McDonald has departed but where did it all go wrong?
As previously confessed, the other half of my footballing life belongs to my boyhood club Birmingham City.
It means that last season I was regularly present to witness Gianfranco Zola’s ill-fated reign as Blues boss, a five-month spell that wielded two victories, the odd draw but mostly disappointment.
Despite this, I stood behind Zola in the belief that he would get things right. There were horror shows but I would leave most games questioning how we had not won. An individual error, a refereeing decision, a late kick in the teeth, missing an open goal. During those moments you find yourself bemoaning luck, feeling sorrow for a manager who must wonder what else he can do.
Then came Burton Albion at home. By this time, we were right in the thick of a relegation battle and desperate for the points. I witnessed players’ shoulders visibly drop, confidence sap away and relegation all but confirm itself.
Describing my feelings afterwards was difficult. I felt a mixture of sickness, anger and disappointment. I didn’t want to speak to a single soul on the way home. I didn’t want to talk about football, I didn’t want to write about football, I didn’t even want to look at a football.
The only other time I had felt that way was when Birmingham City lost to Bolton Wanderers in what proved to be Lee Clark’s final game in charge.
The above has relevance because I felt the exact same way leaving the ATG on Tuesday night, almost as though my gut was telling me Liam McDonald’s reign as Solihull Moors boss had reached its conclusion.
Liam McDonald arrived in November 2016 after League Two Grimsby Town decided Marcus Bignot was the man to take them forward.
There was no fanfare for the 31 year-old – he was replacing a club legend and many had never heard of him. Quick research told us that this was an up and coming manager who had done extremely well at Redditch United, taking them from Southern Premier League final day survivors to runners-up while he turned the fortunes of relegated Hednesford Town around in a short space of time.
Delving a little deeper it became clear this was a manager showing a penchant for developing young talent. Dan Scarr (Birmingham City), Jermaine Hylton (Formerly of Swindon Town), Cohen Bramall (Arsenal) and Jamey Osborne (Grimsby Town) were amongst his former charges – the latter deemed by many to be the most naturally gifted Solihull Moors footballer in the club’s short history.
Despite victory over Yeovil Town on penalties in an FA Cup First Round replay, early defeats at Barrow and Torquay United resulted in an overhaul of the squad.
In came players he had managed at previous clubs including Ashley Sammons, Calum Flanagan, Simeon Maye and George Carline. Kristian Green, Joel Kettle and Oladapo Afolayan stepped up several divisions while Regan Charles-Cook and Nathan Baxter came up from London for loan spells. Acknowledging the odd mare (Luke Rodgers and Hafeez Sanusi I am looking your way), the recruitment under Liam McDonald last season was a success.
There were warning signs during our survival that McDonald would have a big job on his hands moving forward and I don’t just mean the six-game winless run against a raft of full-time clubs. We struggled in midweek fixtures, struggled to get the better of direct, physical opposition and of course, there was that 9-0 drubbing at Prenton Park.
Those concerns were put to bed for the summer thanks to seven points in our final three matches. I put it down mostly to lower league players stepping up halfway through the season to play week in, week out in a far more demanding league.
When you have confidence in the manager, it’s easy to find reasons to back him.
Everybody anticipated major change this summer. Harry White joined Chester shortly after the final whistle at Guiseley; Brackley Town enticed the experienced quartet of Danny Lewis, Connor Franklin, Jack Byrne and Andy Brown; Omari Sterling-James inevitably departed for a professional contract; Nortei Nortey disappeared without a trace; captain Ryan Beswick left for Nuneaton Town; Regan Charles-Cook and Nathan Baxter returned to their parent clubs (then Woking on loan); Liam Daly joined Kidderminster Harriers.
Liam McDonald had proved in his first six months in charge that he had an eye for talent so I was more than happy to get behind him. Kristian Green has been a superb acquisition so bringing in his former club’s top scorer, captain and winger was exciting, as was taking Southern Premier League play-off winners key man Jack Edwards. Players used to winning football matches.
Nathan Vaughan, Paul Green and Darren Carter provided much needed experience. Jermaine Hylton was more than capable of playing a step above our level. Shomari Barnwell appeared an exciting, raw talent and Kalern Thomas turned up full of beans.
