York City’s first season back in the Football League was a real roller-coaster. The club’s communications director Sophie Hicks spoke to STEPHEN LEWIS about the season’s ups and downs.
THERE’S a certain amount of torture involved in being a York City fan. And that was never truer than in the last 20 minutes or so of the club’s final game of the season, away at Dagenham & Redbridge.
The team needed a draw to guarantee survival in npower League Two. Skipper Chris Smith had scored on 67 minutes, to create a bit of breathing space.
But did that calm the nerves of the 1,200 or so travelling City fans?
Did it hell.
The club’s communications director Sophie Hicks was sitting in the front row of the stands, almost on the pitch. “I was just huddled over,” she says. “I couldn’t sit straight in the chair. I was just huddled over the whole game, and looking up at the clock all the time. I was thinking, ‘If it stops like this, we’re going to be all right. If it stops like this, we’re going to be all right’.”
Like the other City fans, she couldn’t help leaping into the air in delight when Smith scored. But the celebration was muted.
She was painfully conscious of the anguish of the Dagenham fans. They needed a win to guarantee survival, and went deathly quiet after City scored.
But there was also the knowledge that even at this late hour, things could still go wrong for City.
“You never know what will happen with York City,” she says, in the club’s boardroom a couple of weeks later. “It is always a roller-coaster ride. Even if we’d been 4-0 up, we’d have felt as though it wasn’t all over.”
Not until the final whistle, at least.
The Dagenham fans had another ten minutes of torture, before they learned that they, too, would survive. In a delayed game, Barnet had lost 2-0 to Northampton.
Cue a double celebration involving York and Dagenham fans at Dagenham’s Victoria Road ground.
One of the first things she did, admits Mrs Hicks, was go over to The Press’s York City reporter Dave Flett and ‘have a little cry’, from pure relief.
“And then the Dagenham director opened a bottle of champagne, and we all had champagne together…”
It was an exhausting, draining and euphoric end to City’s first season back in League football. On the train back to York, and at York Station, the club’s fans were chanting gleefully: “We’re staying up! We’re staying up!” There were a group of fans in a bar at the station. “I banged on the window, as you do,” Mrs Hicks says.
But it could all have been so different.
As that long, ominous run of winless matches stretched on – 16 games without a win, between the 3-0 home victory against Burton Albion on January 1 and the 2-0 home victory against Plymouth exactly three months later – the possibility of relegation loomed ever larger. From being comfortably mid-table, York were plunging inexorably towards the bottom of the League.
The City board – Mrs Hicks, her father Rob, her brother (and board chairman) Jason McGill and Ian McAndrew – began to contemplate the possibility that the club would be relegated after only one season in the League: something that had never happened before.
If City had gone down, it would have been catastrophic, she says.
“We would have lost £750,000 worth of funding. And while we never had a formal meeting about it, we would probably have had to lose the youth team, and we might have had to go to a part-time basis.”
The McGills might even have had to question the whole basis of their relationship with the club, she admits. Getting out of the Conference the first time had been expensive – the McGill family business, JM Packaging, had ploughed something like £1.6 million into the club over the years, she says – and emotionally draining.
The family never discussed it. “But yes, the question would have been could we have continued running York City FC? Did we have the stomach to go through it all again?”
As the winless run continued, the board began to think the unthinkable: perhaps Gary Mills – the man who had given York City possibly the best week in its history, with two Wembley triumphs in the space of eight days – might have to go.
“We had a very close relationship with Gary as a family. He was a friend, and he did so much for the club. He got us promoted. We will always be eternally grateful for that,” Mrs Hicks says.
“But there comes a time – and it is about experience, because we are a board that has been in place for ten years, and we have experienced relegation – there comes a time when you recognise the signs, and you have to base a decision on facts, and statistics, and points, not emotion.”
