YORK CITY SOUTH
Last Day Survival
THE Press York City reporter DAVE FLETT trains his scrutiny on the lurching about-turns of City’s comeback to the Football League which soared and dipped to nerve-shredding last-day drama
YORK City’s first season back in the Football League for nine years will forever beg two questions. Where did it all go wrong for Gary Mills and how did Nigel Worthington turn things around?
In the case of Mills, two months was all it took for a man rightly feted for the club’s double-winning Wembley campaign and lauded for his team’s transition to League Two football to become another out-of-work football manager.
On New Year’s Day, his team battered promotion hopefuls Burton 3-0 at Bootham Crescent and were still in close contention for a play-off place.
By March 2, though, he had been relieved of his duties after an alarming run of 11 matches without a win, culminating in a 2-0 home defeat to Bradford.
The decision was a brave one made by a board of directors who ran the risk of inevitable criticism had Worthington failed to turn the tide from those quick to pass judgement with the huge benefit of hindsight.
Mills will always be remembered for his historic role in guiding the Minstermen back to League Two but some of the seeds for his downfall were perhaps sewn just weeks after those momentous victories on English football’s hallowed turf.
With the exception of Michael Coulson and John McReady, who both suffered long-term injuries, the rest of Mills’ summer signings did not see out the season at Bootham Crescent.
Jonathan Smith (ten), Danny Blanchett (two), Lee Bullock (two) and Oli Johnson (one) started just 15 games between them – the same amount as cruciate ligament victim Coulson, while McReady, who recovered from a broken collar bone in January, is still waiting to make his full debut.
Mills’ signings once the season was underway also failed to inspire.
· Former Scotland international Scott Dobie was brought back out of retirement briefly, having spent a year training to be a policeman, but he left without making a first-team squad.
· Former West Texas University striker Ben Everson, Derry City frontman David McDaid and Salford City defender Jameel Ible were later recruited during the crucial January transfer window period when the team’s fortunes were beginning to slide.
· None of the three made a Minstermen starting line-up with Everson swiftly loaned out to Gateshead and Ible another to leave before the season ended after failing to make a first-team squad.
The under-pressure manager’s final throw of the dice was to bring back former striker Michael Rankine on loan from Aldershot but he only brought the same frustrations that had caused Mills to release him in the first place.
Following a towering display against champions-elect Gillingham in his comeback game, Rankine never got near the same standard in subsequent matches and his failure to cut out a cross in stoppage-time at high-flying Rotherham led to a costly equaliser in what would prove Mills’ penultimate game in charge.
In terms of his transfer market acumen, one of the laziest allegations levelled at Mills following his dismissal was that he is a Conference manager with non-League contacts.
Even were that statement true, however, it need not have held him back in the summer of 2012.
There is nothing wrong with trusting what you know best as his earlier signings of Blue Square Bet Premier quartet Andre Boucaud, Jason Walker, Matty Blair and Lanre Oyebanjo had proven.
If Mills’ knowledge of that level of the game was greater given his recent employment history, there would have been nothing wrong with pursuing a transfer market policy that saw the club take the Conference’s best talents up with them.
The speed in which he passed judgement on the likes of Football League trio Blanchett, Bullock and Johnson, however, suggested a lack of familiarity with their strengths and weaknesses at the time they were recruited.
A failure to strengthen the squad was always going to be exposed when players lost form and injuries kicked in. Blair, Walker, Paddy McLaughlin and Scott Kerr all struggled to reproduce their form of the previous season but the alternative options were largely inadequate.
Dobie, McDaid and Everson were never going to provide credible competition for Walker in the lone central striker role, nor was Jamie Reed, whose reputation as the team’s super-sub was also on the wane by the end of an underwhelming campaign.
The performances of Walker were not helped either by his isolation in attack at times. He might have netted just six times in open play during 2012/13 but, when you can count the number of his bad misses on one hand, that would suggest a problem with service. Blair’s mid-season dip in form, combined with injuries to Coulson and Ashley Chambers, meant contributions from the flanks became unreliable, while the absence of an attack-minded player from midfield only compounded Walker’s loneliness up front.
Mills had turned to full-backs Oyebanjo and James Meredith to combat that problem in the past but, with Jonathan Smith gone and McLaughlin just not forceful enough, he struggled to solve that conundrum in his 4-3-3 formation.
