Morecambe are bridging the budgetary gulf in League Two this season and much of their excellent form must go down to manager Derek Adams.
Here’s how the Scot has turned the Shrimps from perennial strugglers to genuine promotion contenders...
1. Changing the culture
Jim Bentley worked wonders to keep the Shrimps in the EFL for eight years, especially around the mid-2010s when there were big financial issues at the club; the Dunkirk Spirit he cultivated is a massive part of why the club is where they are now.
Bentley created an environment of warmth, loyalty and humour, which is why Stewart Drummond, Andrew Fleming, Barry Roche and Kevin Ellison stayed for the long hall.
Every manager in the modern era, though, has perhaps a sell-by value at any given club and just as, in a parallel universe, Bentley could have been the perfect option after eight years of Adams, the reverse has been true in real life.
Fiery, stony-faced and business-like, the Scot has transformed the mentality of the club.
Bentley liked to keep things cosy and used budgetary restrictions as a mitigating factor behind defeats which, though valid, undermined the club’s sense of purpose.
2. Tough treatment
Ellison took umbrage with the way Adams treated him after taking charge.
The former Plymouth Argyle boss, according to the 41-year-old, was not interested in discussing his role in the team just after his appointment and, following seven January additions, he was left out of the match-day squad.
Adams made Ellison train with the youth team and, because he could not train on AstroTurf, he was forced to practice on his own on an empty field – the basis of a social media post.
Could Adams have handled this situation better whilst having the same impact on the team? The obvious answer is yes, but the reality may be more complex.
Adams is so tunnel-visioned, so ruthless, so uncompromising, so clear in what he wants to do and that is a massive part of why Morecambe are in the top seven.
Those very qualities - and the neglect of sentiment - could be different sides of the same coin.
Derek Adams is bidding to lead Morecambe up into League One
3. Forward movement
Morecambe are making figurative strides: they were bottom of League Two when Adams took charge in November 2019 and, 16 months on, enter a run-in firmly in the automatic promotion race.
They are making literal strides, too.
Like under Bentley, the Shrimps remain direct and do not hesitate to play into striker Cole Stockton, but with notable differences.
They are now played from more advanced positions, into the target man’s chest rather than his head – and, crucially, that ball acts as a trigger for the rest of the team to break forward.
That attacking ambition is a massive part of why Morecambe have failed to score on just five occasions this season, having done so 20 and 16 times in Bentley’s final two full terms in charge.
4. Free-flowing football
It is often assumed that keep-ball sides are better to watch than more direct outfits.
Morecambe unquestionably fall into the latter category – they average the least possession in League Two at 44.4% - and yet, they are one of the best sides to watch, because the passing and movement in the latter phases of their attacking moves is excellent.
John O’Sullivan, for example, is a hard player to read: he has the flair and quality that saw him begin his career as a central midfielder, whilst retaining remnants of the directness that allowed him to carry a threat as a right winger.
Aaron Wildig, meanwhile, has always carried goalscoring potential with his willingness to break into the box and the more adventurous setup has seen the former Shrewsbury man enjoy the best form of his career.
"The next two games will give us an idea if it's an automatic push or a playoff push."#Morecambe boss Derek Adams.— BBC Lancashire Sport (@BBCLancsSport) March 25, 2021
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5. Carlos starlos
Carlos Mendes Gomes has gone from being one of the most exciting wide forwards in League Two last season to one of the most productive.
The Spaniard had not featured outside the EFL Trophy in 2019-20 until Adams took charge and, even the previous campaign, he had come off the bench eight times – one more game than the number he’d started.
Mendes Gomes showed potential between Adams’ appointment and March 2020’s lockdown, without getting the numbers he wanted in terms of goals and assists.
This year, the former Atletico Madrid trainee has looked far more technically refined.
Where Mendes Gomes was once recognized for his tricks and flicks, he is now praised for his incredible passing range.
Many of Morecambe’s chances have come from the 22-year-old picking the ball up on the left channel, just beyond the half-way line, cutting inside horizontally then unleashing a beautifully weighted looping ball to release an onrushing teammate.
That sort of pass was not in his locker 12 months ago, which massively vindicates not only Adams’ judgement to entrust him with a run of games, but also find new dimensions in somebody who was playing in the North West Counties Football League for West Didsbury & Chorlton as recently as 2018.
