Aldershot Town: A spark of recognition for the phoenix from the flames
He may have been one of the original members of Wimbledon’s infamous ‘Crazy Gang’, writes Chris Quinn, but no-one is laughing at Dean Holdsworth’s new team – Aldershot Town.
Holdsworth took over from Keith Dillon halfway through last season, joining the Shots from Welsh club Newport County, and steering the club away from the threat of relegation, losing only four games after taking charge and finishing the season in 14th position.
With Jim Bentley’s Morecambe having stormed to the summit of League Two and newly-promoted Crawley Town the main focus of the press attention, Aldershot have quietly put together an eight-game unbeaten run that sees them one point outside the play-off places, including three wins in the League Cup.
The latest in this string of impressive results was Tuesday’s victory over League One Rochdale, which saw Aldershot make it through to the last 16 of the competition for the first time in their brief history.
While Holdsworth was getting his then-Wimbledon chairman Sam Hammam to kiss his backside, debt-ridden Aldershot FC were going out of business. Aldershot Town replaced them in the lower echelons of the English football ladder, dreaming of one day returning to Football League status. The new club crest contains a description of the club as ‘The Rising Phoenix’ and depicts the sacred mythical creature rising from the flames, as well as the year the club was founded, 1992.
It took sixteen years for Aldershot to regain that cherished league status and they had failed to win a solitary League Cup fixture — until this year. They haven’t gone about it the easy way either. While two of their three games may have been at home in the competition, all three games have been against opposition from a higher division, with their one away day at Championship favourites West Ham United.
After a poor start to the season, losing three and winning only one game, Aldershot were drawn to play at Upton Park. Shots fans were prepared to exit the competition at the first hurdle yet again and when Junior Stanislas put the Hammers ahead, it seemed the trend was set to continue.
However, amongst a good passing ethos and a desire to caress the ball, Holdsworth has also instilled resilience amongst his players and this determination, and entertaining style of play, was on show at the Boleyn Ground. Alex Rodman fired a shot in at young goalkeeper Ruud Boffin and he parried, only to find creative influence Luke Guttridge who tapped home. Then, in the 89th minute, Danny Hylton scored the winner for the Shots and left his manager declaring the game as the “best moment of his career”.
This was no smash-and-grab though. The Shots had almost split possession with their Championship opponents and had fired in 19 shots at goal (9 on target) that night. Holdsworth has crafted a passing mentality amongst his squad and has removed all fear of receiving the ball, a fact which shone through as the Shots confidently set about their comeback. West Ham were playing with ten men for most the second half, but make no argument against it – Aldershot deserved their time in the limelight. Holdsworth’s men again showed their never-say-die attitude three days later, claiming a point away at Oxford after coming from behind to draw 1-1.
The cup was swiftly back on the agenda at the EBB Stadium as Aldershot hosted League One outfit Carlisle. The Cumbrians were lacklustre and comfortably brushed aside by the Shots who were ‘average’ in their manager’s frank words. A 1-0 win at home to Cheltenham was almost worthless as Aldershot trailed AFC Wimbledon in their next home fixture. But as they continue to prove, Holdsworth’s men don’t know when they’re beaten and a Hylton equaliser in the 95th minute rescued a point. Holdsworth thought they deserved more and threatened the rest of the division by declaring: “We will really hurt someone soon”.
He wasn’t wrong. Hereford were dispatched at Edgar Street before Holdsworth took his men to much-fancied Bristol Rovers. A goal straight out of the manager’s manual was enough to seal all the points as Mark Rankine picked the ball up out wide (Holdsworth loves to get his wingers involved) and bustled his way into the box, where Alex Rodman showed great alertness to follow up and smash the ball home after Rankine’s effort was blocked. Rovers piled on the pressure but the Shots’ determination was again apparent as defenders threw themselves into every 50-50 and at every ball aimed at their goal.
That sent Aldershot into their most recent League Cup outing full of confidence and it showed as they defeated Rochdale, despite going a goal behind once again. Ashley Grimes put the visitors ahead but Aldershot levelled it with a fantastic overhead kick by the in-form Rankine, before that man Hylton again won it for Shots with a sublime half-volley.
That leaves the Shots as the lowest-ranked team in the competition, but also left the manager demanding more from his players:
“I still think we can get better and they know it. I asked them at half-time, ‘have you got the ability to play the best 45 minutes of your lives, to write history for the football club?’ There’s a great team spirit here and I’m delighted with the never-say-die attitude.”
A mouth-watering clash with Crawley awaits the Shots this weekend and Holdsworth will be tasked with banishing the players’ thoughts of cup progress and focus them on a push up the table. A win would see them leapfrog their opponents and would no doubt make the rest of the media sit up and take notice.
Holdsworth has continually asked his players for more and every week they seem to produce just that. If they can up their game again this weekend, then Aldershot can begin to dream of creating yet more history – by gaining promotion to their highest level yet.