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

Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Inside Line: Stevenage (29/12/2013)

For the second of our Christmas fixtures, Stu Radnedge tasks to Stevenage fan Steve Watkins about their remarkable rise through the divisions and their chances this season. Thanks to both for their efforts.

Stevenage have enjoyed a somewhat stellar rise into the football league. How has life been for a 'Boro fan since the clubs inception in 1976, considering there have been some notable memories in such a short space of time?! (FA Trophy victories at Wembley, Play-off semi finals last year, for instance)
In a word – Amazing. Since those very modest days of the mid-seventies, I guess it would be fair to say that any long-time Stevenage fan would have enjoyed what has come their way. From roped off pitches, a return to Broadhall Way (now The Lamex), and a steady climb through the pyramid. Then came the FA Cup wins, and again, steady progression with some epic and memorable scalps collected along the way. The disappointment of not getting promotion after winning the conference in 95-96 was painful, and it took what seemed an age to get over. But the past 5-6 years have been nothing short of sensational with two Wembley wins (and one defeat), and two promotions, which so nearly could have been three, having reached the Lge1 play-offs as well. Expectations have always been high as a result, but perhaps a degree of realism is starting to creep back into the fans way of thinking these days.

Stevenage dropped the Borough in their name in 2010. The potential changing of the club's name is something that is currently causing outrage in Hull. What was it like for your fans, was there much reaction or protest?
I don’t think it bothered too many at the time, and certainly hasn’t since. The club have always kept the nickname ‘The Boro’ and the fans are more than happy with that. The chairman, at the time explained the reasons for the change, and it has been accepted. 

Graham Westley leads Stevenage and is in his third spell at the club. Is there something of a romanticism about his tenure at the club? Would you attribute the clubs rise through the leagues to his leadership.
It would be hugely unfair to forget the work of previous managers, most notably Paul Fairclough, who arguably moved the club further than Westley did. But, there is no taking away from Westley that his success has been more clinical and at a higher level. As for romance, not so sure that comes into it. Unbelievably, there are still many that do not accept him as manager, despite the success. Some have even stayed away. They don’t know what they have missed! 

In the middle of the festive period, both teams will be looking at this encounter as a bit of a six-pointer.  You had a notable win against Peterborough at the end of November (0-1) - was this victory an off day for the home side or was it a deserved three points?  What has this season been like for your team as a whole?
Difficult to say. Peterborough were poor for sure. But Stevenage did play well that day and thoroughly deserved the points. It always seems to be the case though that when Stevenage win like that, it is always down to the opposition being poor.

I prefer to think that Stevenage have a knack of making teams look poor, and are capable of making them pay for it. That said, it does take a certain type of performance, and player, to do that, and where Westley used to be so good in getting it from his sides, the current crop have not always bought into that notion. 

There are signs that it is starting to come together though. The next month is so important as all the games are against sides in and around the lower reaches of the league. A lot of 6-pointers in there. By the end of January we will have a better idea I think of just where this current squad of players are headed.

Who in your side will cause City some problems? And who in our line up do you most fear?
Luke Freeman is a flair player who is more than capable of turning a defender inside out. He is in a good run of form at the moment, and will probably be watched very closely. Michael Doughty can run a game from midfield and in Filipe Morais there is a maverick who can be so good to watch. But Francois Zoko is the obvious dangerman, and with or without the ball, he will cause problems, and if he gets the service, he will score. 
I would have thought that Sam Baldock would be a huge threat to Stevenage, and he is the player that perhaps most would be familiar with in this neck of the woods after his time spent at MK.  Marlon Pack and Jay Emannuel-Thomas are obviously players with pedigree, as is Nicky Shorey. But for most at Stevenage, we won’t know too much about your squad, purely because this is a first meeting. I hope the manager will have done more homework than me! 

Can I have a score prediction please?

Stevenage are starting to become hard to beat again, and City are struggling for league wins. I can see this game being right up Stevenage’s street. Kiss of death I know, but I will go for a Stevenage 1-0

The Exiled Robin

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Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The Inside Line: Walsall (Boxing Day, 2013)

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Boxing Day sees an all-too-rare hosting of a football match at Ashton Gate. Yes, really!  It's an occurrence some fans have probably never seen, in fact, bearing in mind last year’s breaking of a run of away fixtures coincided with flash flooding and the postponement whilst many of us were in our seats waiting for kick-off.

As is usually the way with these games, it’s a nearish-but-not-quite-local derby as Walsall make the relatively short trip down the M5 in reasonable form and with Sean O’Drisoll’s former number two Richard O’Kelly helping Dean Smith to keep Walsall in the running for promotion, probably against the odds.

