“Flynn Out” seems to be the catch phrase of the week in certain quarters, and there are growing mutterings that if we are to cheat the hangman that a new face in charge is needed. There seems to be a generally held acceptance that Flynn has improved the quality of the squad, but serious doubts subsist over his tactical nous and flexibility, and over his ability to motivate his players. Certainly recent results are suggestive, to put it mildly, that his preferred 4-3-3 formation is not the answer. Last season Colin Addison appeared to get much more out of largely the same players by playing 3-5-2, and many believe that with a new man at the helm, the current team may not be as bad as results suggest.
Leaving aside the issue of whether we can afford financially to dispense with a second manager in a season, the main argument for Flynn’s retention at present is whether it’s simply too late for change and whether a new face in charge would prove disruptive and undermine what little stability exists within the team. As with most fans of many years standing, I’ve seen a few relegation battles at the Vetch, the majority of which have sadly been lost, and lost badly. Thinking back to those past battles, are there any clues as to which way we should proceed managerially?
The Sad Seventies
The 1972-73 season had started with Roy Bentley in charge. Bentley had initially been popular and successful, his collection of former internationals and local journeymen winning promotion to the third division in 1970 and playing attractive attacking football along the way. However, by the summer of 1972 Mel Nurse and Len Allchurch had retired, and various young hopefuls had proved inadequate replacements. Money spent on then record signing Ronnie Rees might have been better spent across the team. A poor start to the season saw the inevitable axe fall in November. He was replaced by Harry Gregg, a man whose personal bravery was beyond reproach, but whose football judgement was to prove less trustworthy. Gregg attempted to shore up the defence, and also introduced a more abrasive “competitive” style of play. His tactical innovation of playing Wyndham Evans as a striker ( who said that the Dutch invented total football?! ) certainly surprised and frightened a few defenders, but ultimately failed. At the season’s end we were in exactly the same place as we had been when Bentley was sacked.
The Gregg era continued notwithstanding relegation, and he was allowed to build his own team. Signings such as Bartley and Bruton served the club well into the Toshack era. Sadly, he also made some disastrous signings including Derek Bellotti, a goalkeeper whose antics possessed a black comedic value that raised many a hollow and mirthless laugh from the terraces. Gregg’s first full season in charge saw a mid table finish but as the 1974-75 season wore on it became obvious that re-election was staring us in the face. Crowds hit several all time lows, whilst the financial crisis grew, culminating in the controversial sale of the ground to the Council. Gregg’s continued employment seemed to owe much to the lack of funds to pay him off . Eventually he resigned, with less than half the season left, and was replaced by coach Harry Griffiths, an appointment which was to prove inspired in the longer term, but which probably at the time was dictated by economics. Sadly, in the short term, with no money available to strengthen the team, Harry was unable to turn the ship around, and a re-election application had to be placed in the post.
Downwardly Mobile in the 80s
As everybody knows, Harry Griffiths ultimately turned the team around and laid the foundations for the Toshack era. The “r” word became a stranger, a black dog that didn’t approach our door for years. When its dark and ugly head re-appeared it snapped at our heels for years to come, mocking the arrogant assumptions built up in the glory years that it could never visit us again.
Much has been said and written of what went wrong that second season in the first division. Perhaps the writing was on the wall when we failed to sign any new players in the close season. The first hammer blow was the loss of defensive lynch pin Colin Irwin to serious injury in September, to be followed as the season progressed by Alan Curtis and John Mahoney. The loss of the spine of the side which had done so well the previous season was crucial, but the truth was the club were in no position to bring in adequate replacements. At Christmas the situation was far from hopeless, and a good run in the new year could have led to a mid table finish. Sadly, it was around this time that Tosh seemed to lose it. Rumours abounded of disputes with senior players, and gradually he came to rely on a side full of younger players. In the end we failed to beat the drop by just a few points, whilst winning positions were thrown away in a number of games by conceding late goals , which might have been averted with a little experience at the back. Tosh also gave Leighton James away to rivals Sunderland who escaped the drop, partly due to his goals. Were we too loyal to the man who brought such glory to the club? Might a change in January or February have changed the entire future of the club? Could we have even afforded to make a change? If the previous disastrous seasons in the 1970s had seen changes at the top have no effect, this time around stability proved no more effective.
