"...this is the most articulate and accurate piece written about the club for years!" - Tales from the Front, http://www.otib.co.uk/

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Financial Fair Play – is it a level playing field?

I'm delighted to welcome back Stu Radnedge to the pages of The Exiled Robin to analyse the potential impact of the forthcoming Financial Fair Play regulations in light of City's latest jaw-droppingly large annual loss and the redirection clearly signalled from the top.

Over to Stu... 

The £14.4m loss recorded by Bristol City, in the financial year ending May 31st 2012, was described by our Chairman as reflecting “a disappointing and difficult year for the club” and he went onto explain that it “illustrates how much work is required… to comply with the new Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations”.

So what is FFP? Basically my interpretation is it will ensure football clubs are run more like a business – a good, solid business.  A business that can make a loss, but only up to a specified amount.

It applies to all three leagues (Championship, League One and Two), although the first will adopt a “breakeven approach” according to the football league’s website, which is more based on the UEFA approach. Leagues One and Two will implement a Salary Cost Management Protocol which “broadly limits spending on total player wages to a proportion of each club's turnover.”

Concentrating on the Championship and what it will mean for Bristol City, the rules state in order to comply with FFP the finances must balance, make a profit, or incur a loss less than the permitted level.  The permitted level for the 2015/16 season will be a £2m operating loss, plus an allowance for a £3m shareholder investment.  £14.4m to £5m – that’s a lot of cost reductions to be made between now and 2016.  It’s not going to result in the lighting in the stadium not coming on when it gets dark, but it is going to lead to our beloved club sailing on uncharted waters.

The pros and cons of the situation are confusing.

It will mean every club will only be permitted to invest the same amounts - £3m. So the foreign-owned clubs will not have an advantage, but a loop-hole in this ruling is the sponsoring of stadiums.  Clubs like Man City, Newcastle, Arsenal etc all have lucrative deals which contribute to the clubs turnover.  The proposed sale of Ashton Gate and move to Ashton Vale is looking even more vital to the future dealings of our club (ER – does this make the naming of the new stadium a necessity?).

But, aside from the stadium situation, FFP will separate the haves from the have-nots.  Those that have been in the Premier League and those who have not.  Only a handful of clubs in the Championship have never reached the top flight since the TV money created such reward.  With parachute payments spread over three years, and the revenues earned by clubs in the Premier League about to hit stratospheric levels from next season, what hope is there for teams that have never been in the top tier?

Some maybe, but maybe not.

I would love to be more definitive about it all.  With every club being only allowed to invest the same amount, you would think it would result in everyone starting the marathon on the start line.  But think again.

I have a fear it will divide the leagues into England… and the South West.

Teams that have been in the Premier League understandably have a financial advantage already. And clubs will only be sanctioned to spend what they earn.  That’s fair.

But what if we can afford, or require, a loan signing. We have to be able to afford their wage and the player has to be attracted enough to come to the club.  Look at it the other way, what if we can’t afford another wage?

There are special conditions for this circumstance in the FFP rules, but how much will they allow a club to overspend.

If you get an injury, you need a player, can you get someone in on a bigger wage, or only the same wage?  If the latter is the case we are instantly at a disadvantage if our wage bill is lesser when compared to other clubs…

My fear is that all clubs will be tightening their belts and the astronomical figures earned by players will have to reduce during these frugal times. If a player is seeing their wage drop by thousands of pounds a week, would they want to go out on loan to a club nearly 100 miles away or more? City’s nearest club at this level or higher is Cardiff, but aside from the red Bluebirds, the nearest is in the Midlands.

And that’s exactly my point – which I’ve stated before on these pages, the clustering of clubs.  Will it become the case that the top two tiers are filled with clubs from the clusters of the North East, North West, Midlands and London?

Middlesborough were recently linked with signing of Stewart Downing on loan. We’d be linked with….who?

Could it be that we would have to endure seasons of being a yo-yo club that bounces between League 1 and the Championship – all while the clubs above us get richer? It will then be harder to entice fans to the Gate if we all know the Promised Land is always going to be too far away.  But then again, will it? Some of the clubs above us may not even have cost cuttings to make. Millwall’s wage bill is (apparently) £8m less than ours.  The investment section of FFP will stop the foreign owned clubs having an unfair advantage – but will that be enough?