Lewis Hancock caught up with ‘Bescot Banter’ whose website features all the latest news and views on goings on in the Black Country http://www.bescotbanter.net/, to find out how they believe the Saddlers’ season has transpired thus far:

We’re almost half way through the League One campaign, how have Walsall fared so far?
A season of highs and lows so far, victories over Wolverhampton Wanderers and Shrewsbury Town interspersed with defeats to Port Vale, Coventry City and Crewe Alexandra have places us in an upper mid-table position, a severe lack of goals is costing us dear, forward Craig Westcarr has notched ten in all competitions but there is simply no-one else wading in. Can hardly complain, four points off the play-offs but can't shake the feeling it could be even better.

Walsall are currently just outside the play-offs, but have been up and down in form over the last 10 games or so. Is a top six push likely or are the side too inconsistent?
It will depend on what action, if any, the club takes during the January Transfer Window. If a proven goal-scorer is recruited then a play-off push is within our grasp, however if the club sticks with the status quo the we may end up much further down the table come the end of the season.

When Will Grigg moved to Brentford in the summer, it was said Walsall would struggle to score goals. Has anyone stepped up to the mark and into his boots?
Craig Westcarr has notched ten goals in-all-competitions, but is the only player to have really registered on the scoring charts, the club have yet to replace Grigg's goals, or the threat of Jamie Paterson and Febian Brandy who also departed at the end of last season.

Manager Dean Smith and first-team coach Richard O’Kelly (briefly Bristol City’s assistant to Sean O’Driscoll) have recently signed new deals at the club. How pleasing is it to fans to have some stability at the Bescot?
The new-found stability is fantastic, it has been many years since the club seemingly had a real, defined direction, under Smith and O'Kelly the club's board have finally nailed their colours to the mast of the pair who have brought almost immediate success, at least in terms of stability.

How does Smith set up his side to play?
Dean Smith and Richard O'Kelly have installed a patient, passing tactic, which sees the side frustrate their opponents through fluid so called 'sexy football', which, in-turn creates many goal scoring opportunities.

Dean doesn't tend to rotate his squad so expect the team to line up almost identically to Saturday's victory over Shrewsbury Town.

Who should City fans look out for on Boxing Day?
Milan Lalkovic is seen as the star player at the moment, the Chelsea loanee offers pace and flair on the wings and on his day can be a real threat to the opposition.

Finally, can I have a prediction for the match?
This will be the clubs first meeting in around seven years, the Saddlers have suffered defeat in the last two outings versus the Robins and are going through something of a dry spell in-front of goal.  However, with City's poor campaign so far, I'd expect Walsall to be victorious.

Prediction: 2-0 Saddlers

The Exiled Robin

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Monday, 23 December 2013

The Bristol City Board: Who is responsible for running YOUR football club?

Perhaps it’s disillusionment. Maybe I was hoping more information would be forthcoming. More than likely there was a niggling doubt in my mind that I wanted to pen these views, bearing in mind for the first time I can remember they were so vehemently opposed to that of the people running my football club – your football club.

Those of you that regularly read my posts and tweets will know this, but before I start I’d like to clarify I’m no whinger, have no agenda and don’t usually take opportunities to criticise the club or the people that run it. I’m not one of those half the squad and media team have blocked on Twitter for a continual barrage of boring criticism.  If anything I’m probably more of a ‘Happy Clapper’, with a desire to give people time to do their jobs properly and see the positives in statements and decisions that many see as almost obsessive.

I have spent two to three years defending the club on countless occasions and that, I believe, is partly why I feel like I do now. They asked us to be patient, they asked us to believe in what they were trying to build.  I feel like they have let us down and given us nothing to defend them with.  And I have to ask some questions as to why.

I doubt these will ever be answered, unfortunately.  If anyone from the club is reading this I’d be delighted to interview Jon, or Keith Dawe – or anyone in fact and pose these questions directly – you never know, it might even do the perception of the club some good – the podcast Sean recorded and subsequent Q&A certainly did wonders for his perception amongst many. 

The reason I’m asking them now though, the reason I’m concerned, is that they have sold us fans this dream – the vision – of a sustainable club making decisions that benefit the long-term.  When SOD was appointed I talked of how the club will be desperate to rid themselves of this image of a hire ’n’ fire outfit, how Steve Lansdown in particular would love to pride himself on being loyal and allowing his managers to have time to build but recent history dictates an starkly alternative approach.

Almost a month has now passed since the surprising email was received from Jon Lansdown to inform us City fans that the club was dispensing with the services of head coach Sean O’Driscoll. An email which failed to even politely recognise the loyalty O’Driscoll had shown by adhering uncomplainingly to the “new strategy”, slashing the budget and identifying those youngsters who might just become the next Louis Carey – and become a club legend, or the next Dave Cotterill – and earn us a fair amount of hard cash.  O’Driscoll had explained what he was trying to do this year on countless occasions, via multiple communication channels – and had explained this season was going to be tough – the word transition came to divide City fans’ opinions as much as any I can remember.

