Can the rule of Laws be re-established at Scunthorpe United?
On Tuesday, two goals from Niall Canavan helped bring about one of the most surprising results of the Football League season, Scunthorpe United travelling to Walsall and returning to Lincolnshire with a frankly inexplicable 4-1 victory. Here, Max Bell assesses the recent changeover in managerial power at Glanford Park and the return of Brian Laws.
Oh alright, not a great pun I confess – but at least I gave it a better fist than all the rest of the coverage on this topic. “Laying down the Laws” repeat ad hoc.
But if you hadn’t guessed it, last week Scunthorpe United finally lost previously unbound patience and sacked our undoubtedly unsuccessful manager Alan Knill. Given his woeful win ratio of barely 20% and a points per game ratio of just 1.01 – and even after 2 seasons post-relegation – it was a surprise to see the former Bury boss last this long, but absolutely no surprise to see him replaced by Brian Laws, rocking up to the climes of Sunny Scunny for his third spell in charge.
Laws already sits in second place in the all-time list of Irons managers – behind only veritable club saint Ron Ashman. If this new spell is anything like a success and similarly prolonged, Brian may well overpass this record and find himself forever cherished in the Scunthorpe United history books.
There were other names in the ring, especially ex-Hull boss Nick Barmby, but they plumped for the experienced candidate, and not unjustifiably. Laws’ arrival was literally announced simultaneously with Knill’s sacking – showing a level of planning we’re most unaccustomed to from the Scunthorpe United hierarchy!
That said, with the club’s board meeting taking place on a Thursday, the plan for Knill’s ousting if we were beaten by MK Dons appears to have been drawn up at least 4 days in advance of its announcement. This meant that the current Assistant Manager Russ Wilcox must have known before Saturday given that he arrived with Brian. Rather ironically, he was BBC Humberside’s ‘Expert Summariser’ for the game and certainly did well to avoid celebrating at the prospect of his return!
Despite his last spell in charge having ended close to six years ago, and with sojourns at Sheffield Wednesday, Burnley and Shamrock interspersed, Laws still lives in the town, and was indeed heavily linked with the job last time it came round, having supposedly turned it down. Yet with Scunthorpe in armageddon-esque meltdown and Lawsy still unemployed, it was a natural fit to say the very least.
Yet, as is all too clear from the experience of Neale Cooper at Hartlepool, and the seemingly irremovable Alan Buckley at Grimsby, to name but two, that just because you give the job an extra couple of cracks of the whip, it by no means guarantees success. As such, you would expect an awful lot of cynicism at his appointment, especially given very rancorous memories for some at the near Conference relegation season of 2003-4, and Laws’ somewhat bittersweet departure to Sheffield Wednesday back in 2006 with us fighting for promotion out of the third tier for the first time in nearly half a century.
Yet this, for the vast majority of sensible souls, completely isn’t the case. The desperation in the fans’ hearts was so chronic that even had we turned round and appointed my mother, it would have been met with the response: “Well, she can’t do any worse!”
On-the-pitch, things have deteriorated unforgivably quickly under Knill’s reign, although the systemic off-the-field problems and basic lack of ambition are too deep-set to even hope to cover in this piece. Knill was by no means the sum of the problem, but his record collapses in on itself with even a modicum of inspection.
The stories coming out of the club have been embarrassing, however much credence you allow them. Un-named players have supposedly been attacking each other, with one incident even apparently involving a set of crutches. The untrue festers in the den of rumour with the half-true – and only serves to worsen the foul stench of failure, desperation and anarchy coming out of the club.
The fans had long since lost patience with just about the most dispiriting and malfeasant 18 months in the club’s history, and it simply had to come to an end before there was a revolution or worse. Crowds had horrifically, yet unsurprisingly, plummeted to more than a thousand less than what we had previously attracted in the basement division, and scarcely a third of what we’d been getting in the Championship.
This was costing the club money hand over fist, and the run of defeats showed no sign of ceasing. In modern football, we all shake our heads disappointed when another club unduly wields its axe on another undeserving soul, not quite able to deliver on the demands of instant success – but that was not the case here. Indeed, all the reaction I’ve had from supporters outside the club has been: “Why on earth did that take you so long?” … A good question.
