Bucks To The Wall?

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The writing seemed to be on the wall, so the board of directors at AFC Telford United called for them men whose pictures were, and still are, on the wall.

The mural in the David Hutchison Stand, or ‘The Hutch’, as fans refer to it, bears the likenesses of Rob Smith and Larry Chambers, a duo who created an era of unprecedented success and interest in the club between 2006 and 2010. Having departed amidst some acrimony in April 2010 they returned to the New Buck’s Head in August 2015 on a rescue mission. And so it was on 23rd April, exactly six years to the day of their exit, that they ensured the Bucks’ survival in National League North. It was a feat of escapology that would have impressed Houdini.

The duo forged their friendship and partnership in their playing days, spent on the Midlands non-league football scene of the 1990’s. Smith entered management in 1999 at Redditch United, moved on to Willenhall Town in 2001 and engaged Chambers as his assistant. From that point onwards the two became almost as synonymous with one another as Morecambe was with Wise, though which is wise is something they might disagree about! In truth, they are more like the archetypal ‘good cop, bad cop’ duo; this is never more evident than when giving post-match interviews to the press. As a regular listener to those interviews, conducted on BBC Radio Shropshire by Nick Southall (@FootieNick), it is can usually be assumed that when Chambers is sent to the press-box, his counterpart Smith is in the dressing room, dispensing home truths to the team about their performance.

The success the pair created when managing AFC Telford United for the first time, in a period between February 2006 and April 2010, was a halcyon era for the reformed non-league club. Relegated 3 divisions in 2004 after previous chairman and owner Andy Shaw’s business empire collapsed, the Bucks had been reborn as a supporter-owned trust, achieving promotion from the Northern Premier League division one at the first attempt under Bernard McNally. The euphoria surrounding the club and their progress then stalled, and when Smith and Chambers replaced McNally they were second from bottom of the table, facing an immediate return to the division the Football Association had previously placed them in. They hadn’t been front-runners for the job, but their straight-talking, ambition and passion won over chairman Lee Carter. In his memory may also have been a night the previous season; the pair brought their Willenhall Town team to the New Buck’s Head with both teams looking for promotion. It was a wet, windy, inhospitable evening, and Willenhall proved obdurate opponents, incurring the wrath of the home crowd but securing a 2–2 draw. It was a performance from a side who didn’t know when they were beaten, a quality Smith and Chambers instilled immediately when they took over at AFC Telford. They brought in new personnel, tried and trusted players, and went on an unbeaten run for the rest of the league campaign and a large chunk of the next, a phenomenal sequence. That campaign ended in a second promotion in a 3–1 play-off final victory at Witton Albion, and the AFC Telford juggernaut was now well and truly rolling.

What followed was a period of the kind supporters dream of. Their first season in the second tier of non-league football saw them make the play-offs but lose out in the semi-finals to eventual winners Barrow. Better was to follow; the 2008/09 campaign nearly had it all. A first ever appearance in the FA Cup 1st Round proper almost ended in a glorious giant-killing feat, as two goals from Jon Adams, still my favourite Buck of all-time, were not quite enough to squeeze past League One Southend United. The professional outfit won a replay, 2–0. A play-off place was secured again, the team made it to within a semi-final of an appearance at Wembley in the FA Trophy, and they also won non-league football’s equivalent of the League Cup, the Setanta Shield. Outplayed for 90 minutes away to Forest Green Rovers and in the glare of national TV, the Bucks dug in, secured a 0–0 draw and then saw goalkeeper Ryan Young save three penalties in a shoot-out to take the silverware, by dint of scoring three penalties of their own. I said the season almost had it all; the missing piece was promotion, and despite reaching the final and taking around 1,500 supporters to Gateshead for a Friday night final, the fairytale season ended in a 1–0 loss.