It was the defence that needed boosting with the season around the corner. We needed a leader, somebody to get the troops going, somebody who would organise his team-mates, somebody who would kick his Granny to win a football match.
No disrespect intended, but we ended up with Connal Trueman, Daniel Cleary and Fiacre Kelleher. Trueman had played two matches for Leamington, Kelleher 19 games in Scotland’s third tier while Cleary had never kicked a ball in professional football. Jordan Liburd also made the step up from Redditch United and started 10 of the opening 11 matches out of position at left-back.
This is not a slight on the players as individuals but they turned up ready to play first-team football and learn on the job. They were novices hung out to dry due to a lack of leadership and organisation at the back. We conceded 10 goals in the opening three matches.
In fairness to McDonald, he was slowly addressing those issues. Joel Kettle and Kristian Green returned to full fitness while Nathan Vaughan was restored in goal. Then Liam Daly returned in early September. Make no question about it, that made a massive difference.
We became more solid defensively and managed two victories, albeit one fortuitously via a long Nathan Vaughan kick and the other against a Chester side whose performance suggested they had just given up all hope. That solid base was not being rewarded by goals at the other end.
There were several factors. Jack Edwards, Tom Tonks and Tristan Dunkley were out of favour, all eventually leaving the club, meaning one of only two available wingers, Shepherd Murombedzi, was playing central midfield, Kalern Thomas playing wide right. Oladapo Afolayan being isolated as a lone striker did not help.
McDonald had changed that by the time we welcomed Dagenham and Redbridge. Courtney Richards, Joe Payne, Wes McDonald and Richard Brodie made home debuts while Ben Fox, Tahvon Campbell and Simeon Maye represented a bench of capable attacking options.
We put in our best display since beating Macclesfield Town last season and followed it up with another strong performance at Dover. We left with one point from two games but fancied our chances when Ebbsfleet United came to visit.
Perform like that against newly-promoted Ebbsfleet United and we would have every chance of earning a much deserved three points.
I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that players were not playing for McDonald but had a struggling Premier League side put in a the kind of lacklustre performance that Solihull Moors put in against Ebbsfleet United, the media would have had a field day claiming the manager no longer had his players onside. There was nothing to be positive about.
As the final whistle went, it felt like McDonald would have arguably the most thankless task in the top five tiers keeping his side in the division. He had overseen just five victories and three clean sheets in the previous 25 matches and somehow had to turn it all around to keep us in the division.
It had been a gradual process of improvement that was completely ripped apart Tuesday evening.
Following Jimmy Dunne’s red card for Barrow, McDonald’s side began to come alive in the second half of matches but couldn’t make the most of bright spells before. We then began competing for the full 90 minutes only to concede goals in the final 10 minutes of five games in succession, ending with Danny Mills’ effort for Ebbsfleet.
Predominantly a lack of concentration has haunted us defensively since Boreham Wood. Yet there have been little things as well such as McDonald failing to chop and change during matches to earn a result as he did last term, as if he was determined to continue with his original game plan for 90 minutes.
It was our most disappointing performance since being beat by Torquay United at home in the midst of our six-game winless run last season – one that confirmed we were in a very sticky position.
It’s never nice seeing a manager depart and I would have 100% backed McDonald had he stayed. His soft-spoken voice regularly belied an inner determination to succeed as Solihull Moors manager and it was a shame to see he and the board had agreed we were best to move on without him. Yet as the reasons detailed above suggest, this may be for the better.
Richard Money, or Dickie Dosh for those who love a nickname, now takes on the challenge of keeping Solihull Moors in the National League. The ex-Walsall, Luton Town and Cambridge United boss’ experience will be key in building the club on and off the field in the coming months.
Money’s early playing days were spent with the great Liverpool side of the 80’s while his managerial experiences have taken him abroad and twice in the National League with Luton Town and Cambridge United, doing a very good job with both clubs.
He has often been quite diligent and direct in his style of play and having never managed a club like Solihull Moors before, you suspect he will be on the training pitch making us hard to beat. A player overhaul is most definitely in the offing and players will be playing for contracts over the next few weeks. Having turned up as a spectator to recent matches, he will have a fair idea of what is at his disposal.
One thing for sure – he needs to have a big impact and quickly if we are to retain hope of survival.