In retrospect, following his performances under Worthington, Tom Platt might have been better used and trusted by the man who gave him his first professional contract instead of being loaned out hastily to Harrogate and Halifax.
Without that midfield thrust, City were often not adventurous enough going forward, which was a factor behind the club record-equalling number of 19 League draws and the failure to score more than a single goal in any of Mills’ final 11 win-less games in charge.
The team were often hard to break down away from home during the first three-quarters of 2012/13 with two midfielders stationed in front of the back four but frequently failed to frighten teams in the final third.
Mills’ commitment to keeping possession in all areas of the pitch was commendable during that time but too little football was being played where it mattered most and the tempo of the play was not as high as it had been the campaign before. As a consequence, several goals were conceded when the ball was needlessly given away in City’s half and even in their own penalty box.
Worthington, on his appointment, immediately set about eradicating those reckless moments with a risk-free approach to defending.
That manifested itself, initially, in ugly long balls directed at Rankine, as the former Northern Ireland and Norwich boss searched for the best means of achieving results with the group of players he had inherited.
It was a process that took him four games, with a worrying one point picked up in the meantime, resulting in the team dropping into the bottom two.
A largely, lacklustre 0-0 draw at Bristol Rovers, though, would prove the turning point, with the team winning four of their last five games and only drawing the other due to an Accrington Stanley equaliser in the third minute of injury time.
By the Bristol game, former City favourite Richard Cresswell had returned to the club to lead the line at the age of 35 on loan from Sheffield United, providing a passion missing in Rankine’s play and a physical presence that Walker could not match.
The spine of the team had also been massively strengthened by the return of David McGurk from injury at centre-back, alongside talismanic skipper Chris Smith.
Earlier in the season, Mills had puzzlingly preferred the likes of Chris Doig and Tom Allan to McGurk, who has been a model of consistency during nine seasons with City.
Selecting Oyebanjo and Jack O’Connell as full-backs also completed a resolute defensive line, while Parslow’s switch to the midfield anchoring role was just as important as the pairing of Platt and on-loan Sunderland midfielder Adam Reed were in front of him.
The Minstermen finally found a compatible triumvirate in those central areas with the combative and disciplined Parslow sitting deep, allowing the capable Platt and Reed to both break forward and join in attacks when appropriate.
With the right personnel in the correct positions, the team rediscovered the belief and energy that had characterised the previous season’s promotion push when so many sides were seen off by second-half comebacks.
In contrast, the Minstermen of 2012/13 had been guilty far too often of throwing points away after the break.
It is a staggering statistic that going into the final fixture at Dagenham, a table compiled to include first-half scorelines showed City lying fifth in the League Two standings.
They were second-bottom for the corresponding second-half table. The side never came back from behind once to win any of their 51 games and Worthington, or whoever is in charge next season, will want to address the physical and psychological explanations for that revealing pattern next season.
New faces will obviously help, as too perhaps would an overdue return to organised reserve team football.
Sporadic behind-closed-doors friendly fixtures have proved inadequate in maintaining the fitness levels of fringe players, blooding youngsters and reliably running the eye over trialists.
Having fought so hard to regain Football League status and then come perilously close to losing it, the Minstermen must now strive for the most professional standards possible to maintain their rightful place among English football’s top 92 clubs.
Sophie McGill tiold the Yorkshire Post: “We desperately needed to stay in the League. Relegation would have meant losing around £750,000 from our income, which is a huge percentage. A restructuring of the club would have had to take place and a lot of difficult decisions would have had to be made".
“Included among those would have been the possible contemplation of losing our youth policy and maybe even part-time football. Things really would have been that bleak.
“Thankfully, we managed to stay up and, for that, Nigel Worthington deserves huge praise.”
Worthington was appointed by York less than 24 hours after Gary Mills had been sacked in the wake of the home defeat to Bradford City on March 2.
An 11-game winless run meant the board felt action had to be taken, hence the dismissal of a manager who in the previous 12 months had led the Minstermen to promotion and FA Trophy success. Hicks said: “As a board, we felt something had to be done. We had been through relegation before (in 2004) so knew the signs. That is why we couldn’t let the problems continue.
