THE VIRUS DELIVERS A KNOCK-OUT BLOW
HOW THE 2019/20 SEASON DIDN’T HAPPEN
The 2019/20 season was the season that wasn’t.
It started like any other with everyone full of optimism after the summer break, but it ended like no other after being swept away by a previously unknown virus that originated in the remote Chinese city of Wuhan and soon spread worldwide at devastating speed with its impact on football being of no consequence in comparison to the misery and disruption it was responsible for elsewhere.
The 2018/19 season had seen Town achieve heights never previously achieved with their best ever fifth place finish in the Southern League Premier Division Central, which earned them a promotion play-off spot, plus history making with progress in the F A Trophy to reach the First Round proper and the lifting of silverware with the Southern League Challenge Cup all combining to propel supporters into dreamland.
But any thoughts that it would be more of the same in 2019/20 didn’t last long. Within a fortnight of the play off defeat at Kings Lynn Head of Football Thomas Baillie had departed only to reappear shortly afterwards in a similar role at Tamworth, and the break-up of his squad soon began.
Jamie McAteer who had missed the closing weeks of the season quickly switched to Barwell but what stunned supporters was the departure of playmaker Will Grocott who was quickly lured away to Stourbridge.
A fixture in Town’s midfield for the past three seasons Will was Town’s longest serving player having clocked up 153 appearances, and the dejection among the Town faithful increased when the equally popular striker Mike Taylor, who revelled in the nickname of “the Beast,” also decided that his future lay with the big spending Glassboys after 119 appearances and 44 goals.
And Stourbridge were not finished yet as soon after they swooped for central defender Jordan Williams while there was another hammer blow as inspirational skipper Jimmy Fry followed Baillie to Tamworth.
So for the second summer running Town were searching for a new manager, and it didn’t take long for the appointment of Tommy Wright to be announced. Tommy had recently left Darlington and had previously been in charge at Corby Town when they won the Southern League Premier Division title in 2014/15.
It was also confirmed that Paul Davis would stay on as Assistant Manager along with Steve Walker as First Team Coach and Head of the Academy.
And Tommy Wright immediately got off to a good start with Town supporters by holding a well attended open meeting at which the ex-Evesham United manager Paul Collicutt was introduced taking on the role of Head of Football Operations.
Several challenging topics were discussed including new players, budget and whether Town could repeat last season’s heroics. All were dealt with by Tommy in an honest and open way which left supporters feeling that in spite of all the departures it was not all doom and gloom and there was room for optimism as well.
Tommy soon began to draft in some new faces starting with the addition of the 6 foot 9 inch keeper Sam Lomax and the speedy winger Kurtis Revan plus the experienced Callum Ball, who numbered Derby County among his previous clubs and who had been with Tommy Wright at Corby Town, and the equally well travelled Liam Hughes who had played under Wright at Darlington.
And there were plenty more newcomers such as midfielders Joel Gyasi and Luis “Love Island” Morrison, defender Dan Vann and striker Chris Wreh when the pre-season friendlies began starting with a trip to Yeovil Town where Tommy Wright fielded a different team in each half.
Familiar names included from last season were Chris Cox, Cody Fisher, Kynan Isaac, Nabil Shariff and Lewis Wilson, but those Town supporters who journeyed down to Somerset expecting to see Albi Skendi in Tommy Wright’s side had a surprise when they arrived as he had agreed a move to the Glovers having been offered a full time contract following his stand out form in Town’s midfield last season and was lining up against them.
Further friendlies against Racing Club Warwick, Worcester City, Cheltenham Town, Aston Villa Under 23’s and Leicester Road followed and although results in these games are pretty well meaningless they were all won which could only boost everyone’s confidence.
Other players now involved included keeper Elliott Taylor, defender Lyndon Dovey, and midfielders Morgan Brown, Mitchell Glover and Ivor Lawton together with the return to Town of James Hancocks and also the ex-Town Youth hotshot Dylan Parker after his spell at Walsall.
