Conversations with Max Bell (Scunthorpe United)

Posted by on Dec 23, 2011 in Conversations with | One Comment
Conversations with Max Bell (Scunthorpe United)
Image available under Creative Commons © Tony Austin

The latest in our conversations series is an important one in that it features a supporter of the only Championship club to break even in 2010-11, Scunthorpe United. After our re-launch in January, we hope to increase the amount of attention paid to the financial ills of the game and as Max Bell states below — success on the pitch is no proper substitute for sustainability long term. Max helps run the blog, Any Old Iron and here ponders the future of a Scunny side adapting to life back in the bottom divisions as well as some of the pressures facing modern football.

LR: Alan Knill’s start in the hot seat back in the Spring was tempestuous with a 6-0 defeat against Norwich followed by a 4-1 battering of QPR. Since then, things have settled down a bit and if a club of Scunthorpe’s size and resources are always likely to struggle in the second tier, the mediocre first few months of the 2011-12 campaign must have been disappointing. Do you think it would always be tricky for Knill given the departure of key players over the past 24 months and should he be given plenty of time to turn things round given it could be argued that the club are in a rebuilding phase?

MB:Yes, it was certainly a lightning quick start to Knill’s reign – even though he’d conducted zero training sessions and didn’t pick the team against Norwich. But his amazing turnaround gave us hope of survival when there previously had been none – for which we are still grateful, and has bought him a bit more time this season, no question.

Frankly, when you look at the size of our club, the resources, facilities, history etc., we are a mid-table bottom tier side, nothing better. We’ve been on an incredibly enjoyable roller-coaster ride over the past 7-8 years: but there’s still enough mileage in this club, and quality in the squad, to continue over-achieving for a little while yet.

That being said: is it unrealistic to expect a team, post-relegation, to be higher in the table than 19th and with less than a point a game? I don’t think so…. It’s been an incredibly frustrating season, sullied by inconsistency – and the fans’ analysis understandably warped by expectations. Nobody in North Lincolnshire seriously expects, or really ever expected, promotion – get us in the top half and we’d be very happy.

This however, is always easier said than done. I was extremely surprised when Knill, despite being an ex-skipper of Scunthorpe’s, was prepared to leave Bury for ourselves relatively late in the season: and there’s no question, he’s got an extremely difficult job on his hands with us – and there can be no question, for this he deserves time.

Even post-relegation, we lost our 2 best players – Joe Murphy, and David Mirfin: to Coventry City and Watford, on free transfers. Never mind the fact that the likes of Marcus Williams, Ramon Nuà±ez and Joe Garner: all loanees – disappeared back to their parent clubs or elsewhere – as well. The summer was always going to involve a significant rebuilding job, and like anything: that is never easy.

We all, including the manager, expected better – and the club has had an absolutely rotten November. Four defeats, one goalless draw in the cup, and not so much as a single point to stem those early winter tears and frustrations. That said – at Scunthorpe, we’re an incredibly tight-knit and loyal bunch of fans who always give the manager time, and now will be no different.

Robbed of at least a point by the referee at Notts County recently, it was an excellent performance by the players, despite being injury-ravaged – the support for them was excellent. Under the circumstances, it was amazing: and I was congratulated by countless County fans on the train home for it. You only have to look at Hartlepool to see how trigger-happy some clubs can be.

We all know that Knilly would dearly love to shed some fat from the team, and get rid of a fair few: his responses in press conferences leave this desire thinly disguised – and the fans will hold firm with him. We did right up until Baraclough’s sacking last season – and frankly, that was a huge shock.

If we can conjure just a few wins before the end of December, and make sure that we don’t slide down the table any further, then Knill will get plenty of time: and like Scunthorpe managers before him, he will no doubt reward us for our patience.

LR: As the club rebuilds, which players are catching the eye this season and which do you feel aren’t quite cutting the mustard? – and what of Chris Dagnall? He was brought in 18 months ago as a direct replacement for Gary Hooper after tearing a strip through League 2 defences for Rochdale. Do you have confidence that he can find his muse in the third tier?

MB: This season has been an incredibly frustrating one – marred by individual errors, underperformances, and costly injuries to key players at key times. The underperforming has now almost reached a nadir: despite many encouraging, and arguably simply excellent performances across the season – we sit 5th bottom at Christmas, and with Knill’s future on an absolute knife-edge.

The cutting edge has been absolutely abysmal this season – which has surprised many fans who thought that the strikers, who unsurprisingly struggled last season in the Championship, would be more at home in the 3rd tier. This has not always been so. Bobby Grant’s return of goals so far hasn’t been bad in fairness – but despite glimmers of absolute brilliance, he just hasn’t been a consistent, delivering threat for us. The same goes for so many of the others.

