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That was the season that was…

As we start winding down the emotion and trauma of the now happily departed 2012/13 season, it’s pretty natural to start reflecting about the last nine months or so.

A lot has happened, and I mean, a LOT. Perhaps too much of it for one season, which at least may mean in 13/14 we get a quiet, ordinary season of mid-table mediocrity we so blatantly crave.

SW19 has been waiting a long time to write this. It’s taken a couple of days to not only remember everything I wanted to say, but to remove the excessive swearing and libellous comments about Terry Brown and the photos of the llama.

So excuse the self indulgence……

– This has been an absolutely horrible campaign

Let’s get the obvious conclusion out of the way first. This season has sucked of the smelliest horse shit you can find. It sucked from when we lost 7-0 to Reading, and it sucked up until the referee finally blew the whistle on Saturday.

When you’ve been so consistently poor throughout a whole campaign, with three different managers (if you count Bassey) and an overhaul of the squad mid-season, you know how bad it was.

Did we deserve to stay up? Just about, and only because of sheer hard work. If we had gone down though, you couldn’t have complained, and the celebrations after Fleetwood were as much to do with not having to suffer any more “performances” as staying up.

There were very few high spots, we didn’t even have a decent cup run (and the only trophy exploit of note was THAT game), and there wasn’t really much to cling onto until survival was assured.

Normally, knowing that you’ve got a good three months of no competitive football can be a bit of a grind, but this time around, we’ll need that period to recover and get it out of our system. That’s how wretched it turned out to be.

And the thing is, you really can’t understate how awful it was. Even looking at the decent run of form we had in March, it was never quite convincing enough. Mind you, considering the start we had, surviving is pretty much a minor miracle.

The whole season was wrong from start to finish, and looking back us staying up on the last day was pretty much what we could have hoped for when we were bottom….

– Neal Ardley appears to be the most professional individual at the club

Not my words, but the comment from somebody involved on the training ground as far back as October.

It’s quite an indictment that a rookie manager with zero – and I mean, ZERO – experience of managing senior players seems to have more knowledge of  League football than just about everyone else put together. But it’s nothing you didn’t already know.

Yes, some may have doubts and he’s on trial this summer himself, but at least his side of the club seems to be moving in a more “professional” direction. As an example, the players we signed post January were not the false economy injury-prone players we used to specialise in. That’s a bit of forward thinking and – gasp – proper scouting.

He has a golden opportunity this summer to justify the faith put in him, and Erik’s comments after the Fleetwood game on him are interesting:

“Next season Neal will be able to do it his way rather than picking up someone else’s picture,” he said. “I think we’ll see the sort of football that got us promotion under Terry Brown. I’ll enjoy that. He is going to be a very fine manager and I look forward to someone poaching him in about three years.” First, he said, “I could do with a season of mid-table boredom.”

He won’t get everything right, and there’s bound to be some more little booby traps around the place that have yet to be trodden on. But he has earned his chance.

And maybe next season he’ll start to improve his dress sense…

– There was precious little stability in the team

How many players did we end up using in the end? Over 40, wasn’t it? I genuinely lost count, and I think NA did too.

One problem was that the team to begin with at the beginning of the season was quickly changed. I think TB brought in about four players after the first game, two to replace those he had already bought.

Bassey brought in Mambo, and NA effectively had to replace half of the new ones while still trying to win games. That churning really didn’t help things.

The fixtures and the need to squad-rotate didn’t help either. Some of it was necessity, of course, and I think there were three separate three-week periods when we had a Sat-Tues-Sat-Tues-Sat run.

That was tough for even a good team, and for us with so many deficiencies in the squad anyway, it’s a miracle we came out the other side. You just couldn’t rely on the likes of Cummings and Harris to help us out, and the fact we kept having to play MMK at right back showed how painfully short (and ill-planned) we still were in some areas.

We never fully looked like a unit, and that’s because we weren’t. As usual, it will be interesting to see where the released players end up – chances are, many if not most of them will be in non-league football.

Thanks to the club getting rid of the resemblance of a reserve side (and was it really to cut costs, or was it – as often suggested – TB doing it to get Marcus Gayle out of the club?), we’re still not going to link up much of the Academy with the first team, and no doubt we won’t see youngsters breaking through from our youth development.

But then, how good is our Academy? I’ve no doubt it will be one thing NA will take charge of, and by the sound of it ripping it apart and overhauling it won’t be a bad thing to do…

– The Terry Brown saga showed up a major faultline in the club

Had we found ourselves in the Conference today, I think some people within the club would still be hiding under their desks over the whole TB sacking.

