No Bull - Nikki Give's It Straight!

The following has been penned by Shots Legend Nikki Bull, and is his view on the recent events at our football club. It is posted on ShotsTalk and copied here by us, verbatim:

"Up until a few months ago in my office at home two things took centre stage, two things that symbolised and reminded me of my two greatest moments as a footballer. 

One is the framed shirt that I wore the night we won promotion to the football league at Exeter surrounded by pictures of both the match itself and the celebrations that followed, the second is the framed shirt that I wore when we played our first game back in the football league against Accrington. I was extremely fortunate and privileged to have captained the team on both of these historic occasions something that I am enormously proud of.

April 15th 2008 was the night when the dream finally became reality, as the final whistle blew at St James Park I watched several of our supporters crying tears of joy; watching the emotional scenes I stopped and thought to myself that it had been a long six-year journey that included the heart-breaking play-off defeats to Shrewsbury and Carlisle but for the supporters it had all begun a decade before I joined the club and it meant so much more to them, that night was for them it was their reward for all that they had given to the club. All of the hard work put in by so many loyal Aldershot supporters starting way back in 1992 when they fought so hard and refused to give up in their quest to give the town of Aldershot a football club to support had finally come to fruition. The Phoenix had finally risen and Aldershot Town were back as a football league club where they rightfully belonged.

Just five years later unforgivably the dream has vanished, the great memories have faded and it has all been replaced with a nightmare. How did it come to this?

Over the past couple of years the club has undoubtedly lost its identity both on and off the pitch by trying to become something that it wasn’t, those running the club recklessly decided to try to push the club forward by living well beyond its means setting wild and unrealistic budgets, they also felt it necessary and wise to employ an ever-growing amount of people who I ended up just referring to as “the men in suits” as I had no idea what they did or why they were needed - all I do know is that the majority were just a drain on resources that the club didn’t have or could ill afford. The fact that the club doesn’t own their own stadium will always hinder finances and growth but this has always been the case so it is even more important that the finances and budgets were set and run tightly based on worst case scenarios not best case. 

On the pitch ever since Gary Waddock’s departure the club’s style of play, tactics and approach have not fit in with what the Aldershot supporters are accustomed too, it has become very negative, very one-dimensional and a lot of the time mind numbing to watch. There has been a real lack of research and homework done on managerial appointments that have resulted in a product that has alienated supporters and dragged the club back down to playing non-league football. 

The financial suicide and rolling of the dice was an unnecessary gamble as there was nothing wrong with what the club was or what it stood for, Aldershot Town was unique club that had a loyal following of supporters that deeply appreciated and cared for the club that they themselves had formed. Sadly the people running the club stopped thinking of the supporters and the foundations that the club had been built on. 
The way I see it is that all Aldershot fans want is to be able to watch a decent game of football, they had been used to seeing attacking football being played at home under Terry Brown and Gary Waddock with lots of goal-mouth action and for the past few seasons they have not been receiving that model of football. As a League Two team the supporters accepted that they were playing at a level that is historically their level, they did not expect promotion or demand too much they just want to be entertained. I lost count of the number of times over the years as a player that I was part of a team that was clapped off after losing at home, Aldershot supporters have always been able to accept defeat if a game is lost while trying to play the right way by a group of players giving their all.

To get the fans back, the club needs a fresh new approach on the pitch and to also start forming links between the players, board and supporters again. There seems to be little interaction these days after games and at a time when the fans need to feel wanted, most are feeling unfulfilled and more sadly taken for granted. In all forms of life you need to be evolving and seeking improvement to get the best out of whatever situation you are in. In these tough economic times where people are constantly looking at ways to cut expenditure there has never been a more important time to respect your paying audience’s views and expressions and produce a product that keeps them returning week after week. It is clear to see that over the past few years attendances at Aldershot Town have been in a rapid decline and unless this is rectified, the club will continue to lose supporters through the turnstiles - not only in the short term - but also the next generation of Aldershot Town supporters. We must never forget that the average paying supporter is the life blood of the football cub and without them there becomes no football club. 