Michael O’Connor, hailed as the man who could drag us back to the Championship has been surprisingly disappointing, and frustratingly ineffective far too many times: and Chris Dagnall hasn’t quite hit the ground running yet either. He didn’t even start the last game for us: so I somewhat doubt he can be the man to drag us up the table in the very near future: which breaks our hearts, as there’s some real quality in there.

That said – this is still his first full season in League One: can we give him time; and more service from behind perhaps? We’ve certainly been spoilt with strikers of late – and replacing Hooper was an impossibility: but sitting where we are in the table is still unacceptable, and the lack of goals is slowly asphyxiating us.

Andy Barcham and Jimmy Ryan have been two brighter spots however and it’s no fluke that they’re Knill’s summer signings. They offer genuine creative output, and it was an incredibly bitter blow to lose them both. No coincidence that Barcham scored on his first game back, (our first goal in over four games), and Ryan helped us halt the slide after four successive defeats on his debut.

Barcham may be worth a look up front, but I’d be surprised – we need goals: and bloody badly……

LR: Talking more generally, I was struck by your comment that Scunthorpe’s natural position is as a mid-table lowest tier side. Do you think the location of the town is a blessing or a curse? It’s relatively isolated which can mean less competition for fans but is perhaps too far from centres of population for a large supporter base to develop. Plus, who do you see as your main rivals?

MB: Like everything, the location of Scunny is both a blessing and a curse. When comparing to others, we are relatively isolated: but if you travel for half an hour in all directions – you hit bigger clubs in all directions, it’s just a shame none of them are in our division!

A one-horse town of just over 60,000 that’s been slowly losing its horse (the steelworks) is always going to struggle when it comes to attracting fans to come and pay week in, week out – to sustain a huge football club, it’s not necessarily about the location of the town, more its make-up.

Despite this, you only have to look at the amount of fans we get through the door — we have average League 2 facilities, attendances, infrastructure etc. Even when we won the League One title at a canter (!), our attendances were 16th/24th. Economics is the thing to catch the conscience of the King – so triumphing against adversity: even beating Newcastle United at home in the league (!), has been an absolute joy. We’ve been bloody privileged.

But being supposedly isolated isn’t that restrictive in my opinion. Whilst we’re robbed of a comparatively large population area to call upon: you only have to see how Bury, Rochdale, Dagenham, Accrington and others struggle to get fans through the gate ahead of their very large neighbours.

Despite the low attendances per se, (in the Championship in the last two seasons, our average attendances have been dwarfed by Luton in the Conference), the club always fares particularly well when it comes to getting a % of its inhabitants through the gates – and being a working-class town up North definitely helps.

Look at how the likes of Chester, York, Salisbury, Bath, Cambridge, Oxford and so many more clichà©d, genteel places have comparatively struggled. Having a bit of iron, steel and grit in your town-folk is an absolute blessing for all football clubs.

Top of that list when it comes to relative success, has always been Burnley. So being isolated is by no means a death knell at dawn for any club. And when it comes to our town, I will defend it, and its people, to the hilt.

Traditionally, our main rivals have been Grimsby. But in the last 21 seasons, we’ve had just one in their division. For years we were at least a league below them, so to have spent a season an entire three divisions (!) above them is something our fans could never have dreamed of.

Lincoln have always been up there: and there was real animosity and competition, (it was bloody brilliant), back in the late Keith Alexander’s reign – but we’ve climbed higher: and now they’re badly struggling in the Conference graveyard.

We’ve had a brief flirt with Doncaster: and whilst the games have always been tasty and lovely football affairs, the animosity or the passion just isn’t there at the sterile Keepmoat sadly. In truth, we are similar clubs with similar approaches to football and life: hopefully we’ll see them again soon!

That leaves Hull. We really have been that annoying younger cousin of late to them. Their attendances tend to be at least 4x ours depending on success – and the North/South Humber divide: coupled with accusations of local media bias, has always made for tasty affairs.

Unless it goes tits up there: we’re unlikely to be challenging them any time soon, but our 90th minute 1-0 win there last year, (along with something similar back in 01/02), are two of my all-time favourite memories in football. The stuff dreams are made of!

At the moment, we’re struggling for rivals. So if any of the above four want to get in our division, stay there: and provide enjoyable clashes for the next dozen years: I’d be absolutely delighted!

LR: Your moniker on twitter was until recently @IronSocialist and is now @UseTheLeftWing and you have touched on some of the social and economic issues facing the modern game in your last answer. As a fan who clearly cares, what steps do you think can be taken to increase the role of the people in the sport as it has been transformed in recent years? Do you feel that a more proactive, radical stance as a supporter is the only way to stand up to the market based ravages of Sky Sports, the Premier League and others and do you fear for football’s future given the widespread financial irresponsibility?

MB: There’s no easy answer as to how football can be dragged back from the ridiculous, leveraged and frankly immoral über-capitalist minefield in which it finds itself, and the pit that the Premier League is dragging English football into seems to have no exit, or light at the end of the tunnel.