Will we all have to rely on youth academies for new players?

FFP allows clubs to spend on youth team and set-up under the rules. And this is something which recently was vocalised by the board when it spoke of the investment in the Academy at the same time it announced our recruitment policy was going to be geared more at players in their youth more than high wage demanding players of late 20s, early 30s who have experience.  This may not be a bad thing. Recently, in Derek McInnes’ last game in charge, the only thing to write home about came at the end of the match when young Wes Burns and Bobby Reid entered the field of play.  Maybe here we have an advantage over other clubs who are not as advanced in their youth set-up?

When City announced the record financial losses in December, Chairman Keith Dawe spoke frankly about the situation our club finds itself in and painted the future situation in a dark light.

Dawe said: “This will be hard, it will be tough. I don’t see an easy route, so I’ll prepare you for that.”

But he was clear with regards to the area which City need to improve on more than any other, especially with the introduction of Financial Fair Play regulations – according to the club's website.

He said: “In terms of my inspiration, something I have always been interested in is recruitment.  The recruitment and development is what I believe in; either the players we’ve been able to develop from our Academy or those we have been able to recruit and develop.  Something I’ve felt has been weak throughout my time here has been the scouting and acquisition of players.

We’re in the process of overhauling that. A lot of it you won’t see, but will hopefully benefit us in the long term.  The only way going forwards will be to develop our own players, or alternatively find potential in others’ players and develop them by giving them opportunity.

“There’s also the potential for ROI (return on investment) by bringing them in, hopefully playing for Bristol City and at some point selling them on and making a profit.

“If you look at last season, I thought we were a little bit fortunate not to be relegated. We were one of the worst teams in the division.  It was always going to be a struggle this season and I was really pleased with how we started. I’m disappointed (about) where we are now but we’re in it together and we’ve got to see it through.”

The enigmatic David Lloyd also wrote about FFP on his blog surrounding the fears being aired by many at the account balance of the club. You can read it here - http://www.bcfc.co.uk/news/article/051212-dlblog-527304.aspx?pageView=full#anchored

There are so many questions that we won’t get answers to until the rules come in, but one thing is for sure.  We need to shave £11m from our annual losses before the rules come into force to just stand a chance of competing.

But with a change in management comes a 'breath of fresh air' and a new hope.

The board, aware of the effect of relegation, has set a target of 30 points from a possible 60 left to achieve in order to stave off the threat of the drop. Another honest response in my eyes.

The reduction in debt will be slow and probably painful, but if we want our club to remain, now and for future generations, we have to get our house in order – on and off the field.

For facts about FFP go to http://www.financialfairplay.co.uk/financial-fair-play-explained.php

A big thank you to Stu for that insight and his own personal view of how FFP might affect City.  One thing for sure is that times are changing and there's no way the current level of spending can continue.  That was probably the case anyway, FFP has perhaps just forced the hand.

The Exiled Robin

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

What lies ahead for SOD at Bristol City

For this final instalment of Sean O'Driscoll week on The Exiled Robin I take a look at the short- and medium-term challenges that will face City's latest manager, sorry, Head Coach and also try to understand why Ashton Gate was his preferred destination ahead of Blackpool and Barnsley.

This week has felt like a watershed moment for the club. If you incorporate the statements made around transfer policy and the future aims, match them with the players we've signed or been linked with and extract certain angles from the interviews with O'Driscoll and Jon Lansdown, you'll start to be painted a picture.

Let's make one thing clear - this board, and the club as a whole, desperately want to be able to shed an ever-enhancing image of a struggling Championship side that appoints a different manager each season. By appointing O'Driscoll - whose biggest managerial achievement consisted of a (relatively) long and steady building up of Doncaster Rovers. I've already linked this week to far more eloquent and descriptive explanations of the esteem O'Driscoll is held in those parts.

Although the 12-month rolling contract may cause alarm to some, I'm sure neither party was in disagreement over that. For O'Driscoll it gives him chance to assess the true state of affairs and, be it in the Championship or League One, he'll have a fair idea of how his 'project' is progressing. As for City, well I dread to think how many managers and coaches contracts have needed paying up in the last few years, so to offer this kind of deal ensures the financial commitment is minimal.

