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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Little Goes A Long Way

After Championship strugglers Scunthorpe part company with boss Ian Baraclough, Nobes talks about the importance of keeping perspective.

Ian Baraclough was in charge at Glanford Park for just six months

They're not used to sacking managers at Scunthorpe. Not since Mick Buxton left Glanford Park in 1997 have the Iron had to issue their boss with a P45.

It's just one of the reasons why chairman Steve Wharton's decision to axe Ian Baraclough last week - a first for Wharton himself - was one of the most surprising managerial departures of the campaign.

Baraclough, who spent the final four years of his playing career with United - winning two promotions along the way - had only been in charge of team affairs since September when Nigel Adkins left to join Southampton.

The chairman admitted that, although the 38-year-old inherited a squad destined to struggle towards the wrong end of the Championship, recent performances had not only shown a lack of quality but, more worryingly, belief.

Saturday's 2-0 loss at Ipswich, under the caretaker charge of Tony Daws, has left Scunthorpe second bottom of the division, five points shy of Crystal Palace - who currently occupy the final position of safety.

A repeat of last season's escape from the drop, where they secured consecutive campaigns in the second tier for the first time since the 1960s, is looking increasingly unlikely.

However, while it's a statistic which is at the heart of why Baraclough has lost his job, it's also why the Iron must now keep some perspective if they do lose their battle against the drop to League One.

In truth, Adkins was always going to prove a tough act to follow for whoever took over the reins at the Lincolnshire club.

The former physio delivered two promotions - including a title, a final appearance in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, and survival in the second tier during his tenure.

It was also achieved playing an attractive brand of football despite having a budget dwarfed by rivals.

Much of the criticism aimed towards Baraclough has stemmed from Scunny adopting a more direct game in their fight against the drop. All well and good when results are coming, but a noose around a manager's neck when they're not.

Iron fans would also argue that last season's heroics proved that staying up can be achieved by playing your way out of danger.

However, it would be worth pointing out that the loss of last season's top goalscorer Gary Hooper to Celtic along with the departure of midfielder Grant McCann severely weakened United's ranks.

Baraclough also had to contend with the sale of Martyn Woolford to Bristol City in the January transfer window - a decision which didn't aid their fight against the drop in any way.

His capturing of Joe Garner on loan from Nottingham Forest also appeared inspired, with the former Carlisle forward scoring vital goals to secure wins over Sheffield United and Swansea.

It makes the removal of Baraclough from his position appear all the more harsh. After all, their history and resources, not to mention attracting the division's lowest average crowds of just 5,600, aren't of Championship standard.

Nor would relegation be a disaster for the Iron. Under Adkins they were instantly demoted back to the third tier in 2008. However, he then helped them bounce back immediately.

For the club who finished just a few points above the drop zone in League Two in 2004, the history books will show they have spent three of the last four seasons in England's second tier.

Fans who spent years making trips to the likes of Macclesfield and Chester have become accustomed with visiting Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace in recent years - and they don't want to give it up without a fight.

Nigel Adkins brought unprecedented success during his time at Scunthorpe

Relegation to League One next season wouldn't be the end for Scunny, but expectations are now that they should be challenging for a return to the Championship.

Baraclough's tenure suggested he was not the man to lead that expected charge next term, and Wharton must now seek somebody to build on the legacy established at Glanford Park over the past seven years.

However, while it's natural for United to want to continue to punch above their weight in the Championship, just how realistic an aim is it?

Their average attendance would still only place them in mid table in the third tier - and that would be with smaller clubs bringing fewer away fans with them.

While the argument could be made that winning more games would bring more home fans, their average crowds in 2008/9 were still only around the 5,000 mark.

Of course, Scunthorpe have already proved that fan base and resources needn't hold you back when it comes to achieving things. The difficult part comes when consistently trying to punch above your weight though.

Their local rivals Grimsby were amongst a clutch of clubs ten years ago who held down a place in the second tier - looking down on much bigger and more illustrious opponents.

The Mariners now find themselves in the Conference, another such side, Stockport, are on course to join them there next term. Gillingham, Crewe, and Rotherham are all in League Two, which Walsall are battling to avoid dropping into.

Now the Championship is the fifth most watched league in Europe, with two thirds of its membership former Premier League teams, many playing in top class all-seater stadia.

The division below includes clubs like Southampton, Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield, Charlton, Milton Keynes, and - when they move grounds during the summer - Brighton, all of whom are ready made for playing at that level of football at least.

In comparison the compact Glanford Park, with its capacity of under 10,000 and still sporting a terraced stand behind the goal, sticks out when viewed alongside more grand arenas.

It's why, compared to even ten years ago, clubs like Scunthorpe face an increasingly difficult job to muscle in with the big boys of the English game.

Depending on who comes up from League One, it's entirely plausible that next season's Championship won't see a single side with a four-figure average attendance. That's almost unheard of.

In the era of transfer windows and those with bigger budgets being able to carry larger squads, money is becoming even more important at all levels. Scunny may well find themselves priced out of the market.

The truth is, managers like Adkins who produce attractive and winning football on the pitch to a budget are rare. Throw in his ability to find cheap players and selling them on for a profit, and United's search for another may be an impossible one.

The reality may be that this was Scunthorpe's zenith, years spent competing with bigger and richer clubs that they can reflect upon with pride in the future.

The immediate future must now be treated with realism and looking to ensure that, like so many before them, relegation from the Championship doesn't begin a slide back down to the basement division.

While promotion back is the dream, the focus must be on solidifying in League One. For the club from a county known for its flatness, it's time for Scunthorpe to keep their feet on the ground.

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