Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Relegation Looming and Coffee Drinking

I don't often drink coffee. There's no big reason or reasoning behind this; I just prefer tea so that is what I mostly drink. Coffee has its uses though. On the odd occasion when I am out and about I'll take a flask of coffee with me because tea always seems to stew horribly if you take that.

I'm not precious about it though. I'll drink an espresso, cappuccino or any of the others that we are inundated with whenever we go into a coffee shop these days. I don't actually drink them often enough to decide whether I prefer a skinny latté to an Americano and this is due to not knowing which is which (once you go beyond cappuccino or espresso) as much as anything else. Like I said I don't drink coffee that often.

But I am drinking coffee today and I am likely to drink lots of it. So much so that it is only 11 am as I write this and I can feel that I am getting a little “wired” already. Luckily I am drinking something that I readily recognise as “coffee” because it comes in pot ready-made and you add milk and sugar as you require.

So why am I drinking coffee? Well I am at work and I have very little to do and this is a state of affairs that is likely to last for at least another 5 hours although there will be brief bouts of activity in the hours that follow. I'm lucky really to have such a stress-free and undemanding job but time does drag on occasion.

To that end I have recently acquired a netbook with the intention to wile away the spare minutes and hours by frittering the time away on football websites, messageboards, news sites and facebook. As plans go this has worked well so far but today I am far from home and sitting in the GOSW building in the centre of Bristol whilst the lady that I work for and with attends a course. “There's bound to be wifi” I had thought “in such a building”. Wrong. So here I sit all tooled up (but not hooked up) with little to do except get caffeined up.

So I have decided to write this blog entry. It was never meant to be about coffee at all but there you go. I'd decided it was to be about relegation. “Relegation” sounds bad. Relegation is bad. Re... le... ga.. .tion... It sounds no better if you say it slowly. (Just had another coffee...) Relegation is as bad as it gets if you are a football fan. When it happens it is horrible, really, really horrible. The prospect of it looming in the distance is little more palatable than untreated toothache.

Relegation. Doom and gloom infuses every last possible musing about Argyle at present. Let's face it we are almost inevitably tearing headlong into the lower division so it isn't really a question of “if” but of “when” and “what will it mean?”

We seem to be enjoying the fruits of mediocrity bestowed upon us by a long sequence of misfortune and poor decision making. So where to begin?

I guess the seeds were sown when the club and Holloway parted company. At that point things were going swimmingly well for us as we revelled in a team that was challenging for a play-off spot and which even won games occasionally ~ a luxury which has long-since been denied to us. It wasn't to last. It couldn't last. That's not the lot of a supporter of a team like Argyle. It never lasts ~ or at least it never has done in the past. We enjoy a wallow in the vicissitudes and failures just as much as a bask in the successes. We have had to learn how to over the years. Anyway Holloway left, players (too many good players) were sold and panic ensued from which we have never properly recovered.

The team, the squad, the management and coaching staff were all filleted in the most extreme fashion imaginable. Gone almost as one were Holloway (manager), Penrice (assistant manager and chief scout), Bulpin (coach), Hayles (captain), Ebanks-Blake (leading scorer and penalty taker), Halmosi (best player), Gosling (best young player), Busazaky (most skillful player) and Norris (talisman and hardest working player). Not far behind them went Nalis (midfield lynchpin), Capaldi (all-time most-capped international), Connolly (inspirational full-back) and the double-headed beast that was Evans/Wotton (general all-round club legends). It was a calamitous 18 months or so. To say that there was little left is an understatement; we did not even have a team spine let alone a skeleton.

The only plus to all of this was the influx of money, lots of money, as the transfer fees came in. Sadly it wasn't enough.

The first thing we had to do as the ceiling came in around us was to appoint a new manager and to that end Paul Sturrock was re-appointed. This seemed to be a good move at the time. He had achieved unparalleled success with us and had also seen Swindon and Sheffield Wednesday promoted during his sabbatical. It didn't work out though.

Did we ever stand a chance? Probably not. The damage was so severe and the opportunities to put things right so limited. Initially the transfer window forced us into hurried signings which have since proven to be both expensive and unsuccessful. Similarly when more time was available to us we still struggled to attract players to fill gaps and we also subsequently failed to suitably exploit the talent of the players we did sign. Why? Tactics, performances, results and personnel became as entwined as a bucket of well-oiled spaghetti. Just where cause and effect lay is anybody's guess.

Without being intimately aware of the machinations of the club at management level it is impossible to place responsibility accurately but poor individual performances led to poor team performances and league position gradually declined. We narrowly got away with it last season but similarly poor signings made in the last closed season have not remedied the problems or halted the decline.

Analysing the decision-making process is a hoary old task. It is certain that resources were spent with little positive effect. What is less clear is whether the poor signings were made as a result of poor decisions by Sturrock or as a result of him being poorly supported financially by the club.

Putting it all together has left us with a toxic mix of disenchanted support, poor results and performances, dwindling attendances and a feel-good factor that is almost non-existent.

Most of that is now behind us now though as the poor signings are being released, a new manager has been appointed and a new board is in place which we can only hope helps.

But we are where we are and that is deeply entrenched in a relegation spot, 9 points adrift of safety and games are running out in which we can do something about it. To be blunt there is little hope of an immediate turnaround.

So what next? A club that we have been led to believe is already losing money at an alarming rate is going to see it have to budget for season ticket sales slumping and for TV income to all but vanish. If we assume annual turnover to be around £10m at present then next year it is likely to be halved. Remember that we are currently losing money; cutting income by half is going to be disastrous for those shepherding the club's finances.

So what are the positives? Are there any at all? There has to be doesn't there and there is.

Most obviously competing at a lower level might just allow us to win rather more often and if we can win often enough then a promotion campaign is possible. That in turn will bring the crowds back and given that they will be mostly walk-ups because ST sales will be low then big crowds paying top dollar will go a long way towards rectifying the anticipated financial shortfall.

We'll have a few more “local” games. At present it is possible that we will be in the same division as Exeter, Yeovil, Bristol Rovers, Swindon, Southampton, Reading and Bournemouth which will mean some relatively accessible away games.

We will have dropped below the Taylor Report radar and will once again be visiting stadia which have terraces on which we can stand which some will see as a positive but which leaves me largely unmoved either way.

For me the biggest point will be the re-aligning of expectation within the fanbase. We have enjoyed success in recent times beyond that which we had become acclimatised to and it seemed to be widely assumed that it would endlessly continue. That was never a realistic proposition given our history and the status and resources availabie to our opponents in this division. How can we expect to compete with teams that spend mi££ions on player transfers and wages and get 20+k crowds? We might manage it once in a while but over the longer term it is likely to be as sustainable as pushing water uphill.

We have lost sight of the fact that every season we stay in the CCC (or equivalent) is a triumph for us and should be celebrated as such and that relegation, although it should never be regarded as inevitable until it is too late to think otherwise, is an inevitable possibility that should always be considered.

As I sit here and peer out of the window of the conference room in which I find myself I can see that snow is falling quite heavily, but not settling, on the grey exterior of Temple Meads station and I must admit that my thoughts are turning to yet another cup of coffee.


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