The effects of that disappointment hung heavily over the 2009/10 season; a slow start saw Smith and Chambers shuffling their pack at frequent intervals. Players came and went, including a young Andre Gray on loan from Shrewsbury Town, a player now headed for the Premier League with Burnley, who invested £9 million in his services. Nothing worked, and a final league placing of 10th was viewed as being sufficiently insufficient to see then end of their time at the New Buck’s Head helm. An announcement that their contracts would not be renewed came a day before the end of the season, but their had been an air of inevitability about the news for some time. At this point I will once again go on record and state that I personally disagreed with the decision at the time and still do; however, what is gone is gone. Maybe it proved to be the right decision, but it was a team largely assembled by Smith and Chambers that former England international Andy Sinton took to promotion in 2010/11, albeit with a small number of additions.

Skipping forward to more recent times, when the board of directors removed previous manager Steve Kittrick from his post in August 2015, Smith and Chambers became the favourites for the hot-seat, and hot it certainly was. Kittrick had failed to keep the club in the top flight of non-league football but had been given the green light to build a team to challenge for promotion in 2015/16. It hadn’t taken much of pre-season for concerns to emerge, primarily about player recruitment, and those concerns became full-blown fears when the team managed a solitary draw from its first five matches. It wasn’t just the results; performances were dire and there appeared to be little cohesion or ideas for how to find any coming from the Yorkshireman. In addition, a stream of players had either signed for the club and then quickly left again, or had seemingly signed before changing their minds. Something about Kittrick’s reign just didn’t feel right, and the board knew they had to act. The difficulty was that having allowed him pre-season to build a team the playing budget was largely committed, and to players who seemingly were unconcerned about results and who had little interest in moving on. Why would they? Their contracts meant they were comfortable not playing. That scenario, of a less than committed playing staff and a completely committed budget, was what Smith and Chambers were handed. They left their roles at Hednesford Town, local rivals in the same division, to return to AFC Telford. Fans from their former team were of mixed views, so were some of those of the team they were returning to.

They were quick to let the board of directors know that recreating what they had in that 2006–2010 era wouldn’t be possible; essentially the goalposts had moved. You might have been mistaken for thinking that move had been literal, as they team they took over had unsurprisingly been labouring to find the net, scoring just once in their first five matches, and that being a penalty. The sequence continued for some time, a 2–0 home win over Brackley Town in their first game back at the New Buck’s Head and a 1–1 home draw being the only other times they scored goals in their first dozen matches. Teams that only score at a rate of 1 goal every three matches don’t tend to avoid relegation, whatever the league.

Eventually that sequence was disrupted by a 2–0 home win over Stalybridge Celtic, managed by former Bucks’ boss Liam Watson, a good friend of Smith and Chambers. There followed a run of a further games 3 without defeat, two draws and then a 3–1 away win at FC United of Manchester that lifted them out of the bottom three. The ‘R&Lution’ (that’s revolution, yes?) was then brutally put to the sword, with just one more victory in seven league matches in 2015. Included amongst the six defeats was a Boxing Day loss at Hednesford Town that contained more twists of the knife than experienced by the Christmas turkey. Not only were the victors Smith and Chambers’ former employers, but the first goal was scored by former Buck Kyle Perry, once adored but paradoxically cast as a pantomime villain in various guises when playing against his former side. Hednesford’s home faithful weren’t slow to join in, suggesting that Smith and Chambers were wrong to leave and were steering the Bucks into the abyss. To top it all an injury to James Montgomery, the Bucks’ goalkeeper made the whole episode as amusing in as a joke from a standard cracker. The team entered 2016 in 22nd and last place, a happy new year it most certainly wasn’t.

A scheduled return meeting with Hednesford on January 2nd fell victim to the weather, so 2016’s fixtures began a week later, away to former league team Stockport County. On wet and cold Cheshire day, in surroundings far removed from the normal standard of venue at National League North level, a small miracle occurred. A 1–0 away win was secured in the 87th minute through a Lucas Dawson penalty; it looked a harsh award, but you take what you can when you’re at the bottom of the table, and the celebrations afterwards, which became something of a trademark of Darren Campion (@campstadarren), suggested that the spirit in the team hadn’t been exhausted.

