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.