It’s fair to say, even without the benefit of hindsight, that Terry Brown should never have started the season. While we did finish 16th under him the season before, there were enough warning signs that campaign to justify moving him on with everyone’s best wishes.

That the club decided to keep faith with him was a gamble that we know backfired all too painfully. But too many people were personally friendly with him, and I will always believe it directly affected their ability to act sooner with him.

In football, you have to have a certain level of emotional detachment, but with TB we never had that. He was your buddy you saw down the local. The beloved uncle, who was always part of the furniture. The issues with his wife’s illness, his general demeanour, the way he was such a nice man…

It was as much a culture thing as anything. When he finally got the elbow, your editor wrote that TB seemed to mirror what a lot of people within the club itself were as well, with the same outlook on football – and life. Club and manager were like peas in a pod, if you will.

And that’s why he was left on too long.

Around the time of his sacking, an SW19 reader said to your editor that if TB wasn’t such a decent chap he would have been pushed earlier, and I think that’s why he was still around before the Torquay game (when any other manager at any other club would have been gone).

Did it damage the club’s credibility? To an extent it did, because it didn’t show the ruthlessness you need to have as a Football League club. It seemed emotion and sentiment came above stopping the bleeding, and the need to give him a send-off came above rescuing the club.

The club’s decision makers were reportedly “heartbroken” when they sacked him, which they shouldn’t have been. It suggested a soft, romantic underbelly amongst too many within the club, that just couldn’t bring itself to make a decision until it had to.

It’s sort-of recovered that with NA, and it does seem to have a bit less personal friendship and more “business” to it. It might not be quite the sort of friendly football club some want, but as this season has shown, we want to be in the Football League and we have to lose the soppy sentimentality.

I couldn’t blame TB for holding on as long as he did – if everyone was being honest, he was actually very lucky to be a Football League manager in the first place. He was being allowed to live out his dream of being an FL manager, he was undoubtedly getting paid more than he would ever get otherwise, and it wasn’t his fault that he was well out of his depth at this level.

I can well believe the story that appeared soon after he’d gone, when he asked before Torquay how long he was going to get, thinking it would be until Xmas and was shocked to find that he had just one game.

We all know that if TB wanted to get rid of 14 players without thinking of who to bring in, the decision makers would happily let him do it. And he didn’t seem to ever get called up on it – reportedly, representations to the decision makers were made during pre-season about how things were actually panning out…..

I cannot think of any other professional football club – let alone one in the Football League – that allowed the defensive coach/assistant manager to work part time and pop into training sessions when it suited him. And yes, I’m still angry that we ever had that setup with Stuart Cash. I need therapy.

That probably explains why things were allowed to get so bad – the ability to look at what he was doing (or not) was lost in its love for him. And we nearly paid the ultimate price for that.

Even so, the damage he left us may still linger on for a while – the likes of Cummings and Harris might be on contracts that are costly to pay up, which might directly affect our ability to rebuild. As somebody elsewhere said it, if they didn’t know better they would have thought TB was trying to sabotage the club…

– We needed this season to happen

This all said, with luck we will look back on this campaign and think how much good it did us long term.

When you’ve spent ten years on an upward spiral, it’s inevitable that at some stage you go on a decline. Ours is happening now, but the most important thing is to make sure that enough is done to soften the blow and stop it from becoming a death spiral.

That we managed – just – to stay up is now thankfully academic. And while I certainly don’t buy the notion that we have to struggle now because we did so well going through the backwaters of non-league football, we probably learned more about ourselves since October 2011 than between 2002 and that first Football League season.

In a way, us needing to win against Fleetwood was the thing we needed most. It wasn’t fun to go through, but to force us to struggle with no guarantee of succeeding focuses the mind.

If we had survived relatively comfortably, we might have forgotten just how much we need to change for next season. But none of us in any doubt that things need sorting out.

The last nine months reminded us that failure is as much an outcome as success if you’re not careful. The club made some mis-calculations, some quite bad ones too, and it’s interesting how many people privately talk about needing more “football brains” involved with the club.

We lost what remained of our innocence, but we also lost a lot of the unpleasantly smug outlook we have. Suddenly, we’re not as wonderful as we think we are.

This time last season, I think the manager and the decision makers genuinely thought they’d learned their lessons, that they’d “cracked it”. Well, TB was telling the decision makers that he’d done so and them immediately nodding in agreement 😉

Suddenly, we weren’t quite as good as we thought we were. The club didn’t learn enough of the lessons that the first FL season taught it, so the mythical Football Gods really made us sit down and realise that we’re not that special.

