“So here I am once more in the playground of the broken hearts
One more experience, one more entry in a diary, self-penned”
Apt words aren’t they? They’re not mine, they’re the first words from the first Marillion album. They’re not perfect, I’m not really sure who’s writing this script but they’re close enough for the time being. We are back in the playground of the broken hearts yet again, have been for a few weeks in my opinion. The Panthers seem to be in an endless cycle that sees them fall out of the running for the league title before new year amidst the debris of missed opportunities, unfilled vacancies and a spin designed to cover everything in a veneer of bad luck and bounces that the team are trying to sort out. They expect us to constantly put up with bread and butter as long as there is the promise of jam tomorrow, always tomorrow.
I don’t need to tell you all this, you’ve sat through as much of it as me over the last few years and you’re probably as tired of it all as me. There’s no point writing about the situation we’re in, I’ve done that time and time before, the only thing that really changes about those articles are the player names and the dates, the rest are, to be brutally frank, depressingly familiar. Instead, what I want to spend my time talking about today is why does this keep happening? Where are the constants in this continual cycle? Where does the blame lie? I doubt I’ll come to the conclusion that it lies with one person or area, it’s not as simple as that. Once we’ve considered the constants I will try and come up with some kind of conclusion but more important than that (to me as least) I’ll try to offer a solution. It’s all too easy to sit here and just moan. That doesn’t get us anywhere, we must be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. I doubt anything I say here will have any effect but sometimes you just have to try and make your voice heard.
If we’re going to look at the constants we need to look at both sides of the club and where better to start than at the very top – Neil Black. I guess when you consider our owner it is always going to come down to money and there are two central questions. The first is whether he is only in it for the money, the bottom line, the profit? Personally, I don’t doubt that the money making potential of the Nottingham Panthers is what attracted him to buying the club in the first place. Would he have bought the club if we weren’t about to move to a big shiny new arena? Somehow I doubt it. There’s no doubt that the Nottingham Panthers are making him money, none whatsoever and as a successful businessman he’s only going to be happy about that. We might be plummeting down the league table at an alarming rate but crowds seem to be up so from a purely business point of view that’s got to be good hasn’t it? Well yes and no. It should be good temporarily but those crowds that saw the abject capitulation against Sheffield on the 27th of December are, you would have thought, unlikely to come back. If I didn’t have a season ticket I’m not sure I would be. But the crowds don’t drop and I don’t really get why.
The other question centres around whether or not we’re being strangled by our budget. Are the Panthers able to spend the money they want to to put together a simple team. I’ve seen many comments about how we should be able, with our crowds, to put out a team that is unstoppable at this level. I’ve got a certain amount of sympathy for that argument but I think it’s a little simplistic. We don’t know what it costs to run an ice hockey club in the National Ice Centre, I doubt it’s cheap and while there’s little doubt the club are making money I wonder exactly what the figure is. Without knowing the ins and outs of player wages and venue hire (two things we’re probably better off not knowing) we can’t say if the pot of gold is a big as we think. The argument also seems to me to imply that every ice hockey player in the world wants to come to Nottingham. OK, why shouldn’t they? There’s not a single one of them that hasn’t heard anything but good things about the place so surely it’s the obvious choice. It’s not as simple as that, without a shadow of a doubt money talks but there are a lot of other factors that come in to play when someone has to make a choice and some will choose to go elsewhere.
We’re digressing though so let’s get back to the point – Neil Black. Is he in it for the money? Yes. Is he holding us back by keeping too tight a control on the purse strings? I’m not as sure, you have to wonder some times but you also want to see your team playing next season or the season after that and that takes balance. There is another question I’d ask about Neil Black though – how much does he know about what really goes on at the Panthers? He might know what the bottom line is but what does he know about the day to day running of the club? The thing is that’s not really a question about Neil Black though, it’s more about the person providing the information and that person is the second of our constants – Gary Moran.
A long time ago the Cats Whiskers interviewed Gary Moran and one of the first questions was about what his role as General Manager entailed. His answer was that it would be easier to explain what it didn’t entail and the more I think about that the more it worries me. Gary Moran isn’t the Nottingham Panthers no matter how much you sometimes get the feeling that he’d like to think he is. There can be no argument with how much credit he has to get for getting the Panthers to where they are today but you also have to feel that it could be so much better. Every Panthers fan who has been going any length of time seems to have a Gary Moran story to tell and I’m sorry to say that, from my experience, very few of them seem to be positive. Maybe it’s just that those people I speak to have axes to grind and you don’t get anywhere without making a few enemies along the way, but his is a name that keeps popping up time and time again. I’ve heard about sponsors spurned and players that wouldn’t re-sign while he was still at the club. I’m guessing some of you will have to. For far too long this club has had a reputation for treating the fans as little more than cash cows, as open purses waiting to be emptied. The attitude has seemed to be that it doesn’t matter how many fans we upset a new set will be along in a few minutes with the wallets in hand waiting to shower us with their hard-earned cash. I could go on to talk about how poor the club’s media output has been for years, spinning the truth with the lies to create a blanket of deceit that we’re just supposed to take at face value when it’s all too obvious what is actually happening but I won’t because that has improved a bit and that’s not down to Gary Moran, that’s thanks to the work that Calum Chalmers has put in since he arrived.
We’ve talked about the off ice so now we have to move on to the ice (or at least the bench) and that means Corey Neilson.
