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Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Steve Cotterill: What a difference a year makes

I was wrong.  

I generally like to feel I have a good, well-balanced and reasonable handle on football matters, usually resulting in a non-emotional and fairly rational opinion which doesn’t waver far from the truth, but on this occasion I was very, very wrong.

One year ago today, Steve Cotterill became the Bristol City manager to a somewhat underwhelming murmur of excitement.  I was particularly disappointed for a number of reasons, including the fact I hadn’t wanted Sean O’Driscoll sacked and had hoped we would cast our net wider in our search for a new manager – having been promised a comprehensive review by Jon Lansdown, only to go for the first – and only man – we considered.

I didn’t think Cotterill was the right man for the job.  I had seen and read too many horror stories and embarrassing tales from his time at Forest, whilst his main success seemed to be entrenched almost a decade earlier.  I felt there were better options out there.  I was concerned about his style and tactical approach being too direct for us as a club, his potentially dismissive approach to youth, a desire to spend big to get instant success and his general persona.

I wrote this preview of his first league match, so won’t repeat myself but this was my position on the new gaffer.

"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.”

I still stand by much of what I said about the process and the way events happened at the time, http://exiledrobin.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/the-bristol-city-board-who-is.html , and just because we’re on a good run it doesn’t mean many of the underlying issues have gone away, they just don’t matter quite so much to the majority of the fan-base when success on the pitch is dominating opinion and the new, fabulous looking stand is rising on the horizon. 

But those issues and failings at different levels are for another time, because this article is to admit that the right decision was made, the right man was appointed.

I was wrong.

What Steve Cotterill has done in twelve months is quite remarkable. 

We were a club in freefall. We had struggled for two or three seasons in the Championship before eventually succumbing amidst claims of dressing-room splits, a lack of commitment and plenty of players on huge wages for League One.  O’Driscoll took an approach to try to change this methodically, slowly and with youngsters.  That was the strategy and this was the view everyone backed that summer. 

But the malaise was far deeper than that and clearly needed more of a jolt, more of a shock to the system and Cotterill has clearly provided that.  It’s not as simple as just signing a few players and telling the players to get up for it, or get into them. Players are people, even if some fans seem to think their inflated wage packets make them impervious to the same feelings and emotional reactions us mere mortals suffer from, and we were fast resembling a sinking ship.  Cotterill has not only bailed out all the water last season in keeping us afloat, but in the matter of a few months turned a creaking, poor quality vessel and slipshod crew into a top-of-the-range super yacht manned by professionals.

The word ‘passion’ is often bandied around to whack those more thoughtful managers who don’t shout and scream at officials, or players who are cultured and don’t fly into tackles at 100mph. I don’t put a lot of store by it personally as I think it’s a bit of an armchair fan’s answer to under-performance, but Cotterill has clearly done something with the players and the club that O’Driscoll couldn’t manage, for one reason or another. He’s injected an excitement, a belief and a team-bonding that is evident at almost every turn. 

It always seemed a bit of a burden for Sean O’Driscoll to acknowledge the fans, sometimes almost a dismissive wave to the point where for the first time in my time supporting City, fans just didn’t bother applauding him on his walk out of the tunnel and to the bench.  Cotterill has picked up on this and delivered fan engagement in spades, ensuring the support for him but most importantly his team, remains strong and helps Ashton Gate become a formidable place to come for opponents.

However, without wanting to sound like an O’Driscoll apologist, you shouldn’t underestimate the part he played. He did have to get rid of more than a dozen players, and start again with a far reduced open budget than we had at the start of this season.  Young players such as Fielding, Williams, Flint, Pack, and Joe Bryan were all brought into the squad by him and remain important components. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas – for all his frustrating moments – provided most of our rare moments of excitement and happiness for the first few months of last season and remains a potent threat from the bench.

But that is not intended to devalue Cotterill’s role in the slightest.

He spent his six months of last season in charge not only drawing enough results from the team through shrewd loan signings to survive, but clearly spent that time accurately identifying the positions he needed to fill, the types of characters he wanted and ultimately the names to fit the bill.

The way we went about our summer business was clinical, executed with precision and six players, including Wade Elliott, were recruited with the minimum of fuss, as soon as they could be, whilst Agard was added as soon as it became clear to those inside the club top scorer and captain Sam Baldock was leaving for pastures new.  This again presented the slick nature of the job at hand, signing a week before we received funds for Baldock, meaning we weren’t held to ransom for fees or wages as we might have been a few days later.

To bring in seven players in the summer, all of whom have fitted in immediately and played almost every game, is quite remarkable and potentially unprecedented. It’s an amazing achievement and owes much to Cotterill’s persuasion and man-management skills, as well as the players themselves who have clearly bought into the ethos being distilled.

We’ve had a remarkable run with injuries too, but sometimes that happens with successful sides because players shake off those niggles that on other occasions can seem so problematic, especially when their manager is so positive.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s not perfect and there are still moments where you wonder about Cotterill and his approach.  Some of the comments and reaction to the defeat at Swindon seemed good to many (passionate, indeed!) but if we were struggling those same responses could have drawn criticism along the lines of “he’s clueless”, “always blaming others”, “he’s got no tactical brain, just passion”, couldn’t they?

His substitutions appear to be very safe and sometimes overly cautiously late, a trait which is particularly frustrating in games we’re drawing at home where fresh legs – or a burst of JET’s maverick style – might have turned draws into wins, but with the record we’ve got he’s not got it wrong very often.

He’s just signed a 6ft 6in tall striker which begs some questions about his preferred style, as suggested earlier, but in Freeman, Smith, Elliott, Little, Bryan and others there are enough footballers with pace, ingenuity and no lack of skill around to work effectively off a target man, as they have Wilbraham with great success thus far, even if the first ball up can be a little quicker then we’re used to.

One of the club ‘pillars’, which are talked about less and less these days, was the commitment to youth, and whilst Cotterill will rightly point to Joe Bryan’s presence in the first team as his commitment “if they’re good enough”, the loaning out of Bobby Reid and Wes Burns raises concerns once again about the point of having an expensive academy if players aren’t going to come through, or be allowed to.

But to highlight these any further at this stage would be nit-picking of the highest order. These mild concerns are massively outweighed by the fantastic positives of the signings of Korey Smith and Luke Freeman, the incredible unbeaten start, the team-spirit, the transformation of Aden Flint and the hugely positive impact the new gaffer has made in his first 365 days.

Will we go up? Maybe.

Will Cotterill go down in City folklore alongside Alan Dicks, Joe Jordan and Gary Johnson? Who knows? Things can still go wrong and different tests lay ahead.

But one thing is for sure – he couldn’t possibly have done any more than he has done to date and for that he deserves every credit. 

And I have to admit, I was wrong.

The Exiled Robin

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