Ten from 2010: Nine and ten

9) There are all sorts of contenders for best team performance of 2010: Europe’s Ryder Cup golfers, England’s Ashes cricketers, Inter Milan’s Champions League winners, Fulham’s Europa League finalists or the Barcelona side who thump Real Madrid 5-0. But perhaps the most moving team performance comes on an overcast March afternoon at Edgar Street.

Macclesfield Town face a League Two match at Hereford on March 6, three days after the death of manager Keith Alexander at just 53. The tributes paid to Alexander show just how widely respected a football figure he was, and how big a shock his death is. The first black full-time manager in English football when he took over at Lincoln in 1993, Alexander was something of a trailblazer. He was also funny, engaging, philosophical about the pitfalls of management and good at his job.

He was only at Macc for a few days over two years, but he kept a hold on the club’s Football League status. When he took over at the Moss Rose in late February 2008, the club were two points and one place above the relegation zone. Macc are not the kind of club who would be able to chuck huge amounts of money at a Conference promotion campaign if they were ever to go down, so staying up was crucial. Under Alexander, they lost only three of their final 12 games that season. For the first time in three years, they were safe before the final day. Progress.

Macc have, the odd outstanding season apart, generally struggled among the fourth tier’s lower orders since gaining promotion from the Conference in 1997, but Alexander managed to keep them away from serious trouble. He enjoyed the job, too. Having been director of football in his last role at Bury, Alexander was glad to have day-to-day involvement with the players again. “In the last job, I didn’t have that, so it’s great to be back,” he said on his appointment.

Ill health had affected him before. In November 2003, while manager at Lincoln, Alexander needed life-saving surgery after suffering a brain aneurysm, but returned to work three months later. He was taken ill before a Macc game in March 2009 but got the all-clear, and there were further health problems in the weeks before his death.

No one knew what was coming, though. Macc midfielder Richard Butcher speaks emotionally of how he had been laughing and joking with Alexander as they shared a lift back to their homes in Lincoln after the Notts County game. Gary Simpson, Alexander’s long-time assistant and friend, reveals that just about the last words the manager said to him were about the Hereford game: “This is the big one – the one we have to win!”

The game at Hereford goes ahead only after Alexander’s widow Helen and son Matt give their permission. And it is a game they have to win. A run of 10 league games without a victory has dragged Macc a little closer to the relegation battle than they would have liked.

With Simpson in charge, the players take to the field wearing T-shirts bearing the message: ‘Rest in peace, Gaffer.’ They then turn in a performance which serves as a fitting tribute. Ricky Sappleton and Emile Sinclair score in a 2-0 win. “Keith Alexander, his spirit lives on,” chant Macc’s fans. There are a few tears. “Quite simply, we did it for the Gaffer,” says Butcher afterwards.

It’s all too much for Macc captain Paul Morgan, who spent six years playing for Alexander at Lincoln. As his team-mates salute the fans at full-time, Morgan heads for the dressing room and a few moments of quiet reflection.

“Keith was a larger than life character, an absolutely superb human being,” says Simpson who, after the match, temporarily – and understandably – forgets himself. “We… sorry, I mean I decided on a 4-3-3 formation and it worked nicely.”

Simpson gets the job full-time as Macc stay up with games to spare. A promising start to this season suggests a serious relegation battle may be avoided. It would be an achievement to make Alexander proud.

***

10) I’ve got a spare Saturday in late February, so I decide to make the long trip south west to watch Stockport play at Exeter. County have gone 17 league games without a win – losing a club record 12 straight matches on the way – but I’ve just got a feeling the run will end at St James Park.

And astonishingly, it does. Jemal Johnson, whose County career will be brief and undistinguished, scores a spawny winner late on to secure a first league victory in four months. It means nothing in the long term – Stockport win just one more League One game and are relegated with nearly a month of the season to go – but it’s a tiny bit of relief.

In the end, County’s major triumph of 2010 is that they avoid being kicked out of the Football League. Aside from a brief flurry of success under Jim Gannon in 2008, which brought a promotion, County have spent most of the last decade on one big downer. They days when they were competing in what is now the Championship, beating Fulham and Manchester City, seem a very long way away.

A catalogue of financial incompetence forces them into administration in April 2009. They stay there as an agonisingly drawn-out takeover bid led by former Manchester City striker Jim Melrose falls apart in the spring of 2010. League rules don’t allow clubs to start two consecutive seasons in administration, so when the 2015 Group buys County in June, it effectively saves them from oblivion.

The takeover also sees manager Gary Ablett leave the club, having conducted himself with great dignity during a horrible season. Ablett’s budget is so restricted that, when the microwave blows up at County’s training ground a week before the end of the season, there’s no money to replace it. Goalkeeping coach Paul Gerrard, who doubles up as a squad player, has to pay for a new one out of his own pocket.

It’s one humiliation upon another. In the middle of that 12 league match losing streak, County have to switch an FA Cup home game against Torquay to Macclesfield because poor drainage has left Edgeley Park’s pitch almost constantly waterlogged. Torquay, despite being a division below County, win 4-0.

Ablett tries his best to hold it all together, but his frustration does come to the surface at times. On leaving County, he sets about rebuilding his career with a coaching job at Ipswich. But almost as soon as he arrives, he is diagnosed with the blood cancer non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Life really does suck sometimes.

Paul Simpson replaces Ablett at Edgeley Park, and another relegation battle looms, prompting the board to release a statement declaring their concern at the league position. Simpson, though, retains their backing.

Just before Christmas, I speak to Simpson for a newspaper article, and he acknowledges that his squad is not good enough to keep Stockport in the Football League without January reinforcements.

I ask him if he is confident that he can keep County in the league. It’s a loaded question; I know it, he knows it. He knows he has to say yes. But he says it with confidence, and I have my story. 2011 will prove him right or wrong.

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