Monday, 27 April 2015

The blame game

So that's it then.
There was no great escape, no reprieve, and we have got exactly what we deserved. Many of us have known deep down for weeks, even months, that it was coming - but that doesn't make it any less heartbreaking.
No team with five wins in 39 games and one clean sheet in seven months deserves to stay up, and it's not bad luck, injuries or referees who have relegated us, it is stunning ineptitude on and off the field.
So who is to blame? That's the question which many CTFC fans are asking, and they will all have different answers - the players, the board, the managers... the truth is it is a combination of things which have culminated in this devastating blow to our football club.
The players
Ultimately, the performances of the vast majority of the 41 players we have used this season have been well below the standard required to keep us in this division. Well below.
Managers can train them and fill them with as much information as they like, but once they cross the white line, they take the responsibility, and they have fallen well short.
Too often, they have lacked the mental strength and the will to go that extra mile, put their bodies on the line and just fight tooth and nail for 90 minutes every week for the shirt they are wearing.
That attitude was shown on Saturday after the final whistle. Only four players could be bothered to face the supporters - Joe Hanks, Trevor Carson, Matt Gould and Shaun Harrad. One of those hasn't played a game, one of the others is a loanee.
I don't tar the younger guys with this brush, players like Zack and Omari, and guys who were on the bench, but the more senior players amongst the squad should be ashamed of themselves.
They should have been told to get out there and face the music. Face the supporters they have let down time and time again.
There are some among this group that I never want to see again and I cannot wait for the day when our football club does not have to pay them a wage. They don't deserve to make a living from the hard-earned money our supporters pay for their season tickets.
Short-changed doesn't even begin to describe how much they have been let down, not just this season, but for the last two - and I have to admit I was not surprised that there were some angry scenes in the car park after the game.
I am not condoning those actions at all, I hate to see that sort of thing - but I can understand people who have spent a lot of money going up and down the country being frustrated at what they saw as some players trying to sneak out with no regard for those they have let down. Maybe they could have channelled it better.
But I feel that if the players had faced the music, bitten the bullet and been a bit humble after the game by facing the fans, those scenes may have been avoided.
Haring off down the tunnel (invading Shrewsbury fans or not - that's no excuse and some of them made it to the fans) only stoked up the frustration of many.
It only added to the impression that they don't care. I know some do (I saw Wes Burns in tears by the dugout) but some of them have just treated the supporters with utter disdain.
Not fit to wear the shirt? Most of them simply are not.
Player recruitment
Turn the clock back to January 28, 2012. On that day, we travelled to Moss Rose, Macclesfield, and won 3-1 to go top of League Two. The only thoughts that day would have been about a future in League One.
That's where we should have ended up, but unfortunately that was to be the pinnacle for us and it has been a slippery slope since then.
Our team that day? - It was Brown, Jombati, Garbutt, Lowe, Bennett, Pack, Smikle, McGlashan, Summerfield, Goulding, Mohamed. The bench was Hooman, Low, Spencer, Duffy and Penn. Steve Elliott was injured and was also in the squad.
It goes without saying that most of those players would walk into this team now - even the ones like Junior Smikle, Jeff Goulding and Josh Low who weren't universal crowd favourites would undoubtedly give more than some of those we have had to endure lately.
That seemed to be a squad going places. It should have been going to League One, but ultimately it has ended up in (amongst other places) Aberdeen, Wycombe, York (x3), Wimbledon, Bristol, Gillingham and India.
Good players allowed to drift away far too easily, and replaced with mediocrity or short-term loanees with no interest, no connection and nowhere near the same ability.
There were also leaders there, especially Alan Bennett and Russ Penn. That leadership went with them and was also never replicated and it is that midfield which sums it up.
For most of that season, we had the 'holy trinity' of Pack, Penn and Summerfield in midfield. Summers left after Wembley, Pack stayed (just) for one more season, then Penn was discarded after the Tamworth Cup defeat.
The replacements gradually got worse, as we went through Darren Carter to David Noble via Sam Deering (80-odd games, no goals for an 'attacking midfielder') and Jason Taylor, to end up with Matt Richards - who, along with Craig Braham-Barrett and Troy Brown were signed the summer after we had just finished fifth in the table.
