Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Rockingham Rolling

Right. Imagine the scenario: you're the chairman of a football club, and there are two games to go of the season. Your team is second in the League, with only one automatic promotion place available. You're two points off the top of the table, but the team above you have a game in hand. However, it has been one of those seasons in which everybody has been beating everyone else (the leaders have lost nine matches and drawn a further eight), so it's by no means guaranteed that it won't go to the very last day of the season, and then who knows what may happen? Your place in the play-offs is already guaranteed, and you'll start them as the favourites, having been in or around the top two or three places in the league for the whole of the season. Your team is the best supported in the league, and it will be pretty intimidating for whoever you have to play against, even if you don't snatch the title. What would you do? Offer the players a fat, juicy bonus, to try and get that extra 5% of effort out of them? Hire a couple of Premiership players, put wigs and fake beards on them, and hope that nobody notices? Well, if you're Imraan Ladak, the chairman of Conference North club Kettering Town, you'd sack the manager. Yesterday morning, after a defeat at Hinckley United in the league, he relieved manager Morell Maison of his duties. Considering all of the above, the timing of the decision is peculiar, to say the least.

I have to say that I quite like Kettering Town. They're a proper non-league football club, from the old school. They were serial under-achievers in the Conference in the 1980s and 1990s, finishing runners-up no less than four times, and survived a few brushes with financial crisis without ever falling too far down the non-league pyramid. Their ground, Rockingham Road, is a proper, old-school football ground with an imposing main stand and proper, big floodlight pylons. They could have lost a generation of supporters to the Johnny-Come-Latelys from Rushden & Diamonds, who shot past them and into the Football League in the late 1990s, but their crowds have remained high (their average of over 1,200 this season is one of the highest in the country below the Conference), and their promotion will surely come eventually.

Ladak, of course, is the chairman that gave Paul Gascoigne his brief and ill-starred chance at management, managing to not notice that he was still a chronic alcoholic when he gave him the job, but then sacking him a few weeks in after he turned up to switch on the Christmas lights in Kettering whilst drunk, and being drunk whilst managing a match. A case is starting to build here for writing him off as one of those wacky chairmen that occasionally crop up from time to time, making eccentric decisions which grab column inches but ultimately run their club into the ground. Apparently, Graham Westley (the extremely unlovable former Farnborough Town and Stevenage Borough) is in the frame to take over as caretaker manager until the end of the season, but the long-term choice could be a more interesting one. It could be Ron Atkinson.

Now, there are many reasons for finding Big Ron objectionable. The racist comments that saw him ostracised from ITV go without saying, as do the crass, media-heavy attempts to salvage his reputation. But now is not the time for that debate. I would have to say that, in the cold light of day, this would be quite a coup for Kettering. He's been the Director Of Football there since January ("Director Of Football" is one of those irksome job titles that no-one quite knows the meaning of, like "Chief Executive Officer") and, should he take the job up, he'll have come full circle, having started his managerial career there in 1971. In the cold light of day, are there any other managers likely to accept the Kettering job who could list their CV as including West Bromwich Albion, Manchester United, Atletico Madrid, Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa, Coventry City and Nottingham Forest? Take a moment to consider the number of contacts within the game that he must have built up over the last thirty-six years.

I've been watching repeats on Sky 3 of the TV series "Big Ron Manager" lately. For those of you that aren't aware of it, it followed Atkinson to Peterborough United, where he was brought in to oversee rookie manager Steve Bleasdale during a faltering promotion campaign, and it's must see, car crash television. The programme acquired a degree of anonymity when Bleasdale resigned just before a match and walked out of the ground, citing interference (widely interpreted as Sky TV's interference) as the main reason. Watching it back, the truth of the matter is that Bleasdale was out of his depth. Watching him coach his team practice short passing movements all week, only for him to tell them to go all out long ball "because you can't win points playing football in Division Three" is truly jaw-dropping stuff. You don't have to spend very long standing near the dugouts in the lower leagues before it becomes very apparent that such ineptitude is a very regular occurrence. Against this sort of backdrop, such a managerial appointment starts to make some degree of sense.

As I said, this isn't a debate over whether Ron Atkinson is a racist or not. St Albans City's manager, Colin Lippiatt, announced that he will be retiring at the end of the season on Monday, and it seems likely that they are to replace him with a senior player, the untried Nick Roddis. Would I take Atkinson over Roddis? There's a good chance that I would. The timing of poor old Morell Maison's sacking borders on the bizarre (and the manner in which he found out, reportedly from the local press rather than the club, is pretty despicable), the future might be a little brighter for Kettering's long-suffering supporters than one might anticipate at the moment - presuming, of course, that their chairman can keep his Vladimir Romanov-in-waiting-esque excesses in check and prevents the whole thing becoming another media circus. Trust me, Imraan, there is such a thing as bad publicity.


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