Back in February, John Dobson shook things up at TTU Towers with a post that really hit a nerve – his healthy attendance at Huddersfield Town games in recent months providing him with a deep insight into that club’s seemingly outrageous firing of Lee Clark. That said, John’s first love are York City, a team that have waited too long in the purgatory of non-league. Here, John hails the return of the Minstermen.
It’s good to be back.
It’s been eight years, eight long years, since York City were a Football League club, but after a tremendous performance in the play-off final against Luton Town, they’re back.
Those with long memories may remember the shambles of a team that went down at the end of the 2003-4 season. After the club had its ground taken from it by Douglas Craig – a man later to play a vital role in the move of Wimbledon to Milton Keynes – sold from underneath it, a notice of intention to resign from the league issued, a takeover by the Walter Mitty figure that was John Batchelor and eventual rescue by the fans, the performances on the field had become almost a side issue. The Craig and Batchelor eras have been done to death and it’s not worth repeating here. Suffice to say that the club and the fans came through that period black and blue, beaten but not unbowed, with a new understanding of what football had become and all it entailed.
With the fans now in charge, costs had to be trimmed and that’s how the club ended up with the horribly inexperienced Chris Brass in charge of the team. In their last twenty games in the football league, York City won a nice round number of them. The roundest number, in fact – zero. That’s relegation form in anybody’s language and York were relegated to the Conference with barely a whimper.
The Conference is a notoriously difficult league to get out of, via the upward route anyway. Several managers have tried with the Minstermen. First was Billy McEwan. The abrasive Scot got City to the play-offs, but missed out in a semi to Morecambe, but McEwan at least got the club turned round. The affable Colin Walker succeeded him, but after initially impressing, it was clear he wasn’t the answer. Martin Foyle was next and got the club to finals in the FA Trophy and the play-offs, only to lose both. Finally, there was Gary Mills.
Foyle had done a lot of good work at the club, but Mills was the one to add something extra. Mills had a plan. Playing a proper 4-3-3, City became one of the more attractive passing sides in the division. Throughout the last campaign, they stuck to the footballing principles demanded of them by the manager, even when knocked about by more physical sides. The play-off semi-final against Mansfield was such a test. The Stags were uber-physical, but City stuck to The Plan and eventually overcame them in extra time. In the final, they were behind after 75 seconds, but again didn’t panic and ultimately prevailed comfortably to go back up to the Football League.
Mills has remained. So has the bulk of the promotion-winning squad. Of the first team of last season, only Australian left-back James Meredith has moved on – to Bradford City despite reported interest from League 1 and Championship clubs. The areas that required strengthening for a league campaign have been addressed, particularly central midfield where defenders were routinely employed at the back end of last season as the numbers simply ran out. There’s better quality in depth as well.
Up front, ex-Oxford man Oli Johnson and Michael Coulson from Grimsby are added to last season’s stars Jason Walker, Matty Blair and Ashley Chambers. Former Darlington man John McReady adds depth to midfield and Danny Blanchett replaces Meredith in the left-back berth while youth team captain Tom Platt is added to the first team squad, but the big signings are familiar names to the Bootham Crescent faithful.
Mills had already shown that he was never going to be beholden to the old adage that you should never go back. Chris Smith was part of that 2004 side that was dumped out of the League in such ignominious circumstances, but Mills brought him back towards the end of the 2010-11 season before signing him permanently for 2011-12 and making him captain. The classy defender was captain in both of City’s trips to Wembley last season and duly lifted both the FA Trophy and play-off trophy on consecutive weekends in the North London sunshine. This summer, Mills has again gone to old club yearbooks and pulled out two names.
Lee Bullock was also a member of the squad in 2004 and scored a memorable winner away at Huddersfield Town in happier times. He left for Cardiff, the troubled club’s only saleable asset, and has since been to Hartlepool, Mansfield and Bradford. Now 31, he returns to his first club for their return to the league. He adds quality in the central area, but is also capable at centre-back where his ability on the ball can help launch attacks. Also returning is midfielder Jonathan Smith who spent the 2010/11 season with the club before becoming Paolo di Canio’s second signing at Swindon. A rangy, dominating character in the centre, he’ll complement Bullock and former Lincoln man Scott Kerr who missed the back of last season through injury.
Off-field matters are still of major concern, of course. The fans are no longer the majority stakeholders after 75% of the club plus one share was bought by a local packaging firm, the proprietors of which were involved in the initial Supporters Trust purchase of club and ground. The ground was bought back with loans from the Football Supporters Federation on the proviso that they were repaid when the ground was sold. A deal with a housing developer was done in principle and plans for a new ground were put in motion. Bootham Crescent was built in the 1920s and both looks and feels it. Nobody wants to leave, but the amount of money it costs just to maintain the old girl is dead money a small club like York cannot afford to keep shelling out. The process of even finding a site for a new stadium has been long and laborious, but between the two Wembley finals last season, the go-ahead for a new ground at the out-of-town site at Monks Cross – where the city’s professional Rugby League side, the Knights, play – was finally given and work is expected to begin shortly with the plan to be in it for the start of the 2013-14 season.
It’ll be a wrench to leave the Crescent – of course it will. It was where Spurs were beaten in 1955 on the run through to the FA Cup semi-finals that year. It was where Keith Houchen scored THAT penalty to beat Arsenal. It was where the 1983-4 Fourth Division championship was clinched with a then-record 101 points. It was where Manchester United and Everton’s Coca-Cola Cup runs were ended in 1995 and 1996 respectively. It was where David Longhurst died in tragic circumstances – the Shipton Street terrace still bears his name. But leave we must.
With Gary Mills in charge, it’s easy to believe that anything is possible. The squad looks good, the football is attractive and there’s a buzz about the place that’s been missing during the Conference years. Mistakes of the past have been ironed out and everything feels positive on and off the field – not the default setting for York City fans. It’s an unusual situation to be in, but it feels good and long may it continue.