There were some wonderful nights in the stewardship of Alan Knill, but there just simply haven’t been anything like enough and the statistics paint an irrefutable picture.
The period of decay dates back to the sale of Gary Hooper, and the loss of Nigel Adkins, Matt Sparrow, Paul Hayes, Grant McCann and Marcus Williams in the summer of 2010. Hooper is now scoring goals in the Champions League for Celtic, and Adkins manages in the Premier League. They were both never going to be with us forever: but the sale of Hooper for £2.4 million when safety was worth close to £7 million (net) to Scunthorpe United in extra revenue per annum seemed a steal for the Bhoys. Indeed, even with his contract having a little over 12 months to run, we would have been due a fee for his services, as he was still then under the age of 24. It was just madness – and it set in motion the whole host of departures. Unforgivably, we even lost Joe Murphy, Martyn Woolford and David Mirfin over the following season and summer.
It is this tepid short-sightedness that has long plagued Scunthorpe United, and even continued to do so in League One. There is a certain malaise and cowardice that somehow assumes we can’t succeed at that level for a prolonged period of time, and that talented people just aren’t for the likes of us. The release of club captain and hero Cliff Byrne was absolutely disgusting and something I will never forgive Alan Knill and his cohorts for.
There is no wide expectation of chucking good money after bad, but it is bad-management, a shocking lack of wins, coupled with a mind-set expecting failure that has had many fans wondering what on earth those in positions of power are doing. Just a bit of competence, and not this seeming desperation to piss away years of hard toil would be a wonderful improvement.
So can Brian Laws, an undoubtedly experienced and talented manager arrest all of these long-term problems single handed? Of course he can’t. That kind of alchemy in the midst of voodoo economics would warrant a seat in the Cabinet with Cameron, Clegg & co.
He even has the respective fates of both former Assistant Manager Chris Brass, (now presumably glorified kit man), and current Goalkeeping Coach Neil Cutler in his hands. Whether or not they follow Knill out the door is, according to the chairman’s statements, completely up to Laws. The result of this is likely to tell us an awful lot about the prior dynamic around the club and squad.
With his trusted sidekick Wilcox arriving, it is expected Brass will be dispensed with although as a mere Goalkeeping Coach and with no obvious replacement, Cutler has a far better chance of surviving.
And despite a horrific start to his third spell in charge of us – a 4-0 thrashing in the FA Cup away to League Two Gillingham – he will now truly realise that Rome wasn’t built in a day. The first half performance, (which finished 0-0), was better than anything I’ve seen for months from us: but the second period painted an all too familiar picture of woe, fragility and spinelessness.
After conceding the first goal, (thanks to a right back who can’t block crosses and a left back who can’t track runners), it all collapsed like a dodgy pack of cards. This pattern of folding under pressure without a moment’s resistance, coupled with an absolutely appalling lack of self-belief is the nub of the plight besetting us at the moment. That is going to be an extraordinarily difficult task for Laws & co to turn around in the time we need him to do so.
This is especially the case with his league campaign starting with successive away games in the West Midlands – at Walsall & Coventry respectively even if the first of these ended with an unlikely 4-1 win. We are already well marooned in the relegation zone, and can’t afford to have to undertake away games with the wrong attitude. Time is running out, and fast.
But the revolution has already begun. Over-the-hill winger Chris Sedgwick has already been cut adrift and released by Laws, finally recognising that this desperate signing by Knill was just symptomatic of the waste of money he was all too willing to defend. Between now and the end of January, I have no doubt there will be many, many more.
The arrival of experienced keeper Steve Mildenhall on loan from Millwall is expected imminently, and will be a welcome respite from the sadly disappointing performances of late from the fractured Sam Slocombe, suffering from a chronic lack of confidence that is acute as that of any player in the squad. Mildenhall is no Peter Shilton, but he should still do the trick if his knees don’t yet require diving in installments.
