BY HARRY DUNFORD
Just over a decade ago, Yeovil Town were one of the most famous non-league football clubs, known for their FA Cup giant killing exploits in years gone by. In May 2002, Yeovil lifted the FA Trophy at Villa Park under the new managerial scheme of Gary Johnson. The FA Trophy victory was the catalyst for a meteoric rise and the most successful period in the club’s history. The following season saw us promoted to the Football League for the first time, amassing a record total of 95 points along the way; the final home game of the season bringing in over 8,000 supporters, an incredible achievement for such a small club from the south-west of England.
In their first ever season in the Football League, Gary Johnson’s men missed out on an end of season play-off spot on goal difference, however, an FA Cup third round tie at home to Liverpool in front of the BBC cameras continued to cement Yeovil Town’s name on the footballing map. After a summer of regrouping, Yeovil gained another promotion, Phil Jevons’ 27 goals helped us top the table; champions of League Two just two seasons after being promoted from the Conference. In the same season, an FA Cup fourth round trip to Charlton Athletic ended in a 3-2 defeat; 22,000 supporters witnessed Yeovil nearly pull off yet another cup upset against Premier League opposition. These are my earliest memories of supporting Yeovil. In just three years Gary Johnson became a cult hero at the club, creating a side that was a force to be reckoned with. Now, ten years on, I’ve just finished university and it’s been another three years of supporting the club that I’ll never forget.
I started university in September 2012, moving away to a new city meant I could not attend as many matches as I once would have. However, Yeovil had not had much success since reaching the play-offs in 2007 and the only slight thing to suggest that this season would bring anything other than yet another relegation battle was that Gary Johnson was Yeovil Town manager once again. It was not quite the case, with a squad desperately low on confidence after six straight defeats at the beginning of the season, Johnson brought in a new loan signing, a relatively unknown Paddy Madden from Carlisle United. Madden scored two on his debut, and went on to score five goals in five games, as we only lost three times in their next thirteen games. Madden remained on loan until January, adding four more goals to his tally in the mean time.
By the time I had finished my first semester, it was Christmas and our form was improving. In December, I was one of the 800 Yeovil supporters in the Milton End at Portsmouth that witnessed a raucous 2-1 win that left us mid-table at the end of the calendar year. Suddenly there was new-found optimism that this season could genuinely result in something good, especially as we also reached the area semi-finals of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. There was more reason to be excited as the New Year came as Paddy Madden signed a permanent two and a half year deal on New Years Day, and he went on to score another four goals in his first four games as a permanent signing. The Portsmouth match was the start of a club record eight successive league wins; by this point I was attending every match that I could, regardless of its location and how much university work I had to do.
By the end of February, Madden’s 18 goals had lifted us into the play-off positions, creating a louder and more optimistic following as each game passed. Despite just one win in March, we guaranteed an end of season play-off spot away at Stevenage at the start of April. The Stevenage away game remains a day that will live long in the memory, not least because we knew we had a real chance of being promoted, but also as one of the best atmospheres I’ve been involved in watching Yeovil. Unfortunately for Gary Johnson, he timed his entrance into the ground perfectly with around thirty very drunk away supporters that took the opportunity to show him how highly we thought of him. The 2-0 win left us singing Johnson’s name for entirety of the twenty-minute walk back through Stevenage town centre and the majority of the remaining train journey home.
We turned Sheffield United’s play-off semi-final first leg win on its head, winning 2-0 at home, resulting in one of the busiest home terraces I’ve ever stood on spilling onto the pitch in celebration that we’d be going to Wembley. A first year at university coinciding with my team reaching the play-off final meant I consumed large amounts of alcohol most weekends, and the only regret I have about our trip to Wembley is that I can’t remember much of it. The hazy, abiding memory of that day is Paddy Madden’s curled right-footed shot that nestled into the top corner, sparking euphoric celebrations that carried on for many hours after we secured a 2-1 victory to promote us into the Championship. Madden ended the season on 24 goals, with the League One golden boot and as a Yeovil town hero. With Marek Stech, Luke Ayling, Ed Upson and Paddy Madden, the core of the team appeared more than ready for the Championship. Four months later, I was starting my second year of university, as “little old Yeovil” began life in the second tier of English football.
Before a ball had been kicked in August 2013, Yeovil had been written off as relegation fodder, a guaranteed six points for the other twenty-three clubs that would come across us. Most Yeovil fans would probably have agreed with that to an extent, with our budget and facilities at the lower echelon even for League One. However, the hope was there that the same group of players that took us to this level could step up and keep us there. Unfortunately, reality came crashing down upon us as Marek Stech broke his hand in our first home game against Birmingham City. Stech would not feature again for four months, which perhaps coincided with our inability to compete at a higher level. Four days after the Birmingham game, Madden earned his first cap for the Republic of Ireland. With our hero now also a full international player, the supporters believed Madden could be the man to score the goals to keep us in the Championship; therefore, it came as a huge blow when he sustained a bad knee injury at the end of August. Impressive loan signings such as Wayne Hennessey and Shane Duffy failed to improve performances, and with the first three matches in November seeing three defeats, we were sitting at the foot of the table once again.
