Paul Newman: Bentley acceleration gives slow-starting Morecambe the lead
The Football League Column: In his first season in charge, Jim Bentley has lifted Morecambe to the highest place in its history
A football manager's shelf life can be about as long as that of a loaf of bread, but Jim Bentley's sell-by date should not be coming up for a good while yet.
Never mind the fact that in his first season in management Bentley has already led his Morecambe team to the highest position in the club's history: the Shrimps have become a byword for stability, having employed just three managers in 17 years, a period marked by continuity in the dug-out and boardroom and by progress on and off the pitch.
When Jim Harvey succeeded Leighton James as manager in 1994, Morecambe were playing in front of crowds of 300 in the Northern Premier League. When he left in 2006 they were an established Conference club, battering on the door of the Football League.
Harvey's successor, Sammy McIlroy, took them through that door a year later and then into the League Two play-offs in 2010, only to preside over a slide which saw the club finish just above relegation in 20th place last season. McIlroy left by mutual consent at the end of the campaign and was replaced by Bentley, a burly central defender who has been at the club for nine years.
Bentley, 35, hugely popular with the fans, still plays but expects to spend more and more time on management. His start could hardly have been more impressive, despite a defeat at home to Barnet on the opening day. Six League Two games later Morecambe handed out a 6-0 thrashing to Crawley Town, the early pacemakers and pre-season promotion favourites, to go top of the table. They lost 3-2 at home to Bristol Rovers on Saturday but remain division leaders.
Last season's hiccup, ironically enough, followed one of the biggest events in the club's history. For 89 of their first 90 years Morecambe had played at Christie Park, which they sold before moving into the new purpose-built Globe Arena last summer. It took team and supporters time to settle in their new surroundings. McIlroy's side won more matches away than they did at home and the average gate of 2,256 was marginally down on the previous campaign.
"We were late getting into the Globe Arena, which meant we lost all the pre-season friendlies, and we never really took ownership of the stadium last year," said Rod Taylor, Morecambe's chief executive. "Clubs normally increase crowds by 25 to 30 per cent in a new stadium, but ours actually dropped back a bit.
"We are in a recessionary period. Historically we're also a bit slow starting the season here. I think to capture supporters early on you really need a decent start, which is what we've got this year."
Bentley has worked hard to make everyone feel at home. The team used to train at Preston, but now use a local school and the stadium itself. Meanwhile at the manager's instigation a party of volunteer supporters have been painting the crush barriers red to make the stadium feel more like Christie Park. Morecambe are that sort of club: even Taylor, the chief executive, works without pay.
Morecambe have installed seats on only one side of the new stadium. There is covered terracing behind both goals and a small uncovered terrace on the fourth side, where there is potential for future development. "We got supporters involved in the decision-making and the message was that they would like safe standing areas," Taylor said. "We did''t get one penny in grants towards the arena because it's not all-seater, but we decided to bite the bullet on that because it was what people wanted."
The hospitality, conference and banqueting facilities, combined with community pitches and gym, are bringing in more revenue, though the financial climate means the club are yet to break even. One of the keys will be to attract more fans from a town where there has historically been support for clubs like Preston and Blackpool, as well as the big guns from Manchester and Merseyside.
You cannot say the club are not trying. Morecambe won an award for the best hospitality in League Two last season, while the stadium's chicken, ham and leek pie was named Supreme Champion Pie – not just in football but in the whole country – at this year's British Pie Awards. Graham Aimson, the head chef at the Globe Arena, has set the bar high for Bentley and his team.
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