“What do you reckon for today?” asked the man in charge of one of the Macclesfield Town tea bars as I ordered a hot dog.
“Got to win,” I replied, blandly.
“I reckon we’re down,” he said. “The games we needed to win have gone.”
I tried to make reassuring noises – as much, I realised, for myself as for him.
Funny how a club gets under your skin. I’m not a Macclesfield fan. But 10 years ago, for a little over 12 months, I was sports editor of the town’s weekly paper, the Macclesfield Express.
It was, you might say, an eventful time. The club had three chairmen during 2002 as an unpleasant but necessary boardroom battle played itself out. Then in November of that year, midfielder Chris Byrne’s career was ended when he was shot in the leg near his home in Hulme, near Manchester.
I threw myself into the sports editor’s role – my first and, to date, last – with an intensity that worried friends and family, and even colleagues. As a female friend said to me on the phone one night, when I was sitting in the Moss Rose car park after some meeting or other I probably hadn’t needed to attend: “You can’t marry Macclesfield Town, you know!”
Non-Macclesfield Town issues brought their own challenges for me. The Express office was a three-storey converted shop with narrow, steep staircases, tiny rooms and, for the gents, an outside toilet cubicle. In a nicotine-stained downstairs cubby-hole, between the photographers’ room and the kitchen, sat our inputter, an Olympian drinker and smoker who must have been about 40 per cent proof, and who was responsible for typing readers’ letters and sports results into the computer system. She was not in the best of health, and called in sick several times. When this happened, I would have to phone the local temp agency and ask for a replacement at very short notice. Then I had persuade the news editor to find them a computer that was nowhere near the cubby-hole, in case said temp ran screaming from the building and every agency in Cheshire blacklisted us.
When I wasn’t dealing with staffing trouble, there were the readers. One week, I returned from holiday to discover an expletive-riddled e-mail from a middle-aged chap furious about the ordering of the crown green bowling league tables. He felt his league was always too near to the bottom of the page.
Then there was the irate mother who phoned up to complain that a submitted report about a cub scout cup final had got the result the wrong way round, and that her son’s team had won. I offered her a chance to submit her own report. She never did.
For the sake of my sanity, I moved to a newspaper in Bolton.
It was no use.
I was the last sports editor to work in the Macclesfield Express office. My replacement worked from an office in Stockport, about 15 miles away. Eventually, the paper’s entire staff moved to Manchester, then to a building by the M60 ring road on the outskirts of Oldham.
One day last summer, I was in Macclesfield and took a walk past the old Express office. It had been turned into a fish pedicure salon. I felt a pang of sadness. My working experiences in the town, for better or worse, have marked me.
Since 2002, my working life has occasionally taken me back to the Moss Rose. I’d like to say this has been down to chance, but I’d be lying to myself. I spent a couple of years, on and off, commentating on Macclesfield Town games for a local radio station. When I joined the Manchester Evening News at the end of 2004, I volunteered for any Macc games going.
Four-and-a-half years as a freelance haven’t really offered many opportunities to cover Macclesfield games. But with a free Saturday this afternoon, I was drawn to their home match against Crewe.
I think, if I’m honest, I wanted to catch them one more time before they drop out of the Football League, 15 years after they entered it.
Maybe Macc will stay up. It’s just that most of the fans, including the bloke at the tea bar, have lost hope. They haven’t won a game in 2012, due largely to a bad run of injuries leading to a miserable run of results that sapped the squad’s confidence.
In March, chairman Mike Rance made the very difficult decision to sack manager Gary Simpson. It was a tough call for all sorts of reasons – not least because Simpson had guided the club through a particularly difficult couple of years off the pitch. He stepped up from the assistant manager’s position when his good friend Keith Alexander died in March 2010. In the horribly difficult aftermath, he ensured the club held on to their Football League status. Ten months later, there was further tragedy as midfielder Richard Butcher died suddenly at the age of 29. Simpson’s dignity, and his ability to keep a devastated squad of players focused on their football, was admirable.
This season, Macc looked set to be comfortable in mid-table. But then came the downward spiral. With nine games to go, the club called on Brian Horton for the second time.
In 2004, Horton stepped into a relegation battle with seven games to go and kept Macc in the Football League. I attended every one of those seven games as a local radio commentator, and can testify that Horton’s energy and motivational skills on the touchline probably made the difference between survival and relegation. Although the goals of Jon Parkin and Matt Tipton helped too.
The difference this time is that Macc don’t seem to have a prolific scorer who can get them out of trouble. Defeat at Port Vale on Easter Monday came after striker George Donnelly had missed a penalty – and missed it by a mile. And their long winless run has damaged confidence to such an extent that even Horton’s motivational skills are struggling to make an impact.
“They’re giving their all, and that’s all you can ask,” he said. “But I want a bit more. I want a bit of composure, and I want a little bit of belief.”