But missing from all of this was Wilson Carvalho who had secured a move into the full time game with League One Accrington Stanley as he followed Ben Stephens from twelve months ago into the EFL.
The final two friendlies against a strong Brackley Town side and near neighbours Evesham United were both lost, but in spite of those results and then being hit by the sudden and unexpected departures of Chris Cox and Kynan Isaac Tommy Wright proclaimed himself satisfied with how the preparations had gone announcing that he was looking forward to the new season and couldn’t wait to get started.
Following all the summer comings and goings it was pretty much an unrecognisable Town side both on the pitch and in the dug-out for the opening match of the season at home to Needham Market.
Only Nabil Shariff survived from the starting line-up in the Kings Lynn play-off tie to start this time although he was joined by Cody Fisher, Tom Fishwick and Lewis Wilson who had been on the subs bench then, but Town at least got off to a winning start thanks to as added time strike from Chris Wreh.
But history then repeated itself in their second match when Town again had to travel to Stourbridge and just as twelve months earlier were dealt a reality check as Will Grocott and Co strolled to a 3-1 win with Town having the added embarrassment of Luis Morrison being red carded.
Back at the Arden Garages Stadium the following Saturday it was another late goal from super-sub Chris Wreh which rescued a point against Kings Langley in a 3-3 draw which Tommy Wright described as “a great game for the neutral but a nightmare for the managers.”
But the talking point of the afternoon was the return to Town of the unpredictable Kynan Isaac. Having apparently made peace with Tommy Wright he went straight into the starting line-up, but it was a one game wonder as he had gone again by next weekend before eventually returning in January after spells at North Leigh and Banbury United.
Chris Wreh was promoted to the starting line-up for Town’s third Saturday home fixture in a row and took his tally for the season to four with two quality finishes as Tommy Wright’s side turned on the style to convincingly beat Rushden and Diamonds who had arrived with a 100% record.
Seven points from their first four games represented a promising start for the new look Town side, but some of the gloss was taken off as the next two outings ended in disappointing setbacks.
Two days after the Rushden game an August Bank holiday Monday trip to Rushall Olympic’s brand new 3G pitch saw Town on the wrong end of a 4-1 scoreline and the following Saturday Biggleswade Town took all the ;points from the Arden Garages Stadium with a 2-1 win.
And that was Cody Fisher’s last Town game for the time being as he soon followed the by now familiar path to Stourbridge before making the reverse journey shortly before the season was shut down.
League action was then put on hold as Town’s next two games were Cup ties with dramatically contrasting results.
Boldmere St Michaels were old rivals from Town’s MFA days but they were overwhelmed in the First Qualifying Round of the F A Cup as Tommy Wright’s side romped to a 6-1 win with Nabil Shariff helping himself to a hat trick before it all went wrong for Town three days later.
Even though they were the holders of the Southern League Challenge Cup they were drawn to play in the Preliminary Round at home to Halesowen Town. The Yeltz had been relegated from the Premier Central Division at the end of last season but reinvigorated under new manager Paul Smith they were a totally different proposition now, and with the only goal of the evening they deservedly went through as Town’s defence of the trophy won so ecstatically back in April ended at the earliest possible opportunity.
Town needed an immediate response to lift the gloom and did so with a battling draw at Coalville and then a comfortable home win over Alvechurch who like Town were having to rebuild after reaching last season’s play-offs and were now under the care of ex-Town boss Darren Byfield.
By now new faces were appearing in the squad with left back Charley O’Keefe debuting against Halesowen followed by midfielders Joe Curtis and Luke Rowe against Coalville.
But Halesowen weren’t finished with Town yet and after their League Cup win ten days earlier they were understandably confident of repeating that result in the F A Cup Second Qualifying Round tie at the Grove.
And on an afternoon when Town were simply desperate the Yeltz romped to a 4-1 success with Nabil Shariff adding to Town’s woes by being sent off halfway through the second half.