If there were some who thought Toshack should have gone at that stage, they would have their wish the following season – twice over. As the financial woes of the club became apparent, and boardroom strife made daily news, pre-season optimism of an early return to the top turned to a fight for survival both on and off the field. One by one experienced players were sold at knock down prices to provide ready cash and cut the wage bill. With only one win on the board, Tosh finally stood down around a third of the way into the season, to be replaced by coach Doug Livermore. This did little to change fortunes on the field as more players were moved on. The team increasingly resembled the youth team, and became cut adrift at the bottom of the table. Quite incredibly, Tosh returned, not only as manager, but also as player. Whilst his Roy of the Rovers presence managed to engineer a couple of unlikely wins, it became apparent that King Canute had a better chance of stopping the tide than we did of avoiding the drop. It was equally apparent that without an injection of experienced players that nobody else would have done any better. Relegation was inevitable at Christmas unless something radical changed. Partly due to a transfer embargo, it didn’t and Tosh went for a second time around March. Coach Les Chappel took the reins for the last rites.
During the close season Colin Appleton arrived from Hull, with an impressive track record. How he must have wished he hadn’t bothered as his youthful charges continued the depressing form of the previous season. His attempts to pick up experienced free transfers never bore effective fruit. By late November 1984 the club was again languishing in relegation places, and crowds had sagged as attending games became a purgatorial effort. Rather surprisingly in view of the continuing financial difficulties, Doug Sharpe sacked Appleton and appointed John Bond. Moreover, Bond was given some leeway in the transfer market, and managed to sign up some experienced old heads. Infamously, he also dispensed with Dean Saunders. Whatever the long term effects, it did the trick in the short term as the team suddenly gelled and hit almost promotion form in the last third of the season. Thousands packed the Vetch for the final game of the season against Bristol City, and in an emotion charged atmosphere a point was secured to keep us in the third division. The scenes of celebration resembled those of the Toshack era. For once we won a relegation fight, almost entirely due to a crucial managerial change.Sadly, the escape proved a reprieve rather than a new dawn. Despite the addition of the class of Tommy Hutchinson, Bond’s aging team struggled from the off in 1985-86. Events off the field had taken a turn for the worse and when the Receivers came in Bond was deemed dispensible. Hutchinson became player manager, but nobody believed this to be anything other than a step of financial necessity, and he himself never really seemed to believe that he was the man for the job. Mere survival as a club became paramount and relegation was seen as almost a reasonable bargain if it meant having the team live to fight another day. So, another enforced change, another miserable failure, but one that didn’t seem to matter in the circumstances, as a far more important victory had been achieved off the field.
Hello Old Friend
Incredibly, our next serious flirtation with relegation was not to be for ten years. Whilst the Ian Evans / Yorath team of 1989-90 needed a point on the final day of the season to ensure third division survival, the team had spent most of the season in the comfort of mid table, and only a disastrous late run caused nerves to flutter. Strangely, Evans was sacked with the team becalmed in mid table, and whilst the style of football was not to everybody’s taste, relegation had not seemed a serious proposition..
When disaster returned in 1995-6, it came dressed as both tragedy and farce. Nobody could accuse the club of not ringing the changes that season. Short of picking the team by supporters poll, there wasn’t much we didn’t try. In contrast to the stability and relative success of the Frankie Burrows years this season was a giant white knuckle roller coaster with a final catastrophic downward finale. The season was to see Bobby Smith, Jimmy Rimmer, the infamous Kevin Cullis, and Jan Molby at the helm. Through most of the season the club was up for sale, with a resulting insecurity. The frustrating thing was that this was essentially the same team that had finished in upper mid table the season before, and the feeling persisted that stability off the pitch could have led to relegation being avoided. Although the team did rally briefly following Molby’s appointment we eventually went down with a little to spare. Most fans saw this as a season where a team that needed a little strengthening in certain areas was turned into a laughing stock by off the field events. When Molby was given money to spend his signings added little. Perhaps if a credible manager had replaced Burrows events would have evolved differently.
