In the first part of Chris Turner‘s opus, we saw how he began to apply Moneyball rules to the hot mess that is Welling United, inspired by my series on The Set Pieces. Here, Chris continues into his first season, to see whether all that hard work and bargaining with the obtuse club hierarchy pays off…
The Season Gets Underway
Our first game of the season is at home to AFC Telford, who constantly bounce up and down between the Conference and its feeder leagues. We draw 3-3 but I lose both Rowan Vine and Jason Williams, his replacement, to injury. My paper-thin squad depth immediately shows. By chance, the next few games see us score plenty of goals, but the defence is just too weak to keep them out. 2-1, 2-3, 1-1, 1-1, 2-2 read the scorelines. After 8 games, we sit in 18th position and dangerously close to the relegation zone. Our early-season rivals look to be Dover, Nuneaton, Dartford, Wrexham and Chester, all sitting at the bottom with a similar number of points. A clear win would put distance between any of the teams. I decide that our tactics are too costly and switch to a classic 4-4-2 formation, instructing my players to retain the ball and switch to a short passing game. I take some advice from another manager on the Sort It Out SI website and make us close down more, up our work rate and exploit the flanks. It proves to be a disaster.
We go on a run of 9 games without a win, losing 6 and drawing 3, sinking to 23rd place overall. I’m afraid to make tactical changes too often as it will unsettle my squad, and their present harmony through repeated soothing match day talks is about the only thing they’ve got going for them. To make matters worse, I pick up injuries in all but three of these games. The squad looks threadbare and I’ve got no choice but to push up youngsters from the Under-21’s. Chris Bush and Reece Harris give it their best, but they’re not up to scratch and flounder even more than their predecessors. We eventually break the streak in late October with a 2-0 home win over rivals Nuneaton. It pulls us up to 21st in the league, but still leaves us in the relegation zone.
At this point, my managerial nerve snaps and “Bollocks to Hobbins” becomes my mantra. I send Brandon Biggi out on a hunt for undiscovered talent and try to pack him off to Italy, because some nationalities are overrated – particularly England. “B2H” is quickly put in its place when Barrie refuses to pay for Biggi to have an Easyjet flight out of the country. There is no option in the game for me and Biggi to pool our own money and buy a ticket. Barrie writes the cheques and Barrie says “no”… to everything. Except relegation. Barrie doesn’t want relegation. He just doesn’t want to pay a penny towards avoiding it. Defiantly, Biggi finds a couple of players in Joe Smith (ex Sheff Utd) and Lee Chaffey (ex Ipswich) who seem to be halfway competent defenders. Biggi says so and even Glen Little, my assistant, says so. I “sign” them both on zero-hours contracts to sneak them past Barrie. Smith is 23 and Chaffey is 29, which means that I am (almost) buying players in their early twenties. This is good. I’m sticking to Moneyball, but consciously this time. Unfortunately, both of them turn out to be utterly shit and spend most of their time in the reserves, being kicked out at the end of the season. The wisdom of crowds has not proven so wise.
Further compounding the club’s misery is Jake Gallagher, my captain, who is a passable midfielder (in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed Man is king). Along with Darren Purse, he manages to pick up a yellow card in almost every game. He is banned, but then comes back and gets himself sent off for persistent fouling. This has a knock-on effect and other impressionable youngsters follow his lead. Welling Utd end up getting fined by the FA at one point, so bad is our disciplinary record. Gallagher is officially warned, spoken to about the captaincy and ultimately fined in increasing amounts. Every time, he gives me puppy-dog eyes and promises never to do it again. Unfortunately, like a puppy-dog, he comes back again and still poos on the metaphorical carpet by getting banned again almost straight away. Gallagher goes on to accumulate 14 yellow cards and 3 red throughout the season, despite never being told to hard tackle anybody. I tell him he is a bad example, strip him of the captaincy and put Louie Fazakerly in charge towards the end of the season. The disciplinary issues almost disappear overnight.
We manage to scrape through the FA Cup 4th Qualifying Round after a 1-0 win over Burnham and I begin to consider what a good run might do for our finances. These hopes are immediately dashed when we draw League 1 side Crawley in the 1st Round proper. Although we manage an impressive 1-1 draw at home, we lose the replay 0-2 convincingly. This then leads to another poor run of four successive defeats, but at least the injuries are kept in control. All the squad are focussing on Fitness training and seem to be bearing up to the often bone-crunching tackles to be found at this level of the game. It’s also cheap to get them running round Danson Park out the back.
In the run up to Christmas, the defence remains agonisingly poor and we sink to the bottom of the Conference in 24th place. An untrained chimp could have achieved the same result that I have. I feel like a failure. Bizarrely, the board are happy with my management – even though I’m wallowing at the bottom of the barrel. The only thing they are concerned with is my lack of goals from set pieces. Perhaps Barrie just inhabits a different plane of wisdom to the rest of us. I go on the hunt for a new defender, creating some savings by sending out over-valued youngsters on loan (Malachi Hudson, Barney Williams, Malik Ouani) and manage to pick up Delroy Gordon from Leamington in the Conference North. I ignore the wisdom of the crowds and defy both Brandon Biggi and Glen Little who caution me against the signing. Barrie Hobbins seems somehow not to notice as I manage to get Gordon to come on a Part-Time Contract. He joins us on 01/01/2015 and not a moment too soon.