The problem O’Driscoll had, the ultimate factor indeed, was it was far tougher than even he would have had nightmares about.  No-one expected the long winless run at the start of the season or the inability to keep a clean sheet. No-one could have anticipated or planned for the number of individual errors made in games at key points – simple chances missed by our £1m striker when we were one goal up, or level for instance, or Aden Flint’s inexplicable error of judgement at Port Vale which looked to drain all confidence that had been built up, for the following half-a-dozen matches. Flint remember, is the chap the Board signed, not O’Driscoll. The chap our Board paid £300,000 for, even though O’Driscoll said he wasn’t worth that. Who’s right?

We will never know how much these individual mistakes have truly cost us this season. Missed chances at Coventry and Gillingham, defensive errors at Swindon and Port Vale – only a couple of these needed to go our way for the table and the perspective of the season to have a very different look.

The poor results (and some performances) are the reason this post isn’t about the sacking of O’Driscoll. Much as I still maintain it was the wrong decision, believing as I did he was absolutely the right man to build for the long-term, it’s a far more difficult argument to win and as the days passed I realised my feelings were more towards the approach of the Board themselves and their handling of the situation, rather than the decision.

I have some serious reservations about Steve Cotterill’s appointment, but this isn’t supposed to be about him, either. There are a number of aspects I’ve alluded to on Twitter which I’ll keep in check for now as he is the Bristol City manager and will have my full support – by God he needs all of our support to stop us slipping down to the basement!  But this isn’t about O’Driscoll, or Cotterill for that matter. This is about the way the whole situation was managed and what impression the Board have left in how they’ve dealt with things.

Firstly, there must be serious questions surrounding the apparent short-term turn-around in the Board’s view.  On October 17th Jon Lansdown stated in the local press "Will there be some patience required? Yes. It does take a while to get a team to play how he wants to play. We may well be in that initial phase now.  Sean's got a track record of being successful. People remember him being promoted with Doncaster [in 2008] but forget they went through a bit of pain at the start. There will be pressure because people always look at results, but there's nothing to suggest that he can't achieve the same success here as he has done elsewhere."

Since that statement we had been on a run where we’d lost just one game in seven and – the woeful Sheffield United performance aside – had appeared to be finding our feet, becoming more organised and hard to beat, so why did the Board go back on what was said then?  At best it makes them look a little foolish, at worst indecisive and easily-swayed. If one performance – that Sheffield United one – was truly pivotal then how short-term is that as a strategy?  I wonder who made the ultimate decision and whether that person was totally supportive of the quote from just a few weeks earlier. Why have they made a U-turn?

In truth, questions remain about the strategy itself. What is the timescale for it? When will we be sustainable? When can we divert from that track on a temporary basis to solve a short-term issue? Each season? Every five years? Never??

A strategy requires a vision. It requires a set of detailed plans underneath it, all to be joined up and working towards that one aim and ultimate position. If we’re not totally clear about what that is, or when we’ll get there, it will prove fruitless.  The five pillars may go some way to addressing that, but it appears financial prudence has been sidelined to a certain extent, so how – and more importantly when – does that get back on track.  If the Board claim nothing’s changed, then why was there such talk of appointing a head coach who would adhere to them a year ago, and a passing statement this time around?  Why has there already been talk of bringing in experienced players at an undoubted cost?  If the Board were to publicly come out and admit this is happening and we’ve temporarily abandoned the financial prudence pillar, then whilst they might come in for some criticism at least we’d all be clear about what was happening.

Having already stated this article is not about Steve Cotterill, I should also add that this is not a personal, vindictive attack on Jon Lansdown, although there may be elements that appear to contradict that statement.  It’s simply that as the appointed spokesperson of a largely anonymous Board of Directors, he is the one who has made the comments, conducted the interviews and stands in front of us fans to explain what’s going on. 

I actually feel a little sorry for Jon.  He’s a massive City fan and of course he wants what’s best for the club. He’s equally stuck between a rock and hard place by being part of the day-to-day running of the football club but naturally – as his son – catching up with the man who still pulls the strings on a regular basis.  It’s difficult to tell whether Jon has total belief in what he’s saying as he’s not always the most confident character in front of a camera or an audience, but again that’s something that comes with age and experience and he is right in the middle of his learning curve on both those fronts.

The recent change to make Jon the Vice-Chairman and install Doug Harman as Chief Executive perhaps points to an ineffectiveness at actually running the club as Managing Director, with the decision-making structure unclear to pretty much everyone, including many of those within the club which caused tension and conflict and probably still is.  It also points to the fact that there remains little evidence those in charge are clear what they should or shouldn’t be doing and what their respective roles are, but more of that later.

Despite all the fanfare about the five pillars and financial prudence, I’m concerned there’s still an underlying arrogance in existence with comments from Jon Lansdown on more than one occasion alluding to the fact that we still had one of the highest budgets in the division – “my Daddy’s richer than yours” in effect – a highly naïve statement on a number of levels, if only because it will put paid to any chances we had of snagging a bargain in the January transfer window. 