There was (and still is) a lot of insularity within the club, and that got kicked out of us a lot.

I’ve noticed how much more willing fans are to speak out about things that are wrong, that could and should be better, and not worry so much these days about treading on toes and hurting feelings.

And that is only a good thing. The amount of times you talk to people at games, and them mentioning how much more “professional” we need to be is something that has been ratcheted up this past nine months. The real fear of (almost) losing our FL placing has forced us to, well, grow up.

What AFCW has done since 2002 is genuinely impressive, but have some people at the club reached their TB-against-Torquay moment? It wouldn’t be unfair, or disrespectful to suggest they have.

Time moves on, and people move on. The key is not to outstay your welcome…

– We played Franchise. We got over it.

Be honest – with all the shit about needing to stay up, you’d forgotten we played them.

There’s been many “moments” this season, but this particular fixture did us a big favour. Most of our fans have moved on to the point they’ve forgotten this game ever happened. The big psychological hurdle, the big headfuck to end all headfucks may well have ended in a collective shrug of the shoulders.

Yes, it hurt that we lost in the last minute. But the Footballing Gods will ensure that we’ll get another crack at them. And we would certainly have an incentive for the game.

Do you really think about Franchise now? Apart from if they’re looking threatening? I don’t, in fact I often tend to forget they exist. And I think us playing them in such a high profile manner – and coming out with our pride and character intact – has closed a chapter.

OK, some will always obsess over them, but the majority of fans are more concerned with AFCW first, second and third. And there’s something healthy about that.

One other aspect of the Franchise circus that I don’t think got picked up enough : when people were left to their own devices, and allowed to make their own choices about whether to attend or not – 3000 went into the Frenzydome.

And it was a lesson insofar as people aren’t actually that willing to make political statements any more. If they were to begin with. If we played Coventry instead of them, we would have taken as many to the Ricoh, but maybe it showed that the era of militancy is truly dead.

It still amazes me even today typing this how many people wanted to go – not so much their motivation for going, they obviously had stronger stomachs than me, but the change in attitude of so many from even a couple of years ago.

AFCW changed in a lot of ways this season, and I think simply wanting to support your club was a major one. OK, it’s been heading that way for a couple of seasons, but you saw how flat the WAW gee-up for Barnet flopped.

The DTB elections didn’t happen, somebody got co-opted on, and there was barely a murmur. One could argue that WAW itself has shown the fanbase has quite possibly moved on, that it’s no longer a bottomless pit of money for the club.

Which leads to…

– There is a genuine mood for change

This season just gone got to us, at quite a deep level too. And towards the end of the campaign, inbetween fretting about staying up, there was a very real sense that whatever happened, the club itself needs to move on.

The need for a fresh approach, for fresh thinking (and yes, fresh blood) finally became too big to ignore this season. As a club, especially at the beginning of the campaign, we seemed to lose focus as an organisation.

It seemed like just being a Football League club was too “big” for the way we did (and do?) things. Look at the debacle of the opening of the Noodle stand, which gave the impression the club was struggling to keep on top of the project.

If you still have your season ticket, note the lack of perforations. Little things like that may be trivial, but it did fuel the notion that things weren’t being checked, that things were being left to chance rather than actually being worked out.

(speaking of tickets – why do our usual match ones continue to look so naff and shoddy? They’ve always looked one step above something you find in a tombola, and basically they make us look cheap and ramshackle. They aren’t even printed properly. Does the club have a problem with presentation and marketing itself? On second thoughts, don’t answer that…)

AFCW is a club that is reactive, not pro-active. It generally tends to do important things when it has to, not because it might prevent things from happening further down the line.

It went full time not because it made a conscious decision to, but the team were on a massive slump and our part-time approach (player wise) was failing. It was forced to adapt, and it did rather well since.

The same has happened now, and changes will be made because they’ve been forced upon the club. To get a more pro-active mindset will basically mean getting in new people who can change that culture, or corporate mentality – because for all the best will in the world, if you’ve been doing something at an organisation for the last 11 years, you ain’t going to change things too much.

This club is ripe for making the step up to the next level, and the fanbase know it. Hell, everyone knows it. This season saw Resolution 10 floated – it wasn’t so much what was on offer but the very fact it managed to get proposed in the first place. That would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago, even being proposed, and yet it seems inevitable that it will be implemented in some form.

Should we be surprised that there’s a mood for change? Not really, because the way the club has done things is now directly impacting on people’s enjoyment of the 90 minutes of the game.

And for this season just gone, we remembered that we are first and foremost a football club

– We stayed up

And that’s all that mattered.