes into games, four or five team and positional changes from match to match, players being transfer-listed one day and then taken off the list the next, and staff members (notably Bob Bloomer) were summarily dispensed with.
Players were selected for a game or two, talked up by the manager, and then dropped just as quickly, and some of these loans were not cheap, despite the manager alleging that they were 'free'.
Some of them were good players - James Wesolowski (before he got injured at Tranmere), Murray and Ian Westlake were three I can recall - others were not... Tom Denton, Lathaniel Rowe-Turner and Johnny Hayes particularly spring to mind from the pit of mediocrity.
As well as the loans, we had the likes of Elvis Hammond, Barry Hayles and Darren Kenton arriving as he carried on trying to ship out more of the players he inherited.
Townsend went to Barnet, Allen wanted Shane Duff to go to Northampton, and Lloyd Owusu had to be shipped off to Brighton, and he also blooded several youth teamers long before they were ready. Some of them were out of their depth and never recovered.
Tales emerged that the dressing room atmosphere was not the best - on the terraces and elsewhere within the club it wasn't much better either.
Results were shocking - after a 2-1 win at Orient in December, we didn't win for 16 games.
There were stories of unconventional training methods, notably before the FA Cup replay at Doncaster where he allegedly had Lee Ridley throwing pieces of toast across for Ashley Vincent to head at a TV playing the part of a goal.
The story gets even more surreal when, after spotting Ridley was throwing the toast right handed, he was ordered to do it with his left, as he is left-footed. You just couldn't make it up. I am not.
It was gimmick after gimmick, signing after signing, and in the meantime our club was suffering, becoming more of a laughing stock from day to day.
There was the dressing down in the layby after the defeat at Hereford and fans being press-ganged into giving the team a pep talk...and don't even get me started on the dog or the increasingly tedious 'Martin's Message' appearing on the website or in our e-mail inbox every week.
After games, we never knew what to expect, and what mood he would be in. Wins could be followed by us being told the players were terrible and some of them would be transfer-listed - defeats by a staunch belief that his team was brilliant.
We were frequently admonished for 'negative questioning' - even on that run of winless games where there was absolutely nothing to be positive about, and at these press conferences, his 'stooge' Alistair Smith was a constant presence, for some reason or other. No-one really knew exactly why he was there or what his role was.
One thing we did know was that there would be at least four changes to the side and loan signing or two arriving in time for the next game.
We were careering back to League Two at express pace. The efforts of Ward and Downing in keeping us in League One were being wasted - as was the club's money.
It was being spent like water, so we were heading for administration as well.
Yes, the board can take some of the blame for allowing that to happen, and Paul Baker has subsequently acknowledged their culpability - but Allen is equally, if not more, to blame.
Every time a player came in, we were told by the manager that he was 'free'. No wages to pay, not costing us a penny. However, invoices for their wages would still come in...
More than half-century of players used in season 2008-9 is a stark statistic. No consistency in selection and low dressing room morale = relegation.
We even ran out of some numbers to print on the back of shirts. I think we got up to squad number 54 - it was an utter joke.
The start of the following season (after we had been told to expect a play-off/promotion challenge) was not much better, and after the 2-1 home defeat by Macclesfield he was gone, much to everyone's relief.
Any alleged off-field incidents are an aside. Woeful results on the pitch (13 wins in 61 games and 29 defeats) were sufficient for him to get the sack. If anything, he should have gone earlier.
Rumour has it that the board wanted to sack him after the 4-0 loss at Leicester in March 2009, but we had to put up with him for another seven months.
By the time he did go, we had only won three games on our return to League Two, Grimsby on the opening day, and at Bury and Rochdale, with last minute goals.
The low point was his penultimate game, the 4-0 defeat at Accrington. In my 32 years watching this club I have never seen a CTFC team surrender so meekly.
Poor Sam Cox ended up at centre-half on his only appearance for us - he is five foot six or seven - and that was the final straw for many... I have never heard or seen such venom thrown at a CTFC manager after a game as I did that day. That game sums up the disorganised chaos of the Allen era.
We were in a mess, and after John Schofield tried to steady the ship, Mark Yates came in to try to sort the shambles out.
This Christmas will be third anniversary of Yatesy's arrival, yet only now do you really feel that the club has come out of the other side.
The remainder of that season was spent making sure we didn't lose our league status, the second season was stabilisation as the financial position was worked on, last season was exceptional and this one has started well.
Only Scott Brown remains from the legions of players Allen used in his time here, and thankfully we have our club back now, and it is in a much healthier state on and off the field.
We have had a lucky escape.
Gillingham fans need to understand we are not jealous of their league position, and we have nothing against them as a club.
He has started well at Priestfield, but this is a man who brought our club to its knees, and nearly destroyed its whole fabric, and tried to ruin an ethos which took more than 120 years to establish.
The board were culpable for appointing him and for not saying 'no' to his ridiculous recruitment policy, but they soon realised the error of their ways and sought on a few occasions to cut things short.
Nothing Martin Allen did here was for the good of Cheltenham Town - it was all for the benefit of Martin Allen, his profile and his ego.
Some fans thought it was great that he was appearing in the nationals and on Sky Sports a lot - but he never talked about Cheltenham Town, just about himself.
I was delighted when Bobby Gould resigned. He did the honourable thing and walked when he knew his time was up, but Allen had no honour and no class, he just carried on wrecking the club from within.
Gillingham fans - things are going well for you at the moment, so enjoy it while it lasts.
We thought things were rosy early on in Allen's reign here, but it quickly turned rotten (see also Leicester and Notts County).
That's why I want to win on Tuesday, as much as I have ever wanted to win a match... I would just love it.