Not only that, it was a thinly-veiled direct argument with his Head Coach’s comments who did admit this was the case, but equally chose to point to the fact that half-a-dozen players who wouldn’t be in his first-choice XI made up a hugely significant portion of that budget.  Both were right, both were wrong, but ultimately their public positions needed to be aligned for the new strategy to truly bear fruit.  Lansdown showing off about having one of the highest budgets in the division (or giving himself enough rope to hang SOD with) when at the same time the club were stopping the players heading up to Staffordshire early enough to have dinner (and spend circa £500) is bizarre, inconsistent and somewhat unaligned.

As already touched upon, the other main issue I have with the sacking decision itself, from a non-football point of view, is the afore-mentioned email.  To not even put a simple sentence at the bottom thanking the previous manager for his efforts is either a major oversight on behalf of whoever wrote it, or a stark show of disregard for the man they were certain was the right one for the job less than 12 months earlier. Either way, an error of judgement can be inferred.

The appointment of O’Driscoll last January seemed like a game-changer in a number of ways. The budget issues were already being addressed, to be fair to Derek McInnes who had been asked to halve his budget the previous summer, but there was plenty of internal back-slapping at the time at the decision to make O’Driscoll the Head Coach (ensuring the business matters of football were not his responsibility) and to put an end to the big pay-outs for sacked managers by only offering a 12-month rolling contract, restricting our exposure should the worst happen.

This was all a part of the long-term strategy of financial prudence, we were told. Or perhaps we weren’t told directly, but it was certainly inferred. So what’s changed?

‘The worst’ has happened and we are now paying off yet another manager so why has Steve Cotterill been awarded a deal that must be worth in the region of £1.5m-£2m? Were we so desperate to get our man that we abandoned our new policy, or is that approach just another one that after ten months the Board feel is no longer part of the long-term strategy? Why have they made a U-turn?

The reported response from Chief Executive, Doug Harman, at the recent Fan’s Parliament meeting suggested a total lack of certainty even in his mind, and certainly a significant policy shift from the club’s position less than a year ago.  Whilst these are the unofficial comments, it was reported he answered the question put to him with the following response “the club were happy with this as they don't see him leaving, the last contract was the change from the norm”.  

If so then it is a shockingly naïve and risk-laden statement.  Did the club “see” Coppell, Millen, McInnes and O’Driscoll leaving within their contract tenure, or they have some sort of mystic ball in the centre of the boardroom table to prove that this time will be different?

Yet again it appears the true crux of the question the fans have has been totally missed by the Board and no-one has sought to clarify since.  Fans liked the 12-month approach as it limited our exposure and minimised the pay-off – what has changed so drastically to mean Cotterill deserves special treatment?

Related to the appointment of a head coach was the fact that we had also brought in a Director of Football, in Keith Burt.  This was the future, we were told, someone who knew football inside out and someone able to manage all of the off-field football matters.  Someone to ensure that an individual manager wouldn’t have total control and thus, everything wouldn’t have to be changed when they eventually departed.  So is this another U-turn?  Burt remains in place for now but Cotterill has very much come in as the manager and was quick to make the point he wanted to be the manager of the whole club. Again, one has to ask whether we were so desperate to get our man that we have just waived the previous policy and reverted to the old way of working in desperation?

Indeed, Burt wasn’t involved (and didn’t know!) about the decision to sack O’Driscoll and wasn’t involved in Cotterill’s contract negotiations, which suggests his remit is narrower than many might have thought, being the ‘football expert’ after all.

So what of Burt now? He remains in place as I write but little has been mentioned of his role since Cotterill’s appointment. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him heading out early in the new year which would be a shame.

I’ve had numerous arguments with people on forums and Twitter about having “football people” on the Board. I’m still not sure what people expect when they say they want this in all honesty, but I personally like the idea of having a Director of Football, providing the Governance is in place and the roles and responsibilities are clearly marked out between that individual and the Head Coach/Manager.

Football clubs are business and have to appeal to ‘customers’, employ staff and manage operational processes, stock, cash-flow, forecasts, retail operations and a myriad other aspects which would be well beyond your average ‘football person’. The Board and senior management team must be and always will be successful business people who have been there and done it in other industries. Saying that, it is a football club and there are elements that are slightly different to almost any other industry. The buying and selling of players, scouting and judgment and running of an Academy full of cocky, reasonably-paid 16-19 year-olds is all fairly unique in its fluidity and approach, and as such having someone in place who can manage all of these elements can be invaluable. 

I have a concern about where this is heading and feel that Cotterill wants to manage this all himself.  I could be wrong and time will tell, but hopefully there won’t be yet another Board U-turn in the near future.

Moving on to the Board in general and the approach taken in the past few weeks has been scarcely recognisable for a club supposedly attempting to re-engage with their fanbase and build relations with the community.

