Agutter Quits – a retrospective

The comings and goings of football managers are everyday news on national sports pages. But the sudden, apparently unilateral, departure of Hastings United manager and academy head Chris Agutter from Pilot Field after more than four years at the helm of a consistently winning team is a shock of seismic proportions on the local sporting scene.

Agutter himself issued a personal statement describing his decision on 31 October to quit with immediate effect as “all amicable”. He said: “I’ve had five years in a job I’ve loved, working with the first team and across the age groups. But it’s got to the point where I need a new challenge, a fresh start…. I want to test myself in a different environment.”

Club CEO Billy Wood has consistently praised Agutter’s performance and achievements in his four-year managerial reign. “We’ve had a fantastic relationship, he’s an exceptional coach, his motivational skills are fantastic”, he told HUISC (Hastings United Independent Supporters Club) interviewer Chris Laverick in a podcast released last week. But he also said that he was left disappointed and angry by his manager’s decision to abandon the team in mid-season.

“I was a bit angry”, he admitted, “because the job’s not done, it’s not over, and we have got a huge challenge on our hands to get promoted this year…  [Chris] walked out at the wrong time. The challenge was here.”

Wood insisted that he and the United board had done everything they could “to make Chris want to be at this football club – back[ing] him in every piece of recruitment on and off the field”. Amongst other things, Agutter was offered, and signed, a two-year  extension to his managerial contract in January this year that was supposed to commit him to the club until the end of the 2022/23 season.

CREDIT: Scott White

Four years as manager

Agutter arrived as youth coach in 2017 at a time of upheaval in the club both at board level and in the dressing room. Reigning manager Darren Hare had brought in some experienced players for the 2016/17 season and guided the team to a play-off place in the league, but resigned after a semi-final defeat at Dorking. Adam Hinshelwood was recruited to replace him from a coaching position with Brighton & Hove Albion with the aim of beefing up the club’s football academy; Agutter was given the position of assistant manager while retaining a full-time role with the youth academy. Four months later Hinshelwood departed, saying he found the constant travel demands too onerous, and the assistant was promoted to become the main man.

Immediate expectations amongst United supporters were for the most part quite low, seeing a very young and inexperienced manager catapulted to take charge of a disjointed and fragmented team. But Agutter rapidly showed a remarkable self-confidence, putting his trust in several promotions from the academy, recruiting other young and hungry players from the local circuit, and drilling them into playing with a consistent possession-based style.

In his first season in charge, the team finished a comfortable ninth in the Isthmian South Division. In 2018/19 they challenged strongly for league promotion, but in the end ran out of steam, and were beaten by Ashford United in another play-off semi-final which, under the peculiar league format for that season, turned out to have been academic (their percentage of points per game during the league season was already insufficient). 

The 2019/20 season should have brought the glittering prize of promotion as Agutter mixed his youth recruitment policy with judiciously chosen experience – in particular, the pairing of comparative veterans Gary Elphick and Craig Stone to shore up central defence. United recorded victory after victory at Pilot Field before steadily increasing crowds – the best at this level anywhere in the south-east and in mid-March 2020, with ten games to go, they stood top of the pile, three points ahead of Ashford with two games in hand.

Chris Agutter (with CEO Billy Wood) putting signature to extended contract January 2021
CREDIT: Scott White

Third time lucky?

Then came lockdown; abandonment of the season; argument (failed from Hastings’ point of view) over whether promotion should be enacted anyway; commencement of a fresh season 2020/21 and fresh abandonment with the team again topping the league. The current season 2021/22 would surely be third time lucky.

Well, it won’t be for Agutter. Early season results were promising, an early surprise defeat at Faversham being followed by eight straight wins, including four, all away, in the FA Cup. The cup run may have distracted from the season’s main aim, allowing rival teams to build an early advantage in league points, but seemed to show that the team retained both its playing quality and its ability to win matches consistently at this level. 

Then came a four-day reversal of fortunes with two unexpected home defeats. On 26 October Hastings were leading Ashford 1-0 into the second half (having already defeated the same opponents 2-0 in an FA Trophy tie at Pilot Field earlier in the month), but lost 3-1. Four days later, entertaining Felixstowe & Walton in the FA Trophy, they again led 1-0 and again lost 3-1. Two bad days at the office, one might think, the second of them in a competition which the management might have reasonably considered expendable, the non-league equivalent of an early round dismissal from the Carabao Cup. So what was it that either provoked or confirmed Agutter in his decision to quit?

Why quit?

One aspect of his reign was that, particularly on home turf, his teams rarely over four years failed to win, or at least to bounce back immediately after a defeat. Any mutterings from spectators in the stand or adverse postings on the club’s unofficial fans’ forum could thus be easily brushed off. Those who complained that his team’s possession-based style involved too much back-passing in midfield and too little adventure in attack, had to acknowledge that the results spoke for themselves.

When this newspaper column dared to question the team selection and tactics in the aftermath of the Ashford semi-final defeat in April 2019, Agutter took the criticism personally and told the writer he should stick to reporting the action, refusing thereafter to grant interviews. Recent adverse comments on the forum may have touched the same nerve, though two and half years on and with a further heap of victories behind him, one might have expected a little more resilience.

That’s all history, however. Billy Wood has had to look to the immediate future, promoting Agutter’s assistant Andrew Brown as temporary manage for an initial run of three games, assisted by Gary Elphick. 

CREDIT: Scott White

Mr Brown’s boys 

First game in the post-Agutter era was on 2 November when Mr Brown’s boys defeated bottom-of-the-league Whitstable Town 4-1 at Pilot Field. Second game was more disappointing – a 2-1 away defeat to Corinthian last Saturday, with the ‘U’s overhauled in the second half once again after taking a 1-0 lead. Third game will be the home fixture tomorrow (Saturday) which pits them against league leaders Cray Valley. 

“We’re mid-season”, Wood told Chris Laverick. “We’ve got a lot to play for, and I won’t allow us to mourn Chris leaving – we’ll fulfil our objectives, nothing changes. We have the squad and the desire to win the league. Our belief in the club and the players hasn’t changed.”

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