The off-pitch tensions at The Racecourse this Summer have distracted us from a remarkable fact. It’s been an unusually stable close season on the playing side, and Dean Saunders deserves a lot of credit for that.
This is the first time, since the idiotic decision to sack Denis Smith turned a disappointing season into a chronic five-year tailspin, that we’ve had stability in the squad. Every close season since then, and at least three January transfer windows in between, have seen the squad completely ripped apart and the manager start again.
Obviously the main cause of this recurring nightmare, as players spin rapidly through the revolving Racecourse door, was an astonishing recklessness on the part of the board. Honestly, how could they allow this to happen? It certainly prompts you to ask questions about the decision-making processes at work at the club.
Take for example Brian Little. He was given free hand in January 2008 to bring players in to save the club from relegation to the Conference, and took full advantage by bringing in an astonishing thirteen new players. Of course, the rescue mission failed dismally, but he was not only allowed to continue in his post, but to rip the squad up and start yet again in the Summer! It must have been a remarkable conversation when Little went cap in hand to the board to ask for permission to rip it all up and start again:
“I’m sorry that I didn’t keep us up chaps, but I’ve got a plan that will get us straight back into the football League again! You know those players I told you would save us four months ago? Can I get rid of the lot of them and buy in a completely new squad?”
“Why, of course Brian! Here’s a bottomless pit of money; help yourself.”
Stop me if I’m wrong, but if I was running a business and a middle-manager got me to spend lavishly in January to back his project, then came back in May having failed and asked me to do the same again, I’d tell him to get lost! Surely the logical answer to Little’s question would have been “You wanted these players, make them into a decent team!”
With Dean Saunders also allowed to completely dismantle his squad in three of the first four transfer windows of his tenure at The Racecourse, is it any wonder that the squad has been massively instable? And don’t even get me started on the financial implications of paying the wages of numerous players who were surplus to requirements, not to mention the pay-offs for those we got rid of. You won’t find much sympathy from me over the spiralling running costs the club has been incurring.
As time has passed, I’ve been inclined to forgive Saunders his shake-ups of the squad though. After all, he inherited a dysfunctional unit from Little, and had to make changes. By the time he arrived, a pattern of decline which had already seen us collapse to our lowest ever league position was already established, and it took something special to turn it round. It’s tempting to look back and see Saunders as a lone figure on a runaway rollercoaster, desperately trying to apply the brakes. Yet he has done so. Last Summer he rebuilt once more, but prudently, and the squad he put together then is still pretty much intact now. At last there’s stability on the pitch, and that’s the best way to set ourselves up for a promotion push. It’s yet another reason why the success of the WST’s bid to take the club over is crucial; now we need to match that stability in the boardroom.