Peterborough United were doomed from day one thanks to a process that turned out to be as trustworthy as Boris Johnson

Posh have wasted a glorious chance to establish themselves as a Championship club.

By Alan Swann
Sunday, 24th April 2022, 6:47 am
Updated Tuesday, 26th April 2022, 10:04 am
This early chance for Ricky-Jade Jones was saved by Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Brice Samba. Photo: Joe Dent/theposh.com.
This early chance for Ricky-Jade Jones was saved by Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Brice Samba. Photo: Joe Dent/theposh.com.

They were up against two teams with 27 points worth of deductions and failed to take advantage. They were up against teams with similarly modest budgets and they blew it. ‘We are going to thrive, not just survive,’ said chairman Darragh MacAnthony and his then manager Darren Ferguson last summer when still giddy after a dramatic promotion campaign. They did neither.

Of course those at the forefront of the campaign have started offering excuses including financial disadvantages, injuries and simple misfortune. The biggest public figure at the club – a chairman never shy of reminding people of his brilliance – even turned on the local media, although thankfully he fell short of repeating the old joke of ‘it’s the paper’s fault, they kept printing the results.’

As it happens the media were the first to see through the summer hyperbole and bluster which turned to be, well just hyperbole and bluster.

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Jack Taylor and Jeando Fuchs of Peterborough United battle for the ball against Nottingham Forest. Photo: Joe Dent/theposh.com.

I first realised we might be in trouble at 2pm on Saturday, August 7 at Kenilworth Road, the tatty home of Luton Town FC, the first day of the league campaign.

When the teamsheet arrived in the press box good players were conspicuous by their absence – there was no Siriki Dembele or Jack Taylor – while others didn't look fit (Jonson Clarke-Harris), and playing in an advanced midfield role was Joe Tomlinson, a left-back signed from non-league football while Harrison Burrows, a natural midfielder, sat on the bench.

Christy Pym, a goalkeeper not really trusted to play in the promotion run-in the previous season, was still in situ.

Just what had gone on in the four months since promotion from League One had been secured? How long did the celebrations actually last? Stories were soon surfacing about players turning up for pre-season out of shape. Some soft pre-season matches didn’t seem ideal preparation for what was to come.

Jack Marriott of Peterborough United battles with Joe Worrall of Nottingham Forest. Photo: Joe Dent/theposh.com.

And failed recruitment, fitness issues and muddled managerial thinking became immediate concerns when the serious stuff started. Nothing in that 90 minutes at Luton (Posh got away with a 3-0 beating), or even the next six months, happened to suggest staying up was ever a serious possibility.

Posh were 15th after three matches and they never managed to rise any higher before the meekest of relegations was finally accepted last Saturday.

And this was a relegation created last summer.

'Trust the process,' we were told when optimism started to evoporate rather quickly, partially because away from home the first six matches of the season were lost. It was a phrase that came to haunt a chairman and a club who at times seemed to be more active building a competitive under 23 side rather than one with a chance of competing at Championship level. The process turned out to be no more trustworthy than our brazen Prime Minister. Manchester United enjoyed more-joined-up thinking.

After ending the awayday hoodoo, rather fortunately at Hull, the chairman mocked this author for suggesting Posh were in danger of going down with a ‘whimper’. I know whose comments aged better.

Of course there is mitigation. Despite those optimistic financial forecasts champions-elect Fulham still managed to pay a striker £100k a week and to fork out £12 million for a modest midfielder. It's maybe an unfair comparison with a team armed with those ludicrous parachute payments, but average Championship clubs also went shopping for loan players in Harrods in the January transfer window while Posh were looking for bargains in Poundland. Even trying to sign loan players was an admission of how bad the summer recruitment had been. We were told Posh don’t like loaning players, unless they become desperate presumably.

It wasn't a level playing field, but the clubs promoted with Posh last season, Hull and Blackpool, survived comfortably and did Posh use all their resources wisely? Pleading relative poverty when paying a director of football over £300k for helping to sell top players and advertising for a new CEO with salary possibilities of £150K a year were eye-opening moments this season.

Posh at least saved money when manager Darren Ferguson resigned rather than wait to be sacked (if he ever would have been). Ferguson is a decent man and likely to remain the most successful manager in the club's history for some time, but Championship success has always eluded him and it's doubtful he'll get another chance.

His 700th match as a manager and his record-breaking 492 games as Posh boss were at least memorable moments to take with him when he quit after a damaging 1-0 defeat at Derby on February 19.

But his race was run before then. How he survived January when events, as well as a poor team for the level, conspired against him is beyond me. His best player Siriki Dembele appeared to down tools to successfully engineer a move to the Bournemouth substitutes' bench, while his captain Oliver Norburn decided a move to Posh was a mistake just four months after making it as he made an unsuccessful bid to escape to the calmer waters of Blackpool for personal reasons. Remember that when players start kissing club badges again.

Ferguson also wasn’t helped when assistant manager Mark Robson quit in October and was replaced by a rookie in Matthew Etherington. Ferguson needed experience and wise counsel which was unlikely to arrive from a great player, one of the best in Posh history, but whose managerial nous was limited to what he’d picked up from two seasons as under 18 manager and three months running the under 23s.

Ferguson belatedly despatched his fitness coach and physio, not that long after the club’s set-piece coach had disappeared in secret. Watching Posh this season you’d never known a set-piece coach had been employed in the first place, so bad were they at either end of the pitch.

Still, February arrived with Posh still in touch and facing a run of make-or-break games against other struggling teams. Sadly Posh didn’t just break, they shattered, failing to score in, never mind failing to win, five vital matches, including the first under new manager Grant McCann, a 3-0 home reverse against his old club Hull City

Posh would have been relegated on April 9th after just 41 games but for Derby's points deduction even though there have been belated signs of improvement under McCann.

McCann, unlike Ferguson, has had the benefit of a more motivated and fitter Clarke-Harris and a Jack Marriott free of hamstring concerns, although he hasn’t had Dembele, the man who provided all the attacking quality seen all season, until he developed back niggles that could only be cured by a move to the seaside.

But shouldn't the possibility of Marriott, and for that matter million-pound summer signing Joel Randall, falling injured have been factored into the recruitment drive? Neither have shown George Boyd-levels of availability in recent seasons. In recent games Marriott has shown what a big miss he was.

Pym was one of a handful of players, who could reasonably have been expected to struggle at the higher level, to be offered extended contracts in the summer. It was all rather baffling. It was only fair that those who recruited brilliantly to win promotion despite the loss of a striking God in Ivan Toney had another shot, but this was a too clever-by-half process as cries for experienced and physically strong players were ignored.

The worst defensive record in the club’s history is a direct consequence of that. The worst points record in the club’s history could also yet be equalled.

I suppose if a couple of gnarled professionals had arrived we might have seen less of player-of-the-season Ronnie Edwards, but we might also have stayed up. We were never going to need anywhere near 54 points this time around.

At least this relegation was far less painful than the last one nine years ago. That's one consolation of being bad for the entire campaign.