This sort of thinking hasn't been front of mind since reaching the play-off final boosted the expectations of everyone at the club to unrealistic levels, Steve Lansdown included. This restricted length of contract, following on from the commitment to only pay fees for players under a certain age points to a freshness in thinking on the financial side that is not only linked to the Financial Fair Play regulations, but may also help eradicate the soft underbelly the club has seemed to have ever since that trip to Wembley. The messages that are sent out by offering (relatively) big contracts across a number of years has been clear for all to see - the change should be equally so and players used to bank balances rising at multiple times the rate of inflation may well get a rude awakening when their contracts run out and they realise almost everyone else is tightening their belts too.

And this is likely to be what attracted O'Driscoll. A club planning for the long-term future, with an owner who continues to heavily back the club, albeit with a seemingly fresh approach to where he spends his cash. There's a much improved scouting network being put in place, an Academy that is seen as essential for the future and which has players on the fringe of the first-team squad for the first time in years, a transfer policy that has roots in thinking three years down the line as well as three months and, maybe, just maybe one day, a brand new stadium to play in.

The fact that McInnes worked hard to establish an accomplished team behind-the-scenes in the summer could have been seen as a blocker for many, but the head coach title and his acceptance of the role was surely on the clear understanding that this was a set-up no-one at City was prepared to change, and his comments since indicate that’s the case, talking of the fairly modest expectation that his choice of assistant can be brought in.

On top of that there's the oft-talked of potential of a club in this region, although personally I'm now in the camp that believes we suffer from having no other sizeable clubs in the area rather than have potential to gain from it. He also has some funds to bring in who he wants on the playing side. Not as much as he enjoyed in his short spell in Nottingham, but certainly more than he worked with at Doncaster and how he spends that will be key – if not this season then certainly next as we may need a set of players prepared to play in League One.

Ah, the players. Strangely absent from the media spotlight this week, perhaps deliberately so, but how refreshing it would have been for one of them to come out and talk about how disappointed the lads were, and how they'd let the gaffer down. Because they undoubtedly have.

I've already written about some of things that went wrong for McInnes, but one aspect I omitted at the time was how the squad, many of whom he'd signed, had underperformed for him. I didn't have that feeling when Millen left, or Gary Johnson. Both of those reigns had seemed to reach a natural end and the team and squad looked weaker than it had a year previously, for whatever reason. Under McInnes I genuinely believe we've got a better side than we had this time last year. The likes of Baldock, Davies, Heaton and Cunningham are all improvements, and Paul Anderson may well still join that group. A large number of squad players accumulated over the years departed in the summer and still, some of the weaker elements have started to be shifted out - Martyn Woolford never really got going in Bristol, whilst Dean Gerken was clearly identified as someone who is second choice at best at this level, although after wasting his opportunity to prove himself on Saturday may not get himself that high in the pecking order again.

There were enough good signs, enough sparks, to prove that this side has a lot of talent, but when it got a bit tough there was precious little evidence that too many were prepared to step up and lead. O’Driscoll’s no-nonsense approach to the media presumably translates onto the training ground and it will need to.  The spine of the team needs rebuilding and the defence needs organising and leading. 

The fact that Stephen McManus, Matthew Bates and Mark Wilson are all out of contract this month gives O’Driscoll freedom to manoeuvre in the transfer market a little, if he can persuade players to come, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or two who have worked for him before arrive – he hasn’t got long so will want players around him he can trust and who can slip right into the style he’ll want to create.

Of course, he may just look to the youth.  The under-21’s are flying and you would hope have yet to have their initial youthful positivity knocked out of them, nor their natural instinct to play the game in the right way.

For the likes of Louis Carey, Cole Skuse, Marvin Elliott and Liam Fontaine, O’Driscoll is yet another manager to get used to and to prove themselves to. It will be interesting to see if the latter in particular, woefully poor this term, can regain some of the form he displayed to earn a £1m bid from Southampton not that long ago.

What they'll have to re-adapt too is a head coach who believes football should be played in a specific way. O'Driscoll's view of the game is that if the players make the right decision, he doesn't mind them giving the ball away. Strange when taken at face-value but essentially the view is that a long-ball, a hoof up the pitch, isn't the right option. If you try a pass to a team-mate and it doesn't come off, then that just needs more work, but at least the hardest part to train - your mind - is in the right place.