I switch tactics again to a variation of 5-4-1, taking advantage of Jake Gallagher’s defensive abilities in midfield to bolster the rear and we have a superb December which concludes with a 4-2 away win at fellow relegation contenders Dartford in the FA Trophy 1st Round. This run of good form then comes to a sudden end with the loss of Dominic Vose (red card; two-footed challenge) and leaving me with a big hole to fill out on the left wing. Welling manage to haul themselves up to 21st position, but dip back down to 23rd by the end of March. With only 6 games to go, only three points separate Dover, Nuneaton, Welling and Southport. Dartford take the bottom spot and appear to be in freefall when their manager is dismissed. Three others will join them in relegation and I’m determined it won’t be me.
Jake Gallagher, still captain at this stage of the season, then throws my plans into disarray when he gets sent off for a two-footed challenge. His two-match ban is extended by a further three games after an FA disciplinary review. I have no other defensive midfielders and my formation is broken. My lack of depth haunts me. I decide to revert back to my original plan: score more than the opposition and hope that the defence can hold some of them out.
Amazingly, we go on a six-game unbeaten run with three wins and three draws. It’s enough to put us on 47pts, clear of Southport (44pts), Dover (45pts), Nuneaton (38pts) and Dartford (30pts) and leave us in 20th position. Above us are FC Halifax with 52pts, so with only one game left, we have no prospect of finishing any higher. My young loan goalkeeper, Jon Henly, gets called up for Scotland’s U-21 side and I am reminded that I don’t have any true cover for him. As he’s on loan, I can’t stop him playing the international games, even though I desperately need him for this one last game. Fortunately, I am able to quickly bring in a 19-year old ex-Southampton goalkeeper named James White. He is slightly outside the Moneyball magic age of his early twenties, but his stats impress me and he is too good to pass up at this level. Even if he never developed again, he is still better than most others to be found in the Conference. It’s another zero-hours contract, but there’s no way that Barrie Hobbins will wear another part-timer. I don’t even bother to ask Brandon Biggi or Glen Little what they think.
The final game of the season is against fierce relegation rivals Southport. A draw will see us through, and Southport will need to win by three goals in order to beat us on GD. My nightmare unfolds when they go 0-2 up inside ten minutes. Throwing everything at them, we pull the game back to 2-2, but then they score twice more. Our GD is level at -20 each. My heart stops as I review the live league table and realise that if we can hold out, we will keep our 20th place by virtue of goals scored (6 more than Southport). We hold out for a 2-4 defeat at home. One more goal for Southport and it would have been Welling going down and my season written off as a total failure. Instead, I am a success and have achieved the club’s only ambition. Jubilant, I celebrate in my (real life) room. I have gone the distance and survived the season by the skin of my teeth. Surely Barrie would stretch to a bottle of champagne to celebrate?
With such an important game right at the end of the season, it all seems to end very abruptly when it comes. Barrie Hobbins congratulates me and writes a bonus cheque of £1,200 into my wages for staying up. He still moans about not scoring from set pieces. Seeing an opportunity for a bit of personal reward for, I ask to take my National Coach A Licence for next season. Barrie, instantly forgetting any semblance of gratitude for my achievements, refuses on the grounds of cost. He does, however, offer me a new contract for next season. He also promises to make the princely sum of £0 available for me again. I start to believe that Barrie Hobbins really does write cheques for “£0” thinking he’s doing me a favour.
So, how did I stack up over the season? The Moneyball principles so ably demonstrated by Alex Stewart are difficult to apply to a Conference team – especially one as poor as Welling United. Here, I will address each point in turn:
Net wage spend is more important than net transfer spend
This decision was made for me by the Welling United management. In making absolutely no funds available to me, I could never make any substantial transfers. Instead, I was forced to keep the wage bill down (already unaffordable at £8k per month) and use free players on extremely tight or limited contracts to plug the gaps where I could. There was a direct correlation between wages and performance, with all of my best players being those signed to part-time contracts.
Don’t needlessly splash out on new players or sell old ones when you take over a club – the New Manager syndrome
Owing to a fairly good pre-season, I managed to avoid New Manager syndrome. The temptation when taking over a newly-promoted Conference side is to clear out players who cannot compete at this new higher level (much as Alex did when he arrived in the Premiership with Bristol Rovers – albeit not as a new manager), but Welling have no money with which to bring in Conference or League 2 standard players. With a squad seriously lacking depth, getting rid of players wasn’t really an option for me. Instead, I was forced to make do with what I had. I did manage to avoid signing a glut of players to zero-hours contracts and destabilising the team. I also managed to achieve a high degree of consistency with the starting eleven week-on-week.