That trio have been mainstays in the side over the past two seasons, and now we are in the Conference. I think that tells you all you need to know about their ability. Not good enough.
Look at left-back. We had Garbutt, who was a loanee and never a long-term option, but he had replaced Danny Andrew, a player who had a lovely left foot but was maybe not the best defender. See also Billy Jones. But there can't be many who would pick Braham-Barrett, who we have endured for 81 games over two seasons over either of those two - defensive deficiencies or dodgy knees and all.
I am simply stunned he has survived all four managers this season. The failure to at least try Paul Black in that role when he was signed was just disgraceful. Surely he can't have been any worse?
The loanees have been a source of huge frustration to me. Far, far too many and most of them of dubious quality and even fewer who actually have improved us. Money chucked away.
Mark Yates was the biggest culprit, stunting the development of our own young players with stop gap after stop gap, and the quality gradually got worse as time went on.
For example, Joe Hanks was sent out to Gloucester while Polyfilla stop-gap players came in to take the place he should have been occupying in the side.
After making his debut in October 2012, he had to wait 18 months until the final two games of 2013-14 to play again as loanee after loanee was brought in ahead of him.
After Jack Butland and Garbutt in 2011-12, there were very few good ones from any managers. Ben Burgess in the play-offs that year, Michael Hector came in after Bennett's departure in 2013, Koby Arthur gave us hope back in August, Jack Dunn lit us up briefly and Wes Burns shone in the death throes this season.
But there are far more like Lee Lucas, Eusebio, Kane Ferdinand, Shaq McDonald, Billy Daniels, Jake Taylor, Kemar Roofe, Michael Ihiekwe, James Wilson and Toby Ajala - who never even got on the pitch. The list goes on and on -and I bet you have forgotten most of them were ever here.
From a good-quality committed squad in early 2012, who cared about the club and had a connection with the supporters (especially the likes of Scott Brown, Bennett, Penn, Lowe, Pack and Duffy) we have been left with players who for the most part can't wait to run off the pitch and hide, then try to sneak out of the ground without so much as a sorry for the fans they let down.
Managers
Mark Yates
At the start of 2012, we were flying. Playing some fantastic football - remember those wins at Oxford, Bristol Rovers and Bradford... that home win over Southend.
Before we get too wistful, back to reality. We played Spurs in the Cup, made some money and Mark Yates walked on the White Hart Lane pitch and made that infamous signal pointing upwards. If only Mark.
Suddenly, the club seemed to be going places. Top of league soon after at Macclesfield, and with FA Cup money burning a hole in our pocket - and it was soon spent on Jermaine McGlashan.
Now let me get this straight right now. I am not blaming Jermaine for anything which has happened.
But we just didn't need that type of player. My view is that the board and manager decided they had to make some sort of statement and made a big-money signing just because they could to show the fans they were trying to show some ambition, and 'go for it'.
If they wanted to do that, I feel they should have looked around and tried to strengthen what we had - look at the depth of the squad and bolster it rather than splurging it all on one player just because he played well against us a couple of times in the recent past.
We were playing a system which worked. Four at the back, the holy trinity three in midfield and two wid-ish men (usually Mo and Jimmy Spencer) with one front man, Jeff G or Darryl for the most part.
McGlashan's arrival meant the system changed. Yates tinkered with something which was working and the momentum was lost. We had that mad March and eventually scraped into the play-off final but lost to a Crewe side on an amazing run with an inspired player in Nick Powell.
Yates dropped Penn and Duffy at Wembley, and with defeat the team began to break up, and as I have outlined above the squad gradually got worse quality and determination-wise.
Duffy was frozen out, Bennett and Goulding left the following January as Byron Harrison arrived, yet with players like Shaun Harrad and Marlon Pack we got to the play-offs again but lost to Northampton.
That was to be the summit from which we have now plunged to Saturday's relegation as Yates - previously held up as 'having a good eye for a player' lost his touch completely and lost the plot where player recruitment was concerned.