Pass and move, pass and move. And move - and by the way, if you don't move, or don't want to take on the ball, then you aren't going to fit in - some players may have a shock waiting for them.

A fairly recent City manager started his reign playing good - no, great - football. He got the team to pass the ball, kept energy levels and momentum up, got his team to move around to give easy options. He installed 'movers' in the centre of midfield who could keep possession and offer an outlet to the back four who, in turn, felt comfortable on the ball because they knew they'd have a number of choices available. We got promoted playing that way. We nearly got promoted again. Then Gary Johnson signed Dele Adebola, perhaps got scared of being so close to the Premier League and there was suddenly another option available - one which has sadly, seemingly been Plan A ever since.

This will change, undoubtedly under O’Driscoll, and it may have some initial catastrophic effects.  Confidence doesn’t get delivered overnight and the defence are as close to the brink as I can remember part of a team being – they have a long way to come back and it will take hard work and a lot of belief building.

And us, the fans?  The fans will need to be patient and understanding. 

It may be an exceptional case, but in the week that marks a tenth anniversary since Swansea were four points adrift at the bottom of the entire football league, it seems appropriate that my club should start planning from bottom up.  Swansea did that and have stuck to it – most impressively by appointing a certain type of manager, with a particular style, each time the previous incumbent moves on, as it’s allowed consistency for the whole club but it didn’t happen overnight.  It happens with a lot of hard work behind the scenes, more than anyone could imagine - many of the tasks McInnes has already started and, barring one too many collapses, could have kept him in a job.  If O’Driscoll can help move the first team in the right direction, it may just be that this is our Swansea moment.

The Exiled Robin

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Sean O'Driscoll: Some background reading

For the second of the three posts on Bristol City's new manager this week, I'm simply going to let others do the talking.  Settle in, they're all well worth a read!

I have found and sourced a series of excellent and descriptive posts from the most well regarded bloggers of Doncaster Rovers and Nottingham Forest, O'Driscoll's last two clubs, (I'm ignoring his Crawley holiday) regarding O'Driscoll and what he might bring to Ashton Gate.

First up, chronologically, is a writer whose work I always love reading for a fluid and eloquent style.  Glen Wilson, once of the excellent Viva Rovers is still the major contributor to their matchday fanzine.

These were his thoughts for the top football league blog, The Two Unfortunates...

...which followed this masterpiece on his own site, portraying a crystal clear level of dismay at the sacking that started the decline of Doncaster, and which kicks-off with this fantastic paragraph

"Little more than a year ago, aboard a Belgrade bound train at Bijelo-Polje on the Serbian-Montenegrin border. Hungover, sleep-deprived and nurturing an ill-thought-out late-breakfast beer, in the company of three fellow Wales and the loudest buffet car operator this side of the Caucasus’. After some time waiting the border guard appeared; he looked over my passport, smirked, and as he handed it back to me said “Ah, Doncaster… good football"."

How can you not want to read more?!

Next up is, as mentioned in a later piece, an oft-quoted Goalfood interview with the man himself in which he's fantastically open, honest and unassuming about his success at Doncaster and football in general.  Just to give you a flavour, here's his first comment:
"Don’t ask me stupid questions. You know what I mean. You come off and you’ve lost 3-0 and they ask how does it feel or ‘are you going to get relegated?’ What am I supposed to answer? " 

Here's the rest of the brilliant interview:

When O'Driscoll was appointed manager of Nottingham Forest in the summer of 2012, it appeared that, for once, rich new owners had done their research and had decided to give a well-established member of the old guard of English football - in the most respectful and nicest way - their chance with new funds and to build a squad capable of not only promotion to the Premier League, but survival.  Sadly for him and Forest (but thankfully for City!), 'twasn't to be and a few months later O'Driscoll was on his way.

Here is an interesting take on the appointment via Seat Pitch, from a previous contributor to The Exiled Robin, Peter Blackburn:

Meanwhile, another previous scribe was at work on his own site.  James Bolton's view on 'View from the Main Stand' was equally effusive and positive...