We have a Chairman in Keith Dawe who doesn’t want to talk to the fans, nor seem to care one jot that many people want to hear from him, especially when the subject matter is as critical as the managerial appointment.  I won’t bring up his alleged friendship with Cotterill as that is something I can’t substantiate, but  it’s sadly typical of the man we have (not) seen that it was left to the new manager to front up and deny this story, rather than Dawe feeling he had a responsibility to the fans to clarify matters. 
Having a Chairman who remains anonymous is absolutely fine and dandy when things are going well, but decisive action and strong, supportive statements are required when it all appears to be going tits up and, from Dawe, we’ve had nothing, diddly-squat, zilch.

Surely the man heading up the organisation has a role to play when the fans reaction was so strong that Steve Lansdown felt the need to speak up and defend the Board’s actions? I hope he cares. I hope he really wants to engage with fans and just has some uncommunicable reason why he cannot do this, but sadly I seriously doubt this is the case.

Whilst touching upon Steve Lansdown’s comments it must be added I feel they were defensive and all together a bit too touchy for my liking.  For the first time I can recall then I must take issue with his thoughts which I believe were wide of the mark and, again, missed some of the key points many fans were actually making.  Whilst some of the online criticism was undoubtedly personal and irrational (we’ve all seen a fair amount of that, sadly), much of it was from erstwhile supportive, constructive fans.  People who had, like myself, spent much of the past two years defending the actions of the Board, the way things are done and the way the club was appearing to be run on countless occasions when faced with views that differed. 

The decision to sack O’Driscoll itself was perhaps contentious on day one especially, but many views quickly turned from that football decision to the way it was managed, towards many of the points outlined in this piece.  Yes, the record was poor, yes of course it was understandable, but more fundamentally there appeared to be a major change in direction on a number of matters and that is where a significant amount of the criticism has come.  Lansdown has missed this point totally, either because it was convenient to, or because he simply didn’t realise, which holds its own concerns.  He also missed other things that happened in the days immediately after O’Driscoll’s sacking.

Cotterill’s actual appointment and his media ‘reveal’, for one.  Having gone through a few days of discontent, questions and unrest, the Board – or Jon Lansdown at least – had the chance to get in front of the local media when they revealed their man, to answer some tough questions and to put some issues to bed. 

Instead they chose to hide. They appeared to decide they didn’t much fancy the idea of those tough questions, so Adam Baker was left to front up alone with ‘Cotts’ whilst Dawe and Lansdown “sneaked off and skulked in the shadows” according to one person present.  I’m sure they would pettily argue there was no need to be there, but I’d challenge them to name half-a-dozen other managers anywhere in the land who have been revealed without a Board member present.  No, me neither.

I’d argue that the fans reaction to this absence told them everything they probably already knew – a large number of fans wanted some answers, they wanted to understand a little bit more, but were left with absolutely nothing. The local press reaction was as strong as it probably dared be, given they require access as freely as possible to give them content moving forward, but was the equivalent of open-mouthed, disbelieving annoyance.

It all adds up to a series of events that – largely due to the relative silence from those involved – has led many fans, the constructive, supportive ones especially – to question what our Board is doing and how they operate.  It has led people to start wondering whether they are up to the job and what exactly they are doing for the club. 

Does Dawe care about the club and the fans at all, or are we just a convenient vessel to sail in as part of his Chairmanship c.v. building? 

What role does Jon Lansdown now play at the club other than spokesperson, and does he have the necessary experience and ability to carry out that role?

How does Doug Harman fit in with each of the above personnel and, in turn Keith Burt?

And what of Martin Griffiths?  A name who may be unfamiliar to many, but as Bristol Sport Executive Chairman I’m led to believe he is playing an increasingly hands-on role in the running of the club but without wanting to get burdened by the tag of being a Board member.

It’s one thing to make decisions that can appear assertive, but who actually takes the responsibility of those decisions?

Who is actually responsible and accountable for the running of our club because, after the last few weeks, I’m damned if I know. 

Dawe may well be making decisions but can barely be seen to being and feeling responsible for those?  If Steve Lansdown is still controlling the major arteries then why have people in between without the teeth to do the job themselves?

Following some discontent back in the early part of the season it appeared as if the club – or Jon Lansdown at least – was starting to make more of an effort to tell the fans more about what was going on.  Interviews with the local press followed an open exchange at the Fan’s Parliament meeting, and a couple of emails updating the progress of the Pillars programme followed. 

I, for one, was encouraged and spent many an hour arguing with others who saw this as ‘spin’.  If fans want updates they can’t just respond snidely when communication does come, and whether you agree with the thoughts and plans or not, at least it offered a suggestion there was some thought going in to how the club was being run.

But that seems to have dried up in recent weeks and I can’t recall ever seeing an interview with Keith Dawe, or indeed Martin Griffiths in the local media. I don’t doubt they’ve been asked on more than one occasion but are clearly uninterested in fronting up.  They leave that to Steve to come out and (understandably!) defend his son and his Board.  I’d question whether it should have to come to that.

