IT’S miraculous, really, that Scunthorpe United are still in the Championship. With the division’s lowest budget, they over-achieved in finishing fifth-from-bottom last season. That feat would be nothing compared to staying up this time, though.
Last season, Scunny conceded 84 league goals, more than anybody else in the Championship. It was their ability to bang them in at the other end that kept them up.
But of the 62 league goals they scored, 19 went to Gary Hooper, nine to Paul Hayes and eight to Grant McCann – a total of 36. All three players left the club during the summer.
Manager Nigel Adkins acted by bringing in Chris Dagnall from a Rochdale side just promoted from League Two, and giving former Sheffield United youngster Jonathan Forte the chance to step up from the fringes. The strike rate isn’t quite up there with last season’s, but the goals are still coming. And while the defensive record could be better, it could be a lot worse too.
The difficulty of Scunthorpe’s situation was brought home just over a month into the season, when Adkins – a man with such a positive personality that he could run motivational courses or present children’s television – decided he would be better off dropping down a division to manage Southampton.
And even though the Saints are hovering in the lower half of League One, he was probably right. He has a bigger budget and a better salary at St Mary’s than he was ever going to get at Glanford Park.
Ian Baraclough, the former Scunthorpe defender and latterly first-team coach, won his first game as caretaker-manager, a remarkable 4-0 thrashing of Sheffield United. He went on to get the job full-time, but hasn’t enjoyed a victory since.
So where do Scunny go from here? The brutal answer is that they hang on for as long as they can. This is their 61st season in the Football League, but only their ninth outside the bottom two divisions. They are one of a number of clubs to have over-achieved over the last 15 or so years by reaching the second tier – Crewe, Stockport, Bury, Rotherham and Southend all spring to mind. All of those clubs are now back in what used to be Division Four. It’s important to appreciate the good times while they last.
One thing Scunny won’t do is break the bank in an attempt to survive. They’re not rich by Championship standards, but they are well run, and can boast the kind of continuity that some less stable clubs would kill for. When Brian Laws left for Sheffield Wednesday after almost a decade in charge at Glanford Park, Adkins was promoted from within, as was Baraclough last month.
Scunny need to watch their finances when home crowds are averaging under 6,000. If they go down, they’ll go down in good shape.
Doncaster manager Sean O’Driscoll made exactly that point ahead of his side’s trip to Scunthorpe today. O’Driscoll reckons a few clubs could learn how to run a sustainable set-up from the example set at Glanford Park.
It’s not as if O’Driscoll has unlimited funds to spend himself, but he has a hell of a lot more than Baraclough. To prove the point, he was able to break Doncaster’s transfer record to sign Billy Sharp from Sheffield United for £1.15million during the summer.
Sharp, whose career has consisted of not quite making it with the Blades – his boyhood team – and being very successful everywhere else, was a hero during his two years at Scunthorpe. He scored 56 goals for the club, including the two against Huddersfield in 2007 which secured the first of Adkins’ two promotions from League One.
He confessed before his return to Glanford Park for today’s noon kick-off that he wasn’t sure what kind of reception he would get from the home fans. What he got was neither overwhelmingly positive nor particularly hostile – more wistful, if anything.
Not that it looked as if it would be Sharp’s day early on, as Martyn Woolford headed Scunthorpe into an 11th-minute lead from Eddie Nolan’s left-wing cross and should have had another moments later. Woolford was getting joy by drifting into the middle from the right wing without being picked up by Donny left-back George Friend or either of the visiting central defenders.
O’Driscoll noticed the problem, and responded by replacing Friend – who appeared to be carrying a knock – with less than 20 minutes gone and shifting James O’Connor across to the left from centre-back. After that, Donny looked significantly more stable.
Scunthorpe’s didn’t. And just past the half-hour mark, Sharp struck. He took on the impressive John Oster’s chip into the area, got the better of Rob Jones and slotted an equaliser past Joe Murphy. An exuberant celebration brought the odd boo from the home fans, many of whom were perhaps transported back to a time when they could look at a league table and dream.
The summer departures of Hayes (to Preston) and Hooper (to Celtic) have put a fair bit of pressure on Dagnall. This wasn’t one of his good days. Eight minutes after the break, Woolford’s free kick found the striker unmarked seven yards from goal as Doncaster’s offside trap showed all the co-ordination of Ann Widdecombe. Dagnall panicked, fired his shot into the ground, then watched it bounce up and hit the bar.
Within minutes, Sharp had pounced on a Scunthorpe defensive howler.
Nolan misjudged Sam Hird’s long ball, Sharp raced into the area and was fouled by the hapless Jones. The striker sent Murphy the wrong way from the resulting penalty. Doncaster, without a win in four matches, cruised from that point on.
James O’Connor headed a third with 18 minutes left, James Coppinger was denied by Murphy and then hit the post, Martin Woods curled a shot just wide, Mustapha Dumbuya also went close. Doncaster could have ended up with half-a-dozen.
Anyone hoping to hear O’Driscoll’s thoughts on his side’s victory were to be disappointed. Within minutes of the game ending, he’d gone, in a fast car to catch another game, probably Sheffield United – his side’s opponents next Saturday – against Burnley.
As Sharp signed a few autographs outside the tunnel half-an-hour after the match, a middle-aged home supporter congratulated him, but asked him not to score any more goals against Scunthorpe.
Baraclough, meanwhile, was left fretting over his side’s defending. “I’ve got senior players in our defensive unit, and we haven’t defended anywhere near probably,” he moaned. “We could have been playing a League Two game there and still been punished.”
It’s a worry for Scunthorpe. They might be able to survive in the Championship on a League Two budget, but they won’t survive with League Two defending.