...and was only matched by his sorrow at the all-too-soon sacking.

So there you have it.  Hopefully you've enjoyed most, if not all of that and can feel positive about what the next few years, if not months can bring.  As I said yesterday, avoiding relegation this season remains a long way away, but if O'Driscoll can bring any of this highly praiseworthy commentary to fruition at Ashton Gate, it seems certain we'll enjoy his tenure.

The Exiled Robin

Monday, 14 January 2013

A Forest view of Sean O'Driscoll

So, it's SOD.

The Bristol City board acted quickly today to snare their man and appointed Sean O'Driscoll to the position of head coach.  This new title befits a club with a new, you could say modern approach to squad building and transfer policy

Although he's a name known to many, I plan to offer some additional insight into our new gaffer (I'm sure he'll be called that, head coach or not!) on these pages over the next few days.

The first in a trumverate of posts on the appointment of Sean O'Driscoll on The Exiled Robin comes from a previous, and always welcome contributor to the site.  Steve Wright, from 'Mist Rolling in from the Trent' has been kind enough to pen (or key) his thoughts on City's latest appointment, reflecting on what O'Driscoll brought to Nottingham during his albeit brief, abruptly shortened, stay at the City Ground.

"The great thing about Sean O’Driscoll only being Nottingham Forest manager for 5 brief months is that you can basically say what you like about his tenure and claim some sort of basis for your argument. For some he was overly considerate of the strengths of opposition teams, lacked ambition and provided inconsistent results and performances on the pitch. For others he was the key to a long term building process that could provide success on the pitch, attractive football for the spectator and crucially would be underpinned by solid foundations that would sustain the club well beyond his own management.
We will never know which of these two opposing views would have proved correct in the end, or more likely where on the spectrum between them Forest would have ended up if they had only given him a sensible amount of time. As it is the owners despatched their manager with either inhuman or decisive haste, again depending on where you sit in the debate.
In hindsight it is difficult to believe that O’Driscoll was ever the man the new owners wanted to appoint and that he was probably seen right from day one as a stop gap until a preferred option became available. I would even go as far as to say that I would be surprised if they even knew anything meaningful about his managerial achievements before they offered him the job on the suggestion of the players.
When they arrived at the club in July they expressed a desire for an “iconic” manager, a term which has come back to haunt them but was probably just a case of trying to express enthusiasm in a second language. Various names were linked but we know that Mick McCarthy was courted strongly before turning them down and Alex McLeish, now installed, advised that it was too soon for him to return to the game.
Following those setbacks, possibly others as well, O’Driscoll was appointed on Thursday 19 July just 25 days before the club’s first competitive match of the season and having just sold the only remaining senior defender in the squad, Chris Gunter, to Reading. With the squad totally unbalanced and in need of major re-construction the agenda was set for the new man by the lack of any recognised first team defenders and he acted quickly to rectify that.
The rhetoric was all about long term building though so there was no reason for concern. A top half finish was generally considered a good target for the season and the owners were full of talk of consolidation and laying foundations. Surely we had just the right man for the job.
All that quickly changed and having spent some money, a substantial amount in itself but quite a bit less than some of our rivals and on a threadbare squad in a desperate last minute situation rather than over a number of seasons, it all became about this season. Blowing a large sum on Jermaine Jenas, a player the manager clearly didn’t feel he needed and who anyway was struggling with long term injury, just upped the expectation whilst disrupting the building process and suggested the owners wanted to be more involved than the manager might have liked.
After 157 days McLeish became available and the owners took the opportunity to ditch their quiet, understated manager for a high profile name and were no doubt surprised that many Forest fans and observers from the wider game considered them barking mad for doing so. For those of us bought into O’Driscoll’s methods it was a devastating blow.
So what did we see of him in his tragically brief tenure? An intelligent man who clearly loves his football and will explain in detail what he is trying to achieve and how. For some this was too many words and not enough jumping up and down on the touchline but for any student of the game it was fascinating.
O’Driscoll is a team guy who collaborates with the club’s other staff for the greater good rather than for his own publicity and ego development. He thinks about the future and tries to empower his players to make decisions on the pitch. He looks to instil a DNA into the club that will outlive his own role and serve as the basis for future development.
What all of this means is that he is not a quick fix. As players adjust to his methods they make mistakes and although sometimes it clicks and is a joy to watch at others it falls flat and is horrific. The question is do you trust him or not? I did and I was far from alone but there were plenty of others who didn’t and that included our owners.
Some fans jumped on the traditional Forest favourite of a manager with Doncaster and Bournemouth dominating his CV being unworthy of such a big club as ours, but whatever the scale of your ambitions the approach is sound and he is an ideal man to lay the groundwork for a strategy that focuses on player development and playing intelligent, possession football.
It is reported that City have told O’Driscoll he will be allowed to lead the club in his own way even if the club is relegated. If that level of trust and support are provided, alongside the relatively strong financial capability of the club, then you will have made a very good appointment in my view and I will be watching with interest and hoping that you reap rewards for bringing a good and talented man back into the game."