The bare result was bad enough, but it was to have far reaching consequences not least financial as any hopes of further prize money were dashed.
By the following weekend’s league fixture at Hitchin Callum Ball, Lynden Dovey, Joel Gyasi, Ivor Lawton and Luis Morrison had all been released with Morrison going on Twitter to say that his departure was “not for footballing reasons” and Tommy Wright subsequently confirming that a cut in the playing budget was behind this mass exit.
So new signings were needed and Kairo Edwards-John and George Heaven were both introduced at Hitchin, but it was another limp Town display which handed the struggling Canaries their first league win of the season
But after a turbulent couple of weeks which had started with their F A Cup exit at Halesowen followed by the budget cut, the subsequent player departures and the defeat at Hitchin the fixture list seemed to have given Town the perfect chance to get their season back on track.
The following Saturday could have been left blank as it was the next round of the F A Cup and scheduled opponents Hednesford were still involved, but Town were able to bring forward their home game against bottom club Leiston who had also exited the competition and who had managed only a solitary point from nine outings conceding 36 goals in the process including eight against Peterborough Sports the previous Saturday.
And with the squad still seemingly evolving Town introduced two new signings in 19 year old keeper Mitchell Allen, who had just been released by Stoke City and who was making what turned out to be his only Town appearance, and defender Kyle Rowley who has had spells at Cheltenham Town and Alvechurch, and they became the 30th and 31st players respectively used by Tommy Wright this season.
But even though Town won 3-1 it wasn’t a convincing performance and Chairman Jed McCrory and the Board had seen enough. A few days later it was announced that Tommy Wright had been dismissed and following the previous departures of Carl Adams, Darren Byfield and Thomas Baillie it left Town to search for their fourth manager in 18 months.
His league record had been pretty respectable with four wins, two draws and four losses from ten games yielding 14 points but it was the two Cup defeats by Halesowen which did for him.
Nevertheless Town were comfortably in mid-table when he left and were never to be in that happy situation afterwards.
Paul Davis was named as Caretaker Manager and remained in that role for the rest of the campaign but his time in charge got off to the worst possible start as Lowestoft cruised to a 3-0 win at the Arden Garages Stadium and Town’s slide into the lower reaches of the table was under way.
Watford loanee Harvey White was in goal against the Trawlerboys while another new face in the starting line-up was midfielder Ravi Shamsi who had joined from Leamington and making their debuts from the subs bench were Boubakar Traore and Foday Nabay.
Nabay had been a teenage sensation at Birmingham City and in 2013 Fulham had paid £225,000 to acquire him from Birmingham City when he was just 15 years old, but he had been blighted by injury since and during his timer at Town seldom showed any glimpses of his earlier potential.
Meanwhile heading out of the exit door were James Hancocks and Dylan Parker to link up with former boss Carl Adams at Rugby Town plus Liam Hughes who moved to Bradford Park Avenue.
Four days later Town exited the Birmingham Senior Cup losing to Wolves Under 23 side after a penalty shoot-out when there were more debutants on show.
Defenders Kyle Ambris and Matt Bower were on loan from Tamworth and Bath City respectively, but far more significant was Courtney Richards who joined from Nuneaton Borough and went on to be an ever-present in Town’s starting line-up for the rest of the season.
With the next weekend’s opponents Royston still involved in the F A Cup Town instead opted for a low key friendly at Kettering in which the opportunity was taken to give a number of Academy scholars a taste of first team action before League action resumed with the midweek visit of Tamworth.
Town took an early lead but everything changed a couple of minutes before half time when Ambris gave away a penalty form which the Lambs duly equalised. Ambris was sent off for committing the foul and after a scuffle following the spot kick when Harvey White went to retrieve the ball from the back of the net the keeper was sent off as well leaving Town to face the second half with only nine players including defender Matt Bower taking over in goal.
