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

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Why Cotterill was sacked

In the end, it was very sudden. 

In a season where pressure has increasingly grown on Steve Cotterill for all sorts of reasons, an unknown combination of a lacklustre, exhausted-looking performance at home to Preston, an unsavoury altercation with an abusive ‘supporter’ at the end of that game, or perhaps a behind-the-scenes disagreement over transfer policy look to have ultimately curtailed his time at Ashton Gate.

No manager these days can win just four out of 28 games in a season, be in the bottom three, and expect to be impervious to the threat of being sacked. But given such an incredulous level of success last season, Cotterill was surely closer than most to having a level of credit in the bank to be given until the end of the season?

I share views with many as a general principle where I wish all clubs would give mangers more time to build, but the days of giving a manager the luxury of years of under-achievement, of the type Alex Ferguson enjoyed, resulting in a dynasty of success, look to be consigned to history.

When Cotterill was appointed, I, along with many, was concerned. There were rumours and comments from fans of former clubs of an abrasive nature, of making repetitive excuses for defeats, of being overly self-centred, stubbornness, limited tactical awareness, limited ability to change the game, of a real lack of interest in the youth teams/academy and of direct, attritional football.

If you’re looking for reasons as to why he was ultimately sacked, the last point was perhaps the only one Cotterill truly put to bed this season. The players he picked every week still seemed to be playing for him in the main – I don’t think many would argue he had lost the dressing room – but on Tuesday night they didn’t look any worse than Preston, they just looked absolutely shattered. Physically and mentally.

As alluded to in recent posts, Cotterill’s refusal to change the line up or make substitutions early enough in games has surely culminated in a set of players who may not fully recover full freshness until their rest during the summer. Hopefully they’ve got enough left in them to scrape our way out of trouble and then we can go again.

Keeping the same XI worked fabulously well last year, when we had momentum and an overall quality of player far too good for League One. However, it hasn’t worked this season yet Cotterill has consistently seemed to be trying to prove that old Einstein adage about the definition of insanity correct – trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

I’m not a big believer that any given formation does or doesn’t work. So much more goes into a game, not least the ability of the players available, their fitness levels, the chosen approach and an element of luck, but what was clear was that sides had worked out how to play our 3-5-2 formation, with these particular players and the way they played, and manipulated it to score goals. Everyone now knows if you push wide players forward, they had acres of space to run in behind our marauding full-backs. That leads the centre-halves to stretch themselves across the pitch to cover, meaning there was often only one defender in the middle when balls eventually found their way into the danger areas. I could see it, thousands of others could, why couldn’t Cotterill?

Even to the end, he was trying to create a myth that he had no option on selection, that the 11 available were the only ones he could possibly play. Following the Preston defeat he said he “had no choice” but to keep the same team or we’d have lost at West Brom.

That’s a choice Simon Grayson made. He lost his cup tie, but won a crucial three points in the league a few days later. Cotterill had choices, although admittedly limited. He chose not to make them, time and time again.

Stubborness, perhaps, or simply an outlook too limited in its view prevailed over decisions any other manager would surely have made. How can the likes of Bobby Reid, Wes Burns, Callum Robinson, Simon Cox, Liam Moore etc prove themselves worthy of a chance if not given more than a couple of minutes on the pitch? And even then, why would they bust a gut when they eventually get on if they know it’s not going to make one jot of difference to the next team selection?

Linked to this particular misjudgement is Cotterill’s approach to all things youth. I don’t doubt for a second he’ll spend the next ten years talking about the young team he took to the title, about how he gave the likes of Joe Bryan, Reid and Burns opportunities in a great team. He’d have a point, to an extent, but that’s how Cotterill hides his deficiencies, by bringing out singular examples to answer any misgivings. He has previously mentioned about how he brought through Patrick Bamford at Forest. The truth is he consistently ignored his option, but used him as a substitute late in the game on a couple of occasions and talks as if he gave him his big break.