Sure, there’s more football on television than ever before, and whilst this is welcome in many ways, this is not a panacea to our solutions – never mind the disease it has ravaged on football. If Sky were to pull out, there would be an implosion as never seen before. Think it’s impossible? You look at Setanta and ITV Digital and then say that.

The UEFA driven initiative that all clubs in their competitions must break even, (bar youth investment, infrastructure spending etc.), is a good start, but only affects a tiny percentage of English football. The FA need to show some mettle and count it to all football clubs across their competitions: bar none, no exceptions.

Then they can address the frankly disgusting polarisation between players and fans that comes with their absolutely obscene wages. If you’ve got fans in the Championship being forced to subsidise wages of £50,000 per week – then we can all see something’s gone very badly wrong.

The Premier League in particular, with all its ridiculous neo-liberal talk of marketisation and products etc. has followed the example that the Financial Services sector set during the late 20th, and early 21st century. Their existence is leveraged to within an inch of its life, artificially creating an environment that makes football un-affordable for so many families.

We all know how just the bubble bursts come the crunch – and football will be no exception: its implosion is guaranteed eventually. Despite the almost unique loyalty of its fans, (I’ll call them customers over my dead body), it is a simply unavoidable mathematical fact.

Punishing CVAs and administration with points deductions is a nice start – but it just isn’t enough. Whilst we sympathise with the helpless fans, clubs that can’t manage their books better than university students deserve the ultimate punishment. Immediate relegation – by more than one division if necessary or appropriate.

Make it illegal for clubs to receive loans from all sources unless it’s for community projects, infrastructure or youth development. The only difference between Fulham and Oxford is that the former has had an Egyptian sugar-daddy inject £200m which they still owe him. This is both unsustainable and immoral.

Hopefully, all of this will dramatically reduce clubs’ cost, facilitating hugely decreased ticket prices for all fans – and increasing their focus on new long-term developments. Manchester United focusing more on selling shirts in Malaysia, than curing ills in Moss Side literally makes me sick to my stomach.

This needs root and branch reform, and I have less than zero confidence in the current establishment to perform the life-saving surgery that’s required to save what used to be the nation’s game. Football has become fashionable, and it’s been absolutely ruined.

Even if the likes of Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour walked away, pushing Man City and Chelsea into liquidation – Portsmouth and Leeds didn’t snap the powerful into action: I can’t see it changing. I am the ultimate idealist into what we can craft football into, but the ultimate cynic into whether it will ever happen.

And I haven’t even touched on the 51% supporter ownership that is legally mandatory in Spain. It’s not as if Barcelona have turned into a bunch of plod-carriers now is it?!

Scunthorpe have got more chance of winning the FA Cup……….

LR: Given this and given that in our per-season preview with The Seventy Two, you described the club as being excellently run, does it make you happy that Scunthorpe seem to appreciate the importance of cutting one’s cloth and do you feel the adjustment to League 1 football has been negotiated well financially at least — even if events on the pitch haven’t been quite so encouraging?

MB: Yes, I do take immense pride at the fact that Scunthorpe are on a sound financial footing: this is ingrained in the vast majority of Iron supporters, who really do appreciate the fact that, unlike so many of our neighbours and predecessors, that living within our means guarantees league football, and no financial worries for – touch wood! – the next couple of generations.

Of course, we wouldn’t be human if it still didn’t hurt when see the effects that prudence has caused on the pitch, notably the loss of Paul Hayes, Gary Hooper, Grant McCann, Marcus Williams, Matt Sparrow, Nigel Adkins, Martyn Woolford and the relegation that followed.

But frankly, I’d rather this be our situation than the tragic situation that Plymouth now find themselves in. Christ, they’re a bigger club than Scunthorpe – and have looked destined for oblivion.

Never mind the fact that it’s completely abhorrent for a side’s future to be indexed to as to how much debt they can run up: so there is a lot to be said for being the only Championship side to have had no debt last season – a position I wouldn’t have traded for all the tea in china.

We’ve had a particularly striking financial cutback post-relegation to League One: but as we’ve seen the gates collapse – it’s been necessary in almost every factor. I’d like to see us invest in long-term infrastructure a touch more: but such is life sometimes. We’ve still signed a good lot of decent players and have, on paper at least, a squad that’s good enough to be competitive in League One. The fact that we find ourselves 5th bottom at Christmas goes beyond financial competency.

Unlike Sheffield Utd, (with Ched Evans on £20,000 per week), and Preston (with Peter Ridsdale seemingly about to administrate them), our transition to League One life has been seamless – and despite the gates being well in the bottom third of the division, (if not bottom quarter), our wage budget is – even post-relegation, close to reflecting that.

We’ll be obliged to spend a few more quid trying to nudge us up the table and guarantee safety and more into the New Year: but I’m confident that nothing too dramatic will be necessary. And to be honest, we all know that bodies have to leave first before new ones come in: it’s about management, rather than invention of assets.

And I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 50 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

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