Wednesday, 18 April 2012

9th April 2012: Bristol City 3 Coventry City 1

So a second win in two days.  48 hours which had felt like the pivot on which the entire season would turn.  One game live on TV, one game played in front of our first home sell-out in years. At the most crucial possible point in the season, when the stakes were at their highest, after one win in 13 games, we did this.


Ask ten City fans and you might well get ten answers; I’m going with Derek McInnes’ use of the squad.  We’ve known for a long time that the squad is too big, overloaded in certain areas and causing decent, expensive, players to be left out every week.   Over this weekend, McInnes triumphantly converted this deficiency into a major plus, rotating, resting, involving a total of 17 players.  The 17th of them to appear, Yannick Bolasie, had to wait until the 82nd minute of the second game for his chance and scored within a minute.

It was a masterpiece of squad use.  Not simply because it meant that over that weekend the right players were picked at the right time for the right game – although of course that was important as well.  What selecting such a good proportion of the squad for such crucial games does is make it clear to every player that they’re involved in the fight.  They’ve got a stake in the team’s fate.  It’s not a question of a defined starting 11 and then such players as the manager deigns to bring in when one of the superstars is missing.  Everyone has responsibility.  Everyone has a part to play.  And staying up, if we do so, will be a team effort.

It’s easy to win as a team; the other side of the adage, losing as a team, is harder, and recovering from defeats is very often what sets champions apart from contenders.  The fact is however that it’s impossible to lose in any other way – OK, Sylvian Distin might have conceded possession to Luis Suarez in this weekend’s Cup semi-final astonishingly cheaply, but that incident alone didn’t cost Everton the game. They lost it because of their timidity and overall poor play, allowing Liverpool to put pressure on defenders in the top third until the breakthrough came.  That Distin was culpable for the specific breakthrough was immaterial; the team was culpable for the fact that there was a breakthrough at all.

This all goes back to my argument that you can’t pick out a single incident in a game and say “that’s where we lost” apart from in very unusual circumstances. The weakest team on the day nearly always loses.  It’s very rare for a superior team with a superior team ethic but a single weak link to lose, just as a single superstar can’t win anything alone.  This, by the way, is why it’s madness to use winning a World Cup as any sort of yardstick to measure Lionel Messi against the other greats of football history.  Not just because such a calculation elevates Kleberson above Cruyff, but because this isn’t tennis or the 100 metres.  Teams win things.  Maradona was part of a fine group in 1986 – Ruggeri, Valdano, Burruchaga and all – and it’s a trite, but no less accurate, observation that Pele’s 1970 Brazil side was one of the greatest in football history.  When somebody can turn the impressive raw Argentinean materials into a cohesive unit, perhaps Messi will win the World Cup, but that won’t change how wonderful he is.  His contribution as part of one of the greatest units in history, Barcelona, has already amply demonstrated that.

It’s interesting that the Championship currently contains the antithesis of all this in the form of Doncaster. A place where as every cameo’ing star, once a Premier League player now a newly-minted journeyman, comes in, a hard-working stalwart of Donnie’s successful Championship past drops out.  Where’s the motivation to play well if you can be chucked out of the team as soon as Willie McKay’s phone rings?  And what stake do players there only to put themselves in the shop window have in Doncaster’s survival?

I guess “very little” must be the answer to both of those questions because Doncaster went down without the smallest cry.  There’s a cliché about the size of the fight in the dog being more important than the size of the dog in the fight, and while it’s easy to sneer at simplistic, unquantifiable measures of performance like “passion”, “desire” and “wanting it” there’s no denying the importance of determination and morale in a battle at either end of the table.  Doncaster had their heart ripped out; McInnes got his transfusions right and ours continues beating.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

31 March 2012: Bristol City 1 Derby County 1

A relatively action-free 1-1 draw sees us drop into the relegation zone.  Another poor performance. Another turgid afternoon at Ashton Gate.  I’m going to do the only thing I can under the circumstances.

I’m going to defend the club’s hiring policy.

Before I start, I want to be completely clear about what I’m doing.  I’m not, as such, defending the manager (it’s pretty standard that managers at the bottom of the table get unfair criticism – he was barracked at the weekend for making a very smart substitution – but a lot is also fair, and it’s reasonable to ask why we don’t get the level of performance we got against Southampton and Burnley in his honeymoon period any more).  Neither am I defending the Board, who have also come in for a great deal of criticism.  I am saying, however, that whatever happens this season and whatever happens to Derek McInnes, he was exactly the sort of manager the club should have appointed.

(I might extend that argument into a defence of Keith Millen and – why not? – Brian Tinnion’s appointments as well.  I’m a perverse sod and I’m in the mood.)

We’ve been “between managers” more often than most clubs in the past few seasons so I’ve become very familiar with the arguments rehearsed about which type of manager to appoint.  For the sake of wordcount I’ll oversimplify these types to just two: the pro and the tyro.

The pro has been there, seen it all, done it all.  Has he managed in this division?  Has he managed in this division?  Only for 700 games, son, and four hundred in the top flight as well.  He’s probably a man of the old school, he’s got a play-off victory and/or a League Cup final under his belt, and he probably left his old club under somewhat disappointing circumstances.  After Millen left, a lot of people wanted Dave Jones to be offered the job and he sums up the “pro” perfectly.