Keeping hold of prolific loan striker Leon Clarke from Charlton or other advancing eyes is absolutely vital to say the least. Not only is he the only one offering anything like a continual goal threat for us, but he inspires those around – particularly the wingers – into knowing that if they send a cross in to the box someone might actually reach it successfully. This has been all too apparent throughout our recent woes and this is an open invitation to a style of play Laws is willingly associated with.
Knill, most bizarrely for a cumbersome basement division centre-half, insisted on an extraordinary style of (attempted) possession football that was simply above and beyond the players at his disposal, and his ability to install confidence in them. The centre-backs were expected to act as the creative output for us – a barmy idea that conceded us a ridiculous amount of soft and unnecessary goals. In the medium-term, this at least should cease – thank Christ.
Clarke returned from being cup-tied on Tuesday night, but still badly needs a partner to provide a genuine threat and the prospect of us losing him at the point of his loan spell ending in January would serve to only make the current situation worse. If that was somehow possible!
Sadly however, we are at the top of our budget – and there is an awful lot of useless dross that Knill brought in – players that even he wouldn’t play. These individuals are simply fillers on the wage bill and need to be cut loose as soon as possible – our safety in the league depends upon it.
Whether or not we’re able to survive is very open to question, but you just have to hope that a bit of old-style management and firepower will clear the consciences of all those who’ve put us in this mess for the right reasons. We all wish Alan Knill well in the future, (and anybody who doesn’t is being unnecessarily churlish), but his departure was probably 2 months too late.
Just returning from writing his autobiography, “Laws of the Jungle” – Brian was given a good reception on returning: and would likely be given a hero’s one if he could even start to turn it round. He gained a good reception upon returning to Glanford Park to hawk a few copies of his book: and the question on everyone’s lips has finally been answered.
Shakespeare shan’t be quaking in his boots any time sooner, and it’s at least 100 pages too short – but it’s well worth a read. And indeed, it was apparently not even a plate of chickens he threw at Ivano Bonetti after all these years – rather a fist. Frankly, I’m almost disappointed! But plenty of fists may well need to fly to give the current Scunthorpe squad its deserved and desperately needed collective kick up the arse. Let’s just hope his current spell with us tempts him to write an extra couple of chapters in a couple of years’ time. And for all the right reasons to boot!
Having been sacked in March 2004 at the end of his first spell with us, it took a boardroom coup spearheaded by the current chairman to return Laws less than 3 weeks later. Thankfully, he was able to arrest our slide and keep us in the Football League.
But it is stories like this that lead the rumours of the loan return of Matthew Sparrow, who gave arguably the greatest individual performance I’ve ever seen from a Scunthorpe United player during a game. In Laws’ final game of his first spell, a 3-2 home defeat to Brighton, it was well known a defeat would equal the manager’s sacking: and Sparrow was the only player interested. Indeed, the local Scunthorpe lad ‘done good’, leaving his heart and soul on that pitch and putting the other 10 players to shame.
Having uncomfortably flirted with drink problems during his early career: it was up to Laws personally to go round all the pubs and clubs in Scunthorpe – and force them not to serve Sparrow. Indeed, it got to the point where landlords and pub regulars would be ringing Laws’ house if Sparrow appeared and Brian would appear to take him home single-handedly.
Imprisoned for Grievous Bodily Harm when still a young man, Matty ended up playing for us on licence upon release from prison and was bailed to Laws’ house. He then went on to score at Wembley in the play-off final for us and fire the goal to keep us in the Championship. A true club hero, the relationship between the pair of them is one of the closest in modern lower-league football, and belies the trend of the transactional, quasi-corporate face of modern soccer at all levels. Thus: with Sparrow not even close to Poyet’s starting XI at Brighton, (justifiably or otherwise), these rumours are no surprise. If you’re reading this Matt: come on, we’d all love to have you fly back to the nest.
But even more crucially, if Brian can summon up a bit of the old coaching and man-management magic as seen above: then we might just have half a chance. But deep down I still fear we don’t need a football manager, rather a magician. I just hope that come the end of April, we’ll be partying like it’s 1999!