Before the away trip to Watford on 30th November, Gary Johnson announced the loan signings of the highly rated Adam Morgan from Liverpool, as well as the experienced striker Ishmael Miller. Johnson also announced that Madden was being placed on the transfer list as the result of an on-going feud between the pair, leaving supporters furious and confused as to whether they would see Madden play in green and white again. My housemate at university was a Watford supporter, and in what turned out to be a fantastic decision, I took the opportunity to make the trip to Vicarage Road. Yeovil always travel well when playing in London, and as kick off approached, the away end filled with green smoke and a “Don’t Sell Madden” banner was unfurled amongst the near 1000 travelling supporters – an atmosphere that was comparable to the end of the previous season. Morgan and Miller started the match and when Miller scored on his debut to put us 2-0 up in the second half, you would have been forgiven for not caring about the Madden saga. Joe Edwards sealed a 3-0 win in the last minute, in what would turn out to be the highlight of the season.
There were just five more wins all season, frustration continued to increase as the season wore on; we lost numerous games 1-0 at home and failed to capitalise on winning positions when playing away. Leading Derby 2-0 at half-time before collapsing and conceding a late goal to lose 3-2, as well as conceding a 90th minute goal to Leicester, as Kasper Schmeichel caused chaos coming up from a corner, were particular low points. A spirited 1-1 draw away to Reading with just nine men on the pitch at the end of the match lifted the supporters once again, but the consistency just wasn’t there. It was announced in April that top scorer Ishmael Miller was leaving the club, again as a result of a disagreement with Gary Johnson. The support for the ‘Goodfellas’ (Johnson, Skiverton and Way) was at breaking point as Madden, Upson, and Miller – whose goals may well have kept us in the Championship – had all left the club as a result of falling out of favour with the manager.
We were inevitably relegated with one game to spare; an unforgettable but frustrating season was over, our period in the Championship lasted one season, just as everybody predicted. It left supporters knowing we were heading back to League One with a squad of players that would be considerably different to the last two seasons. Having witnessed a promotion and relegation in my first two university years, it was perhaps over confident to think that we would be able to achieve a promotion straight back up to the Championship the following season.
After losing the entire core of such a successful team, it was always going to be difficult to bounce straight back in our first season back in League One. It was clear to see straight away that the summer signings were never going to match the quality of the squad two seasons before. Three defeats in our first three games confirmed this. A slap in the face came when Madden scored against us for Scunthorpe to earn his new team a 1-1 draw. Such was the mutual respect between Madden and the Yeovil supporters there was a muted celebration and a quiet ripple of applause around the ground as he netted. It was obvious that the team was lacking any attacking threat, as well as not being particularly solid in defence either, as we were, for the second season running, struggling at the bottom of the league.
Well into my final university year by this stage with a ten thousand word undergraduate dissertation to write, I was finding it hard to attend matches. My return to attending matches during the Christmas period coincided with our successful FA Cup run. Keiffer Moore scored to seal a 2-0 win in the second round replay against Accrington Stanley, setting up a home tie against Manchester United. In such an uninspiring season, it was finally something to look forward to, the famous Yeovil giant killing stories were told once again, as Louis van Gaal’s squad prepared to make the trip down to Somerset. We were rooted to the bottom of the league, with an increasing number of supporters calling for Johnson’s head. The build up to the Manchester United game provided a platform for the supporters to make their voices heard, it was make or break for Johnson, a humiliating defeat to United would see the end of his second spell in charge. As it happened we held them off for the majority of the match, before a stunning Herrera goal put them ahead and we couldn’t come back from that. A 2-0 defeat kept Johnson in the job for the rest of January, but as we finished the month still 24th in the league, his time was up. It was hard to say goodbye to a manager that had achieved so much success with the club, taking us from the Conference to the Championship in ten years, across two spells; but sometimes change is needed and both parties had come to that realisation.
The news that the man that would be replacing Johnson was going to be Terry Skiverton was not news that sat well with supporters. It appeared the club had taken the cheap and easy route of re-appointing an individual already so imbedded in the club. Skiverton would win just two games before a run of six defeats in a row suggested enough was enough. At such a crucial stage of the season, the chairman’s inability to appoint a new manager effectively was going to cost the club a second successive relegation. Paul Sturrock, a man with vast experience in building a squad that fights for promotion in League Two, replaced Skiverton. Such was the poor timing of decisions, Sturrock’s first game in charge saw confirmation of our relegation after a 1-1 home draw. Winning the next two games 1-0 against promotion chasing teams left supporters frustrated at what might have been, but by this point it was too late and all Sturrock could do was figure out which players he wanted to keep and what players he needed to let go, to rebuild a squad that would be successful in League Two.
Over the summer, as I picked up my final degree classification results, Sturrock rearranged the whole squad, Kevin Dawson the only notable player that was kept on the club’s books. After bringing in an entire new squad, the amount of injuries suffered at the start of this new season has been unbearable. We now sit, for a third season in a row, teetering above the relegation zone, our saviour this season might be that only two clubs get relegated from League Two. With players coming back from injuries there are encouraging signs, but yet again the summer signings were not sufficient enough for us to be successful in a league where Portsmouth, Plymouth, Leyton Orient and Wycombe are so dominant. I don’t know what it’s going to take to return the club to where we once were, but I know for a fact if we don’t survive this season in League Two and return to non-league, it could be a very long time before the name of Yeovil Town is on any football league fixture list again.