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Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Runs #4: Macclesfield Town and the Ince Effect

"HOW MANY defeats?"

Over to Spongers' own Rob MacDonald, who couldn't even manage to stick to the blueprint and just write about one run.

The joy in supporting a team that seldom achieves is rarely the accolades or silver pots. It’s the sublime and often accidental skill, the flashes of inspiration amid the darkness and brutality of potato patch pitches and lower league football; the fleeting moments when the impossible dream seems almost possible.

Most of these would be impossible without the framework of lower league angst. And so it is that the greatest 42 seconds (approximately) of the careers of most Macclesfield fans was the pinnacle of a great run, but one that followed what is possibly the worst run IN HISTORY. What is fondly remembered as the greatest of all the Silkmen’s ‘Great Escapes’ – and we’ve had a few – actually constituted a phenomenal six-week run of form leading up to an FA Cup tie with Chelsea, after which something resembling normal service just sort of resumed.

This is, in fact, more a tale of two runs: the dreadful, rank onion of defeat followed by the gleaming, precious apple of achievement. A perfect juxtaposition, you might say.

At the end of the 2004-05 season, Macc were losing semi-finalists in the League Two playoffs, having finished fifth. Not a bad result for a team perennially tipped for relegation, but certainly nosebleed-inducing heights that it proved impossible to replicate the following year, when Brian Horton struggled without now-famous foodie (but back then, goal machine) Jon Parkin. The painfully familiar experience of needing a win on the last day of an indifferent season was softened slightly with a 3-2 victory at Bristol Rovers, but this would be Macc’s last league win for… erm… exactly seven months. It was their last win under Horton. It was their last win for… *rubs eyes*… 213 days (and some of these might have been over the summer, but just wait for the form guide).

Macclesfield’s performances from the start of the 2006-07 season (21 games in all competitions – 18 league, one league cup, one FA Cup, one JPT):

L, D, L, L, L, L, D, L, L, L, D, D, L, L, L, L, D, L, D, D, L

Horton lasted just 13 of these, departing shortly after the ninth ‘L’ of an increasingly desperate start. Ian Brightwell stepped in, but eventually Paul Ince arrived to much fanfare, only to oversee two more defeats and two draws. But then, Macc FINALLY won a game. Unfortunately, it was away at league leaders Walsall in an FA Cup first round replay, making it possibly the least useful distribution of resources since Adam Bushby decided to purchase some expensive ‘lucky pulling pants’.

Even more uselessly, it didn’t help the Silkmen’s league position either. At that moment, Macc were unsurprisingly rock bottom in League Two, with a grand total of six points from 18 games. They’d conceded 20 goals at home and 15 on the road. The other side in the relegation zone, Boston United, had 16 points. Safety was 11 points away on October 25th, with Ince’s first point achieved from a 1-1 draw away at Stockport. You could have been forgiven for thinking things were finally looking up, but then blindingly good winger Simon Wiles, just arrived on loan from Blackpool, got absolutely clobbered and was stretchered off.

You could have been forgiven for thinking things at least couldn’t get any worse, but then centre back Andrew Teague and goalkeeper Jonny Brain collided while stretching to clear a dangerous cross, breaking each other’s legs and presenting County’s Adam Proudlock with not only the ball, but an open net in which to put it.

You could have been forgiven for thinking things at least couldn’t get any worse once more, but then centre back Jimmy McNulty, later immortalised in TV series The Wire and at that point a contender for player of the season, broke his leg in training. Macc were still 10 points adrift. And now had almost no centre backs.

Another POINTLESS victory in the FA Cup followed at home to Hartlepool. STOP WASTING OUR RESOURCES, INCE.

Only he wasn’t. After Macc made it into the hat for Round 3, they stayed there almost until the end of the draw. With four teams left, Ricky Hatton pulled out number 10. Chelsea. With three teams left, Amir Khan pulled out number 50. Macclesfield Town.

(As a personal aside, I can safely say no one saw this coming. I know this for two reasons. Firstly, I was at home and had a) forgotten Chelsea were still in the draw and b) had already been chastised by the neighbours for screaming when we equalised against Shrewsbury then cursing when we lost it in the 92nd minute, so was pointedly ignoring things ‘just in case’. It didn’t work. Secondly, it was my job to run the Macc Town website and when I rang club captain Dave Morley for his reaction, he was in the Trafford Centre watching the draw through the window of a branch of Dixons.)

This moment changed the entire season. Improbably and impossibly, a Football League victory subsequently arrived. The rest of football might have thought Macc were finished, but only this club can go into their 22nd game of the season without a victory, lose ANOTHER centre back to injury, have a man sent off in the 38th minute, score in the 52nd and then ‘defend resolutely’ for the rest of the game. Apparently, Chelsea was a good carrot.

An exceptional carrot. A carrot so exceptional it could have been mistaken for an apple. One win became two in a row away at Notts County, then eighth in the table. Three games unbeaten after a 3-3 draw with Accrington became three wins in four with a 2-1 home win over Swindon Town, then fourth in the table. Victories at Chester and Torquay made it six wins from seven in all competitions. A win at home to Lincoln City on New Year’s Day made it six wins from eight unbeaten in the league, eight wins from 10 unbeaten in all competitions.

Macc had finished November 2006 rock bottom with no league wins at all and with just seven points from 19 league games. They ended the first day of January 2007 with 26 points from 26, finally off the bottom and only three points from 18th place. One of the most abject runs in history became an incredible sequence of results practically overnight.

And then there was Chelsea. While the record books show a 6-1 thrashing, the memories will always be of the absolute pandemonium following John Murphy’s equaliser. I distinctly remember being half hugged, half punched in the face and almost thrown off the top tier of Stamford Bridge. Which would have been a completely acceptable way to go, because that was the moment – the fleeting glimpse, the outpouring of quite ludicrous hope that having gone unbeaten for a preposterous six weeks, Macc might actually stay up.

The comedown, of course, began almost immediately. Frank Lampard scored Chelsea’s second within seconds of the restart and we were mortals again. Though at half time it was only 2-1, the second half was more of a procession as keeper Tommy Lee was sent off and Morley went in goal (though Shevchenko STILL couldn’t score).

Macc were back in London a week later, losing 1-0 to Barnet as the comedown continued. Six wins from 20 and three consecutive defeats left them needing to better Boston’s result on the last day. A draw at home, while Wrexham beat the Pilgrims 3-1 completed the greatest of all great escapes, but one achieved amid a far more familiar run of form and last-day mathematical scenario.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that this familiarity has bred any kind of contempt for what Macc achieved under Ince. It’s probably a bit disingenuous, too, the fact that I’m aligning the jubilation following Murphy’s goal at Chelsea lasting just 42 seconds with the run that kept us up lasting ‘only’ six weeks.

Things did just sort of ‘go back to normal’ after that absurd month, but it was that normal reality of Macc’s existence – and that of many lower and non-league sides – that made them such ridiculous achievements in the first place. The club might not have the most glamorous identity, but it makes those flashes of the impossible made possible all the sweeter.

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