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Last Updated: Monday, 17 January, 2005, 18:58 GMT
Almost down but not quite out
By Ian Hughes

Who would you guess has the toughest job in football?

Throughout the football league's four divisions there are countless managers, players and directors under pressure.

But what about those who ply their trade in the Conference, just one step away from realising their dreams to step up to the 'big time'.

And what if you're in charge of the Conference team who look almost certain to suffer the backwards step of relegation.

Leigh RMI manager Geoff Lutley is all too familiar with the scenario, for it is his club anchored at the bottom of the division.

After taking over in November, Lutley has had to cope with poor player discipline, rotten luck and a club budget similar to a teenager's pocket money.

"This is the most difficult job I've come across in football," Lutley told BBC Sport.

People call me a loony. But the more pressure, the more I'll thrive
Geoff Lutley

"We've got the lowest budget in the Conference. I'd challenge anybody to try and do the job I'm doing.

"But I've always been a fighter and though it looks very, very likely we will go down, I won't give up and nor will the players."

The players do indeed seem full of fight, but a bit too much for the referees' liking, it seems.

In Lutley's eight games in charge, five red cards have been flashed at Leigh players.

"It must be some kind of a record," Lutley half-joked.

"I wouldn't mind if we were a dirty side, but the referees have been a bit harsh."

Lutley does recognise it is a problem, but also blamed the inexperience of players forced to come in and cover for injuries.

Despite that, Lutley conceded that after 24 matches, the fact that Leigh's points total has yet to reach double figures, was "terrible".

"But I feel that if we'd been at full strength - or even had 11 men on the field - we would have more than seven points by now, " he countered.

"It's so frustrating, we've played some decent football and I've had quite a few managers tell me they can't believe we're bottom of the league."

LEIGH RMI FACTS
The club, formerly known as Horwich RMI, was formed in 1896
Leigh have been in the Conference since 2000
Last season, Leigh finished 21st, with 29 points
The club currently has only four contracted players

However, Lutley admits his side have committed "schoolboy errors", and revealed he had nightmares after the crushing defeat by Accrington.

"It was the first time I'd ever lost 6-0 as a manager, " he reflected. "I'm a bad loser and I was devastated. It was the lowest point."

Lutley, who has repeatedly apologised to fans after poor performances and lambasted players, gave a ruthless response.

"Our goalkeeper, Ian Martin, was at fault for four of their goals. He had an absolute shocker.

"I should have substituted him at half time, but I didn't want to destroy him.

"But after that match he had to leave the club, he had to go."

An honest, straight-talking man, Lutley demands his players put their heart and soul into their work.

In his career as a player, which included spells at Crewe and Oldham, Lutley did just that.

His courage can not be called into question, after he returned from a serious injury following an 18-month retirement to play again, defying medical opinion.

And as a manager, Lutley is similarly committed and expects his players to be so too.

"The time I go ballistic is when players don't give me 110% and they've lost the game. I make my displeasure known to them in no uncertain terms."

It is an attitude that is essential if Leigh are to have the remotest hope of achieving what looks to be mission impossible and stay in the Conference.

If we go down, we'll go down fighting - and we'll come back up again
Geoff Lutley

But sometimes it seems that no matter how hard you try, you just can't change your fortunes.

For 45 minutes it appeared 2005 might prove to be a turning point for the club. But it was merely the precursor to a cruel twist of fate.

Lutley remembers: "On New Year's Day, we played magnificently against Northwich and were 2-1 up.

"Then the match gets abandoned at half-time because of a water-logged pitch."

Despite all the setbacks, Lutley chooses to be positive and maintains a dry sense of humour.

He recalls his first match in charge of Leigh, when he had not even met the players and the team lost 5-1 to Exeter, who recently drew at Old Trafford in the FA Cup.

"Well, we managed to score against them. Manchester United couldn't," he laughed.

You have to admire his spirit, and hope that somehow Leigh will avoid relegation.






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