Inevitably Tamworth went on to win, but it had been an unedifying return to the Arden Garages Stadium for last season’s Head of Football Thomas Baillie and skipper Jimmy Fry.
The following Saturday was scheduled to be a home F A Trophy First Qualifying Round tie against Hednesford but an overnight deluge meant that it was delayed until the following Tuesday.
And in spite of Shamsi firing Town ahead with a 40 yard wonder strike there was to be no repeat of the historic run in last season’s competition as the Pitmen hit back to end Town’s Cup interest for the season and, as the saying goes, leave them to concentrate on the League with 30 games left to play.
The tie did however feature three more debutants in keeper Jack Bennett from Bradford PA, left back Kai Woollard-Innocent on loan from QPR and midfielder Matthew Campbell-Mhlope who had joined from Kings Langley as the seasonal player count reached 41.
So with four games all at home resulting in two League defeats and two Cup exits the Paul Davis era had hardly got off to a promising start, but worse was soon to follow.
Next up was a visit to newly promoted Peterborough Sports. Town were only one down at half time but conceded five in the second half during which several Town players committed the unforgiveable and effectively gave up.
A seething Paul Davis described his side’s second half display as “capitulation” but in reality he was being polite.
It didn’t get much better a week later when in spite of five changes and the introduction of striker Kyle McFarlane on loan from York City another four goals hit he back of the net making ten in two games as Coalville Town cruised to a 4-1 win in front of the shellshocked Town faithful at the Arden Garages Stadium.
Nabil Shariff had departed for Rushden and Diamonds following the Peterborough debacle, and after the Coalville defeat he was followed out of the exit door by Tom Fishwick and Luke Rowe to Romulus and Worcester city respectively.
All of this meant that Town were still looking for their first point since Tommy Wright’s departure when the fixture schedule saw them next make the short trip to Nuneaton Borough.
The match was most memorable for a missed penalty taken by Nuneaton’s ex-Leamington keeper Tony Breeden early in the second half when the score was still 0-0. Hitting it with all the force he could muster the ball soared over the bar and crashed against a strip light in the stand behind the goal leaving it dangling but somehow still lit for the remainder of the afternoon and video of the incident immediately went viral on the Internet.
But two late strikes saw Borough take the points and Town had now slipped into the bottom six in the table.
But Paul Davis at last got off the mark at the eighth attempt the following Tuesday under the Arden Garages Stadium floodlights when Town gained at least a modicum of revenge for their F A Trophy defeat as they surged to a 4-1 win over a Hednesford team who were second best all evening.
Unfortunately though Town couldn’t immediately build on that winning momentum as they then had a blank weekend due to the scheduled fixture against Leiston having already been played and of course becoming Tommy Wright’s swansong in the process.
So it was another week before they were back in action with a testing Tuesday night trip to Royston. Town gave it their all but Royston had the better of the 3-2 scoreline which added to the importance of Town’s game at St Ives the following weekend.
If Town were struggling St Ives were doing even worse and went into the game having taken only one point from their previous seven outings, yet it was the Saints who seemed to be on their way to a rare win when they led 2-0 early in the second half only for Kyle McFarlane to come off the subs bench and rescue a point with two vital strikes the second of which came with only three minutes to go.
Any hopes that the late comeback at St Ives would spark an upsurge in Town’s results were quickly dispelled when Barwell visited the Arden Garages Stadium for a midweek fixture the following Tuesday as it was a case of “Peterborough revisited” with Barwell scoring four in the second half and romping to a 5-1 win.
Another home defeat to Bromsgrove Sporting followed next weekend with Mike Taylor having moved on from Stourbridge inevitably on the scoresheet against his former club.
Town had some relief when their home fixture against Hitchin was waterlogged off, but it was a third loss in a row in their final game before Christmas when a questionable penalty decision gave Hednesford the opportunity to take all three points.
