THE SHAN EXPERIMENT: QUICK CONCLUSIONS
Jimmy Shan’s 12-month stint as Solihull Moors manager came to an ignominious end this week following a 0-5 home drubbing against fellow big-budget underachievers Stockport County. Shan’s time in charge covered a calendar year, but perhaps only slightly more than half a season of football all told. During this time, all of us had to cope with the COVID-19 Pandemic, and against that backdrop Solihull were one of the most unfortunate teams in the 2020/21 National League for fixture postponements and player unavailability due to outbreaks in our own midst and elsewhere.
Alongside this, Adam Rooney, Jamie Ward, Jamey Osborne, Alex Gudger, and Callum Howe have all suffered badly this season with injury. There’s no doubt that all five would be considered key for the Moors, and indeed any other squad at this level (and probably in League Two). To cap it all off, the exciting development of the ground at Damson Park has had the unintended consequence of creating drainage issues for the pitch, meaning yet more postponements due to the elements over the winter. What rotten luck.
All that said, we went into the 2020/21 season with every reason to hold high hopes. With another season ticked off on the Five-Year Plan™, the Solihull Moors invested massively in facilities infrastructure, with the back pitch becoming its own 3G mini-stadium and the ground in Studley purchased for refurbishment that transformed it into a training ground that is the envy of many clubs in League One and Two. The outlay on the squad was also significant. Moors boasted signings that, again, would be the envy of many League Two sides: Cranston, Coxe, Gleeson, Sbarra, Ward, and Rooney coming in famously just as lockdown was announced the prior season. Krystian Pearce came in from Mansfield Town to plug the hole caused by defensive injuries, did okay, but didn’t stay. In came Nathan Cameron, hundreds of EFL appearances under his belt and most recently of Wigan Athletic, and Kyle Howkins, of Newport County and formerly a hot prospect for West Brom. The ambition was there. Those in charge of the club put everything in place to support their coaching staff in another tilt at promotion to the Football League. We backed Moors as title dark horses in our predictions on our podcast, which we wrote up for Off The Line. As we write now, hours before the club begins a new era, Moors sit a humiliating seventeenth in the National League table, only three points better off than Wealdstone. What went wrong in Jimmy Shan’s shining era of symphony orchestra football?
We spoke a little about being unfortunate with injuries, conditions, and postponements. All that is true, but it’s the kind of thing that happens to lots of clubs every season. We are in the privileged position compared to most National League clubs of being able to have contingency in place for when those problems crop up. We have a large squad, dedicated fitness, strength, and conditioning staff, and a training ground packed with excellent support facilities. So, breaking down the bad luck excuse, what was the reason we were apparently so exposed once we started losing first-team players to injury, fatigue from fixture congestion, etc? The injury issues and scheduling quirks revealed two very basic issues of Jimmy Shan’s making: squad-building and player form.
There were those who were surprised at the number of full-backs/wing-backs Shan brought to the club over the long summer. We thought we understood once we were lucky enough to see the team in pre-season action, as against Coventry City Moors had great success in playing with wing-backs pushing high up the pitch and pressing the opposition sometimes in their own third of the pitch. Naturally, we surmised, this will be a demanding role, so the squad has been loaded with good back-up options to allow for squad rotation when players tire or hit a rough patch. Also, several of them could also operate as wide midfielders or wingers. Why not give yourself plenty of options to keep things fresh tactically? Boy, how wrong could we have been…
Jimmy Shan’s summer shopping spree proved to be the quicksand on which he set out his stall as Moors manager. He put together a grossly imbalanced squad that was suited to playing the Shan way or the highway. And when the Shan way began to unravel…
In fairness, nobody expected the late departure of the all-action Beesley – an excellent lone striker for Shan’s preferred system – which left us especially light up front, and the club was hardly going to stand in his way. What ought to have been telling was, by this late stage of preseason and with Rooney now injured, Shan had not already made tracks towards signing several new forwards to replace those who had been allowed to leave in the summer. He was apparently satisfied with a squad built to resemble a sort of footballing butt plug, bulbous around the base with a few centre backs, lots of wing-backs and defensive midfielders, and only a narrow clutch of attacking players. Naturally, as soon as its precarious base began to wobble, the structure could no longer support itself. This situation was exacerbated by Shan’s erratic squad selection. Rather than resting players whose form was flagging, it quickly became the running joke that the club tombola machine was behind team selections. Young fringe players were sent out on loan rather than used to support the first team. Storer and Gleeson were consistently selected together in almost every starting XI despite being, to all intents and purposes, the same player. Coxe waxed and waned. Big-name defensive signings bombed. Rooney spent half a season on the sidelines. Ball drifted. It says a lot about the success of Jimmy Shan’s approach to this season that our standout players have been the previously unfancied Callum Maycock, the meteoric Kyle Hudlin, a teenage loanee in Cameron Archer, and Ben Usher-Shipway.