“It was a difficult decision to sack the manager who had got us promoted, but one that had to be made. I would estimate around 70 per cent of fans backed the decision with the rest being against. But, as a board, you have to make the big calls and we felt there was no alternative. Obviously, now that people have hindsight, they say, ‘You should have done it earlier’.
“Nigel has done a fantastic job. Our survival can be traced back to his arrival. He turned the situation round to such an extent that only Rotherham claimed more points from the final six games than our 14. We were bottom of the form table when Nigel arrived.”
Given a baptism of fire on his full debut at Northampton but, other than a few nervy moments, responded well. Great height for a centre-back and good on the ball. Will only improve as he gets stronger.
Appearances: 1 (4) Goals: 0 Rating: 6/10
Never hit the heights of his first season at Bootham Crescent. But, after being recalled to the starting line-up by Nigel Worthington for the club’s vital last three games, became a key man in the fight for survival. Will always frighten teams with his pace and energy.
Appearances: 39 (10) Goals: 7 Rating: 7/10
Deemed surplus to requirements pretty swiftly by Gary Mills despite the latter’s claim that he would be a better left-back than the departed James Meredith. His brief outings did little to support that assertion. Looked vulnerable to pace and not very imposing physically.
Appearances: 2 (2) Goals: 0 Rating: 5/10
A dream return to his first club got off to the worst possible start when he conceded the penalty that denied City an opening day Capital One Cup win at Doncaster. Struggled, thereafter, to make an impression in midfield. Another summer signing quickly jettisoned by Mills and was loaned out to Gateshead and Stockport during the campaign.
Appearances: 2 (12) Goals: 0 Rating: 5/10
Shelved his retirement plans to take up Mills’ offer of a short-term contract. Commanding in the air and a good organiser but reckless with his tackling at times, conceding needless free- kicks. Upset the club when his plans to leave for Northampton in the transfer window were leaked and was subsequently sent off to Sixfields sharpish.
Appearances: 13 (1) Goals: 0 Rating: 6/10
Worked hard for the club during a loan spell cut short by injury. Looked comfortable on either flank, in the centre of midfield or even at left-back. Good attitude. Appearances: 5 Goals: 0 Rating: 7/10 Jon Challinor Used sparingly by Mills with Parslow and Oyebanjo understandably preferred in possibly his strongest position – right-back. Was given a game there at home to Gillingham and performed well before breaking his leg. Generally enthusiastic and reliable in possession.
Appearances: 6 (15) Goals: 0 Rating: 6/10
Equalled his goal tally of last season to finish the club’s leading marksman. The team never lost a league game when he was on the scoresheet and his goal at home to Plymouth seemed to breathe confidence into the side. A match winner on his day but prone to dips in form, which affect his influence on games. Appearances: 40 (2) Goals: 10 Rating: 7/10
Unfortunate to have his season wrecked in mid-October by knee ligament damage. Displayed a calm head in front of goal, as well as close control and intelligent movement from the flanks. Did well in comeback cameos during the final games of the season.
Appearances: 15 (6) Goals: 5 Rating: 7/10
Fought for every ball played up to him during a popular return to Bootham Crescent on loan from Sheffield United. A key man in the transformation of the team’s fortunes during the final month of the season before being recalled by the Blades. Displayed genuine passion for the club.
Appearances: 5 Goals: 2 Rating: 7/10
Spent long spells on the sidelines. When fit also seemed to struggle with the pace of League Two football. Overlooked for selection by Worthington when he preferred to call on teenage rookie Allan at Northampton for a pivotal match in the season.
Appearances: 15 (1) Goals: 0 Rating: 5/10
His outings were so fleeting, it is difficult to make a judgement on the former Iceland premier division forward. Looked eager on his two appearances and managed to cause problems in the opposition penalty box on both occasions. Quickly loaned out to Gateshead by Mills though.
Appearances: 0 (2) Goals: 0 Rating: 6/10
Fought back to re-establish himself at left-back, having fallen behind the likes of Blanchett and Charlie Taylor in the pecking order. Impressed in the first few months of the season but had several very shaky performances when the team began to struggle, resulting in him losing his place to O’Connell. At his best when dynamic going forward but needs to be stronger in the challenge and less tentative.