Don’t buy players who impressed at international tournaments
This isn’t really an issue for Conference sides. The only international players I had were Joseph Zerafa, a poor-quality defender who plays for Malta, and Jonathan Henly – on loan from Reading and playing for Scotland U-21. Most international players will cost too much money for Conference sides.
Some nationalities are overrated – Holland, Brazil, England
Owing to Barrie Hobbins’ strict control of the purse strings, I was unable to scout anywhere other than England. He wouldn’t stump up for a DFDS Seaways ticket to Holland and as for a flight to Brazil…
Sell your players at the right time: when they’re around 30 years old
I had loan offers during the season for some of my young players in the U-21 squad and agreed to all of them, subject to the receiving team paying their wages, in order to bring the wage bill down and try and free up some financial space for strengthening the main squad. I didn’t have any transfer-listed players because my actually contracted players were my best. You can’t sell players on zero-hours contracts. My squad reflected the classic non-league dynamic: a combination of the old (Glen Little, 39 and Darren Purse, 38) with the young. The middle are hardly represented. Rowan Vine, by far and away my star player, is 32 but if I sold him there would be nobody to replace him with. Even if he went, he is valued at £7,000. That wouldn’t even cover the squad wage bill for a week. I would rather keep him and defy Moneyball due to the lack of squad depth and other options for bringing in a replacement.
Use the wisdom of crowds: ask all your scouts and a Director of Football if you have one
My scout, Brandon Biggi, made two judgment calls in Joe Smith and Lee Chaffey. He was backed up by the Assistant Manager. Both calls were horrifically wrong. They both told me that Delroy Gordon was a waste of time, yet his strong defending undoubtedly helped us on our season-ending winning streak. He made up for the lack of discipline showed by Darren Purse and was naturally fitter and better in most regards. Moneyball seems to have failed me here, perhaps because it assumes a certain level of capability in coaching staff. I was unable to improve the quality of my backroom staff – again, because of Big Bad Barrie Hobbins and his almost fanatical refusal to spend any money.
Buy players in their early twenties
Of the players I brought in, I generally stuck to this principle consciously. James White was 19, but I would have been mad to turn down an ex-Southampton player. Delroy Gordon was 30, just outside the margin, but should still have plenty of years left in him before he declines. I avoided signing much cheaper young players, which is always a temptation down in the Conference.
Centre-forwards cost more than they should
Attack was the (relatively) stronger area of Welling Utd when I took over. I was never in the market for a centre-forward.
Sell any player if a club offers more than they are worth
I never received any transfer offers during the season, which is unusual from past versions of the game. Welling United, although I make out to be a bit of a joke team, actually sit at the top tier of non-league football and I was expecting to have approaches made from Conference North and Conference South teams.
Don’t buy players if you don’t need to: develop a youth network
This proved extremely difficult owing to Barrie Hobbins sticking to his no-money mantra. The club was able to hold a trial day for young players and several new members were taken in for free to the U-18 squad, but it is far too early to tell whether they will develop accordingly. With a lack of decent facilities and no prospect of an upgrade anytime soon, this looks to be a difficult proposition for Welling Utd.
Welling have survived and, in part, with the assistance of some of the Moneyball principles. Many of them are impossible to apply to clubs at this level, but some are just as relevant – particularly the avoidance of New Manager Syndrome, controlling net wage spend and buying players in their early twenties. Having a solid youth network also clearly makes sense for Conference teams, but Welling Utd just don’t have the funds to make this a reality – even though it’s probably cheaper in the long run.
Tactically, I have been turned inside out this season and have tried three regular formations and numerous different strategies for passing. In trying to raise the level of the game, I have heaped disaster upon myself and find myself reverting to the old, unattractive long ball and a 4-2-4 formation. In this league it simply works and there is no room for attractive, exciting football when the team’s survival depends on just getting that ball over the line by any means possible.
The squad is substantially the same at the end of the season as it was at the start. My loan players, Jon Henly, Jason Williams and Josh Carmichael, have all returned to their respective clubs which leaves me with several holes to fill. Henly has been replaced with James White in goal already and Williams was ineffective for me, but Carmichael will be much harder to replace in central midfield.
For all of Barrie Hobbins’ camp-guard approach to financial control, we are in a slightly worse position at the end of the season than we were at the beginning. The wage bill is broadly the same, but I doubt we’ll see any real increase in gate receipts, season tickets or sponsorship. We still have £28,000 of loan to pay off at £1,200 per month. We rely heavily on a huge supporter fundraiser of £48,000 to give us a lift at the end. Our prize. money from all competitions amounts to about the same. Overall, we lose about £100,000 over the course of the season.
Where to from here, then, for my Conference heroes? Next season, I will try to reinforce the defence again and hope that sticking to my long ball game, rather than over-complicating my tactics, will see us in better stead in all competitions, which will bring in more prize money and perhaps even some TV coverage on BT Sport – our one televised game against Woking netted us more money than our FA Trophy 2nd Round prize fund. If we can get some more of the loan paid off, we may even be able to find a bit of spare cash to bring in some badly-needed new staff.
I head back to the executive Portakabin and dream of playing in the league, of a glorious FA Cup run and a giant-killing upset.