Most of us are well versed in events of two years ago and will have our own take on it. John Hollins’ limited side seemed capable of survival with a little investment in key areas. Whether this never came due to Ninth Floor’s lack of interest, or due to Hollins’ own lack of contacts and acumen in the market is a moot point. What nobody could have forseen were the long term injuries to Jason Smith and Jonathon Coates which exposed the lack of squad depth. Failure to secure adequate replacements cost us dear. Whatever some fans may think of Coates, it was noticeable that the team’s results dipped noticeably after he was ruled out for the season. Certainly by the new year it was wholly apparent that Hollins had lost any sense of tactical coherence that he ever possessed. His answer to the lack of a left sided midfielder? Bring in Fabiano, another right sided midfielder in a position where we already had Jason Price, Stuart Roberts and Lee Jenkins. One felt that if Ninth Floor had retained any interest in the club that Hollins would have gone possibly by December, certainly by February. Again, the uncertainties caused by the club being up for sale cost us dear, and the failure to replace Hollins effectively and back his successor proved disastrous.
Lessons to be Learned
So what conclusions or lessons can be drawn from this review of the “inglorious years”. In truth it’s a bit of a mixed bag, and it’s hard to see any distinct pattern. We have one instance where a change of manager clearly saved the team from relegation and two seasons of patience where many would argue that a change might have made a difference.We also have a season where a calculated change made no difference . We see a number of seasons where financial problems took the decision effectively out of our hands and were arguably the cause of failure rather than managerial shortcomings. Finally, one season of high farce where one was more surprised if there wasn’t a change of manager at the end of the week.
All in all, a bit of a ragbag, from which the only firm conclusion seems to be that we are not very good at relegation fights. Not for us the year in rear out near escapes which made the likes of Coventry City famous. No goalkeepers scoring famous winning goals in the last minute of the last match. As detailed above, only once in recent memory can I recall us winning a relegation fight.
The other common strand in our seasons of struggle is that they are invariably linked to off the field crises. Whether being a bit strapped for cash, on the verge of extinction, or being up for sale, bad seasons have been accompanied by instability off the field. In many ways, this year is no exception. Whilst the ship has been steadied since the traumas of last year, we are only too aware that we are not a rich club. Whilst the players signed by Cusack were by and large disappointing, it should also be borne in mind that with our new sense of financial realism, we were probably not offering the best wages in the division. This is clearly where we needed an old head in the Burrows or Addison mode to extract maximum value from the resources we did have to play with. Sadly, that is now water under the bridge, and we have to deal with the reality as it now faces us.My personal views on the Flynn situation are mixed. He undoubtedly came into a difficult situation, taking over a team which was both low on confidence and not of proper third division quality. He has tried to address the shortcomings, and has brought genuine quality to the club. The signing of Nugent may turn out to be inspired, as he appears to be what we have lacked since Julian Allsop was allowed to leave – an old fashioned lower division carthorse who can cause a bit of mayhem in the opposing penalty area by fair means or foul. The real question marks surround his tactics, leadership and motivational abilities.
In real terms though, we have to ask ourselves whether any change we make at this stage could be effective. The first question to be asked is whether we could we get a credible alternative? Being realistic as to our resources and dismissing some of the more fantastic suggestions, the options are limited. A return for Addison and Nicholas has been mooted, but Addo is surely under contract at Forest Green, and in any event, neither would be likely to be keen to return to work for a club that treated them so shabbily. Molby has been mentioned, as he always is, but his record here was mixed, and he failed to save us in 1995-6 from a far less difficult position. Cornforth was talked of enthusiastically, but are we really talking about a similar situation to Cusack, in that he was a popular player but has no proven long term record as a manager. Whilst he did reasonably well in his first season at Exeter, results this season were little better than our own.
Managerial change can turn a team’s fortunes around, but generally action needs to be taken relatively early on, and the new man’s judgement needs to be backed with new signings. This was certainly the case with John Bond, but ultimately made no difference to Gregg or Molby. The transfer window system has obviously tied Flynn’s hands to a large extent, and it may be fairer to judge him when his latest more experienced signings have settled in. Certainly any new man would be bound by the squad that Flynn has put in place, and his effectiveness would be limited by the current transfer restrictions. Whether a new man could motivate the players and play them in a more effective formation is an arguable point.
Any which way, I can’t see any simple solution to the problem. On balance I would say we have to stay with the man we’ve got, as he now has his own squad pretty much together, and we can only hope that it works. Historically chopping and changing has done us little good. If we fail to win another game this season then this will seem a stupid statement, but as it stands I think we have to go with what we’ve got. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope that the luck of Brian finally turns.