The extent to which the fortunes of football clubs can wax and wane can be seen on no greater contrast at present than in the recent experiences of Leicester City and Yeovil Town. A little over a year and a half ago, Leicester required a stoppage time equaliser from Chris Wood to secure a one-all draw from their match against the Glovers at the King Power Stadium. Fast forward back to the current day, however, and Leicester City, fuelled by the goals of Jamie Vardy, sit in second place in the Premier League, separated from Manchester City and top place by goal difference only. Yeovil Town, meanwhile, are now in bottom place in the entire Football League, following two successive relegations. And earlier this week, the club parted company with manager Paul Sturrock after just seven months in charge of the club.
What is troubling about Yeovil’s precipitous recent descent is that there seems to be no end to it in sight at the moment. Promotion to the Championship via the play-offs in 2013 was something of a surprise following five straight years of relative monotony in League One, and club chairman John Fry has subsequently admitted that the club was wholly unprepared for life in the Football League Championship. That a club of this size would find life in the second tier of English football to be a challenge should, perhaps, come as no surprise. That it had failed so singularly to find its level in the two and a bit seasons since then, however, most definitely is. Sturrock’s replacement – presuming he’s hired before the end of this year – will be Yeovil’s fourth of 2015, a sure enough sign of a club stricken by what looks very much like a toxic combination of blind panic and identity crisis, and the risk now is that if the club is unable to get its next managerial appointment right, there is a very real risk of it losing its Football League status altogether.
Fry himself seems to be tolerated rather than celebrated in his role as the chairman of the club, yet after twenty years at the club he remains largely uncommunicative with supporters who are now, out of concern at the club’s recent decline in the process of setting up a Supporters Trust. In 2010, the club’s Huish Park ground and land surrounding it was siphoned away from the club itself into a new company called Yeovil Town Holdings Limited, the sole directors of which were Fry and one other director of the club. At first, Fry was tight-lipped over the reason as to why this should be necessary and the eventual statement on the matter – “it will be significantly easier to attract the appropriate investment if our property assets are separated from the football club” – contrived to be both patronising and nonsensical at the same time.
When talk of “investment” did arrive at the club, it came in the form of an eyebrow-raising deal with an American contruction company called Blue Sky International, who were at the time involved in a war of words with the directors of Port Vale over a similar deal at the same time. The “investment”, which was advertised at the time as being worth £1.25m and involved pre-season tours in the USA, was quietly cancelled “by mutual agreement” the following summer. Meanwhile, incoming EPPP regulations forced the scaling back of the club’s youth academy to just an under eighteen team, which was later scrapped as well before being reinstated as a Category Three academy. Against such a background of discord and a lack of clarity, and with Yeovil being a town of just forty-two thousand people, perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that the club managed to squeeze into the Championship in the first place.
As the club tumbled from the Football League Championship – it failed to move from the relegation places from the end of October 2013 on – further issues relating to the development of Huish Park continued to rumble along in the background. Plans to develop land adjacent to the ground had first been submitted to the local council at the end of 2011, but a 2012 council meeting saw a recommendation for the plans to be thrown out, with increased traffic congestion and fears that such a development would have a severely detrimental effect on the town centre being cited as the main reasons for the rejection. These plans were withdrawn during the summer of 2014 as the club plummeted back towards League One, but a new draft submission for a completely development which didn’t involve a new supermarket, as the first had, in January of this year, with the detailed application being made public in August. It remains in a period of public consultation, for the time being.
Very few people would argue that Huish Park isn’t in need of a little modernisation, even though it only opened for business a quarter of a century ago. While such period details as having an open terrace at one end of the ground may appeal those amongst us who enjoy our football with a sprinkling of the retro about it, such facilities will come as cold comfort to anybody who has to stand on it for a couple of hours in the midwinter rain. But the planning applications made have always felt as if they have been more concerned with what goes on outside the ground than inside it. The most recent set of plans did at least do away with the 3,500 capacity all-seater stand that supporters may now consider themselves fortunate to have avoided – current plans seem to indicate that a roof will be put on this terrace instead.
And, whilst previous comments that John Fry has made on the subject of salary caps and financial fair play regulations have obvious merit, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask the question of what level of professional football a town the size of Yeovil should realistically and sustainably be able to support. No-one would suggest that Yeovil Town should “know their place” or whatever, but growth of a football club should always be at a level which ensures, before anything else, the long-term viability of that football club and, as recent events at Northampton have demonstrated, even stadium developments can go horribly, horribly wrong, on occasion.
If only, supporters might consider, as much effort had been expended on the team itself as seems to have been on these planning applications. Manager Gary Johnson, architect of the club’s ascent to the Championship in the first place, was relieved of his duties at the start of February this year after seven years in charge, albeit split over two spells, but with his assistant, Terry Skiverton, in charge, after having won his first game in charge against Crawley Town – who ended the season relegated as well – Yeovil won just one of their next thirteen matches to seal a second successive relegation. Paul Sturrock’s arrival at the club signalled the introduction of a completely new first team squad, but this season has seen no improvement in the team’s fortunes over the previous two campaigns.
For his part, former manager Johnson – now ensconced in the managerial seat at National League club Cheltenham Town and showing no signs of wanting to leave – gave an interesting interview to the BBC on the day of Sturrock’s dismissal. He seems to consider that Sturrock was at least a part a victim of circumstance – “It’s always disappointing when a manager loses his job because it’s a sort of a reflection upon the club because they’re obviously not doing the job in the competition that they’re in” – whilst his statement that, “Well the manager is always the scapegoat anyway, isn’t he, because he’s the one who is out there and is the front man, but he is not the only one making decisions at the club, of course, so people have got to look into those things because when a manager fails, it’s the club that fails on occasions,” whilst hardly impartial, does speak of a fundamental truth that is seldom talked about publicly in professional football circles. The manager, as Johnson rightly points out, “always the scapegoat anyway.” So, is all what it seems behind closed doors at the club? Supporters would like to know, but some have their suspicions.
At the time of writing, Yeovil Town has won just two league matches all season, against Luton Town in August and against Crawley Town a month later. Small wonder, then, that Sturrock should have survived in his position for just a few months and, when we consider the club’s fortunes since Gary Johnson’s departure from Huish Park, it’s difficult to avoid the temptation to suggest that there may be one or two at the club who should be considering whether getting rid of the manager that had taken the club as far as the Championship was the wisest decision that could have been taken. Certainly, subsequent events surrounding the club on the pitch couldn’t have gone much worse since his departure.
Although Yeovil Town are now into their thirteenth season as a member of the Football League, there will be some for whom this is the quintessential non-league football club. There was a time when such matters were stratified by the nature of gaining entry into the Football League, and at the time of writing there is a very serious possibility that this club will rejoin the non-league ranks at the end of this season. As such, for all the machinations regarding bringing Huish Park into the twenty-first century, perhaps the most important single decision that those running the club will make in a very long time will come when the successor to Paul Sturrock is announced. Even the possibility of Leicester City having a shot at the Champions League whilst Yeovil Town slid into the National League would have seemed unthinkable just twenty months ago. The club has five months left to salvage something from a third successive disastrous season.
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