When I decided to take a break from the game and left Wycombe Wanderers last October I spoke with a close friend of mine who at the time had been asked to invest as part of a new consortium that were seeking to take over at Aldershot as there were rumours that chairman Kris Machala wanted out of the club due to ill health and financial issues. My friend who cares deeply about the club asked me to go to games and compile reports on all aspects of what I was seeing and what my thoughts were as he had concerns about the state he thought the club was in.

What I witnessed while watching Aldershot last season did not make for pretty viewing. In fact out of all of the games that I watched only the Rochdale game at home was one that I felt the supporters actually got any kind of enjoyment and value for money from, apart from that the rest was dire to say the least.

In my opinion, Dean Holdsworth has to take a lot of the blame for Aldershot returning to non-league football, before a ball was kicked last season the vibes coming out of Aldershot were very positive, and in my eyes they had assembled a squad that had made them dark horses for a play-off spot in League 2, back in July 2012 there was no mention from the manager about a low budget or financial restrictions that were making his job almost impossible as he would later go on and claim. 

This budget issue has been a real sense of anger for me and it doesn’t take much to work out that the budget last season was more than adequate to comfortably survive in League 2 (the likes of Dagenham, Accrington and Morecombe would have gladly swapped budgets) and the fact that the club went into administration backs this up, the moaning about the budget by Dean Holdsworth was just a smokescreen to detract from his own shortcomings in tactical awareness, man management and most importantly as a manager.

I attended several Aldershot games both home and away and I was dismayed with what I was witnessing on the pitch. I saw a group of players that were drained of all energy, creative ideas and cohesion by tactics that were negative beyond belief. Players were encouraged to smash the ball forward as soon as they received it up to a lone striker who would fail to control the ball and link up play, as inevitably he was heavily outnumbered. Full backs were told to get back the minute they stepped over the halfway line and a midfield that were ordered to over cover the defence which never gave them the opportunity to catch up with play and get into advanced areas when attacking. 

At times both home and away it looked like we were playing a 9-0-1 formation in which our best hope of getting a result was a 0-0 and once the opposition scored it was pretty much game over as there was never a Plan B, home matches were started at a slow pedestrian tempo which encouraged the away team and allowed them to grow in confidence, the start of games especially at home should be set a high tempo on the front foot pressurising the opposition all over the pitch not allowing them anytime to settle. The start of any match sets the tone for the entire game. It’s an old cliché but the game really can be won or lost in the first 20 minutes. Not only does a high tempo put the opposition on the back foot it also lifts the crowd, raises the noise levels in the stadium and gets supporters involved and part of the action. As a player if I was playing an away match and the home crowd was quiet at the start of a match and the atmosphere was dead I already felt that we were 1-0 up.

Off the pitch Holdsworth chose to drop and release players via text message which showed a complete lack of respect and a real weakness in man management something which in my opinion is the key skill needed to be a successful manager these days. As a player, I could accept any criticism or bad news if the manager took the time to tell me face to face. It wasn’t just Holdsworth’s tactics or man management skills that were to blame but also his dealings in the transfer market, by my reckoning during his tenure as manager he signed over 45 players on loan which raises the following questions; how many of these were successful? How many never even kicked a ball? What scouting was taking place? Who authorised and sanctioned all of these signings? If you are constantly signing players on loan then it is impossible to create a team spirit and any kind of continuity throughout the squad. The “revolving door” approach in the club’s transfer dealings was a huge mistake and although a lot of these loan signings would not have cost the club in terms of money it cost them so much more in terms of the continuity, spirit and dynamics of the squad.

Holdsworth was a fantastic footballer who successfully played at the highest level of English football over a long period of time, he achieved things in football that all footballers dream of and this is not a personal attack on him, unfortunately being a top-class player does not automatically mean that you will become a top-class manager, he failed to grasp (like his predecessor Kevin Dillon did) that to be successful as an Aldershot manager you need to buy into the ethos of the club and respect its ways and history, once you lose the fans you lose the atmosphere and that’s what makes Aldershot what it is. 
The players are far from blameless in what went on last season and a few of them clearly thought they were a lot better than they were and they let themselves and the supporters down. From the outside looking in it was clear that they had no faith in the manager and his tactics and methods, they were not playing for him. Out of respect for themselves as professionals and the supporters who effectively pay the wages - they owed it to everyone to put on a lot better displays then they did.

