Football, Finances And Infrastructure: whither Lincoln City?
Within the last few days, the summer transfer window has been thrown open with a resounding crash in the brave new world of League Two. As far as Lincoln City is concerned, the retained list has been released and our thoughts are already occupied with trying to identify which players might be heading up the A46. Wish lists have been drawn up by us all in the belief that players will be falling over themselves to play for Lincoln City now. However, literally within the last few hours, there has been a rude awakening: City have been comfortably outbid by other League Two clubs for two players Danny Cowley ideally wanted to retain. Cowley confirms that Terry Hawkridge has doubled his money by joining Notts County (and doubled his contract term as well), and that he could not have got even half way towards matching the financial offer made to Lee Angol by Mansfield Town. It may be silly money, but money talks.
So we shake our heads sadly and say farewell to two of the players who dragged us over the line three weeks ago. It would appear that the setting of a sensible budget has left us unable to compete. That may come as a considerable shock to some of us, but there is an immediate reality-check here: the vast majority of clubs next season will have budgets either equal to or larger than our own.
We have encountered numerous clubs in very recent times with far more spending power than us, so we should not be too surprised. The boom and bust mentality of some clubs continues to beggar belief, and it is the same culprits every time. We may have waved goodbye to the immediate threat of AFC Fylde, Eastleigh, Ebbsfleet, Salford City and even to little Billericay, bankrolled to a ludicrous extent by steel magnate and Dagenham & Redbridge reject Glenn Tamplin; and we may consider ourselves unfortunate that Dale Vince and his merry band of vegans have followed us into the Football League - it is anyone's guess how much money he is about to throw at achieving his ridiculous Championship fantasy. But now we face a whole new raft of big spenders - proponents of Rolls-Royce ambitions on bicycle wages - who present a far bigger obstacle to Lincoln City's progress up the League than the Jim Parmenters ever could.
So should we be doing the same thing? After all, we have all that lovely money burning a hole in Kevin Cooke's pocket. Think what damage we could do with the £2.5 million from the FA Cup run and the solidarity payment still to come. We are all eager to continue the roller coaster ride of the Cowley revolution into the Football League and sweep majestically through League Two in no time at all. Is that a realistic ambition? Yes, probably. We have perhaps the best young English manager in football and sackfuls of Krugerrands in the bank for him to spend. We already know he is the right man to give it to, so why not set him free? He says he has expensive tastes where players are concerned, so let the man indulge! Is that the right thing to do?
Let's consider the flip side of today's events. Notts County have secured Terry Hawkridge for what appears to be extremely good money; that is quite surprising for a club which reportedly is £9.5 million in debt. Does that make sense? Not really. I can see only more problems ahead down Meadow Lane.
Mansfield Town threw a stupendous pile of cash at winning the Conference a few seasons ago. It worked in that sense, but they have had to cut their cloth severely ever since. Until now, that is. Out of the blue, Mr Radford is suddenly talking very big talk once more and supporting his notoriously extravagant manager with substantial piles of cash. Offering Lee Angol more than twice the amount Lincoln could afford, and on far smaller gates than Lincoln does not make a lot of sense either. Field Mill could be changing to Failed Mill before long.
Splashing the cash on players obviously presents an advantage provided player selection is right, and you have the right manager to mould those players into a team. It is not as easy as it sounds - just ask Eastleigh. In December 2016 owner Stewart Donald wrote off £4.85 million in losses accumulated over the last 5 years. This season, his team of overpaid misfits finished just 7 points clear of relegation and a massive 42 points behind champions Lincoln, who had a small percentage of their budget. It most certainly was not for the want of trying: Eastleigh munched their way through four managers in the space of seven months while serving up to their supporters the football equivalent of Russell Brand (rambling, disjointed and as close to unwatchable as a party political broadcast by the Unwatchable Party). They have learned the hard way that money does not guarantee success, and success is not a right.
Here's another thing to consider: last season should not have happened. Lincoln City did not have one of the bigger budgets in the National League, yet they swept the big spenders and four big Football League clubs aside to create real football history. Sean Raggett made the Gazzetta dello Sport team of the week, interviews with Danny Cowley were shown on television in Australia, and even former England internationals waxed lyrical about the Imps on BT Sport and the BBC. None of the bankrolled clubs could manage any of that. We must be getting something right, and there is no reason why it cannot happen again. It is not just about money.
So let's take a wider view of the whole picture, which is something that Mansfield and Notts County are probably not doing.
To build a solid sustainable future for any club, it is essential that developments in infrastructure off the pitch keep pace with ambitions on it. To neglect one in deference to the other can only end in failure. Lincoln need so many things: a new ticketing system, a new training ground and a new stadium are all prerequisites if it is to become the club we all want it to be. What would happen if City went straight up to the Championship, only to find that no one could buy a match ticket, the players had nowhere to train and the new stadium was still 'five to ten years' away? Is that where we really want to be? On the other side of that particular Krugerrand, how many of City's long-suffering supporters would look forward to trudging off to a sparkling new 15,000-seat stadium, only to find Billericay Town the opponents on the opening day of a new National League season? Had Shakespeare been a Lincoln City supporter, he might have shaken his head sadly and concluded, that is the stuff on which nightmares are made.
A sense of balance has to be our main priority. If it takes a couple of years before we can challenge at the sharp end of the League Two table, then so be it. The new training centre is on its way, and that will help the club to attract a more ambitious type of player. Danny and Nicky made it a condition precedent to renegotiation of their contracts, leaving us in no doubt that they understand implicitly the need to build the club and its infrastructure in the shortest term. They will not walk away from Lincoln City because they have less money to spend than Steve Evans, so we have time on our side too. We must not be tempted to break the budget simply to emulate the spending of our neighbours. Sensible use of the FA Cup windfall over a number of seasons is the way to go.
The interesting thing here is that the Cowleys are completely in control of their football club, and that does not just relate to the playing side. They are running the whole show - on the pitch and off it - and directing those around them to create what they want it to be. Can the same be said for the majority of clubs in League Two? I honestly doubt it. So let those other clubs go right ahead and spend money they do not have. It may give them an advantage in the short term, but we need to implement a long-term strategy. If we get it right off the field, success on it will follow. The two are holistic, symbiotic, they have to be addressed simultaneously and afforded equal attention. The majority of clubs do not see things that way, and that gives us an advantage.
But the biggest advantage of all - and one that cannot be replicated by any other club in League Two - is that we have Danny Cowley at the helm. He will not be worried that Lee Angol has simply chosen the wrong club, and Terry Hawkridge has gone to one which is on its financial knees. He may be a tad disappointed, assuming that he really did want the two of them to stay of course, but he will simply move on to the next target. Consider the 22 players he signed last season and put your trust in his judgement; accept that he is driving this club forward at a breathtaking rate of knots; and get that season ticket ordered, because the adventure is just beginning.
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