When it comes to the on ice product the buck has to stop with the coach. Simple as that, he does the hiring and firing, makes the systems, coaches the players etc. Except it’s not as simple as that. What Neilson can do is controlled in a lot of ways by those that we’ve talked about already. Neilson can find a player, get him to sign but if the available money isn’t there or the negotiations aren’t handled well then what can he do? That said though once the players are signed and playing in a Nottingham Panthers shirt then it is entirely down to him to get the best out of them and that is something that he has struggled to do over the last few years. The mark of a great coach is not how well a good team does but how you make a good team great or stop a good team going bad. As a coach you show your worth when a team starts to subside. Take the recent bad run of games, I’ve no doubt Neilson was trying to stop the rot but little of his hard work appeared to show on the ice. It’s a situation we’ve seen too often in this city over the years – a team that starts well only to slowly crumble as the season goes on. Why does it keep happening over and over again? I think the increased levels of anger we’ve seen this season are down to two things: the fact that it has happened for every one of the last seven or eight seasons (or more) with the one glorious exception and the fact that we saw so vividly the sheer brilliance of what this team can actually do in the CHL games.
Having said all that I do I feel a bit sorry at times for Corey Neilson. Mainly those times are when I read what he has said in the press. He seems to come out with phrases that, when the seeming inevitable happens, are constantly thrown back at him from the safety of the internet, Twitter etc. You only have to look at the “laser focused” on the league comment for an example. What did people expect him to say? Do they want a coach at the start of the season to say that we might win the league but other teams are good and there are other competitions that we want to win as well but so do the other teams so who knows? Of course not, they want a coach to be confident and make the right noises at the start of the season not simply manage expectations. Is it any wonder that he doesn’t seem to like talking to the media? But, of course they get on his case when he doesn’t as well. Strikes me he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. The thing is I’m not sure that he actually ever says things like “laser focused”, it doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing he’d say and it sounds a lot more like the kind of spin that comes out the club’s media.
The other thing to consider is the players themselves but you could hardly call them a constant. OK, there’s the core of Brits but you could hardly say they were to blame and the rest of the team come and go with such regularity that it’s often like having an entirely new team each season. That said they do have to take some of the blame, they are the ones out on the ice but they’re doing what the coach is telling them to do (or they’re supposed to). The coach can’t play the game for them though. Once they cross those boards they’re on their own, they know what they need to, they’ve just got to prove they can do it. What if they’re not the right players, what if they’re not good enough, what if they weren’t signed by the coach (it’s happened)?
In a way it feels harsh to single out those three people but they are the three faces of the club. If this was about Sheffield we’d probably be looking at Paul Thompson, the Estate Agent and Tony Smith. These people can be seen as the club (they’re not but that’s a whole different article) as the roles they hold within it are pivotal. So where does the blame lie? I was right when I said that I don’t think it was a clear cut as it just being one person. It isn’t. Does the coach have to shoulder some of the blame? Yes, I think he does and it is always going to be a fair chunk of it. The on-ice performances are down to him and he has to take some of the responsibility for what we’re paying to watch week in week out. We want a team that challenges for a whole season and if we don’t then we don’t want to see a club hiding behind stock phrases that try and apportion the blame onto Lady Luck and her bounces. If we were bad we want someone to say we were bad. It’s OK saying things will change but when they don’t that’s probably more frustrating than the fact that they needed to change in the first place. That kind of “tell them anything they’ll believe” attitude comes from higher up and that isn’t the coach’s fault, that’s the general manager’s especially when the general manager wants to make sure his finger is in every pie possible. Sitting above all this is the owner in his counting house, watching the money roll in from afar listening to what he is being told by the general manager.
It’s not one person’s fault, it’s all three and probably more so what would I do? Before I tell you, I would just say that this is all pie in the sky conjecture. I don’t know the ins and outs of the club, nor, if I’m honest, do I particularly want to. I might find out I’m completely wrong but I’m more worried of finding out how right I am. That lack of knowledge makes anything I say a pretty simplistic answer and you can’t really answer as complex a situation as we have at the moment in such a simplistic way but here goes anyway.
The time has come for change. There needs to be a sweeping change that would affect the club from top to bottom. I’ll let you decide who stays or who goes but, for me, there needs to be a complete change of ethos in this club. We need to become an ice hockey club again. That oval of white frozen water that we sit around each week needs to become as great a focus to the club as it is to the fans. Giving this club the best possible chance of winning ice hockey matches has to be foremost in the club’s minds. That’s not just about the coach and the team although there needs to be a focus on getting a coach with both the best set of players and the ability to get the best out of them. If that means building a team around the team then so be it. We’ve got a strength and conditioning coach at last and (puts hand on head) touch wood the annual injury crisis hasn’t been as bad yet. We also need to consider the mental as well as physical needs of the players so maybe we should be adding a sports psychologist to our back-room team. We have to do everything we can to give our players the best chance to give their best on the ice.
That, of course, all takes money and that means two things – an owner who is committed to making sure that there is enough money to make all this possible and a team that is maximising the potential of our brand to bring in the fans and sponsors. We also need to find a way to hang on to those sponsors and fans and keep them coming back for more. The arena could be full every week and until it is there’s room for improvement. We must make the fans to want to come back time and time again though, that’s hard but it isn’t impossible.
This club needs to be two clubs or rather two teams. There needs to be the team on the ice and another team off the ice making sure in every way that the team on the ice has the chance to be the best it can. For me that means two managers, a general manager and a, for want of a better term, director of ice hockey who works with the coach. The general manager has to leave them to it. There is enough for them to do without interfering with the playing side. Get the right people for the job and this team could fly again. It’s not too much to ask is it?