Thanks to Steve for this detailed description of O'Driscoll and what he will bring to BS3 - if we allow him time.  What is clear from the above is that this is a man built to last, someone who, to use modern football parlance, seems well suited to a 'project', and not one of those that means a rich oil tycoon throwing Arab dollars at a once-famous club in the hope they will one day again reach the top.

I've picked a few quotes out from the above that should fill all City fans with hope, promise and hopefully give us all a shot of patience - look at what we could have:

"he is an ideal man to lay the groundwork for a strategy that focuses on player development and playing intelligent, possession football"

"a team guy who collaborates with the club’s other staff for the greater good rather than for his own publicity and ego development"

"sometimes it clicks and is a joy to watch"

There are of course other quotes I could have pulled out. Those relating to the time it will take some players to adapt to his style, the lack of jumping up & down on the touchline (how long before an OTIB post that he's not passionate enough?) or the overly considerate approach to other teams strengths, something I alluded to as one of McInnes' failings in my weekend musings over his sacking (http://exiledrobin.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/its-not-all-about-results.html?showComment=1358203433664).

Whatever happens a critical 20 games lie ahead and we must all give our total support to everything the new man tries to do and the team he selects on the pitch.

We're all in this together, aren't we?

The Exiled Robin

Sunday, 13 January 2013

It’s not all about the results...

That may seem a strange title for an article that will go on to evaluate the sacking of a manager of a club bottom of their league and booted out of both cups at the first hurdle this season, but let me explain.

I was midway through writing an article entitled ‘Back, Sack or Crack?’ this evening when my phone started buzzing.  It appears the Board, and one suspects owner Steve Lansdown in particular, have managed two of the three tonight.

After a strikingly up-and-down 15 months, Derek McInnes reached the end of his personal road following yet another desperate display and meek surrender of three points at Ashton Gate.  And this is at the crux of the timing question – the Board cracked under pressure of another defeat.  But let’s be clear, this wasn’t just another defeat.

Will Jones, in his excellent blog ‘To the left of Ross’ http://totheleftofross.blogspot.co.uk/ spoke last week of his mild surprise of the sudden increase in calls for McInnes head after the cup defeat at Blackburn.  After all, defeat away at a club above us in the league and in the Premier League as recently as last season shouldn’t be a great surprise to anyone.  Indeed, defeat – even at home – to a promotion chasing side such as Leicester shouldn’t been seen on its own as just cause.  He also suggested that a thrashing in our next three matches might spell the end for the man at the top – and it sadly came more quickly than anyone would wish for.

But it was the meek, toothless, effortless, lacklustre, disparate, ‘lacking-balls’ – surrender of performances that caused the crack.  Losing to a good side (and Leicester are a good side, I personally think they’ll join Cardiff in getting promotion this year) in itself isn’t a sackable offence.  Even losing three games in a row, as we have at Millwall, Blackburn and at home today, in itself, isn’t a sackable offence.  Performances at home to Charlton, Wolves and Gillingham were equally telling.

However, when you examine the circumstances around the three defeats a picture starts to be painted.

For many months there has been a portion of City’s fan-base calling for McInnes to be ousted, and for as many months there have been a significant number more defending him, asking for stability and pointing out the positives – myself included.