It wasn't just the recruitment, it was also how he used them. Look at the forwards he signed - a virtual who's who of lower division forwards, all with exceptional records wherever they had been. Until they got here.
Paul Benson, Harrad, Jamie Cureton all scored goals at League Two and, in some cases, a lot higher. Here, they were in and out of the team, dropped if they went a game or two without a goal, chopped and changed. They never looked the same players here as they had at Dagenham, at Burton and at Exeter, Bristol Rovers, Norwich, Reading etc etc
It was one up front a lot of the time, feeding on scraps with a central midfield and wide players incapable of providing them with the right kind of ammunition - a failure to play to their strengths. A far cry from the heady days of 2011-12.
It seemed to me that Yates had lost his touch. He seemed to have taken his eye off the ball, and the Cup defeat by Tamworth was the low point, and led to the frankly ridiculous and inexcusable decision to sell Russ Penn and Keith Lowe.
There was a case for him to go then, or even seven or eight games from the end of last season to allow someone a few weeks to assess the squad and make decisions.
His contract was up, it would have been a clean break. But what we got was a fudge. Neil Howarth sacrificed, and Yates given a one-year contract.
A vote of no-confidence, and a manager almost forced to work with both hands tied behind his back. He should have gone then.
The start in August papered over the cracks, based on the goals and pace of Koby Arthur. Four wins and two draws - but let's dissect them a bit.
Bury was a good win, I'll give you that. Hartlepool was a last-minute winner. Accrington missed a penalty in the last minute for a 2-2 draw. Tranmere led 2-0 and their season shows how bad they were.
The Carlisle draw featured a last-minute 'offside' goal dubiously chalked off after we were outplayed, and the Morecambe game was pretty tepid.
We were hardly playing teams off the park, and once Arthur was called back we dropped off, and won five matches from then on.
Yates lasted until November and that's when the wheels came off - but don't kid yourselves that it wasn't the right time to sack him. In my view he was lucky to still be here, play-off seasons or not. I don't hold with the 'we would have stayed up if he stayed' argument at all.
He had hit the wall. We were on the slide having taken nine points out of 36.
Forget the Swindon win, a total freak performance. The 5-1 and 4-1 defeats by Stevenage and Wycombe which followed were right up there with bad performances under later managers - Stevenage especially - that was an abject surrender.
Paul Buckle
So the Yates decision was right in my view, but what happened next was just shocking from Paul Baker and the board.
First we had the 'vote of confidence' statement the day before Yates was fired. An utter farce. Then after Yates had been fired at 9am on the Tuesday after Wycombe, by 2pm I know Buckle was going to get the job.
It smacked of the Martin Allen appointment within hours of Keith Downing's sacking, and the alarm bells should have been ringing loud and clear.
But we shouldn't have been surprised as the board's track record for managerial appointments is not exactly startling, but this is the one which will arguably go down as the most costly.
This was a man who had been out of the loop for 18 months but had apparently almost got the Burton job. Imagine if that had happened. Just imagine. Wow. Things could have been soooo different!
Apparently, we spoke to people at Torquay, Bristol Rovers and Luton. All spoke well about him. Not many fans on social media did, and so it seems those fans knew a bit more than those at the top.
This was a man who passed the buck from day one. None of it was his fault.
Mark Yates left him with a poor squad. He told that 'poor squad'  that from day one, and - surprise, surprise - they didn't want to know after that. I was told he 'lost the dressing room' within a week. My Twitter DM feed was full of club staff asking me to do all I could to get the man out.
He didn't seem to be able to handle the senior players with strong characters - so that was that for Jason Taylor, Steve Elliott and others like Terry Gornell and Byron Harrison.
Elliott was treated appallingly and it was good to see him come back and help out Russ Milton, then Gary Johnson - but I have to also say I didn't disagree about getting rid of the other three, and still don't.
Taylor is just a poor footballer, as are most of the ones he left behind. Yes I know, he has done well at Northampton and got a two-year deal, but all he really did here was point a lot.
Harrison scored 15 goals last season but offered next to nothing this bar three tap-ins against Swindon. To say he would have scored the goals to save us is, quite frankly, a joke.
