In Defence Of: Steve Tilson

Credit - Graham Burrell

The other day I was arguing a point with Ben on the podcast, which isn’t unusual. He’d expressed an opinion that I could argue against, even though I agreed with him.

It made me realise that I often look for alternative points to my belief and argue almost against myself to test my debating skills. I was briefly in my school debating team, and you were always given an argument to back, whether you agreed or not. I guess an example is the Charley Kendall loan – we all know the Sutton loan has not been a success, but a moment ago, I found myself putting a case forward for the positives. I think having a rounded view of everything and always looking for both sides of the argument makes you a better person. Nothing annoys me more than the ‘tell it like it is’ brigade who thinks like ‘that’s my opinion, and you won’t change my mind’. That, in my opinion, is an obtuse and closed mentality which means you will rarely be able to make a rational decision because you’re bound by your own restraints.

I began to wonder, lying awake from a little bout of insomnia, if I could apply that logic to some of the opinions I hold firm in my mind. The more I wondered, the more I thought it would be a really interesting exercise to see if I could come up with a defence for some of the personalities and moments that have felt indefensible from my time supporting the Imps. Having then discussed it in the fan zone this week, I’ve decided to give it a go. Shall we see if it makes a good article? There’s few I have more anger for than Steve Tilson, so can I come up with arguments defending his time in charge and his role in Imps’ history, so it isn’t all negative?

Sacked after Tamworth humbling

For those who do not know, Steve Tilson took over from Chris Sutton in October 2010, after the latter walked in a row over transfer funds. Initially, we experienced a bounce and got to within three points of safety with six or seven weeks of the season remaining. Sadly, a run of one draw and ten defeats saw us relegated from the Football League. Tilson recruited well (on paper) in the summer, but a disastrous start to his time in the Blue Square Premier saw him dismissed. Subsequently, it was suggested he had told much of the squad they wouldn’t be required long before relegation, resulting in the woeful form. He did sign decent players, one of which was a title-winning hero six years later (Alan Power), but he couldn’t get a tune from them.

Can I come up with a case for his defence?

Credit Graham Burrell

He Took Over a Sinking Club

Firstly, let’s consider the state of the club when Tilson took over. Peter Jackson had been well-backed, but the Magnificent Seven weren’t up to scratch, and the following season he struggled. Chris Sutton had dismantled the team that Jacko built and patched us up with loan players, but his own recruitment had left us struggling for quality. The last team we put out under Sutton had Ben Hutchinson, Drewe Broughton and Delroy Facey up top, Cian Hughton, Clark Keltie, Albert Jarrett and Josh O’Keefe in the starting XI. That’s a real lack of quality, and when you consider the team we put out in Sutton’s first game in charge had Stefan Oakes, Richard Butcher, Sergio Torres, Rene Howe and Scott Kerr in it, you can see the decline Sutton presided over.

Plus, Sutton left due to a lack of funds for his dismantling of the club, which meant Tilson couldn’t be heavily backed – he had to struggle along with loans and free agents until the end of the season, which didn’t give him a great number of tools to work with to keep us in the division.

Initially, He Did Well

After taking over, we lost twice in eight matches under Tilson. One of those games was against Bury, who finished second in the table. He signed Ashley Grimes on loan, who was a revelation, and after New Year, we won five games on the bounce, taking 19 points from 24. In that spell, we won away at the eventual champions, Chesterfield, and our only defeat came against the side that eventually finished fourth, Shrewsbury. By March 12th, we were 15th in the table, with 45 points. That means we achieved a points total of 34 between his appointment on October 15th (I’ve not included the game on the 16th as his first, a defeat at Shrewsbury, as he took over a day before and I think wasn’t in the dugout), which was the eighth best points total in the division for that period. Basically, between coming in and beating Southend 2-0, Steve Tilson was the eighth-best manager in the division.

Credit Graham Burrell

He Had Horrible Luck With Injuries

Tilson might not have always used his squad in the manner we feel is correct, but he was cursed when it came to injuries and, indeed, loan recalls. Delroy Facey’s injury at Macclesfield is often cited as a big turning point; him and Grimes had formed a good partnership, but without the big man, Grimes struggled to make an impact. That wasn’t the only injury that affected the squad – Paul Green only started 14 league matches and missed a big chunk of the season. Mustapha Carayol, a big summer signing, only started 24 league matches, whilst Joe Anderson and Clarke Keltie had long spells out injured. On the loan front, Trevor Carson had a great spell with us but was recalled (apparently at his own request), and we were left with a young Elliott Parish. Indeed, Steven Hunt was also recalled after the 2-1 defeat at Stevenage, another big blow. That defeat was the first game of ten in which we took a single point from 30 – did losing those two players make the difference?

History Proves Relegation To Be a Good Thing

This is a hindsight moment, but this club would not be where it is today without Steve Tilson. Those years of decline post-John Schofield were reflective of a club focused on the Championship but with no idea how to get there on the pitch. The Championship 2010 initiative (I think it was called) was a plan to get us to the second tier, and had Tilson kept us up, it might not have been exposed as the fallacy it was. Remember, in the words of the criminally underrated band Twisted Wheel, you have to get lost before you can get found, and we definitely got lost before Tilson, only to wander deeper into the woods with relegation.

Relegation meant an overhaul of the club, staff sadly leaving, a whole rethink of the business model, but is that a bad thing when the model is broken anyway? Probably not. Then there’s what came after – Peter Swann left Gainsborough looking for a club to invest in, and he was hours from coming to us. Instead, he found a Football League club in Scunthorpe, turning his back on the Imps. If we hadn’t been relegated, the likelihood is that Swann would have become our chairman as we could still have been the EFL club he wanted. Look where Scunthorpe are now – it got bad for us, but it looks like getting a lot worse for them.

Would you swap places with the Iron? – Courtesy Graham Burrell

If Swann had invested, there would have been no Clive, Cowleys, cup run, promotion, nothing. We’d either be heading to (or already in) the National League with Swann or worse. In the NFL there’s a thing called tanking, where you deliberately run a club into the ground to benefit from drafts and such like. We did something similar – we tanked, and in doing so, got the perfect new investor, then the hottest managers on the non-league circuit, and eventually the root and branch overhaul of the club that took us out of the dark ages and into the brave new world.

None of that would have been possible without Steve Tilson.

Credit Graham Burrell


Of course, these are arguments never considered because the weight of evidence in the other direction is so heavy. What did happen the week we lost to Stevenage that made Trevor Carson request a recall and ensured the dressing room was completely and utterly lost? Why didn’t Tilson and Brush commit to the club by moving up here, instead commuting to and from the south-east without worrying about how it affected the players and other staff at the club? How did we lose 5-0 at home to Bury in that good run?

Also, Tilson clearly had a magic touch for a few short months, but following relegation, we assembled a decent squad, and he had backing, and he still couldn’t get a tune out of the squad. As for the tanking reference, yes, it did help us in the long term to have a complete overhaul, from top to bottom, but that was more down to the hard work of the likes of Bob Dorrian than anything – it wasn’t as if it was by design.

That, for me, means that despite arguing his case, I haven’t actually changed my mind about him. I hope you can see some of the positives around a truly awful spell in the club’s history.