MIKE WHALLEY and TERRY AINSWORTH spent the day with the Morecambe footballers – “a band of brothers” united and winning matches despite the club’s ongoing battles off the field
The playing and coaching staff at Morecambe FC have shone like a beacon through the dark clouds threatening to engulf Morecambe Football Club during its bizarre ownership battles.
The team has been determined to get on with the job of playing football, despite turmoil off the pitch, a growing uncertainty about unpaid wages and the worry of mounting household bills, plus the uncomfortable fact that the very future of the club itself has been at stake, with careers and futures on the line.
And yet, through all the weeks of despair, the team, led impressively by first team manager Jim Bentley and his assistant Ken McKenna, has carried on, superbly.
Morecambe’s impressive record on the pitch has not only eased relegation fears and re-invigorated fans but also earned the squad the admiration of a much wider, nationwide audience.
To get a sense of what lies behind the team’s success in the face of adversity, we spent a day with the Shrimps as they prepared for a home game against Cambridge United, which came after an unbeaten run of five games.
Typically, the session began with raucous banter, as the face of striker Paul Mullin beamed out from the screen.
He scored a wonderful goal to clinch the mid-week match at Leyton Orient and a generous round of applause greeted that.
Jim Bentley also chipped in with a dollop of Scouse humour, warning the players not to mess him about and reminded them he could still loan them out to Conference clubs!
He stressed the importance of feeling right mentally, to maintain the current feel-good factor and to remain focused.
“We are on exactly the same number of points as we were this time last year, so let’s make sure we put our foot on the gas and go forward,” he said.
Ken McKenna then hosted a session, directed at 18 players seated in two rows. This was a technical footballing masterclass. It included the use of a flip chart, board and easel and a screen.
Hieroglyphics dominated, including felt-tip versions of curving arrows tracing the flights of long diagonal passes.
Tactics were discussed in depth and, with the help of a video recording of Cambridge’s most recent away match, Ken pointed to possible weaknesses.
“He leaves himself quite open,” he said, indicating one defender. “Get little runs going again, like we did at Leyton Orient, and grind them down.”
In Cambridge’s attack, Ken gave a strong warning about the “big fella up front”, an obvious threat, and the ability of the goalkeeper to punt the ball out long and accurately to his own players.
Ken spent considerable time stopping and re-starting the video recording, making many different points about Cambridge’s approach.
The video is a highly effective element in Morecambe’s training arsenal and is the work of club analyst Matt Rushton.
Matt has built up a huge library of recordings, the envy of many other clubs who have been known to borrow from the collection.
His work is that meticulous that any player can call up a particular clip to study his own individual performance.
The players then moved onto the artificial turf at Lancaster and Morecambe College.
Jim Bentley said the lack of grass for training was the biggest hindrance.
The team had not been able to use their regular grass training pitch, Turner’s Field near Morecambe Community High School, because of watterlogging.
And the training pitches at the Globe Arena were closed after the company went into administration.
Two of the senior players used a small area of grass at the college for their work-out, to avoid possible joint problems on the artificial area.
The squad then put into practice Ken’s drawing-board tactics.
Split into a series of different training elements, controlled by Jim on the whistle, it quickly developed into a high-octane session, with little quarter given.
The camaraderie amongst the players stood out like a beacon of light and the laughter and banter showed a group of professionals hard at work.
And then it was back to the Globe for a well-earned energy-boosting helping of pasta and chicken followed by a muffin.
It was clear that here was a team that had probably grown even closer because of the troubles, a team united and committed, a band of brothers that had risen magnificently above the unseemly mess swirling around them.
And they then put everything into practice quite magnificently on match day, beating Cambridge 2-0.
Come on Morecambe!
Jim Bentley, first team manager: “We have got good supporters, although they have vented their frustration and anger. On the flip side, it has been positive, because they have got behind the players, who have performed well and given them something to shout about. The fans have been massive. Who knows, we might all be able to look back at this and think something positive came out of it. I remember the flooding last year when communities came together. I think we, too, will have forged a stronger bond.”
Matt Rushton, club analyst: “The supporters’ positive attitude has helped such a lot. The players are normal people, earning just as much as those on the terraces, and they feel loved now, which is important.
Ken McKenna, first team assistant manager: “Everyone has been positive but it’s been down to Jim, me and the staff to keep the lads focused on the bigger job. We have had to keep strong and keep picking up points.”
Lee Jones, goalkeeping coach: “Hopefully, things are getting better. You just keep going; we have stuck together.”
Chris Squirrell, fitness coach: “There are plenty of games and you just get on with it. There’s no time to think about anything else. The support has been good, especially away. They understand what has been going on.”
Senior player Kevin Ellison, who joined Morecambe in 2011 and turns 38 this month: “We have stuck together and this has been a major part of it. You obviously have a moan when you don’t get paid, but this stops once you go over the white line, when you give your all. We could have sulked and thrown our dummies out of the pram but we are professionals and we represent the club and the fans. At the end of the day, you have to do it for yourself and your family. It’s about personal pride.”
Peter Murphy, team captain: “At the end of the day we enjoy playing football and, thankfully, we have been playing well. We are all in the same boat and help each other. I am proud to be captain and even more so at the moment.”