Sacking a manager in early October, as Bristol City did recently, often seems like a knee-jerk reaction made with far too much haste. After all, what can you possibly infer about the season ahead after just ten matches? There are plenty of games left, new ideas and tactics are still being established and anyway, what could a new manager do with the much-hyped transfer window not opening until January?
At times, however, it just feels like the right thing to do. This was certainly the case at Ashton Gate following the 5-0 humiliation at Blackpool on October’s opening day. It wasn’t the score-line so much as the manner of defeat. With three goals coming in the last few minutes of the game, it was clear the players’ heads had again dropped and confidence was rock-bottom. This followed a catastrophic finish in the previous home game against Reading, where after being 2-0 up and cruising with 20 minutes to go, three goals were conceded and another defeat – you can call it the ‘penultimately’ fatal one – was chalked up on Keith Millen’s record. The club was bottom of the Championship and in danger of being cast adrift with little sign of improvement on the horizon.
The search for a new manager began with the usual flurry of big names – Dave Jones, Billy Davies and even Gianfranco Zola were mentioned, whilst Mark Robins appeared to be closest to landing the job. In the end though, a previously little-known name from north of the border was appointed, and suddenly, just like that, Derek McInnes’ arrival dispersed the grey, dank mist that had been slowly enveloping the club ever since Dean Windass volleyed Hull City to the Premier League at the West Country side’s expense three-and-a-half seasons ago.
Following that Wembley defeat, City understandably tied much of the squad into improved three-year contracts to ward off richer suitors, but the ploy backfired and too many players have since seemed all too comfortable and not sufficiently motivated.
So why was there such a positive reaction? McInnes was hardly well known, with Wikipedia providing most fans with their knowledge of his record to date. Indeed, when his name was mentioned soon after Millen’s departure many reacted in a disappointed manner, claiming he was “not the big name we need” and asking “what experience has he got?”.
Well, for starters, fans’ forums and Twitter comments from St. Johnstone fans were unequivocal, all wishing their former boss well, thanking him for a great few seasons and many disappointed that “the best manager we’ve ever had” was flying south. These words are particularly noteworthy when you consider Bolton Wanderers manager Owen Coyle was McInnes’ predecessor.
Two of his players at McDiarmid Park, ex-Chelsea pair Jody Morris – Saints’ captain – and Michael Duberry were equally positive about McInnes and his assistant Tony Docherty and this bodes well for their ability to deal with the bigger names in City’s squad. McInnes has already grabbed everyone’s attention by dropping a few regular squad members and bringing fresh faces in.
The fact he is from Paisley, just a few miles outside Glasgow and within a stone’s throw of the home of seven current Premier League managers also helped garner some irrational, coincidental enthusiasm.
Another aspect was the feeling of a fresh start, helped, sadly, by coach and former City legend Alan Walsh swiftly following Millen out of the door, while Millen’s number two, England under-21’s coach Steve Wigley – who picked the team for McInnes’ only defeat to date – has now also departed.
On the pitch, there has already been a tactical sea change from the previous regimes. City got promoted back to the Championship four years ago playing a delightful, short passing game, with creative catalysts in the midfield who could score goals as often as they created them. For a reason unbeknown to many, that approach was altered and players were asked to get the ball forward more quickly and the team has never been the same since. Set up with chasers and harriers in midfield, scoring has been a problem this season and that sacrifice hasn’t given the defence the protection you’d expect. For their part, the back four had got so used to thumping the ball down the channels for lone striker Maynard, that when they got the ball at their feet they looked as uncomfortable as a 15-year old boy on his first date.
In away matches, McInnes has thus far kept faith with Maynard as the sole forward but has got the wide men to get closer to him more quickly. The staid, un-productive 4-5-1 formation favoured by Millen now seamlessly changes into a fluid 4-3-3 when the ball is at the feet of a City player, an occurrence already more common-place than a few short weeks ago. Defenders are now asked to look for a pass wide or inside rather than long, and the possession is starting to tell.
Adaptability has also already come to the fore. A win at Barnsley was followed by a respectable draw at West Ham, but McInnes was still brave enough in his convictions to change the team for the subsequent home match, when an easier option would have been to stick with the same eleven. He was rewarded with a first home win of the season on Bonfire night.
For that match, McInnes brought in ball-playing midfielder Stephen Pearson on loan from Derby, and the move paid instant dividends with a goal, an assist and a Man of the Match performance. The football played was a delight to watch and in Australian international Neil Kilkenny the team already has a player that, with the right support, could have a successful team built around him.
This all fits with what Coyle said on his St. Johnstone successor’s appointment, opining “He has tremendous people skills, he’s very much a man-manager. He’s very hands on and he likes his players to go out and express themselves and believe in themselves”.
Indeed, the most significant factor in the immediate improvement appears to be the confidence McInnes has re-installed. There have been moments in games, such as when Burnley equalised on Saturday, where there has been palpable nervousness in the stands. The response so far has been positive with centre-back Liam Fontaine – handed the captaincy by his new boss – marshalling and ordering the defence in a manner he has never seemed comfortable doing previously. This more aggressive and resolute attitude has spread throughout the team and given the long-suffering midfield licence to play their way out of trouble.
Already fans are talking about McInnes spending many years at the helm and the initial results, following the appointment of a young, hungry and ambitious character certainly contribute to that potential. The future already seems brighter and therein lies the danger. Bristol is England’s sixth most populous city and many feel the club has a divine right to be punching at a higher weight.
For now though, there is only one priority: to gather as many points as possible and get out of the relegation zone. If McInnes can guide the club to a mid-table position, then he’ll give himself a great platform for next season, but also a headache with regard to fans’ expectations.
Everything that has been seen & heard to date of the latest Scotsman to fall off the manager production line points to a man able to deal with anything that’s thrown at him.
Written by guest author Paul Binning