There were too many draws, and not enough attacking football, under Gary Mills. And his January transfer window signings had focused on quantity, not quality – with the result that the squad was too big, with too few players who could really turn a game. “We had players sitting in the stands, week in, week out.”
The 2-0 home loss against Bradford City on March 2 proved the final straw. The board had decided that if City drew or lost, the manager would have to go.
It came as a complete shock to the manager himself, however, Mrs Hicks says.
The board members went down to his office after the game. “There were quite a number of people in his office. Jason had to tell people to leave so that we could speak to Gary.
“Jason spoke on behalf of the board, as chairman. He said, ‘We’re very sorry, but we have reached the end of the line. The results have not been good enough, and we have to make a change’.”
Mrs Hicks pauses. “It was perhaps the most difficult decision we’ve ever had to make as a board. But we had to act in the best interests of York City FC.”
Within an hour of Gary Mills’ sacking becoming known, the club was inundated with applications from managers keen to take his place.
But there was only one man they were interested in: Nigel Worthington. None of the board knew him. But they had heard very good things from Norwich City, a club he had steered to the Premier League in 2004. He’d also helped Leicester City stave off the threat of relegation from the Championship in 2007.
“We met with Nigel on the Sunday (the day after the Bradford game) and within a very short space of time we realised that it was a really good fit,” Mrs Hicks says.
There were ten games left to save the club from relegation. Sometimes, a new manager can have an instant impact. But that didn’t happen.
York lost away to Wimbledon in Worthington’s first game in charge; drew at home to Rochdale; lost at home to Port Vale; then lost away to fellow relegation strugglers Torquay.
But for Mrs Hicks, the second half of that Torquay game marked a real turning point.
Loan signing and returning City hero Richard Cresswell had an ‘immense game’, she says. “He made the players up their game. They were very different in the second half.”
It had been a long, exhausting drive down to Torquay, only to be beaten. But suddenly she felt the club had a chance.
Under Worthington, the team was playing more aggressive, attacking football.
And after Torquay, it didn’t lose again, recording four wins and two draws in the last six games: a great turnaround in form.
One of the great things about survival – apart from the relief of staying in the League – was that Gary Mills’ reputation was secured, Mrs Hicks says.
He could have been the manager who got the club promoted one season, then relegated the next. Instead, now, he will forever be the manager who took York back into the Football League.
“That’s the wonderful thing. His reputation is intact.”
YORK CITY is in the McGills’ blood. Jason McGill is chairman, and his father Rob and sister Sophie Hicks are both on the board.
“I’ve been a fan of York City since I was a child,” Mrs Hicks says. “We all love York City and wouldn’t want involvement in any other football club. Jason and I were both born in York and it’s in the blood!”
Now a new generation of the family are becoming fans.
Mrs Hicks’ oldest son Reuben, aged two, went to his first game aged just two weeks.
Now he goes to every home game with his mum, sitting on her knee to watch.
“He knows every player,” she says. “He’ll go through the programme, point to each player, and tell me who it is.” He also gives a running commentary. “He’ll say ‘Free-kick, mummy! Corner, mummy!”
Younger brother Sebastian, ten months, looks set to follow in Reuben’s footsteps.
He went to his first two games – both Wembley finals – before he’d even been born: his mum was eight weeks pregnant.
And then, like his brother, he went to his first real game at the age of two weeks: a pre-season home friendly against Oldham on July 21 last year.
THERE is no time for standing still in football.
With one season safely negotiated, thoughts are now turning to next year.
Nigel Worthington has already signed a new, 12 month rolling contract as manager. But there will be a busy summer of signings to ensure next season isn’t a repeat of this season, Mrs Hicks says.
The target? A bit of mid-table mediocrity would do, she says, to get the club firmly established in the League. And then some steady progress.
Hopefully, by the 2015/16 season, City will move into its new stadium at Monks Cross.
“It would be brilliant to go into the new stadium with the club in League One – or maybe that might happen when we’re in the stadium. Maybe the stadium will give us that boost.”