The victory over relegation rivals Peterborough in the final game of 2012 appeared to point towards a brighter second half of the season.  Four goals, as many near misses and three points that took us outside the relegation zone put everyone in a more positive mood heading into the new year.  On that day, Sam Baldock, our highest-profile and most expensive summer signing, scored two and could easily have had five.  Linking well with Stead and another McInnes summer signing Paul Anderson, Baldock probed and turned, threatened the Posh back line all afternoon long.

And then he was dropped.  Rotated, you could argue.  After all, the system was changed and I think most would agree he isn’t suited to playing alone up-front, but as much as the old adage of not changing a winning side may be slightly outdated, dropping such an in-form striker leaves the manager open to question at the very least.  Those questions could have been answered had the first half performance not been so dreadful, but yet another early goal drove confidence downwards and McInnes effectively admitted he got it wrong by changing personnel and formation at half-time.

It was too late by then. Some fans turned on that decision – too many changes were being made, too often.

A first-stage cup defeat shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to anyone any more, but again, the lack of any sort of performance from “the best team available” caused dissention amongst the travelling fans and forced local boy Cole Skuse into a confrontation with them.  Again, defeat not wholly the issue, performance, team selection, tactics and the lack of any fight or motivation whatsoever certainly was and that was the issue again today.  It wasn’t defeat to Leicester that pushed Lansdown & Co. over the edge in my view, it was the manner of defeat and the inability to see any real hope for form picking up over the rest of the season.

So where did it all go wrong for McInnes?

I’m always prepared to give any manager – or player for that matter – every chance to prove themselves at Ashton Gate.  I’ve defended McInnes against those calling for his head for some time, but the bullets have been stacking up for some time now.

Many have pointed towards his lack of knowledge of the English league, his relative lack of experience and his fondness of Scottish players.  All of which have some merit but on their own are just gripes.

There is certainly some merit in criticising his transfer record, in two ways.  Some just haven’t performed.  Questions remain in my mind over the ability of the likes of Richard Foster, Paul Anderson and Jody Morris have barely played whilst Stephen Pearson, Stephen McManus and Tom Heaton all have their critics (personally I feel Heaton could be a top keeper but has had zero protection).

Then there's the fact he signed the likes of Paul Anderson, Sam Baldock, Stephen Davies and Jody Morris in the summer but doesn’t play them regularly enough or at all.  I’ve already alluded to the omission of Baldock at Millwall, and the policy of playing one up-front away from home means little space for the others.

What is clear is that the season hasn’t panned out as planned.  It seems easy to say with hindsight, but had results been more as hoped for and we were sitting pretty in mid-table, perhaps flirting with the play-offs then I don’t doubt we’d have been playing a fluid attacking 4-4-2 formation, with Baldock and Davies prominent.  The intention at the start of the season was clear, and that attacking prowess brought us good early wins against Cardiff and Crystal Palace.  However, the defeat at home to Blackburn in particular seemed to startle McInnes and the hitherto all-guns-blazing approach was tempered, and eventually ditched.  It returned for Peterborough and we won, but we should all be a bit realistic and know that unless the team is by far and away the best team in the division it’s an approach that can only ever have limited success.

Although I’m loathe to criticise, McInnes tinkered too much for everyone’s liking.  As I stated earlier, the days have probably gone where the same XI trot out each week after a win, or indeed any result.  The game is more physical, faster and armed with the knowledge that comes with the ProZone stats, endless videos and computer programmes there are advantages to be gained from tweaking your side to suit the circumstances or the opposition.  The Blackburn defeat again though seemed to triggers an uncertainty in McInnes that was never ostracised and the weeks that there weren’t 4-5 changes at least were few and far between.  This sort of tinkering lads to lack of continuity and uncertainty amongst the playing squad and unrest amongst the paying spectator.

Finally, the defence.  Entering the middle of January without a clean sheet to show – and indeed, with barely even a sign of one – is damning at any level and something that McInnes just hasn’t sorted out.  We’ve played 4 at the back, 3, 5.  We’ve tried different players and different tactics.  McManus spoke this week of a switch from man-to-man marking towards a Zonal methodology but goals from set-pieces remain a weekly occurrence and the signings, the training nor the management have stopped the rot.

So it’s farewell to a manager who many describe as a nice bloke, a top man.  I personally believe he’ll go on and be a success somewhere but it wasn’t to be in Bristol.

