MELLON: I just accept football’s mental
SIR ALEX FERGUSON’S famous “Football, bloody hell” quote comes immediately to mind when Micky Mellon tries to make sense of how quickly the game can flip his reputation, his team’s fortunes and a journeyman striker’s status on the head.
If a week is a long time in politics, you could cram at least a month’s worth of contrasting drama into eight days at the Greenhous Meadow.
The Scottish accent is similar – though the 43-year-old’s origin is from Paisley rather than Govan – and a Fergie-style shake of the head accompanies the delivery of: “The game is just fantastically mental, isn’t it?”
To recap: on Saturday January 2, Shrewsbury Town lost 7-1 in their League One fixture at Chesterfield, who had not won in their previous ten league matches.
Ninety-three miles away at Prenton Park, a 29-year-old who had left Salop in the wake of the Shrews’ League Two promotion last summer was kicking his heels watching his Non-League employers lose 1-0 to Macclesfield.
The intervening period saw a public vote of confidence in the manager from Town chairman Roland Wycherley, four players leave and three come to the Shropshire club – two of them familiar faces, with former loanee Jack Grimmer’s return from Fulham the most plausible.
Fast forward to last Sunday evening and his team, 20th in League One, beat Championship high-flyers Cardiff City on their own pitch in the FA Cup third round.
Scorer of the solitary goal in south Wales? Andy Mangan, the ex-Blackpool, Accrington Stanley, Forest Green Rovers, Wrexham and Fleetwood forward, who had started just one match in the last six weeks as a Tranmere Rovers player.
“Pretty much the opposite happened at Cardiff as happened at Chesterfield,” says Mellon. “Everything went for us, whereas nothing did the previous week when we had a man sent off, gave two penalties away and suffered two hamstring injuries within the space of a minute before half-time!
“But that’s just football, isn’t it? I’ve been in it so long I don’t get carried away with anything that’s mental in it any more. I expect nothing any more. I just turn up and be ready to try to adapt.
“You have to, because you go on all these coaching apps and you move all the wee men around walls – ‘Yeah, you go here and you do that’ – but never, on any tactics board, does it say about the wee man’s character. Or if he’s going to have a bad game. Or he’s going to be brilliant on a particular day.
“It’s football. It’s not robotic. Nobody will ever have all the answers, will they? And do we ever really want everybody to have the answers?” Mellon speaks with the enthusiasm of a young player coming into the game, rather than a man who made almost 500 Football League appearances with Bristol City, West Brom, Blackpool, Tranmere and Burnley before dropping to the Conference North to start a managerial career that has so far yielded three promotions in seven years.
Mangan has been involved in the last two – the 2011-12 Conference win at Fleetwood and last season’s League Two runners-up spot – but had chosen to drop back to Non-League last May to be closer to his family on Merseyside.
He had netted seven times for Tranmere this season, but bringing in a player struggling to get in a National League side was surely a big risk for Mellon, with supporters wondering how he would shake things up post-Chesterfield?
“It was always in my plan to do what I was going to do in January,” says Mellon.“I was going to radically change the playing squad and it was nothing to do with the 7-1.
“It just happened that was the first game of the new year, and it looks to a lot of people,‘Wow, he’s reacted to that game’. But if we’d have won 7-1, I genuinely was going to make the changes I had to make.
“I sat down in July and August with my chairman, the chief exec and my staff, and we looked at the situation we were in coming up from League Two.
“There were 15 lads who were going to get a go at seeing if they were League One players.They were going to sink or swim.
“That was agreed between us all. The first chance we’d get to repair anything would be January, and that’s what we did. But football will never change. I keep hearing about ‘philosophies’. I’ve done more than 350 games now as a manager, and a good 250 games ago I realised that it’s just about winning games. These philosophies are nice, and there are some people who are out of work at the minute who have got better, allsinging and dancing philosophies than I’ve got.
“I’ve never really heard of a manager keeping his job because he had a brilliant philosophy, despite losing a load of games.
“If I win, I’m good. If I lose, I’m crap. Now, in football, that can be in three days! I’ve gone from a 7-1 defeat on a Saturday and probably every man in the world – and even my missus – has gone, ‘He’s crap’ to going to Cardiff and beating them 1-0 and everyone going ‘Hang on a minute!’ How can that be?”
