Where to start when summarising the 2016/17 season for AFC Telford United? When following the club and writing output for the match programme and on social media, the words I’ve probably used more than most are ‘disappointing’, ‘frustrating’ and ‘inconsistent’. In that sense it’s probably been harder to watch than the previous season’s struggle against relegation; that was characterised by long periods of gloom, but the terrific run of seven games unbeaten and five consecutive wins that saved the Bucks from the drop somehow felt better, maybe because it felt like light at the end of the darkness. This season, the light has never shone as brightly, or for as long. Manager Rob Smith has faced, in his own words “one thing after another”, and the opportunity to draw a line under the campaign and overhaul his playing staff arrives after the conclusion of today’s final game with Harrogate Town. So, what happened, and what were the key moments in 2016/17?
After a reasonable pre-season, most supporters looked at the squad assembled over the summer and felt that Smith and assistant Larry Chambers had done remarkably well; the squad appeared to have depth, especially in defence, and in retaining the services of goalkeeper James Montgomery there looked to be the foundation for a more solid campaign. The players themselves looked to have a fair degree of experience, not just at National League North level but above; there seemed more of an air of a squad that knew what the expectations were, but they were sensible enough not to make rash promises. The mantra was “we know where we want to be, but it’s important that we get a good start.”
The Bucks would play seven matches before the end of August, one-sixth of their fixtures for the entire season, providing a barometer reading of whether the outlook was bright, or stormy. An opening day home defeat to AFC Fylde by a single goal was hard to judge; the Coasters were tipped for the title, but they didn’t look as though they were miles ahead of the Bucks, unless you were to compare their accounts, that is. The hosts could have easily taken a point, and may have done so had two set-piece chances fallen to someone other than centre-half Dan Preston. Four days later they did register their first point, in another game of few real chances, away to FC United of Manchester. Preston, who had arrived in the summer from Tamworth, had an impressive game at the heart of defence alongside new skipper Gianluca Havern, and the scene was set for his return to The Lamb ground on the second Saturday of the season. Unfortunately, as can often be the case, it didn’t go according to the script. On Tamworth’s new 3G pitch the Bucks looked lost early on, went a goal down but were brought level thanks to a smartly taken goal from new signing Tom Peers. There were, however, a few signs of what was to come; midfielder Lee Fowler, who had seemed set to be the fulcrum of the team’s creativity, was a largely anonymous figure for a second game in a row, and was substituted at half-time. In the very last minute of the game, Preston faltered to hand an opportunity to Tamworth player-manager Andy Morrell, and he took it gleefully. One point from an available nine was not the good start Smith had wanted.
Their first win arrived three days later, with a midweek 2-0 home win over a frankly dire Stalybridge Celtic side, Dave Hibbert and Peers the scorers. Fowler was left on the substitutes’s bench for the entire match, and days later he left the club by mutual consent. The Welshman had suggested in pre-season that playing was his motivation, and that the reason behind a longer than average Wikipedia page for a player at this level was that he wouldn’t be content to sit on the sidelines. In that sense, he was true to his word.
Fowler’s absence did raise the question of who might be the player to provide the ammunition; a trip to Curzon Ashton looked an opportunity to build on that victory, but the Bucks were hugely off the pace in the first half and it took a double substitution to secure them a point after being a goal down, new signings Micah Evans and Danny Reynolds combining to set up the latter to claim a 1-1 draw.
With no midweek game, the main headline of the week was the departure of another signing, Michael Monaghan. Seemingly frustrated at his lack of playing time and unwilling to be patient, he left the club in a manner that bore the hallmarks of Fowler’s departure, namely an iPhone message posted on social media. Smith expressed disappointment at Monaghan’s unwillingness to bide his time or stake a better claim for a starting berth; the midfielder went on to play for four teams in the 2016/17 season, suggesting his feet may be talented, but they are also itchy. By contrast, Fowler left the club and promptly retired from the game.
Next up at the New Buck’s Head were Stockport County; again, the team lacked a real cutting edge, and a point from a 0-0 draw was the result. August Bank Holiday Monday meant another journey along the A5 to Nuneaton Town. Preston was absent, and nowhere to be seen, meaning a first start for summer signing Ben Bailey, however a howler from Montgomery put them on the back foot, the keeper miskicking a clearance straight to former Buck Aaron Williams, who scored. Dave Hibbert sustained an injury in the second half and it was down to Josh Wilson to rescue another point from a 1-1 draw with a coolly taken goal 12 minutes from time.
7 points from a possible 21, with just 5 goals scored but only 5 conceded amidst shuffling of the playing staff. The template for the campaign was indeed set by the first month.
The Bucks faced relegated FC Halifax Town on Non-League Day, and the Yorkshire side, having spent heavily, showed why they’d be amongst the front-runners. A Dwayne Samuels goal was cancelled out by a rocket from former Buck Richard Peniket and the visitors scrambled a winner in the second half. That fixture provided the first of two formidable-looking challenges within four days, as another relegated side, Kidderminster Harriers, were the visitors for a midweek fixture. With a new signing on board in the shape of Jonathan Royle, signed on a three-month loan from Southport, the Bucks took the lead against the run of play, Micah Evans nudging them ahead. The game then provided a real throwback to earlier times under Smith and Chambers. A dogged defensive effort kept Harriers at bay, and earned a 1-0 win. Fans were buoyant, it felt like something of the Telford of old had been rediscovered, but in a season of false dawns it proved merely to be the first.