His 'display' when he came on at Hartlepool in a crucial game showed just how much he would have fought for the cause.
Gornell had scored about eight goals in 80 games for us. Not a record to suggest he would have been the saviour either despite what he did at Accrington after his move.
About the only decent thing he did was to bring in Jack Dunn and Kevin Stewart, two loanees who made a difference - but they needed some of those seniors around them, and they had been alienated or shipped out.
Things got worse and worse, and he finally went after we had won one game in 13 including the Dover FA Cup loss, and the most disgusting evening of League football I have ever seen involving a Cheltenham Town side, the 2-0 loss at Southend.
Only 49 CTFC fans went. They sang 'We want Buckle out' almost constantly. Lee Vaughan laid bare to fans before the game and to me at half-time just what had been going on.
Buckle and Rob Edwards sat motionless on the bench all match. No encouragement, no motivation. Southend scored after eight minutes and the game may as well have stopped then. Our players were going through the motions and had effectively downed tools as far as the manager was concerned.
That night Buckle called the chairman and told him he wanted out, and two days later, after he had farcically done a press conference for a match he and the media knew he wouldn't be in charge of anyway, he was on a plane back over the pond.
Even by Cheltenham Town standards, this was just an utter shambles. Effectively 13 wasted games and an appointment which was wrong from day one - but not the sole reason for relegation, albeit a significant factor.
Russell Milton/Steve Elliott
The club was now totally disunited and the appointment of Russ and Steve was definitely the right one to reunite fans and players together to fight the drop.
The atmospheres against Bury and then for the win over Tranmere were fantastic and things definitely seemed to be on the up.
He was able to bring players in, and Matt Sparrow and Pablo Mills started well but gradually faded away, Shaun Harrad gave his all with little reward and Danny Haynes shone all too briefly.
Will Packwood was a success before he got injured, and the Tranmere momentum carried on against Newport and Portsmouth with encouraging away performances which should have brought more rewards than two draws - but unfortunately that was as good as it got.
We should have built on those displays against Exeter and Plymouth at home, and after the Argyle loss, I felt the chirpy Russ we had seen in previous post-match interviews was replaced by a more serious, worried tone.
The fact that the board had mooted the possibility of bringing in a guiding experienced hand to help Russ and Steve suggested they didn't exactly have complete faith from the off, and so it proved when they made the final change.
Gary Johnson
Johnson was one of the names in the frame to be the experienced hand to help Russ and Steve, as he had left Yeovil nine days before Buckle was sacked.
The home defeats by Exeter and Plymouth seemed to convince the board they needed to make one more last throw of the dice and brought him in. A final gamble.
He couldn't bring in any players as all the deadlines had passed, so was left with what he had, and couldn't wave a magic wand and make a silk purse out of the sow's ear he inherited.
Ahead of Saturday's final League game (for now we hope) it's been one win and five defeats for Gary, no better than Milton really, but neither of these last two managers - in my view - take culpability for what has happened as the damage had already been done.
The Cambridge win was ultimately a false dawn as the players couldn't be trusted to follow it up with another decent showing and that was basically that.
But there were still some strange decisions and happenings. A lot of niggly injuries - over-training maybe?
Kane Ferdinand on the right wing at Northampton for half an hour after not playing for weeks - never seemed to be a good plan that one, and thankfully it was nipped in the bud.
But will he stay? The chairman wants him to, as do a lot of fans. We shall see.
The board
Two decisions will be looked back on with enormous regret as the curtain comes down on our Football League life - keeping Mark Yates last summer, and appointing Paul Buckle with such haste when he was eventually sacked.
Ultimately they have proved costly - but they are not by any means the sole reason why we have gone down.
As Paul Baker correctly stated after holding his hands up to these two mistakes, they have done a lot more right in the past 16 years or so, but they need to learn from what has happened.
A bit more ruthlessness with Yates last summer instead of what turned out to be a bit of a fudge could have set us on a different path. Ifs buts and maybes...
To have kept us on a relatively solid footing over 16 years in the Football League has been a great achievement and that should not be forgotten in all this - despite their slightly dodgy record at times on choosing managers along the way...
