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

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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  1. Spot on. Our club is in total disarray. Again. Relegation beckons.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Agree with most of your sentiments.

    JLs comments on appointing a new manager was nothing short of a joke. SOD was sacked on Thursday morning, SC offered the job Thursday night. It seems evident that SC mentioned he had a job offer to his "not friend" on the board and this set the events of SODs departure in place.. There were no interviews because they knew who was getting the job before SOD had even been sacked

  4. Some very pertinent questions Paul & ones I'd like answered...won't hold my breath though. As one of the many fans who had 'bought into the vision' I now feel disillusioned, disengaged & let down by SL, JL & the Board. I remain a member of the Fans Parliament but there need to (and will) be some tough discussions about the role & purpose of that body if I am to continue.


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