Perhaps it’s simply because they haven’t got the answers. Perhaps it’s because – putting all football arguments aside for a minute, they’ve made some major policy U-turns but can’t bring themselves to admit it publicly or don’t want to risk being interrogated on them?

I’d ask them to declare whether they believe they’ve handled the past month well in terms of fan engagement and done everything they can to smooth the issues and allay concerns.

I’d ask them to clarify exactly who does what with regard the running of the club and who makes the major decisions.

I’d ask them when Steve Lansdown and Martin Griffiths get involved and question what that does to the standing of the other Board members.

I’d ask them to put themselves in the position of the fans who have bought into the strategy, defended the club on countless occasions but now feel let down, disillusioned and, at worst, lied to.

I’d ask them an awful lot more, but to be honest I believe it to be fairly futile as I no longer believe they have much interest in letting the fans know what they want to know. I used to, but my trust needs winning back.

As if all of the above wasn’t enough, I have still to mention the single biggest issue I have with the way this whole sorry tale was carried out.

Jon Lansdown sent the fans an email.  In the email he stated that the appointment of the next man was important and fans could rest assured that the decision would be made “with careful consideration and due diligence”.  He made us a promise.

Well I’d ask him who over-ruled him or who changed their mind. 

I’d ask him why he felt he could make a promise to fans on a Thursday morning, and then appoint a man a few days later admitting that he was the only person they’d spoken to and that there had been no interview process.  I’d ask why he and the Board went back on their word to the fans.

If a listed company made such a statement to the markets and to its shareholders and then reversed it so suddenly, they’d be pilloried and quite possibly ousted from their position.

I’d ask whether this entire sorry set of circumstances points to a Board who are incapable of running my football club. Your football club. OUR football club.

The Exiled Robin

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Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Inside Line: Notts County (21/12/2013)

I usually start these ‘Inside Line’ profiles with a bit of an introduction to the match and a view on City’s current form but this is such a comprehensive view of our opponents on Saturday, Notts County, that I’m just going to leave you to enjoy!

Many thanks to Stu Radnedge for catching up with his namesake from Black & White Zine who writes The Notts Blog.

The story of Notts County in 2013 has been one City fans will sadly recognise, with a managerial merry-go-round providing little by way of stability.  Of particular interest to the Ashton Gate faithful will be the shortlived tenure of a City Wembley-winner in Keith Curle.  What went wrong for Keith at Meadow Lane? 
“It’s a strange one if I’m going to be honest. I mean first and foremost, the football was awful, yet we continued to grind out results away from home at least which kept us in touch marginally with the play-off places. On the surface however it appeared the players had stopped playing for him – unless of course his gameplan of ball retention along the back line (found out many months before by opposing sides) before breaking ineffectively was the idea all along.

Quite incredibly though, we were such a good side when Curle came in, bolstered admittedly by a number of loan signings but some of the results under him (such as a 4-2 win at The Valley over Champions-elect Charlton Athletic) were beyond belief. Some look back at Curle as one of our worst ever managers, in truth this just baffles me.

Curle played in the 1986 Freight Rover Trophy victory over Bolton Wanderers, 
City's first ever match at Wembley

He was sacked the day after defeat at Hartlepool (as was our way the season before with Martin Allen). You expect when it appears a squad have stopped playing for a manager that a new man coming in will bring an up-turn in performances. His sacking had the complete opposite of the desired effect though – players took to the local press and social media sulking, performances got even worse. All for a manager who it appeared for so long had lost the dressing room. A quite bizarre turn of events!”

Next in the hot-seat was Chris Kiwomya , who left after a short reign at the end of October. Was he the main reason your start to the season has been so poor?
“Chris sadly has to take a massive slice of the responsibility for where we find ourselves, but at the same time I kind of hope the players he had at his disposal have the odd sleepless night every now and again for how they sold him down the river.  In spite of the players woeful effort levels under him last season, a defeat, two draws and a handsome 4-1 win in front of the Sky cameras was enough to see him given the job on a full time basis. Whilst he only lost five of his 17 games in charge by the end of that season, there was no indication that things were going to get as bad under him as they did.

I witnessed first-hand in a cup game the disrespect players had for the guy, scowling at him when given instructions, bombing away down the other side of the field – just an awful moment to see play out in front of me. That particular offending player will be nowhere near our matchday squad on Saturday thankfully, having clearly been found out by new manager Shaun Derry.

To give Kiwomya his dues though, it’s not as if this season was a complete and utter failure from start to finish. Fantastic away days in the cups at Liverpool and Wolves will live long in the memory, and for a brief moment it appeared we’d be climbing up the table after impressive home wins over Tranmere Rovers and Crewe. Then our run of form was disrupted by an international break and sadly, under Kiwomya, we were never the same side again.”