Appearances: 33 (4) Goals: 0 Rating: 6/10
Another highly-consistent campaign from the ex-Northern Ireland international who looks set to break Tommy Forgan’s all-time clean sheet record for the club next season. Given more opportunity to display his shot-stopping skills than in previous years and impressed in that department. Errors with his handling and kicking are hard to recall too.
Appearances: 51 Goals: 0 Rating: 8/10
Looked capable of the unpredictable during his brief opportunities in the first team. Injury problems meant he was not fit for most of his City career though and he was subsequently released before the end of his contract by Mills. Frustrating season for both him and the club.
Appearances: 1 (6) Goals: 0 Rating: 6/10
Very reliable in possession and capable of ghosting past opponents. His decision making perhaps needed a little work, particularly with his final pass in the attacking third. Later joined Rotherham after Peterborough recalled him from his loan with the Minstermen.
Appearances: 11 (1) Goals: 0 Rating: 7/10
Only provided glimpses of the inspirational form that had seen him be so influential for the team during the previous campaign. Rarely dictated the pace of games, as he had done prior to his knee injury in 2011/12. Was beginning to look like a forlorn figure before a back problem caused him to miss the team’s last seven games.
Appearances: 29 (2) Goals: 0 Rating: 6/10
Imported from the League of Ireland in January and surprisingly handed an 18-month contract by Mills. Looked over-awed and lacked sharpness. Will need to work hard in pre-season if he is to kickstart his City career.
Appearances: 0 (4) Goals: 0 Rating: 5/10
Experienced pro who did his best for the club. A good deliverer of set-pieces. His central-midfield partnership with Kerr lacked energy though.
Appearances: 9 Goals: 0 Rating: 6/10
Injury and Mills’ surprising reluctance to recall him to the team restricted his involvement to 11 appearances. Fortunately, he was in the side when it mattered most and a record of only five goals conceded with him on the pitch speaks volumes of his defensive ability. Still reads a game impeccably and rarely mis-times a tackle.
Appearances: 11 Goals: 0 Rating: 8/10
Could not build on his successful first season with the club and failed to influence many games. Struggled to impose himself in a physical sense. Goal return was way down on his tally for 2011/12.
Appearances: 29 (4) Goals: 4 Rating: 5/10
Another injury victim after a broken collar bone in September. Displayed an ability to deceive people with his jinking demeanour on the ball. Could not make a first-team squad under Worthington however.
Appearances: 0 (4) Goals: 0 Rating: 6/10
Sent back to Swansea early in his loan spell. Did not look as strong at right-back as Oyebanjo and Parslow. Also failed to convince when moved into midfield.
Appearances: 4 Goals: 0 Rating: 5/10
Made the odd mistake but never let that affect him and came back stronger the next match. Great attitude for a loan player and belied his teenage years. Blackburn Rovers have a real prospect on their hands and he was just as accomplished when he switched to left-back from centre-half.
Appearances: 18 Goals: 0 Rating: 8/10
A season interrupted by injury again but had the measure of most left wingers when fit to play. Due to his spells on the sidelines, there is a sense that City still have still not seen the best of him. Would certainly be good to see him bombing forward more, in his previous manner, next season.
Appearances: 24 (8) Goals: 0 Rating: 7/10
Crucial member of the team due to the intelligence and commitment to the cause that allows him to fill a number of positions with equal comfort. Solved countless problems during the campaign, filling in as a full back on both sides of the pitch and in midfield, where the team always looked more combative with their Welsh warrior as the anchorman. Wears his heart on his sleeve and willing to fight to the bitter end.
Appearances: 48 (2) Goals: 1 Rating: 8/10
His first-team credentials were overlooked by Mills despite goalscoring heroics from midfield during loan spells with Harrogate Town. Given his debut after Worthington recalled him to Bootham Crescent and was, thereafter, a mainstay during the final run-in. A real grafter who, for a teenager, relishes a physical battle.
Appearances: 6 (1) Goals: 0 Rating: 7/10
Spent the first four months of the season on the transfer list before being given a surprise chance away to Rochdale and responding with two goals. Has undoubted ability on the ball and reliable in possession, but sometimes disappeared from the action and lacked strength in his shooting and tackling.Another who never featured under Worthington.
