04/10/2007

The Betrayal.

Tuesday. I left my office an hour earlier than normal, and drove for three and a half hours. I arrived at Port Vale only a few minutes before kick off. I watched the game, which Cheltenham started OK, were unlucky with the referee’s decision for the first goal, then declined sharply in the second half. After the match, I had a two hour plus drive home. As it happened, a blockage on the motorway added an extra 30 minutes to the time. And yet I am not complaining about this. My friends do not think they are mad – in fact many of them envy me because I can leave the office an hour early and drive for over three hours to see the game, while they cannot.

At the end of the game, I was of course unhappy with the performance. I wondered if the manager had picked the best XI from the available players, and I was frustrated that I could not follow his logic on substitutions, (I could see that it failed to work). Looking forward, I expected the manager to motivate the team and move us forward by Saturday, (he has done so often in the past), and I hoped that the much hyped fresh player could be brought in on loan (although I was cynical about that – knowing our record of signing players has been poor).

But critical as I may have been, I did not boo or call for the manager’s head. The other supporters at the game were the same – unhappy about the game just played, yes – but still supportive of the manager and expecting him to try and change things around by Saturday.

And then the news comes in – the manager has left our club, to be announced as manager of Carlisle United in the morning.

A year ago, our manager signed a five-year contract to manage the club. Yes, five years, not 14 months. The contract was signed when the manager’s star was rising – we had just been promoted and other clubs (including, incidentally, Carlisle) were interested in taking him on. His assistant, Keith Downing followed on his coat tails and signed for three years. The new contracts meant big increases in salary, along with securing some of our players on longer term deals, there was little in the way of new arrivals.

Despite losing two of our best players during the transfer window, Ward pulled off what appeared to be a minor miracle and kept the team in League-1. In the summer, we sold our top striker, lost two players to rivals on Bosman transfers, and released two of our more experienced, well paid players on the basis that age and injury was now against them. The replacement players were somewhat less inspiring.

Throughout his tenancy of the manager’s seat, Ward has shown an ability to bring on young players. The three that left for fees all went for considerably more than the initial transfer fees on arrival. The two that went on Bosman transfers both left because they could now earn more with other clubs in the division.

Several of the new players to arrive were young and untried – but as these are exactly the sort of players who have come good under Ward in the past, we accepted them into our ranks. Indeed it looks as if our defence has been strengthened more by players coming through from our youth and reserve set up, then by signing more experienced players.

This was the project the manager had signed up for, a five-year project to sign and bring through youngsters. To bring out the best from these players and use them to establish our position in this division. Relegation was a possibility, but the project would carry on, and this young team would see us challenging to return to League-1.It was a project that I, and other regular fans of an admittedly small club could believe in.

By giving the manager a five-year contract, the club had shown a belief in the manager that has never before been shown to a manager of Cheltenham Town. That is reflected in the fact that the sums required to pay off the manager would be so great, the club would not be able to afford to sack him. That meant that there could be no knee-jerk panic reaction should relegation threaten. It was the manager’s job to lead the team, and if this took us into a wilderness, then it would be his job to lead us out again.

But this works both ways, if the club is committed to the manager, then the manager must be committed to the club. To just up and leave at the first sign of difficulties is a betrayal of the worst sort. By leaving on the back of two poor results, our manager has left us again close to the relegation door. He has left us with a pool of young players still learning, but now without their tutor. He has left us his assistant manager, they may have arrived as a package, and renewed contracts as a package, but they are a package no more. Everything is the way Ward wanted this club to run – but Ward is now to run Carlisle instead