Back-to-back home games were followed by back-to-back away games, with trips to Gainsborough Trinity and Gloucester City four days apart. The team’s previously solid back line looked all at sea in both, with the 3-1 defeat to Trinity’s ‘Holy Blues’ an afternoon when an unholy trinity of defensive lapses, a Ben Bailey dismissal for two cautionable offences and an injury to Josh Wilson had the travelling fans seeking absolution. The trip to Cheltenham to face a Gloucester side bubbling with confidence was a chastening experience; the Bucks were behind early and never got a foothold, going down 3-0.
With an FA Cup second qualifying round with Worcester City looming and goalscoring an evident issue, the Bucks made a move for Connor McCarthy, who had opted to sign a new deal at Southport in the summer. A sizeable proportion of the club’s fans had yearned for McCarthy’s return, no doubt with memories of his partnership with Josh Wilson which fired the Bucks to safety in mind. McCarthy was a substitute for the Worcester cup tie, but again it was mainly a day for the defence, Montgomery shining between the posts in a goalless stalemate. Four days later the Bucks looked to be in the driving seat in the replay, but a lead given to them by a Dave Hibbert goal couldn’t withstand the pressure applied by Worcester following Royle’s dismissal for two yellow cards. They couldn’t even hold out for extra time, conceding twice in the closing minutes, with a certain Lee Hughes getting the final goal.
With no FA Cup run to look forward to and faltering league form, the signs looked even less promising when the club released midfielders Callum Gittings and Lucas Dawson, the assumption being that budgetary pressures had brought about a trimming of the squad. An air of despondency swirled around, and although Smith managed to bring in a reinforcement in Jordan Sangha from Walsall, their final game in September followed a familiar pattern. Visitors Chorley, reduced to 10 men just after half time, held on comfortably for a 0-0 draw as the Bucks couldn’t find enough creativity to force a breakthrough.
League position: 17th. Games played: 12. Points: 11.
The Bucks first game in October took them to Bradford Park Avenue, who had yet to record a league win at that point. The day before the game, Rob Smith brought on board Wolves loan duo Ben O’Hanlon and Bradley Reid, as well as confirming a deal had been done with Paul McCone following his successful rehabilitation from surgery on a knee injury. The game itself saw Ben Bailey equalise a goal from former Buck Chris Sharp to earn a draw, but was more notable for whispers of difficulties off-field turning into full-blown expressions of concern. The team made their own way to Yorkshire, with no team bus available, and additionally it was announced that summer arrival Micah Evans had left the club. The club put out a statement early in the following week, outlining a serious financial shortfall and urging supporters to dig deep to stave off creditors and keep the club operating.
Over 1,700 fans answered the call and boosted the New Buck’s Head attendance for the visit of FC United of Manchester, a fixture rearranged to prevent a second blank Saturday in two weeks following the FA Cup exit. Additional fundraising activities generated a healthy sum and on the field the team responded, winning 1-0 with returning striker McCarthy’s first goal back in Bucks colours. A week later, he was on target again, scoring the first goal in a 2-0 win at Altrincham, an advantage that Bradley Reid added to in the second half. It was a comfortable win against opponents seemingly in freefall following relegation, a situation many Bucks fans recognised only too well.
The final game in October saw promoted Salford City visit Shropshire, and featuring a number of former Bucks in Simon Grand, Mike Phenix and Jack Deaman. The pull of City’s ‘Class of 92’ owners and the profile they enjoy through featuring in BBC One’s ‘Out Of The League’ documentary. Again, over 1,800 people attended, and saw City stroll to a 2-0 victory, but the real story of that day didn’t centre on the game itself. Defender James Hurst, signed in the summer, arrived with Smith singing his praises as being a player who could be a ‘difference-maker’; he hadn’t featured in the early season games after surgery in pre-season, and neither had he really found his feet in the side. Hurst’s laid-back style was not easy to distinguish from apathy, and two yellow cards in the Salford game, the second for a foul after an initial caution for dissent, saw him leave the field to ironic applause from the visiting fans; alas he compounded the dismissal by bowing to the crowd, mocking their derision, but he was only just getting started. Later that evening, he got involved in a series of unseemly exchanges on social media with a number of Bucks fans, unhappy at what they perceived as a poor attitude. Neither Hurst nor the fans covered themselves in glory, baiting one another over the space of a couple of hours, and following a subsequent internal investigation int his conduct, Hurst was fined and placed on the transfer list, his Bucks career over.
Two further players, Dan Preston and Darren Campion, appeared out of favour also; Preston joined Sutton Coldfield Town on loan and Campion signed a dual registration with the same club. Rob Smith gave a clear signal that anyone not willing or able to give him the commitment he demanded would find themselves kicking their heels in expectation of a return to the club.
League position: 14th. Games played: 16. Points: 18.