Appearances: 12 (3) Goals: 3 Rating: 6/10
Never matched the effort he put into his first game back at Bootham Crescent after returning to the club on loan from Aldershot Town.Troubled the defence of champions Gillingham on that night but, thereafter, his standards slipped. The striker’s fitness levels looked poor too and an injury suffered last season or a lack of game time does not excuse that.
Appearances: 5 (3) Goals: 0 Rating: 5/10
Brought in on loan from Sunderland by Worthington and played an important role in rejuvenating the team’s midfield play. Weighed in with two important goals and timed his runs into the penalty box well. Tigerish in the tackle too despite his slender frame and finished the season undefeated in a City shirt.
Appearances: 6 Goals: 2 Rating: 7/10
Contributed well from the bench in the FA Cup games against AFC Wimbledon and also impressed at Port Vale. Struggled to make an impact otherwise. Finished the season without a goal in 18 games, including a loan spell with Cambridge.
Appearances: 4 (16) Goals: 4 Rating: 5/10
Dangerous at times when running at opponents with the ball but drifted out of matches for long periods. His goal threat was also poor. Sent back to parent club Aldershot by Worthington as the new manager looked for better loan options.
Appearances: 12 (6) Goals: 1 Rating: 5/10
Began and ended the season in inspirational form and, aside from a little mid-campaign wobble, wore the captain’s armband with distinction. His determination and aggression in defence became infectious during the crucial run-in. Worthington also tapped into his aerial threat at set-pieces with the skipper scoring more times than any other player under the new boss with three goals.
Appearances: 50 Goals: 4 Rating: 8/10
Puzzlingly discarded early and packed off to Luton in November by Mills despite being seemingly no better or worse than in his previous spell at the club. Still finished with just two fewer assists than Jason Walker, who headed that table. Might have been an ideal man to turn to when the season turned into a relegation scrap, although Platt and Adam Reed eventually provided the midfield energy, forward thrust and bite that was lost following his departure.
Appearances: 10 (4) Goals: 0 Rating: 6/10
Showed early promise following his arrival on loan from Leeds, particularly with the quality of his distribution. Looked his teenage years, though, when put under pressure in subsequent appearances. Lacked the physical strength of later loanee and fellow youngster O’Connell.
Appearances: 4 (1) Goals: 0 Rating: 6/10
Taking away his three penalties, a return of six goals from open play was disappointing with one of those also literally going in off his backside. Worked hard to lead the line as the side’s lone central striker and did create seven goals for team-mates but could have hurt teams more in the final third. Rarely looked like providing those spectacular and audacious match-winning moments that made were typical of a phenomenal first three months at the club.
Appearances: 41 (7) Goals: 9 Rating: 5/10
The Press Player of the Year: C Smith 40 points, Ingham 34, Parslow 30, Blair 24, O’Connell 18, Fyfield 17, Chambers 16, Walker 16, McGurk 15, Kerr 13, Kearns 12, Oyebanjo 11, Coulson 8, McLaughlin 6, Potts 6, Carlisle 5, Carson 5, J Smith 5, McGrath 4, Doig 3, Rankine 3, Reed 3, Blanchett 2, Obeng 2, Rodman 2, Taylor 2, Challinor 1, Johnson 1, Platt 1, A Reed 1.
Goals: Chambers 10, Walker 9, Blair 7, Coulson 5, McLaughlin 4, Own goals 4, J Reed 4, C Smith 4, Potts 3, Cresswell 2, A Reed 2, Parslow 1, Rodman 1.
Assists: Walker 7, Blair 6, Chambers 6, J Smith 5, Parslow 4, C Smith 4, Kearns 3, McLaughlin 3, Carlisle 2, Carson 2, Coulson 2, Kerr 2, McGrath 2, Rodman 2, Challinor 1, Cresswell 1, Fyfield 1, Ingham 1, Platt 1, Reed 1.
Bad boys: Chambers 7 yellow cards; C Smith 6 yellow; Kerr 1 red, 3 yellow; Ingham 4 yellow; Fyfield 3 yellow; Blair, Coulson, McGurk, McLaughlin, O’Connell, Oyebanjo, Parslow, Platt, Potts all 2 yellow; Carlisle, Carson, Challinor, Cresswell, Doig, Johnson, A Reed, Rodman, J Smith, Walker all 1 yellow.
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