Some have pointed out that the timing is strange, given the board allowed him to sign Liam Kelly just 24 hours earlier.  However, reading between the lines of the transfer policy statements made by Lansdown earlier this week it struck me that this Scottish signing was one not all of McInnes’ making.  The fact we now have a structure; a database of talent and a scouting network being built across the UK points to a lack of centralisation in the decision making.  Lansdown’s quote that McInnes removed the cloak of secrecy previous managers had insisted upon indicates to me McInnes was acting more in a briefing and agreement capacity, rather than the seeker.  He tells the network what he wants, they find the appropriate options that fit the pre-defined criteria, then he approves the selection.

I have little doubt Kelly was a signing of the club’s wont rather than Derek’s, which could also mean the potential signing of Crawley centre-half Kyle McFadzean is not a dead rubber just yet.

Many would argue that the Board took too long to remove Keith Millen and have dawdled again here.  The balance to be struck in allowing your chosen selection time to prove themselves and improving matters upon the pitch is always the ultimate test for a football club’s Board.  Personally I feel they got it about right with Millen (having chosen him which I wouldn’t have done) but have possibly reacted too early with McInnes – the ‘crack’ alluded to earlier. 

However, I must add I understand the decisions taken – I’m not one of these to be blindly led by my own views and I try to see balance at all times.  In the past few weeks I have been defending McInnes but have seen the other side of the argument gathering armoury and territory rapidly. I get the frustrations and the questions, I get the counter arguments.

So who next?

A selection of the names being discussed are below, with my personal take on who is and isn’t right.  Ultimately it depends on the board’s requirements.  Do they want to stay up at all costs, in which case a specialist, four-month contract may be offered, or are they looking for the next man entrusted with the five-year future of the club. Someone who’ll fit with the strategy of building from within, managing within a budget?

I’ll assume for the sake of argument that we’re still thinking long-term and assess some of the options.

The likes of Billy Davies, and Sean O’Driscoll are worthy of mention.  Both have performed in this division in differing styles.  Davies would get into the dressing-room, sort the men out and get us playing competitively.  His style may not be everyone’s cup of tea however and the budget may not be there for him to do what he wants to do.

O’Driscoll did a wonderful job at Doncaster and was surprisingly sacked by Nottingham Forest whilst on the outskirts of the play-offs.  He plays a neat, passing style and got Doncaster to the second tier on a relatively low budget, maximising the performance of the players he had within his reach but is a big favourite for the Blackpool job and our position may not be appealing enough for him.

Paulo di Canio has undoubtedly produced results down the M4 at Swindon and would be someone to get into the dressing-room and get rid the apathy that sometimes appears present.  Whether he’d be a good long-term bet is another matter, as is the question of whether he’d even come here.  He could be replacing us in this division next season and seems unlikely to leave the County Ground at this stage.

Amongst the others mentioned, Gary Johnson should remain in the glorious memory banks, Craig Levein is only being mentioned because McInnes brought him into some training sessions this week.  Karl Robinson and Micky Mellon are lively outsiders but given the experience the Board have had with McInnes, I suspect a more experienced hand will be required.

According to the early bookies’ odds Mark Bowen is the big favourite, which is a bolt from the blue, whilst Terry Butcher is linked presumably because of Barnsley’s offer and the fact we appointed from within Scotland last time out.

I personally would go for O’Driscoll. I like the idea of someone performing within their means, playing in style and getting the most from a bunch of players not as talented as many they play against. If we go down he's got experience of getting promoted from League One and will undoubtedly have a massive portfolio of players and clubs at that level due to the budget constraints he faced at Donny.

Whoever comes in the task is immense.  It will take a turnaround of gargantuan levels to escape relegation and organise a team so woefully lacking in fight and confidence. If we accept League One next season as a virtual inevitability, then the choice should be someone prepared to work their way back up the league by utilising the Academy and with enough knowledge to source players on lesser contracts than we have been paying out recently.

It’s a massive four months for the club, and whoever they appoint, whatever team they play and whatever tactics they employ, they need us all behind them.  We showed last season that if the fans get behind the team in serious numbers it can have a significant impact on the performance – now is the time for us all to rally together and get behind the club we love, and the club we want to keep at this level.

The Exiled Robin

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