Stevenage and Oldham live up to their billing

IN THE scheme of things, the battle to stay in the Football League is relatively unimportant compared to other events around the world, but an air of definite tension hung over Stevenage’s Lamex Stadium on the day the 90th and 91st-placed teams met in what could only be labelled an elimination bout.

It had reached a crucial stage of 2021-22 for both teams, who seemed hell bent on falling through the trapdoor. Oldham may beaten Leyton Orient a few days earlier and Stevenage might have be hoping for a late boost from the appointment of their third manager of the campaign, but both seemed in freefall. That Oldham – who also changed their coach in January, John Sheridan replacing Keith Curle – were still in with a shout was partly due to the poor form and slump of Stevenage, but the relegation battle had crystallised into any one of three to accompany Scunthorpe United. Barrow, who only returned to the league after a long absence in 2020, have evolved into candidates for a National League return.

Relegation for Stevenage would be a bitter pill to swallow after 12 years in the EFL. They’ve had some great moments in that period, winning promotion to League One in their first season and enjoying cup ties against Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Leicester City, Hull City, Southampton and Swansea City, among others. They ended their non-league life with two FA Trophy victories in 2007 and 2009 and were runners-up in 2010. It’s a town that’s always been tailor-made for league football, but since relegation back to League Two, support looks to have plateaued and in 2021-22, gates had been 5% lower than before the pandemic.

Phil Wallace has owned the club since the late 1990s and provided the impetus to take Stevenage into the league, the most recent improvement to the excellent Lamex Stadium being the North Stand, which offers a superb view for spectators. From time to time there are rumours Wallace wants to sell Stevenage and there were suggestions of a tie-up between the club and a group of cryptocurrency investors in 2021.

Wallace, allegedly the 35th richest person in Hertfordshire, would surely not want to end his reign at Stevenage with relegation, but the club’s on-pitch performances have declined in recent years and the manager’s role has become one of the least secure in football – they have had 10 full-time appointments in 12 years, hardly a recipe for stability.

Oldham Athletic were in the first Premier League in 1992-93 and spent two seasons at that level before falling into the second (1994) and third (1997) tiers. In 2018, they were relegated to League Two and have finished in 19th and 18th in the last seasons respectively. Just ahead of visiting Stevenage, Oldham published their accounts and they didn’t make for good reading. Football finance guru Kieran Maguire of the Price of Football, suggested the latest figures showed the club is “technically insolvent” as it has more liabilities than assets. 

However, Maguire added there is no sign of the club going into administration, but the accounts demonstrated a hand-to-mouth existence. Oldham, like many clubs, owe a lot of money, so relegation from the EFL would surely be a blow to their financial position.

Oldham fans turned out in force at Stevenage and their vocal support was very impressive. Conversely, there was an air of despondency among the home fans, who had not seen their team win since a league game the end of January. Their last away victory was recorded on August 14 at Bristol Rovers. Oldham had just ended a run of six consecutive league defeats when they beat Leyton Orient on March 29. Their home form has really been their undoing and their recent run included three successive defeats at Boundary Park. 

The general feeling was the losers of the game at the Lamex may well be heading into non-league football. Time was certainly running out for both, but Stevenage appeared to have the easier run-in, with games against Rochdale, Colchester, Scunthorpe and Carlisle. Stevenage’s biggest problem was scoring goals, just 34 in the 38 games before the Oldham clash and just six in the last 10.

With so much at stake, it was no surprise tension got the better of things for long periods. Stevenage had two early efforts, but their finishing explained why they had found scoring such a chore. Luke Norris and Arthur Read should certainly have done better when presented with close range opportunities. 

Oldham took the lead after 16 minutes with a nicely taken goal. Jordan Clarke’s cross to the far post was met by a looping header from Jamie Hopcutt, who had been recalled to the team by Sheridan. The Oldham keeper, Danny Rogers, danced with joy as the ball sailed over Christy Pym, his opposite number.

Stevenage nervously pressed, but their lack of firepower was exposed repeatedly, notably in the frenetic finale which almost brought the equaliser. Oldham’s defence held out, frustrating the home team and their unhappy supporters. It was a great rearguard action, although it didn’t make for compelling entertainment. It didn’t really matter to the majority of the fans, the result was the most important aspect of the afternoon, and Oldham got precisely what they came for. While the Latics travelling support enjoyed the moment as if they had won major silverware, the noise from the long Stevenage terrace was akin to mumbled jeering.

