Ancient Fish – Number Two: 1989-90: A Big Fish in a Small Pond
The 1989-1990 season started with both concern and hope. The aftermath of the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of previous owner and manager Dogan Arif had meant a switch in owners. A consortium called Winners Worldwide, led by Paul Woolf a London solicitor swept into Salter Road with grand plans of bringing league football to the Docklands. Woolf showed the intent of the group with the high profile hiring of former Manchester City, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace manager Malcolm Allison, relieving caretaker manager Steve Bowtell from his duties. The press reported a twelve month £30000 contrast had lured Allison to Salter Road after his sacking by Portuguese side Farense in March. A large press contingent duly turned up for his close season unveiling which saw him arrive by helicopter onto the pitch. Fisher had certainly hit the national headlines!
His reign began with goalless draw at Cheltenham Town and a 3-1 defeat at Telford United preceded the opening home game against Macclesfield Town. Curiosity around Big Mal, fuelled by coverage from ITV’s Saint and Greavsie show, saw the crowd swell to over 900, almost twice the crowd at the corresponding fixture the previous season, but the game did not live up to the pre match fanfare which had involved 1000 black and white balloons being released from the pitch, as Fisher fell to another 3-1 defeat despite Leroy Ambrose’s goal.
Rumours of high profile signings were regularly mooted, but other than Portuguese international Jorge Rocadas, these were in the main to prove fruitless as Allison stuck with many of the squad inherited from the previous season. Paul Gorman, released by Doncaster Rovers that summer, was brought in, who along with Ambrose was tasked with scoring the goals that Ken Charlery had provided in the previous campaign prior to his move to league football with Maidstone United. A young Jason Lee, pre the Fantasy Football ‘pineapple hair’ stage, was also brought in on loan from Charlton Athletic and his debut brace along with two from Gorman saw a first win against Farnborough Town in early September.
An away tie at Hampton should have been an easy enough opening in the FA Cup first qualifying round but the Fish were well beaten 3-1 and thus dumped out the competition. Whilst a home and away win against Enfield saw progress in the Bob Lord Trophy with Michael Marks grabbing a brace in the home game, the league form was stuttering. Winning at Salter Road was not a problem, but on the road Fisher were finding is tough and a 6-1 hiding at Wycombe Wanderers seemed to put doubts in Allison’s mind about his charismatic approach working at Conference level despite back to back home wins against Boston United and Chorley with Paul Gorman providing the goals.
Allison was clearly not at home in the Conference surroundings. Whether he had expected to storm the league or whether he was starting to doubt the financial promised made to him to secure targeted players was all conjecture. The inevitable parting of the ways occurred in November with ‘personal reasons’ cited as the reason for Allison’s departure. Chairman Paul Woolf confirmed that his exit had not been ‘for footballing reasons or as a result of performances.”
After a brief spell with manging director Keith Wenham looking after team affairs former Charlton and Wolves player Mike Bailey was placed in charge although it was a difficult start for Bailey despite an initial boost with Paul Gorman bagging four in a 7-3 win over Sheppey in the Kent Senior Cup as a run of league defeats lead into and through the Christmas period.
The New Year arrived with Fisher at the bottom of the league. Wins were few and far between through the winter months and an exit in the second round of the Bob Lord Trophy at Boston United was followed the next week with a first round FA Trophy defeat at Welling United. At least The Fish could now concentrate on the league. A move to bring in the experienced ex-West Ham player Geoff Pike failed as Bailey looked to find the players to lift the gloom at Salter Road.
By February Fisher were still stuck at the bottom of the league and relegation was looking a certainty. A 2-1 victory at Enfield thanks to Paul Gorman’s double strike, pulled them off the bottom and a four game undefeated run in March including a 3-0 win at home to Altrincham, managed by former Manchester United Boss Tommy Docherty, was certainly what ‘the Doc’ ordered and gave a slim hope of survival.
However going into April the side were still flirting with relegation. Successive home defeats to Runcorn and Sutton United saw those fears grow, but a 2-2 draw at Yeovil Town in mid-April seemed to galvanise the team. A trio of home games saw comprehensive wins against Wycombe Wanderers, Kettering Town and Barrow followed by a final day 4-1 victory at Merthyr Tydfil to make it four wins out of four saw Fisher climb away from the relegation trap door for a 19th place finish and allow a fourth season in non-league’s top division.