A Big Day for Macc
With fellow relegation candidates Plymouth seemingly coughing and spluttering towards the finishing line, today represents an excellent chance for either Macclesfield or Dagenham to push on and leave their rivals in mental tatters as the two meet at Victoria Road. Here, Macc fan and Magic Sponger Rob MacDonald wonders how it’s come to this for the Silkmen and what the implications for relegation would be in Cheshire East.
Since Macclesfield Town were sitting (relatively) pretty in 14th place in League 2 on New Year’s Eve, I’ve joked with ever-lessening joviality about the fact that we appear to have been stuck on about 30 points for two weeks / four weeks / six weeks / since 2011. This, aligned with some uncomfortable and anecdotal theorising about the fact that there’s always one team in the league which is relegated after an abject post-Christmas run of form, has meant that after an encouraging start, some Silkmen can feel the draft from the Football League trapdoor troubling their trouser legs.
While putting a halt to the dismal club record run of eight straight league defeats has alleviated some of the jitters, the five straight draws Macclesfield have recorded mean the slide towards the dreaded dotted line is yet to be comprehensively arrested. It has also seen today’s game at Dagenham loom with ever-increasing significance as the weeks have passed.
Most that have any more than a passing familiarity with League 2 will note that this is not an unusual position for the Silkmen to find themselves in as the season switches from festive recovery period to ‘how many games left? 10? Is that it?!’ phase. But as indicated by the (relatively) nosebleedy heights the club attained in December, the season feels like it should have been somehow better than this.
While there are few excuses for such a dreadful recent run of form, the very nature of Macclesfield’s existence provides one, at least in part. Tipped for relegation without fail every year, shoestring budget, smallest gates, low wages, yadda yadda yadda – it’s unsurprising when the season catches up with you like the law and Rebekah Brooks. And that’s before you even get to the personal and professional tragedies of the last two years or so. And THAT’s before you even get to the completely fair assertion that Macc shouldn’t be worrying about overachieving too much when the alternative is a fate worse than Vale.
Nevertheless, the success of our season off the pitch, at least earlier in the season, makes the situation a little discomfiting. It would be the great irony if this year, based on the proceeding amateurish listing of known sources of income, was among the club’s most profitable ever (in that Macclesfield Town might actually turn a profit) only for us to be relegated with a whimper in May.
Check this out: extended FA Cup first round highlights against East Thurrock on ITV; a televised second round replay against Chelmsford City on ESPN; extended highlights in the third round against Bolton; a sort-of-lucrative replay before the run came to an end. Not groundbreaking, but good income. Player sales, too: Tyrone Barnett to Crawley for around £200,000 (and now potentially Peterborough for a League 2 record £1.2m, from which Macc will receive a sell-on clause); Emile Sinclair (also to Peterborough); Izak Reid to Morecambe and most recently Shaun Brisley (Peterborough again, on loan initially, though it could be a significant fee in the summer). Lest we also forget, the extremely exciting Wales U17 & 21 international Elliott Hewitt was linked with Arsenal, Everton and Chelsea over the winter for something in the region of A MILLION ENGLISH POUNDS STERLING.
So the squad has attracted plenty of attention, with Gary Simpson’s model generally being that of a small-time Doncaster Rovers, in which players are given a chance to impress before being moved on. For a club with a limited history of big sales (Rickie Lambert – yes, that one – going to Stockport for £300,000 is still the club record, while Jon Parkin also left for a fee as big as he is/was), the past 12 months have been revolving door-like in comparison.
But like many in League 2, I expect, the great excitement of over-achieving financially, of the ‘money-spinning’ cup tie, has to be tempered by the fact that rather than money finding its way back into the playing squad, we just avoid leaning on directors or backers as heavily as we have previously. It doesn’t necessarily mean finances are available, it just means the debt or loss is reduced or offset, for now. Existence is becoming the new prestige. Particularly when, at last year’s AGM, it was announced that on accounts for the year ended June 30th 2010, the club’s loss for the year “had increased to £267k”.
That particular announcement, which was actually precluded with the admission that Macc had earmarked cup runs for a bit of extra income – which never arose (that was the year we lost 1-0 to MK Dons in the first round) – has seen a very tight business model get tighter still. Another big name from last season, Hamza Bencherif, rejected a new contract and moved instead to Notts County, a club of sizeable means by comparison. Each summer, the ‘released’ list is long and most years, the squad reconstruction is significant.
Nevertheless, the thought of dropping down a division remains unthinkable, more so when you’ve been in the same league for 15 seasons. The shifting unease that comes when the equilibrium is threatened is probably the most disturbing thing, even though Macc’s survival on and off the field has been something of a minor miracle ever since promotion from the Conference in 1997. It’s not as if the financial shackles would suddenly be thrown off – the constraints alluded to above would also apply in the Conference, and what has been Macc’s saving grace in Gary Simpson’s eye for a good non-leaguer would be largely redundant without the carrot of league football to dangle. What’s more, there are clubs there with significantly higher budgets and fan bases than Macc’s in the Conference’s bottlenecked upper echelons. Relegation wouldn’t be the end of Macc, but it would be the end of league football there for the foreseeable future.
There’s no doubt that keeping a club like Macc afloat in the Football League is incredibly ambitious, with big(ger) fish on the regional doorstep including Manchesters United and City, Liverpool and Everton (fans of which I know well, who grew up in and around Macclesfield), Stockport (less of a big fish these days of course), Port Vale, Crewe, Tranmere, Rochdale, Bury, Oldham and so on. But it still feels like the familiar relegation battle has crept up on us somewhat this year (less so, admittedly, when we haven’t been able to buy a win in 14 matches).
One factor associated with being such a small side is that injuries can hit you hard. Macc’s injury list has been incredible this year, in almost every position. Short-term injuries disrupt individual and team rhythm, while long-term layoffs disrupt budgets as replacements and loan deals are agreed. An ever-changing dressing room is also a problem: a brief look at the club website reveals 37 players (five keepers, EIGHT STIKERS) listed in the first team. It’s a cliché, but this season has been well and truly blighted.
Reality bites alright. The cup run and decent league position promised much, but ultimately delivered little. Having felt like the pieces were finally in place to move onwards and upwards, all energies are once again focused on avoiding relegation and the relative wilderness, given the existing competition, of the Conference. It’s frustrating, but survival is now critical once again.
It feels unusual to talk about Macclesfield Town in terms of unfulfilled potential, particularly when some of the football I’ve seen us play this year could be generously described as ‘direct’, but more likely described as ‘awful’. In the Two Unfortunates’ season preview I wrote that we were rightly not among the favourites for anything other than a bit of a scrap – but was pleasantly surprised by how things were panning out at Christmas. Last season saw one of our best ever finishes in League 2 – 15th – and it would be a severe disappointment if all the talk of building on last year’s campaign was undone by familiar travails causing our worst ever finish in this one.