The team then drew at Gainsborough Trinity and beat Bradford Park Avenue before the ‘rematch’ with Hednesford, by this point now twice postponed, finally happened. It looked like a ‘six-pointer’ in the making. As time has subsequently shown, it wasn’t, but a 3–1 loss at home, with that man Kyle Perry scoring twice, felt like a punch to the solar plexus. A winning position was surrendered and in all honesty the end appeared nigh. A spirited but losing effort to AFC Fylde felt like it was the kind of result that would follow for the rest of the campaign; plenty of effort, no luck, and the points taken away by the visitors. Even a 5–1 win over FC United of Manchester, who became the team’s lucky charm, falling victim to the Bucks’ three times during the campaign, looked like a rare high point, helped by the away team losing their goalkeeper and then seeing his outfield replacement sent off.

Then came the moment, the turning point; playing away to Stalybridge Celtic, the Bucks trailed by a 5–2 deficit 10 minutes into the second half. The home team then proceeded to demonstrate why the word ‘fold’ features in their home address by conceding three goals, including an injury-time equaliser from Connor McCarthy (@connormccarth12), to achieve an utterly astounding and record-breaking 5–5 draw. It felt like a victory, and actual victories duly followed. Five of them in a row, including a 1–0 victory at second-placed Harrogate Town, achieved in typical Smith and Chambers display of obduracy. There was also a 3–2 away victory at an Alfreton Town team on a 10 match unbeaten run of their own. Book-ended by a draw at Nuneaton Town, that run of seven games unbeaten gave the Bucks 17 points from 21. It was a sequence that saved them from the drop. A couple of defeats to high-flying Solihull Moors and North Ferriby United gave a few fans an attack of the jitters; however, a draw away to fellow strugglers Brackley Town, secured by a great display from Montgomery in goal and featuring a penalty save, meant a win at home to Worcester City could secure their status, provided other results went their way. Those results duly did, and a 2–0 win courtesy of goals from former school team-mates Josh Wilson (@IlJoshinio) and Sean Clancy (@seanclancy7) saw them home. Wilson was an inspired signing; unused at AFC Fylde, he bagged 6 goals, 5 of them away from home, to provide some attacking spark. McCarthy also hit form in a second loan spell from Southport, his pugnacious style and quick feet causing consternation to defences.

In excess of 40 players featured for the Bucks throughout the campaign as Smith and Chambers juggled meagre resources and pulled in favours to find a winning blend. That they did so is testament to their vast knowledge of non-league football in the Midlands which, when allied to their trademark style of forging an unquenchable team spirit, produced a minor miracle. Supporters experienced feelings of joy but mainly relief, and not a little schadenfreude, as Hednesford Town, the team Smith and Chambers left, took one of the three relegation places that the Bucks had seemed destined to fill from early on in the season.

The immediate future with Smith and Chambers at the helm means that the 2016/17 season should be viewed with considerably more optimism than Bucks’ fans have had for a little while. Given an opportunity to bring in their own personnel it’s almost certain that Smith and Chambers will fashion a team that at the very least will give their all more often than not; that is something that fans expect as a minimum, at almost any level, and after seeing their club hamstrung by players who seemed less than committed to the cause that is something that Bucks’ fans will welcome.

I had intended to write this tribute to the pair a couple of weeks ago, but resisted doing so in case fate took a hand and ‘The Great Escape’ proved to be too much, even for Smith and Chambers. Now that safety is assured, it’s safe to say that their legendary status at the club is also set in stone, or at the very least painted on breeze blocks! At the time of their departure in 2010 it was felt that the time wasn’t right for the club to pay tribute to them. It may be six years later, but I’d suggest that the time is now right to laud Smith and Chambers for their achievements, both then and now.

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