Mellon had no worries about his team raising their game on the day against second-tier opposition, and neither will he when in-form Sheffield Wednesday visit in the fourth round on January 30.
His squad is littered with players boasting higher-level experience, and some – like Fulham loanees Jack Grimmer and Larnell Cole – should go on to enjoy long careers in the top divisions.
Others, like Mangan, yo-yo between the divisions because “they haven’t been consistent with their KPIs – winning the knock-downs, making sure the next person that
touches the ball is one of your teammates, winning first headers, holding the ball up, getting on the end of things in the box – on a weekly basis.” He goes on: “Take Mangy. As an all-round player, he’s been nothing short of fantastic for me whenever I’ve had him. “When we heard we might have a chance, it was a case of getting him back because I love working with him, and the other players do as well. “I know the qualities he’s got, but he’s got to sustain it now.
“He’s done nothing. He’s capable. He knows it’s last chance saloon, so every day he trains, he knows he’s got to do it.
“He still thinks he’s a kid but time, unfortunately, well, we’re not making any more of it. It’s running out for him and he knows that, so his motivation is there.”
And Mellon can have no greater stick with which to beat his often enigmatic goalscorer than a rolledup version of the Premier League table and goalscoring charts.
Mangan and a certain Jamie Vardy were Fleetwood’s leading scorers in that title success. The former’s 21 goals were bettered only by the 34 netted by a man who would become Non-League’s first £1m export, to Leicester, at the end of that 2011-12 season.
“Vards isn’t there because Claudio Ranieri thinks he’s a nice guy,” says Mellon.“He’s not there because Nigel Pearson thought, ‘Oh he’s sound, him’.
“He’s there because he worked his f***** nuts off when he got there. He worked like it was his last day. He got in the team, he hit a level of performance, and the manager couldn’t drop him. Then, the team were successful with him in it, and suddenly you’re in the England team.
“But it’s all about him hitting the level and staying there and hitting it every week. On any given day in training or in any given match – and I really mean this – Mangan and Vardy were as good as each other. But Vardy did it every week.
“There were moments where an opportunity came up, somebody happened to be at the game and Vardy hit the level – bang! Mangs, if we sit down and we’re honest, hasn’t been able to do that.
“But he’s now got a manager who, when he gets a wee bit sloppy in training or he gives the ball away, is all over him. I take no bad standards from him. I don’t mind if I have to come in on a Monday morning and fall out with him. I don’t care.
“Like against Cardiff, he’d just scored and the ball comes into him. He gets hold of it and he tries to back-heel it. We lose it, and they break on us. He came over near me on the bench and I gave him the biggest mouthful he’s ever had in his life. He was reckless and didn’t think of his team-mates.
“He looked at me and he put his hand up. That’s the difference with the relationship we have.
“It’s not all about Andy Mangan. He knows I want him to be good, like I do all my players.”
Being good in yesterday’s relegation basement battle with Barnsley, another on Tuesday week with Oldham and next Saturday’s trip to high-flying Burton take priority before their next chance against Championship opposition.
“I’m probably going to kill myself now,” adds Mellon,“but if you look at the detail of my team: Mark Halstead has been in the Premier League with Man United and Blackpool, my rightback Jack is on loan from Fulham and has played in the Championship and Scotland U21.
“Anthony Gerrard is a Championship player, Zak Whitbread – Championship player, Nat Knight-Percival played in the Championship for Peterborough two years ago, Ian Black played for Rangers in the Scottish leagues last year, Larnell Cole, just left Man U and [is] a Championship player for Fulham.
“You go through the team and they are all Championshi players, so it’s no real big deal to them. They are capable of beating anybody.”
After beating Leicester and taking Chelsea close in the Capital One Cup last season – Mangan scored in both – it wouldn’t be quite so “mental” to see the Owls follow the Bluebirds in being knocked off their perch.
RESULTS MAN: Micky Mellon has no time for philosophy in football and, inset, comeback man Andy Mangan scores against Cardiff City