Iron in the fire
As baptisms of fire go, they don’t come much more fiery than Alan Knill’s at Scunthorpe. The erstwhile Bury manager’s first game in charge of the team he once played for took place at Carrow Road and saw his side given a brutal pummelling. Norwich’s mercilessness was exemplified by the fact that one hat-trick (from Grant Holt) was followed by another from Simeon Jackson, a player whom Paul Lambert had only allowed twenty minutes to impress.
Post-match, Knill claimed not to have been too surprised by the mauling: “Don’t get me wrong, I knew what I was getting into. We’re second from bottom and I know it’s a team that has problems. I knew that when I came and this match confirmed what I was expecting.” His shellshocked expression, though, gave the appearance of someone just beginning to realise the magnitude and impossibility of the job they’ve agreed to take on – the sort of expression you’d expect to find on the face of El-Hadji Diouf’s PR man or Joey Barton’s defence lawyer. It can’t have helped that, while his hapless new charges were being demolished in East Anglia, his old side Bury were merrily sweeping aside Oxford with two goals from Nicky Ajose, the momentum of their automatic promotion train apparently unaffected by the fact that the driver had disembarked en route.
It got no easier for Knill, either – following hard on the heels of the Championship’s second-placed side were (you guessed it) those at the absolute summit, QPR, who had suffered just four defeats all season. A no-brainer – or so you’d have thought. Knill had demanded a reaction and once again the reality far outstripped his expectations, the Iron recovering from an early setback to crush the champions elect 4-1. This time it was Knill basking in the glory, Neil Warnock delivering the shellshocked exit interview.
But, with the West Londoners cruising towards the title and knowing they could afford to drop points, an arguably greater challenge awaited Knill and Scunthorpe in the shape of the division’s most in-form outfit, Reading, the side against whom they secured survival last campaign. Three days on from the QPR victory, the Iron couldn’t repeat the trick, though, second-half goals from Shane Long and Ian Harte ruthlessly punishing a failure to make early pressure and opportunities count.
Seven successive wins have taken Brian McDermott’s men deep into the play-off scrummage, but the latest one also left Knill’s side six points from safety with seven games to play. (It could have been worse had Leicester’s Matt Oakley not denied 21st-placed Crystal Palace two precious points.) Survival remains a possibility but the likelihood is that, together with fellow basement dwellers Preston and Sheffield Utd, Scunthorpe will be giving up their seat at the second tier table to Brighton before long.
Should it come to pass, I don’t suspect the Iron’s relegation will raise many eyebrows. Just consider the facts: they sold off all of their prize attacking assets – Gary Hooper, Paul Hayes, Martyn Woolford – without any significant reinvestment; they lost to Southampton the alchemist who had done a magnificent Hollowayesque job of fusing supposedly base metals into something that glittered; and with a ground, fanbase and budget all most kindly described as modest, they’ve had to try to compete with the likes of Cardiff (boasting Craig Bellamy on a permanent loan and two Arsenal loanees too) and Leicester (who Sven-Goran Eriksson is moulding into a Premier League side simply by the stealthy introduction of a new top-flight reserve each week). Never mind this season; it’s a miracle they survived last.
Objectively Bury look to have much the same potential as Scunthorpe, so if Knill does come face-to-face with his former employers in League One next season, it’ll be interesting to see whether his decision to leave is vindicated.