With back to back wins under the belt right before the start of Christmas fixture list madness. The timing couldn't be better. What's changed at Meadow Lane?
“Shaun Derry, he’s one of our own.  But a lot of credit must also go to Greg Abbott who came in at the time he was appointed. We have an immensely talented side with some very promising young players on the books – but as I’ve already highlighted, respect was an issue. We needed someone who would crack the whip for us on any player not pulling their weight for us and we’ve seen the results of that in these last two games.

Players who by their own admission acknowledge their poor starts to the campaign look different players now – skipper Dean Leacock for instance is back to his best following a suspension.  Last season’s player of the season Gary Liddle has finally become the midfielder we hoped he would be, having been so immense in the centre of defence this year. Meanwhile Andre Boucaud grows in stature with every game and is such an intelligent user of a football.

Last week at Colchester was a great experience; we’ve not played that well since the early days of Keith Curle if I’m honest. Liddle’s goal in the last minute was the kind you’d never associate with a side like us in a division like this. It was definitely a result and a performance to give us confidence going into some tricky games this festive period.”

City, with a new gaffer in charge, will be hoping for better form under former County boss Steve Cotterill than we’ve had over the past few years.  As we’re only two games into his leadership, what good and/or bad things can we look forward to under ‘Cotts’?
“Cotts is an opinion-splitter when you ask Notts County fans their thoughts on him. There’s no getting away from the fact that his squad (built with fictional Arabian money, the Sven-era many of you will remember) was comfortably the best that the fourth tier of English football might ever see. People look at this fact and make the point that any manager could have got us promoted with it, despite three managers pre-Cotterill not coming even remotely close to putting together promotion form.

On reflection, I couldn’t argue for a second that any manager worth their salt couldn’t have got that squad promoted – but what Cotterill did went well beyond a mere divisional step up. Trailing league leaders Rochdale by 14 points at the time of his appointment, we’d lose only one of his 18 games in charge, playing Saturday/Tuesday fixtures for much of that time, with a crippled squad of fewer than 20 players. When you look at it in those terms it was a gargantuan effort on his and the player’s part and not one I like to see rubbished quite so easily.

He was only brought in on a short term contract until the end of that season, which is when he eventually left.  I won’t lie, I was disappointed because his record always suggested to me he was a manager better suited to the lower divisions – little of what he achieved across the river at Forest or at Portsmouth has convinced me otherwise. If you were to ask what to expect of him now, given he’s been out of management for as long as he has, then I wouldn’t be so sure.

But I’ll tell you right now if anyone is giving what he perceives to be less than their best he won’t stand for it. Discipline is a huge part of what he brings to a side and that’s what I think will be key to Bristol City staying in the division – if it’s anything like his time at Notts you’ll have a tightly-knit unit prepared to run through walls for each other every game.

That’s just one of the reasons I harboured hopes that he would find his way back to Meadow Lane when we sacked Chris Kiwomya.”

Your huge victory on Saturday (a 4-0 win at Colchester) surprised even your new boss! Was the result fortuitous or is the change in fortune well deserved?
“You’ll scarcely see a result more deserved. Ever since Derry and Abbott got down to league business after starting their reign with two cup exits, this has been coming. The improvement in performances has been there for all to see, even in defeat. Victory a week or so ago at home to Gillingham was a huge relief and  you hoped we’d kick on from there a week later.  I think everyone in the division will have taken notice of the nature of the victory, given that no one has lost more games than us in the top four levels of English football!”

With City's instability and rocky start to life in League One, what areas of weakness do you think you can exploit to obtain the victory and make it three wins from three?
“Admittedly having seen very little of City this year I can only concentrate on what I’d like to see us do as opposed to any weaknesses you might have. Confidence is a big thing in football, but especially so at this level. If you’d hit the ground running with the new gaffer in the league last week I’d be a bit concerned, but I’m hoping we can capitalise on another defeat. An early goal would be enormous in so many ways. We’ve reduced ticket prices to £12 (for home fans only though, I think? Apologies if so!) and hopefully we’ll have a fair few through the door – getting them on-side as early as possible can only be a good thing.”

Which player will be key to achieving this?
“Shared responsibility in this respect for the loanees we have in Jack Grealish of Aston Villa and Celtic’s Callum McGregor. Jack picked up his first goal as a professional footballer in the Gillingham game and was rampant last Saturday at Colchester. Plus after a lean spell, our top scorer Callum Mac has hit three goals in two games now. Both can be such explosive players when in form, either of them capable of winning us games.”

And which City player will you have to stop?
“Would it be too easy for me to plump for Jay Emmanuel-Thomas? I can’t help but feel he’s a player playing at a level below what he’s naturally capable of. It’s obvious to say he’s bound to be a danger, but elsewhere you’ve got Sam Baldock who I would have liked us to have signed before his West Ham experience.

When you look at your squad (like I do with our own) there’s no question you should not be where you find yourselves, struggling in the lower reaches of such an average division. Both clubs should be looking up at the table picturing a good nine or ten sides who need to be looking over their shoulders at the relegation zone. I’d feel confident in saying both sides will be safe by the end of the campaign.”

