Fat ladies and fairy lights at Macclesfield Town
There are gripping battles at the top and bottom of every division in the Football League, but the most apocalyptic is always the scramble to climb clear of the foot of League Two. Macclesfield Town have been plunging towards the precipice for a number of months, meaning it’s now or never for the Silkmen to string a couple of wins together and save their Football League status. Kieran Knowles reports.
A weekly football newspaper recently ran an article on the battle to beat the drop from League Two and quickly came to the conclusion that, “barring a miracle”, Macclesfield Town would be relegated and so instead chose to concentrate on who would join them. It’s not like miracles haven’t been performed at Moss Rose before. Paul Ince honed his tactics whilst cutting his teeth in an unlikely first managerial role at Macc, taking over a club seven points adrift at the bottom of the league and somehow seeing them safe, before hilariously toddling off to MK Dons whilst muttering comparisons about Thierry Henry tearing himself away from Arsenal to join Barcelona to himself.
If relegation does prove to be the case this time out then the question that needs asking is not so much where did it go wrong as why hadn’t it gone wrong sooner? Macclesfield have always been a club punching well above their weight – a side who have finished in the bottom half of the table in all but two of the fourteen seasons they have spent in the fourth tier (and rock bottom of the third following a freak promotion upon their first season as a league club) and whose attendances are consistently within the bottom two of any league side over the course of a season. Does a club that on average draws crowds lower than half of the sides in the Blue Square Premier and who last troubled the promotion places after finishing sixth in 2005 really deserve to be a member of the football league?
Perversely, this season started in optimistic fashion. August saw four goal victories over both Hereford and AFC Wimbledon as well as an impressive giant killing away at Hull in the league cup. As the season progressed, results continued in a mixed fashion – wins against Northampton, Crewe, and the fancied Swindon were tempered by losses at Torquay and Cheltenham. The new year saw a struggling Bolton arrive at the Moss Rose in the FA cup and That Mendy Goal during a frantic and entertaining 2-2 draw. Since then things have rapidly deteriorated. An unfortunate run of injuries and, perhaps crucially, the sale of defender Shaun Brisley to Peterborough (following Emile Sinclair and, via Crawley, Tyrone Barnett – the Cambridgeshire side being the Manchester City to our Arsenal) has seen the side slide depressingly into the relegation zone. The season has had a whiff of the Final Destination movies about it – a club who has improbably evaded death in the past now finally seeming to be getting their gory comeuppance.
Macclesfield chose to play their last two home games on a Friday evening, as if a last desperate roll of the tactical dice to see whether the players are perhaps nocturnal, their football talents vampiric – enhanced by the glow of floodlights and moon.
It hasn’t worked. The latest showing against Shrewsbury was a ragbag of the sublime (Rotherham loanee Marcus Marshall channelling the future ghost of Cruyff as he glided past players) to the ridiculous (almost everything else). The near constant hoofing of balls from defence became all the more frustrating for the few moments when a more patient passing style of play led to something more tangible than a throw-in for the opposition on the halfway line. During the game the away support mocked the home crowd with chants of “You’re s**t and you know you are”, as if fans of a club second bottom of the league had any case for defence on that front.
The one moment of mercy came when Macclesfield almost apologetically allowed Shrewsbury to score mere seconds after pulling it back to 1-2, as if not wanting to deceive the home fans of any hope of salvation. It ended 3-1 to the Shrews, Macclesfield seemingly surrendering and lacking fight or desire. An admittance after the game by the home manager that Shrewsbury wanted it more was damning.
Through the sheen of drizzle that fell ceaselessly during the match a house behind one corner of the ground could be seen to be bizarrely lit up by fairy lights. How the club itself must wish it was still Christmas, before a run that has seen the side go eighteen league games without a win, dropping from 14th to 23rd in the table and somewhat inevitably firing Gary Simpson, the man who had been number two to Keith Alexander and promoted to manager after his tragic death, along the way.
Following that sacking there were calls from some supporters for a return for Sammy McIlroy, the club’s most successful manager who had been responsible for gaining Macclesfield promotion to the Football League for the first time in their history. Instead the board chose to hire a different manager from the past – Brian Horton, who had led the club to an unlikely sixth place finish and play-off semi final in 2005 before being sacked two seasons later after a dreadful start that saw the team rooted to the bottom of the table. The anticipated ‘bounce’ that comes upon a change of management hasn’t materialised. His first match in charge saw the side go down 4-2 at Rotherham and they have only picked up one point from the three matches since.
Horton remains bullish. Following the defeat to Shrewsbury he declared, “I’ve been in worse positions and managed to keep the team up. So until the fat lady sings I’ll be fighting for it.”
Macclesfield’s run-in hardly inspires confidence though: a tricky trip to an inconsistent Port Vale side, a visit from a rejuvenated Crewe in the hunt for the play-offs, and ending away at a Southend side that might still be at that time in contention for automatic promotion. Only matches at Bradford and home to Burton seem conceivably winnable, though the concept of winning seems entirely alien to Macc at the moment.
Joey Barton, in an interview to the QPR website, recently announced, “The next eight games govern our futures… there are livelihoods on the line. People’s careers are on the line.” Those words sound a tad melodramatic when referring to a Premier League side owned by multi-millionaires. When applied to Macclesfield, though, they are entirely appropriate. Recent history suggests that, with the likes of Wrexham, York, Grimsby, and Luton (each inarguably bigger clubs than Macc) all failing to regain entry to the league, a rapid return is by no means a certainty. The next few weeks will decide our fate. The fat lady is presumably practicing her scales in anticipation.