The Yo-yo diaries: Scunthorpe United style

Alan Knill

The Yo-yo. One of the defining toys of the 20th century – we all know how it goes. I’m sure we can all see how the metaphor works in football too. Up and down, up and down, up and down… never ending. You can try to alter the fact, but the string always wins. It’s just science. Bloody Newton and the laws of physics.

So what does the string represent in football? Players and finances I suppose. Any West Brom fans reading this will no doubt empathise. For since 2006/7, only one of my beloved Scunthorpe United’s seasons haven’t involved either promotion or relegation between the Championship and League One (and even that single season was a heroically successful last-ditch survival bid).

Historically, Scunthorpe United are a mid-table bottom tier side. No better, no worse. So to have spent five out of the last six seasons two tiers above, or being promoted to, that – has simply been fantastic beyond measure. But Lord, does it spoil you – oh spoil it sure does. Given our A18 South Humber rivals have long been the bigger club, it has long been a time for Iron fans to draw more than a wry smile at the contrasting fates, and enjoy our status as the sole Football League club in all of Lincolnshire as best as we can.

That said, not long ago – I was chatting to a Grimsby fan acquaintance, (football takes priority over friendship, we all know that), about the Iron’s worries of pulling off the promotion coup once more. I’d never seen him snap like that. Having only recently had their proud one hundred year Football League history ripped away from them, he didn’t really class ours as legitimate ‘concerns’. He was more bothered about the Cods losing their skipper to those noted Conference powerhouses Fleetwood Town.

This is the crux of the issue. For what are legitimate expectations for a club who even in their best season since before Harvey Oswald’s shotgun met JFK, England won the World Cup or man reached the moon – and in the Championship no less, couldn’t even convince or coerce 5,000 home fans to come through the gates week in, week out?

That said – we’re a town of just 60,000 – and whilst the Football League’s high attendances thrive on working-class punters, (just ask Burnley, or conversely – York), if there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around at the best of times, the punters can’t come through the door. It’s only going to get worse. Indeed, we were the only side whose attendances were eclipsed by another club, a whole three divisions below ourselves – that famous Berkshire footballing alumni, Luton Town. In the Conference… ouch.

Rather than the clichéd devil and angel perched on Iron fans’ shoulders – it’s more heart and head. The former longs for promotion once more. It demands another fine striker, just to keep up with Billy Sharp, Andy Keogh, Jermaine Beckford, Martin Paterson and Gary Hooper over the last five years alone. But as the head knows only too well – given that 100 goals from the latter and former cost us only £275,000 combined – it’s an impossible task.

This m’learned friends – is the blasted yo-yo sensation, typified by Scunthorpe United. But at least West Brom can justifiably claim that they’re a Premier League club on history, potential, support, infrastructure etc. Any Scunthorpe United fan who claims that we’ve got any of those at Championship standards is either the world’s best liar or is awaiting imminent sectioning. Not even Andy Coulson could look you in the eye and wholeheartedly tell you that fib. Frankly, even if we were to be promoted from League One next season, our average attendances are all but guaranteed to be in the bottom third of the division.

But such is life. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. That great joy when as David, you’re not only slaying Goliath – but you’ve got him on the floor slapping him in the face with his own testicles, is simply matched by no other. When Manchester United season-ticket holders have seen their side beat clubs whose attendances are 10x their own, then they can bloody crow. Plus the comradeship is simply impeccable at that. I’m sure this is not unique to the Iron amongst the Football League, but talk about Portsmouth, Millwall or Ipswich away from home to an Iron fan last season – and fond memories are found with many. We might have lost all three – but that magic as you’re there, often singing – if not dancing, with 150 brethren is something not even JK Rowling could ever dream of getting close to matching.

This is all made all the more remarkable, for when you’re stripped of your best players on a seemingly constant basis, for fair reasons or foul – the road in the wonderful, if bonkers – football circus becomes immeasurably steeper. And losing five key players in the summer alone, followed by our manager – without question, sealed relegation long before Millwall, in a moment of perfect revenge – got their grubby mitts on us – to officially, and gleefully, embalm us.