And finally, can I get a score prediction for this last game before Christmas?
“We appear to be playing you at a good time, whilst you're playing us at a bad time as we begin to find form for the first time in a long time. So you'll win 3-0 I imagine!

On a serious note, I'm feeling a rare sense confidence, so I'll go with a 2-0 Notts win taking us out of the relegation zone - a Christmas miracle of sorts given the rancid situation we were in at the beginning of the month!

The Exiled Robin

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Friday, 13 December 2013

Get behind the manager! & The Inside Line: Rotherham United (14/12/2013)

The last time Bristol City hosted Rotherham United, more than 19,000 Robins fans packed into Ashton Gate on a gloriously warm, sunny early-May afternoon.  Needing a win to secure promotion to the Championship, Gary Johnson’s men swept aside the Millers with help from a David Noble double, before Alex Russell scored the goal which made sure City had accomplished their mission.

The rest, as is so often mooted, is very much history, http://exiledrobin.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/down-and-out-bristol-city-season-review.html 

Who would have thought on that sunny day that 6½ years on that we’d be approaching this game with our fifth different manager (or head coach) about to take charge of his first league match. Who could have predicted we’d be not only back in League One (OK, most of us might have forecast that!) but £50m worse off and facing a fight to stave off relegation to the basement?  Who would have thought we’d still be awaiting a decision on where we’ll be playing our home matches in years to come?!

But here we are and whilst around one-third of the time that has passed did so with much joy, excitement and anticipation, the balance has passed with an unerring drumbeat of misery, despair and significant chunks of dreadful football.

So here we are, with Steve Cotterill about to take charge of his first home match and facing probably the most underwhelmed set of fans for an external appointment since Tony Pulis’ ill-thought out period in charge more than a decade ago.  That’s not to say people aren’t going to be supportive of him – the majority of those feeling a little short-changed, myself included – have already taken to forums and social media to pledge support as we all, of course, want the same thing. 

Equally I don’t doubt that, initially at least, we will see an upturn in results and a few more ‘W’s against our name in the league table, a sight that would be welcome for everyone involved.  Whether or not Cotterill is the correct long-term appointment, or will play the ‘right’ style of football, or will stand by the pillar principle of bringing youth players through and so on and so on, are all valid points for discussion, but that is for another day, as is the Board’s approach to the whole situation and the questions many fans have for them.
For the here and now, we are in a pretty desperate position in the league and need a few victories to climb that table, so every fan must get behind Cotterill and whoever he picks, get behind the team and hope they can sow the results of the background work put in over the past year to keep our club looking like a sustainable, viable, long-term progressive outfit.

Meanwhile, our opponents arrive in Bristol in a more-than-reasonable shape, perhaps surprising many by being in the play-off positions.  Lewis Hancock spoke to Jonathan Veal, a Press Association reporter who follows The Millers, to find out why they’re doing so well and what City might face this weekend.

Are you relieved the club rejected the approach from Sheffield Wednesday for Steve Evans?
“No one would have liked to see a Rotherham manager leave for Sheffield Wednesday, but it was never really going to happen. The chairman is clear about where he wants the club to go and he has steered them into a position where he doesn't need to sell players or let another club poach the manager. In truth, it should be Steve Evans that is relieved as, although they are clearly a bigger club, it is not the job for him. As well as he has done at Rotherham and Crawley, he has been bankrolled and that wouldn't happen at Wednesday.”

Rotherham appear to be a surprise package this season. Can they maintain their current form and stay in the play-off mix or is it likely they’ll fall away into mid-table?
I think the play-offs are certainly an achievable target. The team have been playing well, Evans has recruited well and there's the chance of recruitment in January, which could be vital. That said, I expect them to just fall short and finish around eighth.”

Who should City fans look out for on Saturday?
“The team is full of quality players. Ben Pringle has been linked with Reading, Kari Arnason played for Iceland in the recent World Cup qualifiers and Nouha Dicko has looked very good since coming on loan from Wigan.”

The last time the two sides faced each other, City gained promotion on the last day of the season in 2007 whilst Rotherham were already relegated. What has changed at the club?
“Back then the club was just bottoming out, paying the price of four years in the Championship. Tony Stewart came in, rescued the club from extinction and has rebuilt it from top to bottom. The return to the town has been instrumental, the New York Stadium is a superb facility, and has increased the gate. Stewart's continual backing of the manager has meant that we have been able to build a really strong squad. The manager has obviously got to take some of the credit. While he is not universally liked his ability and getting the best of the team has been a key factor.”

Can I get a prediction for the match?
“3-1 Rotherham”

Ambitious perhaps, and I'm sure many a fan groaned when they realised their away trip would coincide with the first home match for a new manager - let's hope the anticipated fillip this usually gives a side starts with a bang this side of Christmas, it's a great time to go on a good run of form!


The Exiled Robin

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