When he arrived at Bristol City, Derek McInnes must have been presented with one of the most difficult in-trays in the League.
“Here’s what you have to do, Mr McInnes. First of all, you have to keep a side on six points from eleven games in the division. Comfortably, if you can, oh and by playing good football please to keep the fans onside. Having done that, you’ll be wanting to overhaul the playing staff. It’s bloated and full of mediocrity at present. Move players on, bring new ones in, shrink the squad – oh but you won’t be able to spend many of the savings you realise because the wage bill has to reduce significantly. In parallel with that, well, frankly the whole club needs work. You’ll be removing key coaching staff and identifying your own, who we’ll assume will be recruited on lower wages. The pipeline from young prospect to first teamer needs clearing out and polishing up.
“And while you’re doing all those other things on a bit of a shoestring, if you could avoid another relegation battle and move the team up the table with a bit of flair and panache, that’d be marvellous.”
So Derek failed. So he had to go. So the thrashing which – accursed fate! – I said on Thursday would lose him his job came along at the first possible opportunity. But what did for him wasn’t, in particular, managerial ineptitude – clearly he made mistakes, significant ones sometimes, but the man’s no fool and if given another chance he’ll do well. He’s far savvier than Keith Millen ever was. What did for him was failing at just one of those many tasks. Sadly, it was the most important of all - keeping us out of the relegation zone. But no manager should have been burdened with such a convoluted job description in the first place.
I’ve thought before that in many ways, reaching the play-off final was the worst thing that could have happened to the club after promotion. Ross put this well during the game – his argument is that because we’d shown that Johnson’s harum-scarum managerial style (long on motivation and bonhomie, short on long-term strategic planning) could achieve success, that became how the club worked. We liked the team we had, we liked the togetherness Johnson was spectacular at fostering between club and support, so we stuck with it. Where there were gaps – a striker for instance – Johnson pulled in first Dele Adebola and then Nicky Maynard to fill them. When we had a goalkeeper crisis, in came Dean Gerken to do a decent job. When Adebola didn’t sign a contract – umm, let’s bring in a loanee or two. When the midfield wasn’t functioning quite as well – oh, we like Gavin Williams, let’s bring him in.
The club was successful, by its own terms, but it was reactive. There was no long-term plan. We had to run ever faster to stand still. And all the while, the wage bill shot up, and all the while, ageing players looked at their contracts and saw with delight that they had three years still to go.
The other problem caused by the play-off final was that supporters’ expectations rapidly changed. A year previously we’d been happy enough just to be a Championship club. At a fellow supporter’s wedding that promotion summer I predicted a 14th-16th place finish and saw that as optimism. Most would have been happy with it. It took dropping into the relegation zone before anyone would be again. Johnson didn’t lose goodwill by signing Stefan Maierhoffer or letting all our goalkeepers walk out of the club at once. He lost it when the wounds in the team became too large for a sticking-plaster to hold, and we became the lower mid-table Championship club we’d always threatened to be. I know we’d take it now, but we didn’t take it then. The fans were dissatisfied, the players didn’t seem to be with him any more, and he went.
In the short term, Gary Johnson was a victim of overachievement. In the long term, I wonder whether we’re not victims of his “taking each season as it comes” policy.
I’ve followed City for over twenty years, and most campaigns have seen us either struggle in this division or battle for promotion in the one below. Really great seasons and really terrible seasons have been those outside of that fairly narrow band. That trend goes back way beyond my personal experience, too – while we’ve been in all four divisions in living memory, our sojourns into the very top or very bottom flights haven’t been prolonged. Bouncing between the middle divisions is what City historically do. What goes up must come down, and as most clubs ultimately do we’ve reverted to the mean. It’s not much fun, but it’s not the end of the world, either.
The problem isn’t really that our momentum ran out before we hit escape velocity. It’s not that we came back down to Earth. That was always likely. The problem is that we were so badly prepared for it, we crashed and there was a lot of wreckage. Gary Johnson, Steve Coppell, Keith Millen and Derek McInnes were all collateral damage, really. In different ways, they were all consumed by the flailing, directionless beast Bristol City became.
What’s vital now is that we’re ready for relegation if it comes. Not that we accept it, but that we understand what to do if we go down, how the club needs to marshal itself in order that this doesn’t turn into a death spiral that costs us Sean O’Driscoll and another decade of potential.
There are promising signs at the club. There’s a strategy now, signing younger players, reducing the wage bill, bringing youngsters through. If executed properly this should be manager-proof (although we’ve appointed a manager who, to my mind, has succeeded following exactly the same strategic direction at Doncaster). The frustrating thing though is that we’re doing this now. Six years in the Championship, and we’re figuring out how to be a Championship club just as we fall out of it.
I think that O’Driscoll has an easier job than McInnes. Not in the short-term, perhaps – McInnes had far more time to get us out the relegation zone. But medium-term there should be a lot less on his plate. The club’s been overhauled. We have professionals who aren’t necessarily former players in each behind-the-scenes role. We’ve got promising youngsters – Bryan, Reid and Burns now, perhaps Krans, Jones and Carey next – on the fringes of the first team. We’ve sold three players for a fee in the past 12 months, for goodness sake. When did we last do that?
The work Derek McInnes did means that Sean O’Driscoll can now concentrate on his primary job – managing the team. I think, and hope, that means that he’ll end up with a better win ratio, a longer stint at the club, and ultimately more success. I think he’ll end up being remembered more fondly than the man from St. Johnstone. I’m delighted to have him here.
But the work Derek McInnes did for us, while not enough on the pitch, might well set us up rather healthily long-term. I suspect we’ll have lots to thank Del for, one day.