2003/4 Season Review
The original of this article originally appeared in "The Yorkshire Evening Press".
What ended with the chilling thud of the relegation trap door slamming shut had started with a blast in the sunshine.
Recent history had the first team to win at Carlisle taking one of the promotion places at the season's end. The season was barely a minute old when Lee Bullock fired York City into a 1-0 lead at a baking hot Brunton Park. Following his first half dismissal, new player boss Chris Brass had to watch the remainder of the match from the sidelines but watched proudly as his young guns held on for a rare opening day victory at Carlisle. As City’s travelling faithful celebrated, their joy was no doubt matched by a sense of relief.
A summer of upheaval had resulted in a new look squad, hastily arranged in double quick time by Chris Brass, the fan's choice, a very young and inexperienced player manager. The wage bill was barely half of what we'd paid out in the previous season under Dolan.
Supporters, if they were being honest, were not eyeing a promotion push but a relegation dogfight as the season dawned. Certainly, the pundits and bookies had City down before a ball had been kicked, and so an opening day win was a small step closer to the club’s ultimate goal – safety. What followed in those headiest of early days turned expectations on their head and perhaps played a part in City’s downfall. City romped to victories at home to Northampton and Southend and won at Huddersfield, producing one of the best Minstermen performances in years.
City were re-writing the record books and topping the table and it was no fluke. One touch passing, fleet-footed movement off the ball, allied with plenty of passion, spirit and an exhaustive work-rate, dominated the view and City the opposition.
It couldn’t continue, and sure enough, reality bit with a thumping at Lincoln, then savaged City with further defeats at home to Rochdale and at Yeovil. From heroes to zeroes. City were hot one minute, freezing cold the next and there was precious in between.
Finally, City found some middle ground and in their next 19 League matches lost just four times in a solid but unspectacular run. However, City won just six and drew nine in total. Still, thanks to their lightning start to the season, City were seemingly well-placed and there was certainly nothing to suggest the free fall that was ultimately to end in the Conference.
In truth, City’s lofty perch covered up some obvious weaknesses in the Minstermen’s armoury, mainly a lack of a genuine goalscorer or player who could unlock mean defences with a change of pace and drop of the shoulder, and a tendency to concede too many soft goals from crosses.
It was perhaps less apparent and also quite understandable, but the unbeatable start to the season had also seen City’s moderate pre-season ambition of safety shelved in favour of something much more ambitious.
By Christmas, City’s Football League status was but just two or three wins from being secured and promotion was still in the air. In reality, City’s slide had already begun. But for those four wins at the start of the season, City would have been hovering just above the relegation places at Christmas.
However, instead of looking over their shoulders, City were looking up. The Minstermen got comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, and took their eye off the ball.
By the time the red warning lights started to flash, it was too late. The rot had already set in and City were Conference bound.
Dreams of ending a difficult and historic season with a fairytale Millennium play-off final at Cardiff were still alive after a 2-0 home win over improving bottom club Carlisle in the Minstermen’s first game of 2004.
The victory against the Cumbrians was City’s third in four matches with only championship favourites Hull City blemishing that sequence with a Boxing Day victory that saw the Tigers become only the second visiting side to win a League game at Bootham Crescent.
Chris Brass’ men were just four points short of a top six place and only the most miserable of pessimists or an observer with the supposed insight of Nostradamus could have predicted what was to follow.
Five points from a possible 60 not only saw City relegated with two matches left to play, it also broke a club record with the 20 matches failing to bring a League win.
Initially, City’s displays, if not the results following the Carlisle victory, were not too discouraging. A difficult run of games brought defeats against Northampton, Huddersfield, Hull, Mansfield and Lincoln. All five sides would either end the season in automatic promotion places or play-off positions and only the last match, a woeful 4-1 drubbing against the Imps suggested anything more than City being outclassed by superior opposition.
Even so, few eyebrows were raised when Chris Brass put pen to paper to a new 3 year contract on the back of an encouraging first half of the season. Not long afterwards, the R word was first mentioned.
A 2-0 defeat at Boston, in which Brass was sent off and incurred a four match ban, started the alarm bells ringing however. City had slipped into the bottom half of the table for the first time in the season as late as February 21 but suddenly looked vulnerable and the Lincoln match appeared to set the tone for further terrible home displays during the crucial run in.
A poor Scunthorpe side left Bootham Crescent with maximum points after scoring from all three of their on target efforts and relegation rivals Macclesfield beat City 2-0 thanks to goals from old boys Jon Parkin and Graham Potter. The game threatened to be a massacre at one stage as the visitors cut through a once resilient City defence at will during a disastrous first half. That defeat dumped City into the relegation zone and was the second in a goal less three match run that inflicted irreparable damage on City’s survival hopes with City also beaten by fellow relegation rivals Bristol Rovers (0-3) and Cambridge (0-2).
As the season can to its conclusion, the players appeared unable to motivate themselves for some of the most important games in the club's history, the home game against fellow relegation contenders, Macclesfield probably being the lowest of the low points.
Flickers of hope during the team’s 20-match run were provided during hard earned draws against Oxford, Torquay and Bury but they proved only fleeting moments of optimism as the side plunged towards the Nationwide Conference.
For a side who was struggling badly to score a 0-0 wasn't enough and as soon as we conceded a goal, heads went down.
Lee Bullock’s departure initially on loan) can be cited as one reason for the slide. The side certainly lacked a link man between midfield and attack when he left for Cardiff even though he was used as a makeshift striker in his final City appearances. We can't blame one man and we lacked a cutting edge up front.
Like Bullock, finances also dictated that on loan midfielder Justin Walker was packed off. Bullock was a source of goals from midfield while Walker was a potential creator of chances. Without either player, a huge chasm developed in City’s playing formation.
Dave Merris’ loss of form and only sporadic contributions from Darren Edmondson, when fit, also City’s supply line from the flanks dry up.
Hopeful, aimless long balls became more commonplace and Lee Nogan, who had proven adept at scoring from the few scraps he was fed either side of Christmas, suddenly became completely starved of opportunities.
The departure of Jon Parkin also left us light and short upfront. His personality was missed as much as his potential attacking threat although he never looked as fit during the season as he did on his infamous return to Bootham Crescent. His goal condemned us to defeat against Macclesfield, our foes in the relegation dog fight. The following season, a fully fit Parkin lead Macclesfield to the play offs.
But the memorably moving reaction of supporters during the club’s final home game of the season indicates that the majority wee still firmly behind Brass.
After 75 years’ membership, the Minstermen crashed out of the Football League. The figures make grim reading for the club’s followers as they left behind a string of unwanted statistics, including:-