When the perceived smaller clubs make bad decisions, they tend to have devastating consequences. They are the clubs who cannot afford to make poor choices, and often suffer the consequences for years to come.
York City fan John Dobson talks us through the worst decision they ever made.
As you’ll see it’s a decision that not only one that could have horrible short term decisions, but also one that takes away the identity & reputation that the club had started to establish.
The true measure of a bad decision lies in the consequences. Sometimes, this is apparent quite quickly, other times it takes a long time to work through.
Replacing the successful and popular Denis Smith with Bobby Saxton in 1987 was my first brush with some of the notoriously bad decisions made at York City. That is one of a string of managerial changes that were simply never going to work. The other two involved players getting promoted to the job. Neil Thompson took over from Allan Little in 1999 and that was bad, but nowhere near as bad as handing the job to the then 27-year old Chris Brass in 2003. Hopelessly out of his depth, he oversaw a run of twenty games without a win which ended with relegation from the Football League, 82 years after election.
The backdrop to Brass’s appointment was the off-field turmoil the club found itself in, courtesy of two of the worst boardroom decisions in the club’s history. For a long time, Douglas Craig seemed a reasonable chairman after he took over from the sainted Rev Michael Sinclair. Sinclair made no profit on his shares – he believed it would have been immoral to do such a thing. Craig made sure he got his pound of flesh. It’s a familiar tale: Craig set up a holding company into which was transferred ownership of Bootham Crescent. In the property boom of the early 2000s, land value in York soared and Craig negotiated a price for the land which the stadium stands on with Persimmon Homes. Having done so, he announced the intention to resign the club’s position in the league, effectively spelling the end for the club.
While that was bad enough, the supposed white knight that rode to the rescue was John Batchelor. Now you can’t defame the dead, so it’s perfectly valid to call him a liar, a fantasist and a thief. That the club is not dead after all that is testament to the work of the Supporters Trust and the current board, more of whom later.
On the playing side, we’ve had a few shockers too. York is a small club and the record transfer in remains the £140,000 paid to Burnley for Adrian Randall in 1995. 32 games later, he was back in Lancashire with Bury. The hundred grand for Barry Conlon, the second highest fee paid, was hardly value and neither were the £90k for Rob Matthews or the £85k a pop for Rodney Rowe and David Rush. The moral here is that the club are not good with money.
So far, so terrible, but all of that tale of misery and woe pales into insignificance in light of events of recent weeks and months.
Since Chris Brass and relegation to the Conference, things have largely been positive. The current board engineered a controversial takeover of 75% plus one share of the club. With a small fan base, the Supporters Trust was finding it difficult to keep asking the same people for money. While it wasn’t handled terrifically well, it was something that probably had to happen. Managerial appointments were made and changed at the right time and for the right reasons up to the point at which we ended up with Gary Mills in charge.
Mills is an adherent to a particular style which revolves around getting the ball down and passing it. This is revolutionary thinking at that sort of level. Very quickly, we became good to watch for the first time since the Denis Smith days. At the second time of asking, it was a style that got us to two Wembley finals, the second of which was for promotion back to the league we’d departed eight years previously. York and Luton played out a terrific game on the Wembley sward with City edging it thanks to Matty Blair’s head and an unobservant linesman. Promotion. Validation. Joy. Relief.
This season was all about consolidating at a higher level and, despite a run of eleven winless games, this was very much on the cards. It was absolutely right that the players who got the club promoted had first crack at league football, many for the first time. Perhaps some were finding it tougher than expected. Perhaps the wider availability of match footage compared to the Conference means other teams have had time to work us out. Whatever the reasons, the football was still pretty and looked like it wasn’t too far away from clicking. Certainly with games at the back end of the season against the division’s strugglers, it remained very much in City’s own hands. Maybe we needed a couple of full-backs to get beyond and provide some width, create some chances. Maybe we needed a bit more competition for the centre-backs and goalkeeper. What we didn’t need was a wholesale abandonment of the way we’ve gone about our football for two-and-a-half years. We were creating an identity, something to be proud of, something you could point to and say “that’s York City” rather than just being another small, shit, northern club.
Of course, not all change is bad. There was an intangible element missing from City’s play since 2012 waved a fond goodbye, but the fundamentals remained strong. If it was to be a managerial change that was required, then it had to be a continuation of the ideas already in place, much like Swansea have done over the last few years with Jackett, Martinez, Sousa, Rodgers and Laudrup. Instead, we’ve thrown all these theories of possession-based football in a skip out the back and reverted to hoofing it downfield at the earliest opportunity. It is soul-sappingly boring, which would be forgiveable – to an extent – if it was getting results, but it isn’t. Even seemingly positive substitutions, like replacing a centre-back with a winger, somehow make the team more negative, which is kind of admirable in a way. Players who have been coached to play one way are suddenly, with a handful of games remaining, being asked to do something that’s been anathema to them. Instead of retaining the ball and building, it’s low-percentage long balls which inevitably end with the ball coming back towards us with interest. It’s horrible to watch, it doesn’t work for these players and at current rate and trajectory, it’s taking us down.
Never before has a team promoted from the Conference gone straight back down. We look like being history-makers in that regard, but the wider consequences of a quick return to non-league football are a lot more significant than merely plotting new postcodes into the sat-nav for next season. We overspent on getting up and those debts will need to be repaid. Once again, the running of the youth system will not be centrally funded while TV revenue drops to a fraction even of that available to League Two clubs. Crowds will inevitably drop back to the 2500 mark – on a good day – which we were told was the break-even point last time we were in the Conference. Losses have been mounting, but set against the sale of Bootham Crescent when the newt-delayed new stadium is complete. That’s not a bottomless barrel. Another lost decade outside the football league places the long-term future of the club into jeopardy.
Put simply, I’m worried and that worry can be traced to one knee-jerk decision – the wrong change at the wrong time for the wrong new manager. And in the history of this club, for that to be the major decision to stand out, well it’s kind of impressive.
As I’m sure you can see, John knows his stuff so follow him on twitter @johnnydobbo