When we previewed the new League Two season back in July, the Shrimps of Morecambe FC were about as popular with our pundits and the bookies as they would be chez Roy Keane.
The Lancashire club had been open and honest with the playing personnel throughout the summer and with gates in 2012-13 averaging out at a meagre 1,954, the likes of Will Haining, Gary McDonald and Lewis Alessandra were advised to seek career opportunities elsewhere – not because of any lack of ability; more because the club simply couldn’t afford to keep them.
On the eve of the season, Danny Carlton was also refused a new contract, the striker leaving for Hyde and manager Jim Bentley expressing regret at the clear out.
But this was no Martin O’Neill style temper tantrum in response to Chairman Peter McGuigan’s apparent parsimony – Bentley himself knew that to keep league football at the Globe Arena, the strategy would revolve around the hiring of higher league cast offs and promising part timers.
It’s been as clear a bout of cost cutting as we have perhaps seen in the Football League in recent years and to date, it has brought quietly spectacular dividends.
After an icky start which included a seemingly ominous reverse in front of 14,590 against Portsmouth at Fratton Park and the boost provided by a League Cup win and narrow reverse against 1950s giants Wolverhampton Wanderers and Newcastle United respectively, confidence has steamrollered and the Shrimps are unbeaten in eight league games, lying fourth in the table and finding themselves just two points behind Chesterfield.
Not that the mood was so perky when the Spireites came to the shores of Morecambe Bay at the start of this month. In a display of abject defending, the club were flattered to be just the three goals behind; the team whom most are labelling as the best this year’s League 2 has to offer were cantering.
An hour later, however, and in the words of reporter Adam Lord on a recent edition of the We Are Going Up! Podcast, grown men were crying – an eight sixth winner from Padraig Amond sealing the comeback and a quite frankly dotty 4-3 win.
With momentum maintained via an encouragingly narrow penalties defeat to in-form Carlisle in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and now managerless Bury swatted aside at the weekend, there is a real steeliness to Morecambe and so the question is, can they keep it going?
Amond has been one of the stand out men in this year’s renaissance – joining from Accrington having previously plied his trade in the Portuguese top flight, the Irishman is joint top scorer on four goals while he was a constant menace in the Newcastle game – the Magpies living on their nerves before the Ameobi brothers popped up with late goals.
Elsewhere, Mark Hughes, once of North Queensland Fury, has come straight in as captain and looked as solid as the proverbial while Alex Kenyon from Stockport and Ryan Williams from Rhyl have demonstrated the jewels to be discovered in non-league even if the latter was a little too intent on practising his shooting against the Magpies.
Another cast off, Bolton’s Jack Sampson has also been excellent and the incomers have done much to make up for the loss to injury of Jack Redshaw and Chris McCready before the start of the campaign.
But it’s not only been about the turnover in the squad – Kevin Ellison may be, in Lord’s words, ‘a permanently angry man’ and the match against the Toon was no exception but the classic player a fan would always want in their line up (but not in anyone else’s) is once again proving himself to be a crucial cog at the age of 34.
Last year, Ellison enraged supporters of his old club Rotherham by celebrating Morecambe’s 2-1 win in front of them and this season has seen little let up in the niggliness nor, it must be said, his habit of scoring spectacular goals.
Like Leyton Orient a division above, however, the squad is origami thin and a bench stuffed full of academy graduates in the Chesterfield game underlines how reliant Morecambe are on Redshaw and McCready remaining unaccompanied on the treatment table.
McGuigan stresses that the wage bill is less important to the bottom line than attendances at this level and for a club lying in twenty third place above Dagenham & Redbridge alone in that regard, that’s not good news.
As my fellow blogger Lloyd pointed out in our season preview, average gates at the Globe Arena are down a thousand from the first year of league football under Sammy McIlroy half a decade or so ago and with a capacity of 6,400, there’s a possibility Morecambe may have built too big when the stadium opened in 2010 – 5,400 showed for the Newcastle game with capacity no doubt reduced on police orders but success on gates of less than a thousand is surely unsustainable.
The latest annual accounts submitted to Companies House listed ‘cash at bank’ of £18,754, less than many individual Championship players take home each week, while liabilities totalled £962,827 and the club has suffered a transfer embargo in the past after they breached the 60% wages to turnover salary cap.
Hence the budget cuts – even ingenious experiments such as last year’s free entry for the home game against the Daggers have failed to ignite interest while League 1 would certainly be a risky place to be for such a shoestring operation. The next set of numbers, due for submission in February next year, will make for interesting reading.
But McGuigan and Bentley are proving themselves adept at cutting their cloth and in a division where few have money, togetherness, spirit and tenacity can take you a long way – just witness Burton Albion’s exploits of last season.