In the main he has completely ignored the much-vaunted Academy and of all my beefs with the chap, the failure to promote an under 21 squad member to the bench on occasions we’ve only named six substitutes is simply outrageous.

When it happened again at West Brom last weekend I couldn’t restrain and tweeted Jon Lansdown to ask if he felt that it was appropriate behaviour, given everything we’re supposedly trying to achieve with our academy set-up. Of course a Joe Morrell, or another young player, probably wouldn’t have got on the pitch, but what an experience travelling up would have been, warming up on the pitch, of seeing a Premier League stadium packed with over 5,300 City fans, of hearing your name cheered when the line ups were read out. But no, Cotterill had to prove what in my view was a childish and petty point to the Board by leaving the space spare. If you’re thinking about defending that particular decision, just think what sort of message that sends a youngster at our club, or indeed any  youngster even considering joining us.  You’re not good enough. Not now, probably never. That’s what I’d be thinking.

In recent weeks I’ve heard from a reliable source that some of our top youngsters, right down to under 14 level, are considering leaving the club because they see no future, no path to the first team squad. The same person told me he’d never seen Cotterill at any under age games, and that everything from under 21’s down “felt like a different set-up”, lacking the support from the main club.

The one line of note in Keith Dawe’s official statement on the website was that the club had a need to “achieve its overall strategy for player development”. I read that directly as building the club at all levels, including the Academy, and this could well be what eradicated the credit he had left in the bank with the key decision maker.

For those who think it’s a crazy decision to dispose of the manager, those who were backing Cotterill I totally understand why. Personally I had a number of issues with him which I’m outlining here, but I still hadn’t quite reached that tipping point in wanting him gone because of everything he gave us last season.

Ultimately however, just for a second, forget everything that happened pre mid-May 2015. Exactly what has Cotterill done in that period since to prove he was the right man for the job? What signings has he made (I accept there’s the whole other discussion there!), what tactics has he used to change games or change a trend of results? How has he mixed up the team to try something different? What substitutions has he made to have an effect on games?

Interestingly on the last point, I can remember two specific examples of games where I can recall him making substitutions earlier than the 85th minute. Leeds at home and West Brom away. Look what happened. So why did he not even seem to consider that as an option on so many occasions?

For everything that happened on the pitch, it’s impossible to address this situation without looking at what has – or more pertinently hasn’t – happened off the pitch in the last 12 months.

I don’t think we’ll ever know why signings weren’t made, aside from the headline few who were realistically never going to come. From what I’ve heard on that, I don’t buy into this “Lansdown won’t stump up the wages” argument.  It seems as if the four headliners we failed to land barely even spoke to us, if at all. Why would you come to a newly promoted somewhat provincial club when Palace, Burnley, Hull and Manchester United in Lingard’s case, were the alternative option?
Something I believe, from all available evidence, is that Cotterill set his sights too high and never quite worked out how to realign. Fans have talked all summer and season about the likes of Bradshaw, Dack, Washington, Byrne, Roofe and others, without the slightest indication we’re closely watching any of them.

Was Cotterill really so naïve in chasing the stars he forgot to build up his squad beneath? Or did he present a long list that whoever is responsible for progressing forgot about or was unable to act upon. 

We’ll probably never know.

Some argue that Freeman, Bryan and, to a lesser extent, Flint were amongst the stars of last year’s League One campaign who haven’t made the step up as expected, so why go after more players from that level. Maybe they still will, but that’s not to say any of those others listed might not have done. To argue that is to suggest there’ll never be another Jamie Vardy, Dele Alli and, dare I say, Rickie Lambert rising from the lower leagues. Some make it, others don’t. Perhaps we’ve got unlucky with some of ours, maybe they’re just taking longer to adjust, but I struggle to believe it wouldn’t have been a good £3-4m investment on fees and wages to snap up Bradshaw and Dack as squad options at the very least.