As much as Holdsworth’s shortcomings as a manger were there for all to see, in my opinion the biggest culprit in all of this mess is the board. It was them who ultimately put the club into administration and back into non-league football with their mismanagement and financial naivety which resulted in them seriously putting the clubs very existence in jeopardy.

The board as I see it are entrusted to run the club on behalf of the supporters and at all times should seek to do the best they possibly can for the interests of the football club. Unfortunately and unforgivably they have failed in all areas; every managerial appointment since the departure of Gary Waddock has been a disaster; they failed to sack Dean Holdsworth back in November when it was clear that under him there would be a real possibility of relegation and also the impact that his tenure was having on the finances by way of attendances. The board should have acted at this time but it was clear to me that there was no-one steering the ship and that divisions within the board were seriously affecting all aspects of the running the club.

I gave my assessments of what I had seen to my friend and also wrote a detailed strategy that I believed Aldershot needed to implement immediately to not only improve things on the pitch but also be much more efficient off of it. My friend was impressed with what I had written and passed it onto people within the club to look at, my advice unfortunately fell on deaf ears but if I am being honest I never expected anyone from the club to call me to discuss implementing any of the things that my report had identified due to the fact that people in charge of football clubs always think that they know best despite having no experience or knowledge of how things work in the footballing world. Over the years throughout football up and down the country there are hundreds of examples where successful business men who have built up successful companies fail miserably when they get involved in football with the reason being it is not their domain and they are like a fish out of water.

I heard rumours around Christmas time that the only reason that Dean had not been sacked was because the club could not afford to sack him due to the salary that he was earning. I decided that I could not sit back and always regret not making any efforts as it was obvious we were heading back to the non-league and a place we had all fought so hard to escape so I offered to take charge of the team for no money and without contract for as long as the club needed me while they sorted out getting rid of Dean. At this point in my own life I had agreed a contract to go and work in Russia for a construction company but I spoke with the company employing me and they agreed to me delaying the start of my contract if Aldershot took me up on my offer.

People will point to my lack of experience for the job but I wonder where Bournemouth would be now had they not given the then 29-year-old Eddie Howe the manager’s job when they were adrift at the bottom of league two and heading towards non-league football. His experience was his knowledge of the club and knowing what it meant to its supporters. Too much is made these days of coaching badges and qualifications but being a manager is all about man management, getting the best out of what you have. I have lost count of the number of people that I have come across in my career that had all the badges, qualifications and licences but didn’t have the common sense, personality or people skills to run a bath never mind a football team.

Had I been given the opportunity to manage the club then I know in my heart that Aldershot Town would still be a football league club; no one except the supporters would have tried harder or wanted to succeed more than me. I didn’t need the job, I didn’t need the money and I wasn’t one of the dozens of failed managers desperately hoping for another job; I WANTED the job because it hurt seeing the club that I represented on the pitch over 300 times in the situation that it was in and I felt that I could really make a difference. I also genuinely believe that the supporters would have got behind me and the atmosphere at games and around the club would have improved drastically. 

I spoke at length on a few occasions with Shahid Azeem who was at this time already involved heavily within the club behind the scenes and I thought at one point I seriously had a chance of taking over, however it was not to be and the club chose to not take me up on my offer and go down a different route which they of course were entitled to do and the rest as they say is history, never has the phrase “I told you so” been such a hollow comfort.

Helping to get Aldershot back into the football league was career fulfilment for me and something that I thought could never be taken away from me, I was wrong, With Aldershot now languishing in the relegation zone of the Conference I feel a real sense of emptiness where that fulfilment used to be and a feeling that it was all for nothing and a worthless accomplishment. I have lost count of the number of times I have been approached by Aldershot fans in the supermarket or on the street stating that they no longer go to matches and have lost all faith in the club which is sad to hear but fully understandable as the club only seem to want to know the fans when they go to them cap in hand looking for them to bail them out and it not surprising that many have now had enough.

The Phoenix is grounded once more and our club as I see it is currently broken but as history has previously demonstrated the Phoenix can rise once more but it has no chance while so many things are still so horribly wrong at the club we all care for. A sense of unfinished business is growing inside me and I guess that will stay with me until the club return to the football league once more. As for my prized football shirts they are no longer on my office wall, they now live in the garage boxed up with all my other Aldershot memorabilia.

Up the Shots!