Even this summer, we’ve lost modern Iron legends Joe Murphy and David Mirfin to Championship clubs (Watford and Coventry) – with the departure of the pivotal Michael O’Connor also expected to be imminent. Frustrating doesn’t do it justice. Indeed, if this is our fate post-relegation, what possible chance have we got on the other end of the yo-yo? So yes, we went long ball, the pitch was shockingly appalling, the football ugly… and yes, we went without winning at home for five and a half months. But bloody hell, we still won more league games away from home than Manchester United did. Not bad eh?

Even when Ian Baraclough, popular former coach, player and Adkins’ successor, was forced to walk the plank, we knew the job was done long ago. Indeed, on Tuesday March 1st, despite comfortably trailing away to Portsmouth – the travelling Scunthorpe faithful were chanting the gaffer’s name for more than 30 minutes solid. Precisely fourteen days later, he was sacked.

His departure was followed by the arrival of new man, yet ex-skipper, Alan Knill. But we all knew, even him, that it was simply too little too late. Stunning wins against QPR and Crystal Palace lingered that yet faint hope. But our death warrant had been signed and sealed in July. It was merely formally delivered on Easter Monday. Last summer alone we lost Paul Hayes to Preston, Grant McCann to Peterborough, Marcus Williams to Reading, Nigel Adkins to Southampton, Gary Hooper to Celtic and Matthew Sparrow to Brighton. Reads like a hack journalist’s phone record.

But it is this re-building task that Alan Knill is faced with. Because not only will we fickle Iron fans demand promotion no doubt – we’ll demand it in style. If we can’t win the title again, it’ll have to be another amazing, borderline hallucinatory play-off fairytale again then. Scunthorpe United’s month of May in 2008/9. Look it up.

Then there’s the small matter of safety. For it was a bloody good Iron side that kept us up that year. Okay, the nineteen Championship sides who finished above us that year might beg to differ, but who cares?

Ultimately, this is the story of the over-achieving, claret and blue tinted yo-yo. The signings of Jimmy Ryan and Andy Barcham from Accrington and Gillingham should help, even if Jordan Robertson makes most Scunny fans want to squirm. Alright, we’ve all fiddled with our iPods whilst driving, but not at 140mph in a £90,000 Mercedes we bloody haven’t! Equally worrying is that he can’t score more than six a season, and that he’s had more clubs than a blackjack dealer. Yet, the shocking matter of it is – no matter how unbalanced and crafted on a shoestring the squad is – (and believe me, if you’re trialling Havant & Waterlooville rejects and your second choice goalkeeper played for a local Saturday club, it certainly is), if we’re not in the top eight come Christmas, fickle fans will be baying for Knill’s head to be wrapped in pastry and served in one of the three town centre Greggs.

For succeeding the simply saintly Adkins was an utterly impossible task for Baraclough, even with him unanimously being the fans’, the chairman’s, and the board’s choice to replace his former boss and physio. You do wonder whether Knill’s task is any less impossible. I have my doubts.

So whilst those of us with reasonably long memories would have sold our grandmother down the town market to Al-Qaeda or News International for guaranteed third tier football, blessed fate has exposed us to a much more powerful elixir. Not only would we dance with the devil in the pale moonlight, but we’d thank Al Pacino, and then shake his hand upon the completion of the transaction.

We feel almost rather like JFK. Jacqueline Bouvier might have been stunning in her own right – but she was no Marilyn Monroe. So who do you think he kept longing for, and ultimately crawling back to? You know the answer. And it’s our ever unquenchable thirst for more by which the class of 2011/12 will, (fairly or otherwise), be judged by. We, the few Iron faithful, will venture to Bournemouth, Carlisle, Exeter, Hartlepool and every which way in between, just for the chance of one more precious sip.

Don’t get me wrong – I think we’ve got a good side, an excellent management team, and a decent chance of positive consolidation and effective short and medium term re-building. Of course you always have those positions you’d just like to be a tad stronger in, but even the wicked witches of the North West suffer from that so-called frailty.

All that said: just like the blessed yo-yo, and even more the thoroughly overachieving one – we will turn viciously if disappointed.  Expect no mercy if we are not fed that blessed elixir once more, for it is indeed devilishly sweet, and fatally addictive. Just like Marilyn Monroe…

Written by Max Bell – We Are Going Up’s Scunthorpe United blogger

Max tweets at @UseTheLeftWing

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