It seems as if the lack of a Plan B is a constant theme of Cotterill’s management.

Just to be clear, I do not believe Steve Lansdown prefers being a big fish in League One as opposed to being in the Championship. He doesn’t focus more on the rugby than the football. He has backed this club to the hilt over the past decade and if he has a financial ceiling in place, then so he bloody well should!

Last time we were at this level we spent a small fortune to get progressively worse. Shouldn’t we have a certain level of agreed spending? By a crude set of assumptions you can venture that we pay a higher average wage than at least seven other clubs in this league, possibly more. If we had 25 players instead of 17, I’m sure our total wage bill would be somewhere around halfway – appropriate for our relative wealth, ambition and size, in my view.

Build slowly and surely, advancing each year and the impossible becomes more real. We’ve tried the ‘chuck a load of money at it’ method without success. Derby and Middlesboro have spent years establishing themselves before having a splurge to return to the Premier League. Ipswich are the model of consolidation, and each year get closer to being the finished article. Wolves, Brighton, Forest, Birmingham have hardly spent tens of millions to build a solid, competitive team. What’s so wrong with that approach? To chuck accusations around about our lack of ambition is disingenuous at best.

Given the transfer window limitations, there will obviously be questions over the timing of the decision to sack Cotterill, especially given the lack of an obvious replacement lined up. It is a little strange but ultimately our manager’s future seems to rest on his relationship with Steve Lansdown and the perception of the club publically. Lansdown puts great store by having a positive public perception of the whole Sport group and Cotterill’s tirade at the end of the Preston game – whatever the provocation – must have raised eyebrows. Add to that his constant bleating over lack of support in the transfer market/wage budget (when Lansdown himself has come out and said we haven’t been rejected by anyone due to finances) and you can start to see the relationship may well have been unravelling for some time. Cotterill’s “I’ve never had a golden bullet” whinge/comment turned a fair few fans who felt he was being disrespectful considering last year we must have had one of the top two budgets in the division.

Lansdown is a hugely successful commercial operator and undoubtedly has one eye on next season’s season-ticket sales. If he felt a significant shift in supporter opinion, that would be enough on its own to push him into action. He has spent £50m on the stadium, at least the same again in bankrolling the squad and he hasn’t done that to sit comfortably in League One. He was almost embarrassed at last year’s celebrations, constantly reminding everyone that we shouldn’t have really been there anyway. 

He isn’t building hospitality boxes and a 27,000-seater stadium for the rugby – they’re unlikely to fill it on more than a rare special occasion – everything is being done to make Bristol City, not Bristol Sport, more successful. If the Sport concept is successful, it will help City, make no bones about that.

So who’s next? Last time Jon Lansdown promised to scour the market and do all “due diligence” to make sure they got the right man. They spoke to one person and appointed him, so it’ll be interesting to see the approach this time.

In my view you’ve got to really question, with just a couple of weeks left of the transfer window, would many do a significantly better job than John Pemberton and Wade Elliott? They know the squad, its capability and they surely are acutely aware of what’s missing. They both have contacts within the game they could utilise for the holes that need filling and the existing players, presumably, respect them as they did Cotterill. As long as they’re prepared to bring their own ideas to proceedings and add a few bodies, why not give them until the summer to keep us up, then look for the longer-term option when we’d be a significantly more attractive proposition?

Whilst this may well have seemed like a character assassination at times, it wasn’t intended as that. By trying to cover all possible bases I may have revealed all of my views on Cotterill’s faults, failings and character traits, but he has without question left the club in a far better position than he found it and that, ultimately, is the measure of success in any job, isn’t it?

He also gave us the most successful, enjoyable season I’ve seen in over 30 years of supporting City.

For saving us from League Two

For Bramall Lane.

For being unbeaten until November

For Gillingham away

For Wembley!

For Flint, Freeman and Korey Smith.

For Swindon at home.

