Friday, 4 December 2009

A Stiff Task

Second Team Management - it's a dirty job but someone's got to do it...

Some of the gloss was taken off our fine win at South Normanton’s impressive Lees Lane home last Saturday (which along with tomorrow's trip to Welbeck Welfare will be the subject of next week’s post). This was due to news of two more emphatic defeats for both our County League squads. Both came at home, both saw an Easington team ship seven goals.
Now as far as the Casuals (our third-string) are concerned, while such defeats are disappointing, they can usually be probably forgotten as quickly as the time it takes one of Wardy’s pints of Frothingham Best in post-match watering hole The Granby to hit the spot!More worrying though, was the spanking sustained by the Reserves against their Reckitts counterparts. The 7-1 reversal is the latest in a string of depressing setbacks, numbered among which have been a 10-0 at Goole, a 7-0 at Wawne and a 5-0 at (don’t ask!); all of which means the Stiffs’ goal difference currently stands at -31 after just eight matches. Even the disappointing 2008/09 season only yielded -32 and that was after eighteen games. Thankfully goal difference doesn’t count in the County League and the Reserves remain one off the bottom by virtue of having won one game more than Sculcoates Amateurs.

There have been mutterings of dissent and discontent all season from some quarters within the Stiffs camp and, having seemingly been allayed by three successive wins in September/October, the recent run of five straight defeats (including two comprehensive cup exits) brought things to a head.
This resulted in some lengthy discussions at the start of the week, a few choice words in certain earholes and some subsequent movement in personnel both at management and playing levels. The upshot of which – I hope – will be a rejuvenated Second Eleven taking the field tomorrow against Holme Rovers.

They followed this up with victory over last season’s beaten championship play-off team Beverley Town Reserves (above top) and a win over Mill Lane in the cup (above). Suddenly the picture looked brighter. Ahem.
It’s hard to pinpoint where it’s all gone awry. At the start of the season there was a new manager, plenty of new young players and a confidence born out of a decent pre-season. A heartening display at fancied Goole side Viking Raiders on the opening day prompted hope for the current campaign.
Certainly the subsequent loss of many of the Cleeve youngsters, for various reasons, didn’t help new man in charge Lee (above). He also admitted to finding the step up from junior football a big one in terms of management.
Therefore in came Fozzy and Daws to try and take some of the pressure off and, sure enough, the impact was instantaneous. A week after the ten-goal mauling at Goole Goods Office, the Stiffs went to reigning champions Howden and chalked up a first win.
What galls me most about the current run of results is that on paper the Reserves have been fielding far stronger sides than those available to previous manager Smalls. And despite finishing bottom, his team rarely suffered reversals of the magnitude currently being experienced. So where does the blame lie? That’s what I’ve spent the past week trying to find out.
It’s easy to assume that “nobody gives a f__k” about the Reserves and other teams as long as the first team is doing well. This has never been the case at our club, certainly not where I’m concerned. Although the senior squad should always take priority in terms of team selection etc., those below it in the pecking order each provides a vital task to the continued prosperity of the club as a whole.
I’ve seen both sides of the “Second Team” coin. When we launched a reserve string in 1995/96 I was the first manager and we capped our inaugural season by winning the County League Division 4 championship. In 2000/01 I was asst-mgr to 'The Sumo' when a similarly strong Reserves side won the County League Junior Cup (below)

That inaugural season for the Second Eleven saw the First team fight a season-long battle against relegation from County League One, a battle they eventually won by the skin of their teeth. However, despite their troubles manager Mickey Bo’ very rarely took players off me during the campaign – even though there were at least half-a-dozen candidates at the time for senior squad spots.
It therefore hit me fairly hard the following year when the title-winning side was broken up with several gaining their rightful places in the First Team. This time it was our turn to try and stave off relegation.
Second and Third team management is a thankless task. You can win 5-0 one week and have everybody available for the following Saturday only to then see three or four of them taken off you due to injuries and absences up above. That’s how it is. It’s frustrating, often thankless but it’s all in the job. And as long as the club continues to prosper (which more often than not goes hand-in-hand with the success of the First Team) then the “junior” squads are seen to be doing their thing.

Darren Dawson (above) – who has been manfully standing-in as ‘Stiffs Supremo’ until a permanent replacement can be found – summed up the role of a Reserve team quite brilliantly I thought in his programme notes a couple of weeks ago.

He did this in answer to what he felt was excessive criticism of the standard of some of his players following a cup exit at the hands of First Division side Park Athletic (when even the wearing of the first team kit couldn't influence a change of luck - see above). Given that this season’s reserve squad is comprised of several youngsters who we hope will go on to form the core of the first team for some years to come, this is the last thing we needed to hear. The events of last Saturday proved the final straw.

Which is why this past week has seen me involved in some frantic discussions, phone calls and meetings with the upshot that, hopefully, “cometh the hour, cometh the man” in the form of John “Sniffer” Clarke (above), who has agreed to “oversee” matters at Reserve level until the Christmas break. In addition, club captain Andy Graham – in a terrific gesture – has requested he be allowed to go down to the Reserves this weekend to try and help raise spirits and boost confidence.

Neither of these men needed to do this. John would have been quite content to turn up at the Farm on a weekly basis and support whichever team is at home, while counting down the days until he can start adding to his record 665 Eastenders appearances again (a troublesome knee injury having put that on hold since pre-season). Meanwhile AG led out his players for the first time in two months at South Normanton last Saturday (above) and went on to be one of the day's star performers (and he drove the mini-bus!!). Now, thanks to his gallant actions this weekend, he could theoretically face another lengthy wait to get his place back – having just regained a starting berth following a five week suspension! If this sort of attitude and commitment can be replicated throughout the squad we won’t go far wrong.
And although John has only committed to the task for what amounts to three games, in my opinion they could turn out to be the three most important of the season. Should the run of emphatic hidings continue with no accompanying improvement in attitude and performance, then it’s hard to see where we go with the second-string. By contrast, a marked improvement in the above and, dare I say, a win or three (?!) would give everybody a huge lift ahead of 2010. If that can also be accompanied by the return of a couple of experienced old hands – revived and refreshed by self-imposed “exile” – then the picture could look a whole lot rosier.
Personally I’ve got a good feeling about the Reserves – I hope it remains after four o’clock tomorrow!

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