Old school the way forward for Imps
In the first of an as-it-happens series looking at the circumstances of changes at managerial level this season, Mike Holden ponders the best route to League Two survival – and beyond – for Lincoln.
Right from day one, you couldn’t escape the impression that this was a marriage of convenience rather than heavenly match for all the right reasons, so it comes as no surprise to learn that Chris Sutton and Lincoln City have gone their separate ways, a year and a day after exchanging vows.
Even in his earliest interviews, Sutton never gave the impression of a man who chose Sincil Bank as the ideal setting to embark on the start of a lifelong managerial dream.
If anything, he seemed distinctly blasà© about the opportunity, as if he were doing the Imps a favour, dropping to their level in order to find out if he had what it takes, and seldom in the subsequent 12 months did it appear as though he did anything other than go through the motions.
Behind the scenes
Maybe his public persona did him a disservice. Maybe he’s a different man behind closed doors. Maybe he did spend countless hours swatting up on his next opponents and dedicated exhaustive time looking into ways of incorporating the latest sports science strategies, rather than the token gestures from memory adopted by many big-time ex-pros. However, judging by the general lack of insight emanating from his post-match interviews, what we know would suggest otherwise.
Put simply, Sutton was a contacts man. He had played the game at the highest level for more than a decade and knew all the right people in all the right places. Lincoln, on the other hand, were hard-up and desperate. With no real long-term strategy in place, the directors obviously took one look at the budget and winced at the unlikelihood of the Imps mounting a serious promotion challenge anytime soon.
And so it was that Sutton came in and spent most of his time on the phone looking for favours. Within three months, he had taken four youngsters from Fulham, courtesy of Roy Hodgson (his old gaffer at Blackburn), and another three from Aston Villa, courtesy of Martin O’Neill (his old gaffer at Celtic), and it’s fair to assume none of those new arrivals put a strain on resources.
A short-term fix
Naturally, the early signs were promising. The enthusiasm that seemed to be lacking from Sutton was clearly evident in a handful of whippersnappers getting their first taste of professional football. But, predictably, they all had lessons to learn and mistakes to make, so results were anything but consistent.
Now the shortcomings of the strategy are transparent. Those who fared best for Lincoln last season were welcomed back by their parent clubs in the summer, while those who carry little hope of a glittering future were offloaded — back to Lincoln, on a permanent basis.
It’s a situation best summed up by the case of Davide Somma, the South African striker who proved a big success with nine goals in 13 games on loan from Leeds United towards the end of last season. Earlier this week, Sutton was left lamenting the void left behind by Somma’s absence after watching his team fire three successive blanks — as if his presence could ever have been taken for granted.
And that seems like a decent way to sum up Sutton’s time at Sincil Bank because nowhere has the club’s lack of identity over the past 12 months been typified more than in attack. A return of 49 points from 46 leagues matches is just about acceptable for survival if that’s the number one priority, but the supporters deserve better than what was being served up in front of goal.
In those 46 games, the Imps failed to find the net from open play on 19 occasions and managed it just once in 20 further games, contributing to a grand total of 40 goals in all, which equates to one every 103 minutes.
Back to the future
So what now for the Imps?
Well, assuming what we already have about their budget, they would probably be wise to look at ways to regenerate the spirit of the Keith Alexander years. If they can’t afford decent wages and can’t invest in infrastructure, then get a manager who compensates with charisma and get back to being a club that nobody wants to play against.
Forget the public’s obsession with playing the game ‘the right way’, there should be no shame in scoring goals and winning matches when the alternatives have proved so fruitless. Everybody should have a role to play in football’s rich tapestry and Lincoln’s financial and geographical disadvantages offer them a perfect excuse to be a nasty club that ruffles feathers.
It was only five years ago that teams used to dread coming up against the Imps. Now they have an opportunity to transform themselves back into the baddies of the basement. After the failed attempts of John Schofield, Peter Jackson and now Sutton to do something different, they should go back to what worked for them. After all, John Still proved only a few months ago with Dagenham & Redbridge what can be achieved with direct, no-nonsense football.
Nowadays, the trend when discussing potential appointments is to line-up a parade of clean-cut, forward-thinking young men in suits but if any club needs an old-school manager complete with tracksuit and expletives right now, it’s Lincoln City.