Chris Lakey: Can Ian Culverhouse and Stephen Cleeve work together again?
Ian Culverhouse - returning football manager and master of disguise... CHRIS LAKEY looks at his return to the King's Lynn Town managerial hot-seat
Any King’s Lynn Town fans who managed to identify the face – hidden behind a hood and zipped up jacket – of the man sitting in the main stand at The Walks on Wednesday evening (and there were more than a few) would have had an inkling that something was afoot.
Huddled up against the cold, but more likely in an attempt to escape notice, he watched as Lynn exited the FA Trophy at the hands of Buxton. At half-time he had a short meeting with chairman Stephen Cleeve.
Twenty fours later, Ian Culverhouse was being named as the club’s new manager, for the second time in 18 months.
It is an unlikely reunification, given the manner of the manager’s exit from the club last season – he had given three months notice in February, went public in April, and departed in May, after Lynn’s play-off final defeat against Slough Town.
His relationship with Cleeve had deteriorated – and when that happens, it’s a problem.
Culverhouse was never one for post-match interviews, but the state of the pitch at Lynn was always an irritant, and occasionally prompted him to air his views to the media, with the dig at the owner quite evident.
His parting shot, after that last game, simply confirmed it: “I’ve enjoyed every minute of working and being with these players, they have given me everything, but there is too much baggage in the background.”
Which in itself makes his return not only a major surprise, but also a brave step by both parties. You could say it was an unwise gamble, but neither of the main characters is a fool. In an interview with me during the summer, Cleeve never hid his admiration for Culverhouse the coach – but admitted there was a personal hurdle to clear.
Culverhouse’s own credentials are not in question: his Linnets team of 2017-18 was very, very good indeed. That they failed to achieve promotion was due to the failure to ‘turn up’ for the big one, the play-off final, having finishing second to Hereford (who they beat home and away) in the title chase.
Cleeve told me late on Thursday night that he was older and wiser now, that he believed the past could be the past. But it is significant that Robbie Back – who, along with Neil Fryatt had been joint manager following the sacking of Culverhouse’s successor Simon Clark in September – has been appointed director of football. His job, to include “liaising between the club’s managers and officials behind the scenes”.
You might want to interpret that as being the bridge between the chairman’s office and the manager’s – it wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world.
So what does Culverhouse return to?
A team in 14th position in the table ahead of today’s trip to Alvechurch, a dozen points behind leaders Kettering, and missing, from his squad of last season, the significant presence of right back Cameron Norman, who scored 11 goals and provided 26 assists last season, as well as being a major influence on the way Michael Clunan performs.
But eight of the starting line-up against Buxton were Culverhouse players – the exceptions being Aaron Jones, Rory McAuley and Adam Marriott. Frazer Blake-Tracey was excellent in midweek, Marriott unfortunate not to get more than the consolation goal and McAuley a rock in the centre of defence alongside the excellent Ryan Fryatt.
There is plenty to work on, and Culverhouse knows the characters he is working with. One other exception is striker Harry Limb, signed in a blaze of far too much publicity by Clark and then told to sit on the bench. Culverhouse needs to get a tune out of Limb – his man management skills, acquired from coaching and playing at the very highest level, will be vital.
It’s a think squad: Culverhouse didn’t have much beyond his bench last season, but this season there are fewer choices who are up to the standard of the cumbersomely-named Southern League Central Premier Division.
Paul Bastock comes in as Culverhouse’s assistant – his local contacts book should be bulging: between them, the pair should have most bases covered. Bastock will relish getting to grips with Alex Street but, like many goalkeeper coaches, his role won’t be confined to working with the glove-men.
Last, but certainly not least, is groundsman Steve Curtis, who has worked tirelessly on the playing surface. Lynn will need every advantage going if they are to make an impression at the top of the table.
Always assuming you don’t live by the warning, ‘don’t go back’, then getting Culverhouse back in is a good way to start.