It’s a time of positivity at the Tatnam Ground: Poole Town are in the National League South for the first time in their history and they’ve got a new (albeit under-qualified and inexperienced) manager. I stroll in to the dressing room after my obligatory meetings with the chairman and my assistant to address my players. I decide to set the bar low, we are favourites to go straight back down after all.
“I think we have the ability to avoid relegation this season” I declare. To my surprise, I’m met with disgust from my players.
“I think those expectations are far too high” responds Bournemouth loanee Sam Surridge. What have I got myself into? I’ve taken a job with a dressing room full of players who don’t believe they are good enough to survive the lowest playable division in England. This is going to be a long slog.
I crack on and make some transfers. In come striker Lewis Gill, a youngster who prefers to play as a defensive forward, and Henry Lander, a centre-back with good leadership and the potential to be a leading National League defender. Theo Widdrington, a 17 year old central midfielder, also joined on loan from Portsmouth. As you can see, I want to build a young team that can develop and move up the leagues together. Goalkeeper Tom Rees was let go as Jordan Seabright had more potential and they were both worse than first choice Nick Hutchins. Midfielder Luke Burbidge also left the club on a free.
Being a non-league side, there was no way I could play three at the back. Keep things simple, I told myself, confirm your survival and then you can bring out the false nine or the inverted wing backs. So I settle for a standard 4-4-2 with limited instructions – ‘Be more disciplined’, ‘Exploit the flanks’ and ‘Mark tighter’.
The 4-4-2 was working okay to start with. We performed well at title favourites Ebbsfleet on the opening day, and 8 points from the next five games was a strong showing for our plucky underdogs. But 8 games without a win, including a defeat on penalties in the FA Cup 2nd Qualifying round, meant something different was needed.
I brought in attacking midfielder Jamie Barron and switched the formation to 3-4-1-2 on control. I also changed the Left Centre-Mid from a Ball Winning Midfielder (Defend) to a Centre Midfielder (Defend) to try to keep him in position instead of diving in to tackles.
This change paid dividends, as our form suddenly picked up. A Carl Pettefer goal saw us beat Welling 1-0 at the end of September, and we went on a run of only losing three games until mid-January (a 5-1 loss to promotion-hunting Whitehawk, a 4-1 hammering from 8th placed Dartford, and a FA Trophy defeat to Concord – who we haven’t beaten in our four games against them so far). In this run Lewis Gill established himself as a starter up front, netting 8 in 17 games. The Dartford defeat was a blow, as at the time we were only 3 points from fourth place, despite being in tenth.
Everything was going well, too well. We were mid-table come the new year, just a few points off the play-offs. Could we push for promotion? The simple answer: No. Sam Surridge, our top scorer, had conveniently forgotten to tell me that he was heading back to Bournemouth on New Years Day. His replacement, Danny Clifton, netted against Margate on his debut, but then forgot what I had signed him for. 13 finishing my arse! But he wasn’t the only one. Apparently my whole side went on the lash at New Year and they went hard. So hard, in fact, that they were still feeling the effects deep in to March.
We needed a change. We were being dragged slowly back towards the relegation places. I reverted to a back four against mid-table Hungerford, as we were leaking goals since the turn of the year. The wingers were pushed forward and the strikers were changed from a defensive forward/poacher partnership to an advanced forward/poacher partnership. We started games with an attacking mentality. If we were going down, we would do it in a Blackpool-esque style, all guns blazing.
We lost to Hungerford. I kept the faith with the new formation. We were thumped 5-1 by 16th placed Welling. Surely we could beat Hampton & Richmond, who were bottom of the league. A 1-0 loss. That’s it, we’re going down.
The 3 games starting with Hampton & Richmond saw us play the three bottom sides in the league. I wanted 9 points, I’d take 6; any less and we would be in trouble. Against Truro Danny Clifton woke up. Two goals and an assist saw me jumping from the dugout. Not to be outdone, Lewis Gill netted two against Oxford City and I was knee-sliding down the touchline. Draws against our nemesis Concord and promotion hopefuls Chelmsford saw confidence grow, and we produced our result of the season against second placed Whitehawk. After going a goal down, Lewis Gill netted a brace, with Lewis Tallack nodding home a corner and Danny Clifton adding a fourth. Whitehawk threatened a comeback with 10 minutes left, but Clifton sealed the result a minute later. Although we could no longer make the play-offs, it made me smile that our opponents had dropped two places with that defeat. Danny Clifton and an own goal saw us overcome Dartford, which saw them drop down below Whitehawk. More importantly, it saw us up to 12th.
So a 12th place finish, 10 places higher than our expected position, was our fate. Lewis Gill topped our scoring charts with 23, and Sam Surridge’s 10 in 27 games left me lamenting his early exit. It was no surprise that Gill scooped our Player of the Year award, having scored three hat-tricks for us.
I congratulated the players and told them “We can finish in the top half next season”. I was met with disgust.
“That’s far too ambitious,” my players responded. “We should be aiming to stay up”. Well, at least their ambitions are higher than they were this year.
Further posts will cover shorter periods of time, I just felt that the low expectations of this first season wouldn’t be the most interesting to play though in more detail.