On top of skill, trickery, agility, passing range, a reasonable amount of pace and decent physique, Mendes Gomes has added goals to his game – 12 for the season, all in the league – and works incredibly hard.
The Dakar-region born dribbler has all the attributes to step up not just one division, but possibly two, should Championship clubs make a move.
If they do, Mendes Gomes could earn Morecambe a fee that would play a massive part in safeguarding their long-term future, which is vital in the current climate – and his development might not have been possible without Adams’ tutelage.
From Senegal to Morecambe... with a stop in Madrid along the way! 🤯🤯— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) March 27, 2021
Carlos Mendes Gomes' story is incredible...
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6. Teaching tough-tackling
Mendes Gomes averages two tackles per game, which is more than any League Two left winger with a double-figured number of appearances in 2020-21.
His corresponding left-sider, Liam Gibson, completes on average 3.7 tackles per game, which is more than any other left-back who has featured more than once this season.
Adams likes a 4-2-3-1, typically with an athletic destroyer in midfield next to Diagouraga and Alex Kenyon, when fit, can do that job very well, with “the Chorley Cambiasso” having gone up another level under the current regime.
Alex Denny is a solid alternative but, in the 1-0 win over Cheltenham last time out, Adams operated with a diamond; Diagouraga at the base, O’Sullivan and Mendes Gomes wide with Wildig at the tip.
In theory, that was an adventurous midfield setup, especially behind two strikers, but all those players carried out their defensive responsibilities with real diligence and pulled off a sturdy display in which they limited their opponents to pop shots.
7. New recruitment policy
24 of the players Bentley signed since taking over in 2011 were born in the Merseyside area and almost everyone else arrived from the north-west.
That is understandable, in some respects, given the club’s modest scouting network and the difficulty in tempting players to relocate on a small budget – Bentley no doubt worked extremely hard to bring the best possible players to the club.
Adams, though, has perhaps a loftier status within the game which allows Morecambe a greater pool of players from which to pick.
Toumani Diagouraga, for example, has run games at Championship level in relatively recent years and would not have been an attainable player for the Lancashire club without the Glaswegian, who worked with the midfielder at Argyle.
It is a similar story for Kelvin Mellor, who was the best attacking right-back at this level in 2016-17, also re-united with Adams.
Similarly, because Adams has played and managed in the SPL, he has contacts like Chris Hogg, who is now Newcastle United’s Under-23s head coach.
Morecambe have since been able to loan in Jake Turner, capped by England at Under-19s level and the aforementioned Gibson, who was rated highly by Peter Beardsley and a key member of the Magpies’ Under-23s set up by the age of 19.
8. Producing unlikely heroes
As well as helping Morecambe attract a higher calibre of player, Adams has got the best out of players who would ordinarily be deemed as bottom six League Two performers.
Since playing a peripheral role in Wolverhampton Wanderers’ 2013-14 League One title win, Liam McAlinden has had numerous short, uneventful lower league stints, culminating in a spell in non-league.
It’s a similar story for Stockton, who has thrived in both stints with Morecambe but has otherwise spent much of his career outside the EFL.
Few would have predicted, a year or two ago, that McAlinden and Stockton would form a strike-partnership to fire a team into contention at this level in a key promotion clash.
Stockton, though, has been a key reference point all season for the Shrimps and McAlinden got the goal against Cheltenham, having been a useful impact substitute this season – and a key figure in both encounters with his former employers.
9. Ever fallen in Lavelle
Sam Lavelle has always been a talented young centre-back at Morecambe, having benefited from the extra game-time at the Globe Arena after his move from Bolton.
Initially, Lavelle learnt his trade alongside Steven Old but, after the Kiwi departed in summer 2020, the Scot has taken on more responsibility.
Fellow centre-backs Harry Davis and Nat Knight-Percival, 29 and 33 respectively, have more experience than Lavelle, so it speaks volumes for the way the 24-year-old has matured as a leader that Adams has entrusted him with captaincy.
Adams led Argyle to promotion from this level and will feel he can repeat the trick with Morecambe, who have looked very close to a League One worthy side this season.