The latter is particularly symptomatic of another of Jimmy Shan’s fatal flaws. BUS put in a MOTM performance against Coventry City in preseason only to be sidelined completely, returning as a desperate roll of the dice in the dying days of the Shan experiment, with us all awaiting the inevitable, and even then played mostly out of position. Ben Usher-Shipway is a bustling winger with pace to burn, a booming throw, and the skill to terrorise defenders on the ball. His final ball still needs work, but that might come with time and experience. Where does Jimmy Shan deploy him? Right back. The stubbornness of Shan to persist with his formation and playing style even when it was clear it was inappropriate to the conditions or downright not working for the players on the pitch has cost us enormously this season and is in our opinion entirely responsible for our atrocious away record. While the stats show the promise of the system when it can work – unsurprisingly, our most creative players according to the numbers have been the two first-choice wing-backs and the mercurial Jamie Ward – watching a non-league team trying to play tiki-taka on a mudbath steep enough to derail a freight train at Maidenhead United, or trying to play tiki-taka in their own box in a blizzard in Chesterfield, or trying to play tiki-taka across their own goal line with minutes to go and a lead to protect in a big cup game at Scunthorpe United… well, suffice to say that at best, it made no sense, and was at worst infuriating. Then, who did Shan come out in his interviews and blame for the tactics? Himself, having spoken all season about his vision for how he wanted his team to play? No, of course not: he blamed the players for playing too many short passes. For all the talk of Jimmy being such a nice guy – which surely he is – that’s poor management in any organisation. No leader should ever pass the buck to their team simply for fulfilling the instructions they were given.
There are surely things that this piece misses, things we could analyse better, counterarguments, and so on. That’s fine; it is only intended as a collection of thoughts, pondering over the question of how we got to this point. It’s a real shame that it didn’t work out for Shan and Beale. We’d all like to see our team topping the league while playing amazing football. Unfortunately, that proved impossible in the National League for Solihull Moors, but Jimmy Shan was obviously brought in for a reason with a mandate to give it a try. We’d like to thank him for his efforts and wish him the best for the future. It’s never a pleasant or easy situation to remove someone from their post for poor performance, especially in professional sport where passions run high. We hope Jimmy is doing well and his choice to avoid social media is not indicative of abuse having been directed to his personal accounts, which is never necessary or acceptable. Equally, on the topic of fair and constructive criticism, it has also been disappointing to see how quick people have been to forget, in their rush to communicate their frustration to/with the club hierarchy, that our previous manager, Tim Flowers, was not sacked but chose to leave by his own consent. It is also disappointing to see unwarranted criticism/abuse directed towards individuals with no control over the situation and work tirelessly in the best interests of the club, such as Darren Carter, the media team, and third-party media working with the club. Come on. We’ve always been better than that before. What’s changed now?
Here’s to the beginning of a bright new era with Mark Yates back in charge. It’s a no-lose situation for all parties, with Yates free to see out the season and put to bed his regret for his ‘Sliding Doors moment’ when he chose to move to Macclesfield Town after masterminding the great escape in 2018. Moors also get a free trial of Yates 2.0 with little pressure on anyone. And yet, there is still a path to the playoffs, albeit a difficult and unlikely one. Perhaps we might turn out to be those promotion dark horses after all… We can dream, but the first step will be restoring some pride. And who better for the job than the grand master himself!