The Voice in your Community


Bake’s Memoirs

by Neil Baker, local sporting legend


June 30th 2021, Issue 104

Previous articles by Neil Baker can be found here

The future for most of us seems to be brighter as we start to get over the second wave of the virus. The vaccination programme has proved to be the deciding factor in helping us to get our lives back, Cases, hospital admissions due to the virus and most importantly loss of life are all falling rapidly.

We have all suffered through this pandemic but life in general and sport in particular can look forward to getting back to some sort of normality.

Local football has returned and the cricket season will have started in earnest before you have the chance to read this column.

An opportunity to look back at how our local football teams have fared over the last nine months and what the future holds for them.

I’ll start in North Staffs with the Potters.

The previous campaign was a disaster under manager Nathan Jones with the club looking over their shoulder at a possible relegation, which would have meant playing in the third tier of English football since the start of this century! He was relieved of his duties and a steadying hand was put in place to stop the rot.

Michael O’Neill took the reins and put the club back on track. Relegation avoided and he was tasked with taking the team forward. With my Stoke cap on this has been achieved. In fact the first half of the season went better than most fans could have hoped for. At one stage there was even talk about reaching the playoffs.

That won’t happen now for various reasons and the last three results and performances ( Millwall, Birmingham City and Preston NE) has seen the season petering out into a mid table finish.

That would have been my expectations after the chaos of the previous two years. anything more would have been false. But next season is a massive one for both club and manager. Building blocks have been put in place, improved results, youth introduced into the squad and numerous players loaned out with a view to clearing some of the dead wood out of the club.

Maybe the biggest problem at Stoke City over the last five years has been recruitment? I think I’m right in saying that the club has 13 players currently out on loan!! Not all surplus to requirements as there are a few young players out gaining valuable first team experience but the majority are deemed not good enough to play in the team.

These players have mainly cost money in transfer fees and good salaries. Yes the club sometimes gets a loan fee and part of that salary is paid by the signing club but I’m questioning these recommendations and signings in the first place.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in this process and am not foolish enough to think we get them all right, but the key is to get the majority of them correct.

Obviously the change of managers over a number of years hasn’t helped, as at most clubs they want to bring in their own players which means a constant turnaround of footballers.

The current manager has quickly made up his mind who he wants to stay and who he wants to leave and again this will be decided by length of contract and other clubs willing to take them. Stoke City players are well paid by championship standards so they wont come cheap and to move these players on might come with a pay off which again costs the club money to offload these players.

I have to be honest and say that because of my club’s season being curtailed for the past two seasons I have been able to watch a number of Stoke fixtures and haven’t been particularly excited by the brand. I accept that its a result based game but also an entertainment, i want my team to win but enjoy watching them play.

How ironic to see the manager having a go at Birmingham City and their long throws!!! A lot of goals were scored at the Brit under TP and to think that the best exponent of this tactic sits next to him in the dugout!

I wonder what he made of his bosses comments after the game, i wouldn’t have thought it had gone down at all well with most City fans though he would have had Arsene Wenger on his side!

Port Vale’s form has certainly improved. Seven games to date unbeaten including six wins has seen any relegation fears dispelled. Darrell Clarke was unfairly criticised at the start as he took time to weigh up the squad and find the right formula that suited his players. He experimented for a while and took a bit of time to get his ideas over and injuries to key players didn’t help his cause.

The upturn in results will give their supporters hope and excitement that next season could and should be a better one. I’ve never met the owners but they do come over as good people. Genuine supporters that have invested in the club and want what’s best. No hidden agendas.

What has surprised me is the number of staff employed at the club particularly at first team level. Director of football, first team manager, assistant manager, first team coach all bought in after a reshuffle at the start of the season.

I don’t know how much influence John Rudge has at the club these days but I do know I would be tapping into his knowledge and experience. These people are so quickly written off due to age, the reason they are getting on is because they have spent so long in the game, experienced most things and most likely found a solution to problems that have cropped up in their careers.

Over to the east of the county. Derby are still in trouble and their only salvation will be that there are three poorer teams than them! Wycombe will go as will Sheffield Wednesday and despite Rotherham having two games in hand at present, have you watched them play recently? They’re not very good. I haven’t seen their last few fixtures but Derby will survive, just.

All fans will hope that the new takeover will solve the club’s problems. It may in time but they are certainly in transition. They remind me of Stoke two seasons ago. Stoke are a wealthy club and invested heavily in the team but you’ve got to spend that money wisely.

I said when Wayne Rooney was appointed as the new manager that i wasn’t convinced he was the right man for the job and i’m still not. Fantastic footballer who will give his all to the club but i go back to what i believe that you have to serve an apprenticeship, which he hasn’t done.

I have always followed the Rams as my father was a season ticket holder back in the sixties and I often went to watch them play and I genuinely hope that their fortunes improve.

Over to the City ground. That result at the end of last season against Stoke definitely had a damaging effect. Not only did it kill their play off aspirations but has left a cloud over the team. The expectations of Forest fans over the years has not been achieved. They’re a long way from the halcyon days of

European champions. Bad owners, twelve managers including caretakers in the last five years tell its own story.

As with Derby the biggest problem is scoring goals. Only Wycombe and Birmingham City have scored less. Chris Hughton is a pragmatic manager who won’t have the fans on the edge of their seats watching the football they play. He’s solid and will keep you in the championship but more important, will he get you out of it?

Again another manager that faces a make or break season in 2021/22.

Burton Albion have seen a massive improvement under Hasselbaink, i feared the worst when he was appointed, not that he wasn’t good enough but their position was a perilous one. In fact their form since he came in has been sensational and who knows what might have happened if he had come in earlier. I expect a much better season next time. Promotion would be asking too much but a top eight finish wouldn’t.

There’s me looking into the future. Still a lot of football to be played this season and what I do hope more than anything is that we will be allowed back into the grounds to watch our teams play again soon.

All the best,