For the last day of the season against Walsall and for that wonderful, magical, still quite unbelievable night in Bradford.

Thanks for the memories, Steve, it’s been a blast! 

The Exiled Robin


  1. Great article, totally agree with all points. My guess is a pemberton/elliot duo in situ this season....who knows, it could work.

  2. I had my criticisms of SC but there was no denying that he was totally serious about what he was doing. Can the same to said of our Club set-up especially regarding the off-repeated aim of achieving Premiership football? eg. What serious efforts have the Club made to promote BCFC NATIONALLY so as to support the Manager in attracting better quality players. In your piece you mention Steve Lansdowne quite frequently and Jon Lansdown once. You do not mention Keith Dawe and Keith Burt. Unless you do this, and examine the performance of these individuals who are in power at our Club, your piece can seen as whitewashing the "Board" and their so-called "strategy" at the expense of Steve Cotterill. In other words it is unfair to give the impression that what we have seen is Cotterill's failure alone in all this.

    You also mention Steve Coppell. Could you please explain why the only "name" manager we have appointed didn't want to hang around? Could you also explain why the Chairman of St. Johnstone FC knew there was something badly wrong with our "Board" at a distance of 420 miles during the negotiations for McInnes. e.g.. "Who really is the Chairman at Bristol City FC, is it the owner or the person who calls himself Chairman?"

    My view, reinforced by the painful recent events (which as you say are in stark contrast to the unforgettably glorious season last year) is that our Club is run in football terms by "amateur fantasists" who know how to delegate in their own businesses but find it impossible to delegate to people who know what's what in the game.

    The appointment of a new Manager is an easier task in my view than signing a successful team of players. The "Board" have to convince one person suitably qualified name candidate that they are serious about achieving Premiership football, offer the right deal and then ALLOW THAT PERSON TO GET ON WITH IT WITHOUT INTERFERENCE.

    We will see how serious the Club is in this endeavour.

  3. Good read and a nice way to finish. Not sure about the Pemberton and Elliott part, but only time will tell if they can do it or if they are even still at the club come May 7th

  4. Brilliant read. Your views are highly articulate and valued- thanks for posting.

  5. Agree with everything said,great article.The big question now is will the board get the right man to keep us in the championship ?

  6. @southvillekiddy.Interestingly, I could find no mention of Steve Coppell. Has mention of him been edited?

  7. Highly articulate article with all points patiently discussed If the board of Bristol City are true to form the next manager will be sacked in a years time because they do not do their homework If the club are really wanting to push for a Premiership place the board will have to appoint a manager capable and fully experienced as to how to manage at this level At this time of the season staying in the championship is vital for the club alas a change of manager alone will not achieve this without introducing some fresh bodies to help the tired out squad that presently represent the club and for goodness sake give the youth a chance not 2 minutes at the end of a game already lost

  8. I support Bristol City and Spurs. I go and watch both when I can with my Dad - we love it! We find supporting both teams enjoyable, disappointing, fun and frustrating! It doesn't matter what the circumstances of the club, what league you're in and where you are in that league - today showed that with committed players and back room staff, a great set of supporters and a bit of luck how great supporting a team is. It's all about match day. We can stay in this league. Great article by the way - I totally agree with everything you've said - COYR (COYS!)

  9. Why did the club appoint a new C.E.O with a mandate to oversee the January transfer window? Seems to me that the"suits" were sharpening the knives for Cotterill as far back as last summer and he knew it, which is why he has not been happy all season. He may be well known throughout the game as an awkward man to work with, and a coach of limited ability but didn't he ever take us on a hell of a ride last season ��

  10. Great read, I believe his stubborness to change from 3 at the back has cost us big time, and although last saeson was memorable he should have gone November. Watford were the only team in the championship to play three at the back last season but they had the squad to do it. I believe we will survive in the championship by the skin of our teeth so need to continue getting behind the team home & away.


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