By now Jim Scott, who was a part of the Northampton Town academy set-up, had been recruited as Assistant Manager, but he had hardly had time to make an impact when Town made the short trip down the M40 to face Banbury United on Boxing Day.
And there was precious little Christmas spirit as in an ill-tempered clash Banbury emulated Barwell by striking four times after half time on their way to an eventual 5-0 scoreline which meant that Town had lost all four of their December games scoring just two and conceding thirteen.
After the debacle at Banbury it was decided that another revamp of the squad was required and for the New Year’s Day home fixture against Rushall Olympic four new signings were introduced followed by two more at Needham Market three days later and another four against Stourbridge the next weekend making ten in all which took the season’s player total to 58 with last season’s figure of 54 already left well behind.
There was also yet another return for the prodigal Kynan Isaac while Mo Sebbeh-Njie from last season’s squad was another to reappear after a brief spell at Kettering Town.
And changes weren’t confined to the players as the experienced Dale Belford had recently left Nuneaton Borough and took over as Assistant Manager from Jim Scott whose time at Town had lasted barely a month.
Most of the newcomers didn’t last long with only Reece Flanagan still being in the squad for what turned out to be Town’s final game of the season at Tamworth.
Solihull Moors loanee Dan Sweeney at least showed his quality with four goals in six games and Javia Roberts provided glimpses of ability during his eight game spell, but among the others Rheiss McLean and David Neligwa only made one substitute appearance each while the Senegalese defender Abdou Diakhate played the first half at Needham Market and was never seen again.
To make way for all these arrivals however brief their stay there had to be departures. Nabay, Campbell-Mhlope and Bower never featured again after Banbury and Lomax played only once more while Chris Wreh left for Rushall after the Needham Market game followed by Ross Oulton going to Barwell and then Town’s current longest serving player Lewis Wilson switching to Banbury United on the eve of the trip to Kings Langley.
And in spite of the adherence to the revolving door policy of player recruitment results didn’t improve. The games against Rushall, Needham Market and Stourbridge were all lost although only by the odd goal extending Town’s losing run to seven, and after the Stourbridge game a small group of supporters vented their feelings in a heated exchange with Chairman Jed McCrory by the players tunnel.
Town responded by beating basement side Redditch United on a damp Tuesday evening on the Reds 3G pitch with Wolves loanee James Pardington debuting in goal, but further defeats at Rushden and Diamonds and Kings Langley followed leaving them uncomfortably placed in the bottom four.
So although well clear of St Ives and Redditch they were nervously looking over their shoulder at Alvechurch which meant the rearranged home game against Hitchin Town, who were only two places higher in the table although ten points better off, seemed to offer the chance of opening up a worthwhile gap.
That appeared very much on the cards when Town led 2-0 at half time and after being pegged back to 2-2 by a Hitchin second half revival they regained the lead to be 3-2 up going into added time.
But then a carelessly conceded and even more carelessly defended free kick enabled Hitchin to make it 3-3 and a frustrated Paul Davis could scarcely contain his anger afterwards at how a much needed three points had been thrown away simply by players not following his instructions.
After the Hitchin setback Town faced a testing trip to Biggleswade where the experienced duo of defender Michael Townsend and striker Kyle Perry plus Rob Thompson-Brown took the players used total to 64.
Thompson-Brown had been part of Morton Titterton’s MFA League Cup winning squad in 2011 before moving on to Kidderminster Harriers and Leamington among others, and had first returned to Town when he was part of Carl Adams’ play-off winning squad in 2014/15.
Now he was back again, and it was his introduction from the subs bench in the 72nd minute that changed a game which looked to be heading for a goalless stalemate.
Almost immediately his pace unnerved the Waders defence as he was brought down in full flight and from the resulting free kick Courtney Richards swept in the winner which meant Town had taken four points from two games having previously taken only seven from eighteen since Tommy Wright’s exit.
