The longest-serving manager in England’s top four divisions is preparing for his ninth season in charge at the side with the smallest budget in League Two
29 July ~ Football is more deeply stratified than ever before. While the success of Manchester City is powered by seemingly limitless wealth, the reality for most clubs is rather different. Morecambe’s budget is the smallest in League Two and the club are routinely dogged by financial difficulties.
“We’ve struggled with transfer embargoes, late payment of wages, ownership problems. It’s all been well-documented,” says Jim Bentley, the club’s long-standing manager. “There have been testing times but they make you stronger. It shouldn’t be part of your job description but sometimes, at some clubs, it is. We’re seeing it more and more now, and at bigger clubs than us, like Bolton. It’s really sad to see that football clubs can go like that because they’re the heartbeat of their communities. There are people’s livelihoods at stake and we were no different. We got on with the job in hand. Those things shouldn’t be thrown at you, because you want everything to run smoothly and everyone to get paid for what they do, but it’s not always the case. It was a test of our dedication, our togetherness and spirit.”
Unflinching commitment through adverse conditions has been a hallmark of Bentley’s work at Morecambe. He first joined the club as a player in 2002, and says that he never could have imagined lasting this long. Offers to go elsewhere have been turned down. He’s stayed put as the landscape has shifted around him.
“It’s always felt like a second home to me,” says Bentley, who was born and grew up 50 miles away in Liverpool. “I’ve had the odd opportunity to move on, as a player and a manager, but I still find myself here. That’s not to say I’m not ambitious but you don’t know what’s around the corner in football. You’re always keeping every option open. I want to get up the ladder, and to the very top if I can.”
A hardened centre-back who started his career at Manchester City before spending five years at Telford United, Bentley captained Morecambe to promotion to the Football League for the first time in the club’s history in 2007. He has helped to keep them there, in one capacity or another, ever since.
When Arsène Wenger and Paul Tisdale left their roles last summer, Bentley became the longest-serving manager in the top four divisions of the English game. “It just shows you the lifespan of a football manager. It’s a proper cut-throat business. But I like to think that, all things considered, we’ve done well every year to keep a club like Morecambe in the Football League. That’s a success story in itself and hopefully we can kick on and get further up the table.”
After another tough season, his eighth in charge of the Shrimps, Bentley was able to reflect on the challenges of lower-league management and learning to endure in such an unforgiving environment. Despite a strong relationship with the club’s fans, his position came under scrutiny in September after a poor run of form.
“This year was the hardest. We weren’t set before the start of the season. Clubs like us have to wait. You’re at the bottom of the food chain and we didn’t have everyone in place. We lost the first game 6-0 and we lost seven of the first eight. I felt under a bit of pressure because you do. It’s your livelihood. It’s your job. No one likes losing games of football. Certainly not someone who’s been at the club for 17 years like I have.”
Injuries hampered a small squad and consistency was hard to come by. Having struggled for goals in the first half of the season, the signings of Aaron Collins and Richie Bennett rectified the situation and Morecambe finished strongly. They ended up in 18th place, 13 points clear of the bottom two and a major improvement on the previous campaign, when safety was only secured on the final day.
Squeezing the most out of minimal resources has become Bentley’s specialty. In the circumstances, he has no other option. Much bigger clubs than Morecambe have suffered relegation in recent seasons but their tireless manager has developed a keen survival instinct.
“I’ve learned that I’m durable, and that I’m thick-skinned, I knew that I was hard-working, and dedicated and honest, and that’s what you’ve got to be. I didn’t expect the job to be so taxing but it is. It’s 24/7. Even if you have a day off, you’re still thinking about players and sessions. It’s very time-consuming and tough but I enjoy it. It becomes like a drug to you. I enjoy the responsibility of being dedicated and organised because I pride myself on that.” Sean Cole