4.50pm on Saturday saw the end of the season. Some people thought it would be the end of Chris Wilder. It certainly felt like the end of something.
In the end we were just four points off, or, if you like, the margin of seeing out the game and not conceding at home to Morecambe and scoring rather than hitting both posts in the last minute at Barnet. And other moments, of course, but let’s not think too much about it.
We’re two points closer to the play-offs than last year, but three less in total, but with a 3 goal improvement in goal difference, but still falling short of our target of play-offs or promotion. We can ague endlessly, and probably pointlessly, as to whether that represents an improvement or not because there are also circumstances to consider. Those circumstances. I think it’s fair to say that even if we had sneaked into the play-offs it would have been a success that ultimately papered over the cracks.
Saturday’s 3-0 win over Accrington represented the end of an era. Not, as of Thursday, the Wilder era, because he’s still here. Nope, Ian Lenagan’s speech at the press conference that announced his new contract effectively acted as the eulogy to the end of the Kelvin Thomas era.
What Thomas did for the club was absolutely necessary, we wallowed waiting for success, so he relentlessly signed the best of the rest of the Conference; Midson, Green, Crieghton, Tonkin, Clarke and Bulman. It allowed us to capitalise on our key asset – our comparative size. The strategy continued for two more years after we were promoted.
While it smacks of cripplingly poor planning, it’s no accident that we have 16 players out of contract this summer. This represents the slowing down of Thomas’ overheating machine. In our first season back in the Football League, we aggressively signed up players in the same manner we had in the last season of the Conference. Players like Heslop and Worley, on three year contracts. The following year; we went for marquee signings on shorter, 2 year, contracts; Leven and Duberry, for example. Along the way, corners were cut with medicals and the like. The long term, even the mid-term was sacrificed for the short term. Now all those contracts have expired in one heap all at the same time.
Thomas’ strategy relied on one thing; it had to work. Imagine if we’d gone to Wembley and frozen, or if Isiah Rankine hadn’t skewed his shot past the wrong side of the post at 2-1? If we hadn’t been promoted, then the following season would have introduced new pressures – the perception that we had a team of chokers, the need to rebuild – and the emergence of Crawley Town and then Fleetwood. We may well have still been struggling to get up, Chris Wilder would surely have gone, along with Thomas. Not only that, our finances would have been drained by failed ‘big name’ conference players.
So many teams try to accelerate their progress through the same strategy and find themselves in an appalling state. Leeds United’s spending was predicated on numbers that were never going to add up. Portsmouth’s ambitions seemed reliant on moving to a new stadium – and then attaining super club status – to balance the books after years of insane spending which saw them, at least, pick up the FA Cup in 2008. Plymouth were relying on Premier League football and the 2010 World Cup bid after they jettisoned themselves up the divisions with heavy investment. We’ll play Portsmouth and Plymouth next season as equals, and there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest they’ve hit the bottom yet.
The most difficult thing about this strategy is knowing when to stop; Portsmouth are so deeply in the crap that they’re still throwing anchors out to slow themselves down. For us, the breaks were slammed on last summer when Sean Rigg became the only meaningful signing of the summer. Thomas must have known the game was up when it became clear that he wasn’t going to be able to make 5-6 significant signings so he threw in the towel. Ian Lenagan had switched off the machine, the flow of cash. It’s just taken 12 months to finally come to a halt.
There’s no doubt that the Thomas-era has not only been necessary, it’s been memorable; there was Wembley, of course and beating Swindon three times alongside individual moments such as Peter Leven’s goal against Port Vale. But Thomas was the bloke in the pub who gets the rounds in has loads of great stories, but ultimately gets himself into pointless arguments that can leave a bad taste in the mouth at the end of the night. Great for a night out, not someone who will do the washing up if he lived with you.
As spectacular as it was, Thomas wasn’t planning on hanging around long enough to go through the painstaking process of finding consistency. When a problem came along, the answer was to sign players, often on loan, until the problem went away. The problem usually went away when the permanent players that were originally the problem came back into form. What he didn’t do was learn from the experience and rectify the underlying systemic issues.
This season we’ve seen the youth team become much more than a page in the programme that you glance after conceding the second goal. The woman’s team is now a real part of the club with named players and people tracking their progress. They look set to prosper now they’ve been accepted into the Women’s Super League 2. The new era is set to be less spectacular, but perhaps more interesting. The thing is, I like interesting, I find it interesting. Not everyone does, of course, what the more considered approach is designed to provide is consistency over a long term. And that consistency, we hope will bring real success.