Neither should the redevelopment of the ground, the facilities at Seasons and the Academy set-up as well which hopefully will stand us in good stead going forward - for as long as it can be sustained financially.
That has always been the issue. The club has lived from hand to mouth all the way through, expect when we have had a little bit of extra investment, but that from Simon Keswick for while or Mr Mystery from the Cayman Islands.
But all along, for 16 years, one accusation has been levelled at Paul Baker and the board. Lack of ambition.
These three words always crop up when things go wrong. We don't hear them when we are in play-off finals or have a cup run. Lose a few games and out it comes again.
But they have always backed their managers. The budget has always been competitive - and this season's was bigger than Wycombe's, who might yet go up. Practically every loan request has been granted.
So basically the board have put the money up, but they have been let down on various occasions by managers who have spent the money abysmally. No more so than the last two summers.
Now we have the Trust money and having a director on the board, but things do need to change at the higher level.
We need to find new blood, new investment - easier said than done I know - and we need to get back to some strong leadership off the field. It is more important than ever.
Things have slipped up recently and at times we have appeared rudderless - so it has been good to see Paul Baker being decisive and honest in the days since Saturday and not hiding away like many of our players but coming out and fronting up.
I am glad he is staying on and I think we need to keep that continuity with the chairmanship at this time.
Good people are going to lose their jobs, in the club's office and among the management team, they are going to have to make cuts and still try to keep us competitive at this lower level. A tough ask.
The fans
No blame attached here - just admiration and respect for those who have stuck by the club over the past two seasons, and this one especially.
The 200 or so who have travelled up the motorways every other Saturday deserve huge credit and have been let down, as have those who have bought season tickets and endured the home games.
Over the years, there have been those who have drifted away. Some have valid reasons, family commitments, cost, work commitments - and I know many people who would be there week in, week out if their personal circumstances were different.
But there are those who have turned their backs on the club for less valid reasons. Mainly because we didn't win every week and weren't playing teams they have heard of every week.
They'd pack the ground for Leeds, or Nottingham Forest in League One. They would be happy to go to Spurs, to Wembley, and then moan when Everton at home sold out before they got a ticket. But Accrington at home? No thanks.
For some so-called fans, the novelty wore off and League Two football became boring, so off they went back to their Sky subscriptions and the Premier League - all of which works out costing more in a season than a season ticket at Whaddon.
Others will turn their backs now. Non-league football will be beneath them. Cheerio then. So much for 'thick and thin', eh?
I know the ones who will still be there at Braintree and Barrow. They are the true fans.
What happens now?
First of all, I hope I can enjoy my football again next season, as the last two seasons really have been a complete drudge.
It would be nice to win a game or two at the very least and have some enjoyable Saturday nights instead of being miserable most of the time.
Above all, I just want to see some players with some commitment who look like they have some pride in the shirt they are wearing, rather than just seeing it as another club to earn some money from.
I appreciate that with the modern-day footballer, that would be a fanciful notion, but I can hope, can't I?
We have eight players out of contract, and I would not keep any of them. They are Troy Brown, Matt Richards, Craig Braham-Barrett, Durrell Berry, Mathieu Manset, Danny Haynes, Matt Gould and Andy Haworth (yes, remember him!!) and they can all go.
It is doubtful that the 14 who remain under contract will all be here come August.
Trevor Carson may want to move back North where his family are and try to find a League club. Surely there would be a taker somewhere.
Asa Hall and Matt Taylor both have fitness concerns. I'd like to think Hall might get fit and be an asset in the Conference - but we don't know as we just haven't seen him play.
Taylor is a concern to me. He keeps breaking down and the award of a two-year contract last summer on what must surely have been decent money is now exposed as total folly. His leadership qualities have also been exceptionally disappointing.
Lee Vaughan might have a future in the Conference, where he performed well enough for Kidderminster but as I suspect he too earns decent-ish money for our new budget he would be able to go if there were takers.
Let's face it, any of them would be able to go.
