December isn’t turning out to be a good month for managers who were international players. Keane quits Sunderland, Ince is under severe pressure at Blackburn and Steve Bull has been sacked as manager of Stafford Rangers.
Granted, Bull might not quite be in the same class as Keane or Ince but it’s an inglorious end to a ten month reign that started in a blaze of publicity and has ended with a club in financial meltdown and the former Wolves legend forced out because the club could no longer to pay him.
A classic case of overreaching
Stafford’s current crisis follows a familiar patten: a club with limited financial resources assembling an expensive squad and a big name manager to keep them in the Conference, but failing. At the same time, a new temporary stand was erected at their Marston Road ground. Throw in falling attendances following relegation, and it all adds up to a familiar story.
If they were Tom Cruise in Top Gun, the immortal line “Son, you’re cashing cheques your body can’t handle” would never have been so apt. But any kind of heroic redemption looks unlikely, and many expect it to be a matter of when, not if, Rangers slide into administration and the accompanying points deduction.
Stafford have plenty of history at non-league level, having been around for the best part of 132 years, and – in the 70s – being one of THE names in non-league circles. Rangers won the FA Trophy twice in that decade, as well as the Northern Premier League (twice) and reached the 4th round of the FA Cup.
The subsequent two decades weren’t so successful for the club, but in recent years, Stafford appeared to have got its mojo back with the appointment of Phil Robinson as manager. The former Wolves and Stoke midfielder started to bring together a mixture of youth and experience and lead the club comfortable into the inaugral season of the Conference North in 2004.
Two years later Stafford were back in the non-league top flight after beating Droylsden in the Conference North play-off final and, given their limited resources, did well to avoid relegation by finishing 20th, one place above the drop.
But things started to unravel last season. A somewhat expensive side, for a part-time club, never quite gelled and, despite remaining popular among the fans, Robinson was given the boot.
In came Black Country legend Steve Bull, with a remit to keep the club in the Blue Square Premier. Bull did his best but in an increasingly competitive league populated with ex-league teams with bigger budgets and crowds, it was always going to be a tall order to keep the club up and they were duly relegated after two seasons in the Conference.
This season, with falling crowds – averaging just over 590 – and a squad on expensive wages for the Conference North, something was bound to give.
With the club’s directors propping up the growing debts, there was something of an inevitability about the news at the start of the month that Stafford were dangerously close to slipping into administration.
As with any club in crisis, desperate times call for desperate measures and, just before their 1-0 defeat to Vauxhall Motors about ten days ago, all Rangers players were asked to take a 50 per cent pay cut, on top of forgoing all bonuses. Non-contract players were told they would have to play for free.
The players’ response was swift and unequivocal. After the Vauxhall Motors game they issued as strongly worded a statement as you’re likely to see:
“We cannot agree to these terms,” said the statement. “Players have commitments based on their contractual arrangement with the club and cannot afford to take these cuts in wages.
“Furthermore, if the state of the finances is in such a dire state, the feeling is if we agree to this, it is only a matter of time before further cuts.
“We have tried our hardest for the club, the fans and the manager to do as well as we possibly can. We believe the next step for the board is to place all the contracted players on the transfer list and circulate the names of the non-contract players.”
The exodus from Marston Road has been swift. Louis Briscoe, Carl Palmer and Dave McPherson have already left, along with Bobby Wilson and James Cullingworth, who’ve both joined Gainsborough Trinity.
And with the club adopting a slash and burn approach to cost-cutting, it’s no surprise that their high-profile manager has also followed several of his players out of the door.
Bull, it has to be stressed, hasn’t done a bad job on very limited resources this season and was faced with a virtually impossible job to keep Stafford in the Blue Square Premier last season, and seemed to be on board for the long term.
But, for Stafford, all forms on long-term planning appears to have gone out of the window and Bull, among others, is clearly bitter at how he’s been treated.
He told local paper the Express and Star: “I am absolutely gutted. I feel a mixture of emotions — from sadness to anger.
Sadness for the way the players, the fans and the shareholders as well as myself have been, and still are being, treated by this Board and an anger towards the directors who think they can treat people in this way and who point the finger of blame at anyone and everyone apart from themselves.”
His assistant, Chris Brindley, now has the unenviable task of plugging the increasing leaks in a sinking ship and prepare for what looks like a certain relegation.
A small piece of hope for the future
If Stafford Rangers are to survive, either in their current guise or as a reformed club, then it’s likely their increasingly organised Supporters’ Trust, STRIPES, will play some part.
STRIPES have been busy fundraising over recent weeks once the extent of the crisis became clear. Although the organisation has now raised a decent amount of money they are, not unreasonably, waiting to see where this money can be used as opposed to throw it into the black hole that is Stafford’s finances.
But it may be that the club has to collapse completely before STRIPES can even get anywhere near the boardroom – the organisation is still waiting for a reply to the letter they sent to the club in July and there doesn’t appear to be any willingness on the part of the club to speak to the trust.
But if there is any comfort Stafford fans can take, it’s from their neighbours AFC Telford United. The Bucks went to the wall in 2004, and the supporters quickly mobilised to create a new club at Unibond Division One North level.
Several promotions later and the fan-owned club are currently challenging for the Blue Square North title, and a return to the non-league top flight – proof that collapse might need not mean the end of the team.
Indeed, in the spirit of Trust organisations, the fans at Telford have been advising their counterparts at Stafford on what to do should their club also fold. The two teams also play on Boxing Day, which should give Stafford a lucrative gate.
With the likes of Telford, and other fan-owned clubs like AFC Wimbledon, Stockport, and Exeter, talking about living within their means, the credit crunch could see many more Trust-owned teams emerge over the coming 12 months.
With other clubs like Lewes and Weymouth both on the verge of collapse, the global financial crisis is hitting lower-league football hard due to the tight operating margins. Yet if any good comes from this current state of affairs, it could well be that a few years down the line, more teams are repeating Telford’s one-step-at-a-time mantra.