It’s odd being doomed to relegation at this time of year. I always assumed relegation to the Conference (well, the second one) would come after a year-long scrap, just missing out on survival in the last week or two of the season. I didn’t think we’d go down the same way as last time – with the wimpiest of whimpers.
There’s not an awful lot to add to what I’ve written previous. We’ve been increasingly atrocious all season. There were excuses in the early months, injuries being the main one – our defensive woes were put down to our main centre-backs being unavailable and being forced to play left-back Tom Cruise in that position, something he was ill suited to. Initially it seemed this was true: Aaron Downes and Krystian Pearce returned and we looked much more solid defensively. But it didn’t last.
Added to this, our woes in front of goal have continued. Despite loaning a whole host of young strikers, no one has yet replicated the presence and finishing of John Marquis, who has ended up on loan at Northampton, where our ex-manager just happens to now be employed.
I can’t help but feel smug about the way things have panned out since Knill was sacked after what I wrote last time – even though citing myself isn’t cool, it’s worth noting that most of what I said has come to pass. Yes, we didn’t have to pay Bournemouth compensation for the services of Chris Hargreaves, and Knill getting another job shortly after meant that (presumably) we didn’t have to pay up his full contract, so we’re slightly less financially screwed than I thought. But the decision to sack Knill and replace him with a rookie manager now looks to have been a catastrophic blunder which will ultimately cost us everything we have worked for over the last seven years.
For one, the squad has been weakened. Knill knew what the issues with the squad were at the time we left – our form had dipped slightly after our mini-revival, but that was largely due to the loss of Marquis, who was holding the attack together on his own. By sacking Knill, not only did we lose Marquis, but we lost him to one of our relegation rivals. We also lost Damien Mozika, who was on the verge of signing a permanent contract with the club until Knill was sacked, and promptly left when he did – this says a lot considering he seemingly hasn’t joined up with another club since.
But in spite of this, Knill is still largely the fall guy as far as Torquay fans are concerned – he built the squad, therefore it’s his fault. Never mind that those fans were the ones demanding he be hired after saving us from relegation last year. Never mind that the squad he built was praised in the summer by the same fans who are now ridiculing him. Never mind that he was playing the direct style of football some of the most vocal fans wanted him to play. Never mind that the budget has become increasingly tight here and he had little room for manoeuvre or error. Never mind that he lost his chosen assistant manager Chris Brass to a relegation rival and was never allowed to hire a replacement, a sure sign that the board were no longer backing him. Never mind that his future replacement as manager was openly criticising him on television and saying that he wanted the job, knowing that he was popular enough at the club to have some influence.
As for Hargreaves, he has looked increasingly out of his depth at the helm. Ever since he took over, he has largely persisting with starting with three strikers, a bizarre tactic that was never going to be sustainable even if it worked in his first match in charge. His loan signing record has been poor. He has radically changed the composition of the line-up every week, which isn’t something that can be put down to squad rotation – I know that trying the same failing thing twice or more will probably produce the same results, but it suggests he doesn’t have any idea of who his best team is. And the performances have continued to be abysmal.
I have sympathy with him because it’s his first job in management and it couldn’t be a worse situation – taking over a club seemingly en route to relegation with little money to spend to get out of it, players who have either given up or are intent on undermining any manager that drops them, and a fanbase that lurches from declaring managers and players to be saviours to declaring them to be villains. It’s a poisonous position to be in generally, let alone when you’re learning as you go along.
The blame doesn’t lie with either Knill or Hargreaves. It lies with the owners of the club. It’s been a recurring theme in my blog entries over the past couple of years, but the complacent attitude in which the club has been run since at least the start of 2012 was always going to lead us into trouble. League Two is not a division where you can choose to stand still and be fine – you have to be moving forward to stand still, because every team is striving to improve, be it to get promoted to League One or avoid relegation to the Conference, an improving league with many large clubs which is producing strong teams capable of at least being safe in mid-table, if not pushing for consecutive promotions.
It was during our promotion push at the tail end of 2011-12 that it became apparent. Martin Ling did a fantastic job of getting us into the hunt but was not provided with any extra money to try and secure promotion, perhaps due to an idea running through the club at the time that it was “too early” for us to get promoted. We started the following season with an even more restricted squad, with the £500,000-odd we earned from transfer fees in the summer not reinvested in the squad – instead, it was spent on the new stand (which was necessary) and updating the training facilities (which was both unnecessary and has been a complete disaster – these facilities still aren’t ready to use). They assumed Ling could pull off more miracles and sacked him when he did not, even though he wasn’t in charge when our form spiralled out of control. Knill seems to have suffered a similar fate, sacked for having no more rabbits to pull out, and surely Hargreaves is equally doomed.
We have been in a tailspin since the end of 2011-12, when the squad ran out of steam during the last month and a half of the season. Without any inside information, it seems as if the playing budget has been cut time and again, and yet the board are still expecting the manager in charge to pull off miracles. But this time, making up 10 points plus goal difference to ensure our Football League survival for next season is one miracle too far – we cannot survive this.
The real worry is that unless there is a dramatic change of culture in the way the club is run, we may be staring at relegation from the Conference too, let alone attempting to get back into the Football League. There’s no place for complacency in running a football club. If they didn’t learn that last year, when will they ever learn?
Written by James Bennett, We Are Going Up’s Torquay United Blogger
James tweets at @jabennett_