Macc don’t have the financial clout to compete with some of League Two’s big spenders either. Although as Rance pointed out in his programme notes this afternoon, some of those big spenders have spent money they don’t have. Such as Port Vale, for instance.
“I have to say I find it difficult to accept the equity of a situation in which a club that required a second loan from its local council within a decade even to be able to enter administration is able to build on a mid-table position at our expense with a squad they self-evidently could not afford,” wrote Rance, who was equally critical of the manner in which relegation rivals Plymouth have been allowed to restructure their debts.
It may not be a level playing field, but Macclesfield just have to get on with it. And in the opening 15 minutes against Crewe today, there wasn’t much sign of the self-belief Horton seeks. Macc’s players were too often unwilling to dwell on the ball, instead hitting panicky passes to nowhere.
The exception, before he had to come off after an hour, was Marcus Marshall, a right-sided midfielder on loan from Rotherham, whose willingness to take on opponents looked their best route to goal. One such run set up Matt Hamshaw to curl in a shot well tipped over by Crewe keeper Steve Phillips.
As it turned out, Macc’s route to an opening goal came from the penalty spot when Crewe failed to deal with a Hamshaw corner. Harry Davis shoved Ross Draper to the floor as they challenged for a Carl Tremarco cross. Lewis Chalmers slipped as he took the penalty, but it went in.
Suddenly, Macc sensed a chance, while Crewe got sloppy. Chalmers dispossessed Ashley Westwood to run clear. He could have gone for goal himself, but instead squared to Matt Smith*, a hard-working young striker on loan from Oldham who, sadly, seems to epitomise Macc’s lack of confidence. Smith, given a one-on-one with Phillips, smacked a hopeful shot against the keeper’s legs.
Crewe, a team chasing the play-offs, were the better team. Unfortunately for them, it seemed as if they knew it a little too much. AJ Leitch-Smith and Nick Powell were both guilty of casual, weak finishes when in good positions to score. Powell, an 18-year-old talent who may be gracing a Premier League bench near you before too long, was also slack with his passing at times. He’s good, but he could be great if he applied himself a bit more.
Powell was still able to score both Crewe goals. His first, five minutes before half-time, was a little scruffy, hooked in from close range after an extraordinary scramble that saw Byron Moore’s goalbound chip cleared off the line by Jon Bateson. His second, just before the hour mark, was sublime.
The teenager took on Leitch-Smith’s pass in a crowded penalty area, showed quick feet to evade two Macclesfield defenders and then, from a tight angle, hammered a shot into the far corner.
Crewe should have sewn it up from there, with Billy Bodin hitting the underside of the bar when he ought to have scored. Then they switched off again.
A loose Powell pass gave Macc sub Ben Tomlinson a chance to run down the left wing. He ran the ball towards the corner with his right foot, giving no indication that he even knew how to use his left. Eventually, with the corner flag approaching, he was forced to give it a go. Crewe’s defence, lulled into a false sense of security, allowed the low cross to trundle towards Colin Daniel, who slammed it into the net.
It prompted Crewe manager Steve Davis to temper his praise for Powell. “It’s important that he doesn’t lose the ball easily even in the attacking areas,” Davis said.
“He lost the ball too easily, and they broke to score from it. He’s got to learn as well. He’s got a bit to do still. But in terms of his prowess and instincts in front of goal, he was terrific.”
A 2-2 draw was perhaps more than Macclesfield deserved. It means they have now gone 20 Football League games without victory, a new club record. They remain in the bottom two, three points adrift of safety, with three games left. The one consolation at the moment is that third-from-bottom Barnet have not been able to pull away.
Horton, who completed an against-all-odds relegation escape with Luton as a player and with Oxford as a manager, can still see a glimmer of daylight.
“I do see a win coming,” he said. “I honestly fancied us today. The players have been up for it, they’re lively. It’s not as if I’m having a problem when I’m working them on the training ground.
“If you go in the dressing room, they’re not down. So while that’s there, we’re OK. But you’ve got to keep looking for a win, because we’ve got to get one, haven’t we? If we don’t, then we won’t get out of trouble.”
Horton, at 62, still has the fizz for a fight. That much was clear when he berated the fourth official for not allowing him to get a substitute on quickly enough during the second half. He has, though, been trying not to scream at his players. Apart from anything else, all that leaping around on the touchline isn’t good for a man of his age.
“I’ve tried over the first few weeks, if you’ve noticed, not to be shouting a bawling at them, because sometimes you can heap more pressure on,” he said.
“I felt I needed to do it for my own satisfaction today. But I’ve hurt my back now.”
Maybe, just maybe, he’ll make the difference. But he’s running out of time to prove the man at the tea bar wrong.
*Well, OK, not Matt Smith, actually. See comments below.