With the next scheduled fixture against Coalville having already been played in November when both sides had a free weekend after early F A Trophy exits Town now had a fortnight’s break before their return fixture at the Arden Garages Stadium against the apparently already doomed Redditch.
But it was not to be a peaceful fortnight as halfway through Dan Sweeney was involved in a controversial move to Hednesford. His one month loan spell from Solihull Moors expired and although he wished to extend his stay and Town were keen for him to do so he was persuaded to switch to the Pitmen leaving Paul Davis not best pleased to say the least.
Then Storm Dennis intervened and it was only due to the heroic efforts of Mark Bickley and his team of volunteers that the Redditch game went ahead with Town outbattling the Reds and the elements on their way to a 2-0 win which meant they had recorded back-to-back wins and also back-to-back clean sheets for the first time this season
The game also saw the return of Cody Fisher and the debut of Leicester City loanee Rhys Davies who became Town’s seventh keeper of the season.
Town had now gone three games unbeaten and climbed out of the bottom four by leapfrogging Leiston, but that encouraging sequence didn’t survive the testing trip to the Far East aka Lowestoft Town. With the A14 not helping by having two lengthy diversions thus extending Town’s journey time to some five hours it was hardly a surprise that they never really got going as they slipped to a 2-0 defeat.
But four debutants at Lowestoft, including the return to Town of Luke Barlone who, like Thompson-Brown, had also been involved in the 2014/15 play-off success, took the season’s player count to a staggering 70 including a scarcely believable 22 in the ten games since the turn of the year.
With Royston sill involved in the F A Trophy Town now had another free Saturday until their next fixture which could hardly have been more daunting as it was away to table toppers Tamworth.
Further debutants Karnell Chambers and Henry Cowans took the seasonal total to 72 but couldn’t prevent the Lambs surging to a 4-1 win with Paul Davis taking some consolation that the four teams below Town all lost as well so that in his words “it was another game ticked off.”
But the coronavirus was now an ever increasing threat and soon intervened to ensure that the Tamworth fixture played on March 7th was to be Town’s final action of the season.
The next weekend’s game at Barwell was called off by the Southern League the day before it was due to take place and at the same time the home games against Royston and Peterborough Sports scheduled for the following Tuesday and Saturday were similarly postponed.
And as the situation deteriorated by the day the remaining games of the season were quickly also put on hold until the inevitable decision was announced on Thursday March 26th to end the season and declare it null and void with the results expunged and all promotion and relegation cancelled.
So any lingering relegation threat to Town was instantly wiped out although they would probably have been safe anyway. They had never been in the bottom three and they had key fixtures coming up against fellow strugglers Leiston, Alvechurch and St Ives in which the hoped for positive results would surely have propelled them well clear of the drop zone.
Nevertheless the abrupt and unprecedented end to the season can’t disguise the fact that it had been a particularly disappointing and frustrating campaign as they ended with only 28 points from the 33 games played. Even though none of that counted anymore it had been a long hard struggle for most of the time.
Under both Tommy Wright and then Paul Davis the team had never really got going and of Town’s five seasons at Premier Division level in terms of points per game this was the worst by some way.
Most regular Town watchers would put this down to the fact that a bewildering number of 72 players were used. With so comings and goings the team rarely displayed any cohesion or fluency on the pitch, while there was also a worrying decline in attendances as supporters struggled to come to terms with the constant change of names and faces in the Town shirts.
All of this brought the system of player recruitment under increasing scrutiny. It was certainly questionable at best and shambolic at worst with 34 of the players used featuring in five or less games and 14 appearing just once with 9 of those only coming on from the subs bench, and if Town are to do better next time round then there has to be a major rethink and improvement in this area.
But with a number of clubs expected to struggle financially over the coming months due to the abrupt and premature end of the season nothing much is likely to be the same for anybody in the future.
True success at this level is often just survival, and Town’s immediate priority is to ride out the ongoing uncertainties so that when football does return they are able to do so as well – whenever that may be.
Review compiled by Bryan Hale