Playing to the crowd

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

24 February 2011

While great events are unfolding in the Middle East and north Africa, in Grimsby we are playing out a tawdry parody. The possibilities latent in the new social media have been used, most inspiringly, to bring popular discontent onto the streets of one country after another, bringing down tyrants. Here, we have our own impotent potentate, over-sensitive to the smallest murmurings on the messageboards, acting like a mini-Mubarak. To save his own skin, John Fenty has thrown us the body of Neil Woods.

There may be a more positive construction to put on the latest in a series of communications - at best cryptic, often serving only to give resonance to rumours - to emanate from Fenty. However, the phrase "to determine whether there is a mindset for a change of chairman", coupled with the promise there will be no 'cheap option' appointment from within, is significant. It reads as though, having attempted to boost his popularity, Fenty hopes to persuade the board, and us, like the Tory he is, that there is no alternative.

Fenty, however, is more Major than Thatcher. It was a positive gesture he made, shortly after becoming chairman, to walk across to the away terrace at Macclesfield to acknowledge our support. Yet he bore a wary look, as though we scared him; he did not stop to chat. Like an unruly class with a nervous new teacher, we soon learnt that if we misbehaved, he could not keep control. Major thought himself a decent man, with decent instincts, who descended to desperate measures in a position of weakness. Fenty talks about the need for stability, to provide long-term backing for a manager and turn around a long decline. But history has repeated itself. Four and a half years after Fenty admitted he had been cowed by the boos into dismissing Graham Rodger, we now learn that long-term, in Grimsby years, is sixteen months.

If Fenty looks like a bully (and we all remember the schoolmasterish admonition that bullying is a sign of weakness, not strength), nor do we, the supporters, come out of this too well. It is as though, having learnt from the Rodger affair that we can influence events by booing, we have gone on doing just that. We have gone on even when the results have been counterproductive: wrecking the potential of promising young players, checking the impulse for any player to dwell on the ball and make good things happen.

"I admit a prejudice in Woods' favour. But I have seen nothing in his performance that justifies the venomous attacks he has been subjected to"

Even before Rodger, does anyone remember the look of angry bewilderment on the face of the best goalkeeper we have had in the last eight years when the boos rang out with Town chasing a game, even when we occupied a promotion place, for heaven's sake? Any wonder that Steve Mildenhall was gone a few weeks later? The reaction to home draws with 'the likes of' Forest Green is, once more, a tinny echo of the prejudices we used to encounter from the supporters of wannabe Premiership clubs. They are no doubt only a noisy minority, but there are times when being part of a silent majority is not enough. We have got the club, the status, and the chairman we deserve.

And, I suspect, we have lost a manager who is rather better than we deserve, for one man who comes out of this with his reputation intact is Neil Woods. Here, I must declare an interest. I liked Woods as a player. I didn't just admire the skill and intelligence he brought to bear on the team when he was playing well. I liked the way you could see his brain working, his personality. Even on the days when he was off form, I was rooting for him. What I read of his work with the youth team seemed of a piece with what I had seen of him as a player, so that, when he was made manager, I hoped, but also feared, for him.

I admit a prejudice in Woods' favour. But I have seen nothing in his performance that justifies the venomous attacks he has been subjected to online. It was feared he would be a soft touch, yet within days of his appointment, we were learning of double training, with players complaining about its intensity. It was claimed he did not have contacts in the game, yet within months he was bringing in players (too many, if truth be told) from clubs across the land.

It is claimed he cannot motivate the players, yet in the last month (even with the side not playing to the level of which they are capable), we have seen them dig in and dig themselves out of trouble against Crawley and at Eastbourne and Southport. It is claimed he lacks tactical awareness, yet his post-match summaries have been admirably accurate analyses (at times, too honest), and his understanding of the squad's weaknesses matches that of his critics (even as he admits the difficulty of addressing them at this stage of the season).

I admit the qualifications. Neil Woods is not perfect, but he is better than he was a year ago, and has built a squad better than we had. Neil Woods is not perfect, but nor was Buckley, even in his first spell. Even the great managers had to learn and make mistakes. Neil Woods is not perfect, but nor is the new manager, whoever he turns out to be. Neil Woods can at least claim to have been good with the potential to be better. Can John Fenty say as much? Can we?

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