It is possible both of these teams will avoid relegation, but at present, Stevenage are in the drop zone. The situation will change game-by-game, but Oldham’s win, however ugly, has given them a three-point lead over Stevenage. They also have a better goal difference, which is worth another point. And then there’s Barrow, who are level with Oldham and have an eight-goal advantage. Stevenage manager Steve Evans, who felt his side were outstanding (!), is calling for the backing of the entire new town. They travel to Colchester United on April 9, who are also far from safe. As Evans said, Stevenage have seven cup finals ahead of them. He’s not wrong.

Remaining fixtures

(7): Home – Forest Green, Northampton, Sutton United.
Away – Crawley, Exeter, Salford, Swindon.

Oldham (6): Home – Crawley, Northampton, Salford.
Away – Forest Green, Port Vale, Tranmere.

Stevenage (7): Home – Rochdale, Salford, Tranmere.
Away – Carlisle, Colchester, Mansfield, Scunthorpe.

Barring a miracle, Scunthorpe United are staring at non-league football

THERE’S STILL 11 games to go, but the outlook seems rather grim for Scunthorpe United who sit 10 points off safety and have won just twice in 21 League Two games. There seems to be an air of resignation about the immediate future of the “Irons” and people are now starting to ask whether the club can hang on to certain players and if manager Keith Hill can get them out of the National League at the first attempt.

Scunthorpe are not alone in the struggle to avoid the drop, but they are looking somewhat isolated at this stage of the campaign. If they are relegated, it will end a 72-year stint in the Football League. A poor run of results may have brought home the reality of the situation. Unless there’s a dramatic change of form, it does look like National League football is inevitable. However, as recently as the end of January, chairman Peter Swann said Scunthorpe were not even contemplating relegation. He might be making plans now for a very different fixture list in 2022-23.

Swann has been absent from some games this season as he’s become quite unpopular. Yet he has invested (is that the right word?) more than £ 20 million in the club since taking control in 2013. He has a 90% stake and apparently, is open to anyone buying the club from him. 

Keith Hill, who was hired in November 2021, is a respected fellow, but he doesn’t seem to have strengthened the cause and his win rate of 9% merely underlines the predicament Scunthorpe now find themselves in. The January transfer window saw an influx of new faces at the club, no less than eight players arriving either on free transfers or on loan deals. These included striker Joe Nuttall from Blackpool, a former member of Manchester City’s academy, Rekeil Pyke, another forward, on loan from Shrewsbury, and defenders Ryan Delaney from Morecambe and Luke Matheson from Wolves. 

The influx of fresh talent altered the face of the team, but have not brought about a change of fortune – Scunthorpe simply cannot score goals (just 24 in 35 games) and cannot stop conceding (almost two per game so far).

The writing has been on the wall for a few years as Scunthorpe have finished lower than the season before for five years – 3rd and then 5th in League One, 23rd and relegated, 20th and 22nd in League Two. Little wonder attendances have dropped by 36% since the last pre-covid season. Crowds are currently at their lowest level since 1997. 

Swann recently transferred the club’s stadium and training site to his company, Coolsilk Property and Investment, a move that upset some fans. But this was designed to attract investors for the land adjacent to the ground and create new revenue streams. Swann intends to eventually return the assets to the club.

The financial statements for 2020-21 have not been made public yet, but the trend has not very positive. In the past five years, Scunthorpe have run up losses of £ 17.6 million and their wage bill has been dangerously above earnings. For example, in 2018-19, the wage-to-income ratio was 156%. 

A second relegation in four seasons would mean significant financial adjustments. Although any club falling into the National League has a good chance to regaining its Football League place, it is not an easy task, hence it is important to remain intact and avoid any systemic collapse. In the past 10 years, only Cheltenham Town and Bristol Rovers have secured promotion at the first attempt. The most recent relegated clubs, Southend United and Grimsby Town don’t look like they will do it in 2021-22. 

The economics of relegation manifest themselves in the form of lower revenues as a result of smaller attendances and less lucrative sponsorship. Chesterfield, when they were relegated in 2018, saw income decline from £ 5.9 million to £ 3.9 million but their wage bill still consumed 85% of revenues as opposed to 69% as an EFL club. 

Scunthorpe need some stability to arrest the slide and if that means a spell in non-league, their fans can become accustomed to winning games again. In five seasons, they have won just 58 of 210 games, that’s a win rate of 28% and the total for 2020-21 and 2021-22 is 17 league wins in 81. 

Stability also means less of a revolving door in the dugout, notably around the manager’s job. Scunthorpe have had eight managers in three years, hardly a recipe for continuity. If Scunthorpe are to stay up, they need to start winning and hope the other candidates for the drop – Barrow, Oldham, Stevenage, Leyton Orient and Colchester – embark on a bad run. As it stands, they have a lot of ground to make up and it may just be too late.