The other 10 under contract should all form a basis of next season's squad. Some of them, especially Eliot Richards (if he is fully recovered from his illness as we all hope), Jordan Wynter, Zack Kotwica and Joe Hanks have some experience and could flourish in the Conference.
It will be a big season for Kotwica and Hanks. Both have shown some promise and need to now kick on and establish themselves as 'senior' players in the ranks.
I have confidence that Hanks can do that, maybe in a 'holding' position where he can use his passing ability while others do the 'box to box' work. He can also take a decent set-piece, which might make a refreshing change.
I have reservations over Kotwica, who needs to be more positive when he gets a chance to run at players and make things happen. Omari Sterling-James is in the same boat. Both have shown little flashes but really need to try and kick on next season.
Also Jack Deaman, who did okay in some early games, but struggled in others with some mistakes leading to goals, but maybe he is another who could find his feet. Maybe - but I have my doubts.
James Bowen, Harry Williams and Bobbie Dale have barely had a look in, and I want to see these three get a chance. I mean a proper chance. All three played on loan last season at Conference North and South level so now they merit an opportunity to show what they can do.
Williams and Dale have scored goals wherever they have played, and Bowen looks a committed and feisty player with a decent attitude. I want to see all three heavily involved next season.
Jamal Lawrence is the other player under contract, but he is a year younger than Williams and co, and may need some loan time again - but having seen him in the youth team there may be something there.
We need to know for sure if all these young lads are good enough. They were deemed good enough to be given contracts, and have then been messed around amid the chaos of the last season or two.
In the past, we have seen Marley Watkins and Sam Foley slip through the net only to flourish elsewhere and I would hope we at least offer these guys the opportunity. They won't all swim. Some will sink, but I feel that the Conference gives us an ideal opportunity to try them out.
No more of this 'it isn't the right time to play them' crap. If we don;t use them now, we never will.
But we also need some experience around them, and hopefully the budget will allow us to bring a few in, but I have one thing nagging away at me.
Steve Elliott. How fit is he? Can he go away in the summer, get fit and play next season? Lend his experience on the field to these young lads and be our captain? Someone who the fans respect leading the team on the field. It maybe just a pipedream as he is 36 and his body might not be up to it - especially having not played since November.
But we need someone like him. A talisman on the field - a call to Cork to see if Benno wants to come back even. Now I am dreaming.
Off the field, we need someone to lead them. To mould these youngsters with a bit of experience into a team which can give us some pride back.
I feel that the manager needs to be experienced. I don't feel this is the time for a novice, and it's no great surprise to see Gary Johnson as Paul Baker's number one choice.
I wouldn't have a great issue with that - but my worry is that if an agreement cannot be reached and Johnson doesn't take the job that again there will be a rush to make an appointment.
I hope that there is a plan B - a fall-back plan in case Johnson says no, and that we haven't put all our eggs in the one basket with feelers at least being put out to other people.
Baker says he wants a 'swift and decisive' appointment - and I hope that isn't board-speak for 'rushed'. We know what happened the last time we did that.
It will not be an easy road back.
Already I have heard some fans saying we will bounce back as Bristol Rovers might yet do. But they have not found it easy on gates four times or more the size of ours. And history shows they are the exception, not the norm.
Luton took five years. Grimsby, Wrexham, Macclesfield, Lincoln, Torquay, Aldershot. All clubs around the same size as us yet still not able to break back out - some after several years. Add Tranmere to that now.
There is also money swilling about. There is Eastleigh, paying out more money than we do for players like Jack Midson and James Constable. Forest Green we know about. Both still in with a chance of replacing us.
It's not a cakewalk. So we need to be a bit humble about it. No 'Billy Big Time' stuff saying how we are too big for this league and how we are going to walk it. We aren't, and we won't.
So it's time to take some humble pie, swallow our pride and get on with it. Roll our sleeves up and try to get back, but in no way should that be an expectation.
Don't get me wrong - it would be lovely to go straight back up, but I just want some stability.
A season with the same manager from August to May perhaps, without hundreds of loan players, with our young players given a proper go, and with some pride being shown in the shirt and lots of passion on the terraces and in the stands. Is that too much to ask?