The tyro is a good fifteen years the pro’s junior and he’s quite probably never managed at this level before.  Either a very decent player or never a player at all, he’s got his own set of tactical plans, his own views on how the game should be played and around a hundred pretty successful games as manager under his belt.  His credentials at this level are very limited but he’s on very good terms with his current club.  Derek McInnes clearly falls into the “tyro” category.

For all the differences, there’s one major similarity as well.  Neither the pro nor the tyro comes with any sort of guarantee.  And City fans should know that more than most.  A lot of us liked Keith Millen as a person and really wanted him to succeed, but as full-time manager he never really convinced, and is now a failed tyro looking for a second chance.  But we were more excited when Steve Coppell, the pro of pros, was hired.  Surely nothing could go wrong; surely this was as close to a sure thing as you get in Championship football?

Two games, a lot of money out the door and six goals conceded later, he was gone, and the ship has been sinking ever since.

It’s typically City to try two approaches and fail with both, but I think it’s to the club’s credit that (unlike the British-foreign-British-foreign 180 degree turns performed by those who hire the England manager) after Millen was rightly dismissed the hiring policy didn’t change.  We hired once more based on promise rather than achievement.  Damn rightly.

Let’s take a look at the top of the Championship, shall we?  Nigel Adkins’ Southampton and Brian McDermott’s Reading are starting to pull away from Sam Allardyce’s sputtering West Ham.  Allardcye falls pretty squarely into my “pro” category with McDermott being a clear “tyro”.  Adkins isn’t quite either – he left Championship Scunthorpe to manage then-League One Southampton, but he clearly saw it as an upwards move, rightly seeing his chances of success in the medium-term as greater with the South Coast outfit.  It’s the same calculation Simon Grayson made when leaving Blackpool for Leeds, except Adkins has pulled it off with more success.  So I think he counts as a “tyro” too, success with a smaller club getting him the chance with a bigger one.  (This by the way is where I mention that I quite vocally wanted him at City after Gary Johnson left.  If only I’d been on Twitter back then.)

Southampton are well-bankrolled, but they’re still essentially using the side that got them out of League One – West Ham have a squad of Premier League players recently garnished with Ricardo Vaz Te and our own Nicky Maynard, at reasonable expense.  Reading have a lot of money now, but of late have been working on the same budget as many mid-rate Champions League teams, and lost both Matt Mills and Shane Long in the summer.  What those two clubs are doing to stay ahead of the big boys is tremendously impressive.

Let’s look at the Premier League.  Yes, that old pro Alex Ferguson looks like he’s going to take the title (although if I was really cheeky I’d claim that he was a tyro when brought in from Aberdeen, and since he’s at the same club it’s another result for the tyro camp) but the two managers who’ve taken the most plaudits are Brendan Rogers and Paul Lambert, neither of whom have ever managed at this level before and both of whom were appointed on the back of success with lower-league clubs.  QPR, who came up with the others and have been managed over the season by two pros in Neil Warnock and Mark Hughes, are doing considerably less well and may be back in the Championship next year.  You might even use Newcastle to back up the argument here – Pardew’s the least tyro-like of the lot but he’s still managing a considerably bigger club than his previous employers (Southampton, funnily enough) could claim to be.

Of course you can accuse me of cherry-picking examples and of course that would be fair – it’s not escaped my attention that around us in the relegation battle are Michael Appleton’s Portsmouth, Dean Saunders’ Doncaster and Andy Thorn’s Coventry;  tyro-led clubs all.  But while I’m clear that a tyro-only hiring policy certainly doesn’t guarantee success, when it works, when the right man is attached to the right club, the results can quite clearly be spectacular.  Barcelona, managed by the most successful tyro in world football right now, might agree – they’re certainly coming out on top regularly against Real Madrid, whose manager’s returns seem to diminish as he moves from tyro to pro.

The hiring of Derek McInnes was a great example of the club getting in someone who looked as though he was about to do something impressive, on the basis that it would be nice if we were the club which benefitted from it for once.  (It’s exactly the opposite of our worst managerial hiring decision in years, overlooking David Moyes in favour of Tony Pulis.)  Even Keith Millen was on paper a decent shout.  He’d done well in caretaker charge and the chairman clearly saw something promising in him.  It didn’t work – they don’t always – but the principle was more than OK.  Even Brian Tinnion, whose appointment baffled me at the time and who was an unmitigated failure as boss, makes a tiny bit of sense in this light.  His replacement Gary Johnson, our most successful boss in decades, may have been long in the tooth to be a tyro but he was on the upward trajectory that characterises the type.

Steve Coppell, then, was the exception, and while debate will rage about how much his tenure is affecting us now the man’s spell was pretty much a disaster for the club.  The tyro policy is, I think, the right one, and should McInnes not last the year (although I hope he does, whatever league he has to rebuild in; he needs his own summer and his own chance) then I’d be quite happy to see his replacement be a young star or a promising, to coin a phrase, Conference manager.