City fans are a naturally divided bunch. Whether that's truer of us than the fans of any other given club, I couldn't tell you, but from Lee Johnson to Sean O'Driscoll the fanbase has never been short of subjects to disagree vehemently about.
Chief amongst those this season might well be the 'Five Pillars'.
The Five Pillars were announced towards the end of last season and represented the distillation of City's strategy; the five key principles which would be adhered to in order to build a sustainable club with a sound base. By prioritising Community Engagement, Academy and Youth Development, Player Recruitment & Talent Identification, Financial Prudence & Control, and Facilities, City would begin to take a genuinely long-term view. No more quick fixes, no more sticking plasters. Decisions made today would now be on the basis of the effect tomorrow. In turn, these Pillars ought to guarantee that there would be City fans in the future, that they would have home-grown players to support, that their club would no longer offer long contracts to declining players, that the club would not be vulnerable to administration or predatory owners, and that there would be a fit-for-purpose stadium together with good quality training facilities.
Personally (while I had a slight concern over nicking the way a major world religion expresses its tenets to talk about the strategy of a football club) I welcomed the articulation of a clear strategy. Some fans argued that this is simply codifying what all football clubs do as a matter of course, but I didn't buy that argument; while all football clubs presumably have some sort of community programme, academy, scouting network etc, there are also a number of other things football teams do: maximising commercial appeal, say, developing their profile away from their home city, and looking after long-term and older fans. City probably do all of these things too, but the point of the Five Pillars is that they comprise the things that can't be messed around with, that the club will stick to when choices have to be made and when push comes to shove.
For my sins, I spend a fair bit of my professional time analysing strategies, and the Pillars don';t feel too bad. They're relatively forward thinking and mark out the type of club we aspire to be – a Swansea or a Southampton rather than a Cardiff or a Hull. The very fact that I can say “these are clubs that seem to do this sort of thing, these are ones that don't” I think proves the point that the pillars aren't just best practice – they're a more important statement of intent. They're clear enough to be comprehensible and thorough enough that everything we do should contribute to them.
Thing is, though, it seems that they're also transient. There's been a lot of talk about this recently, and there's no doubt for me that the spirit and letter of our “Player Recruitment and Talent Identification” pillar has been moved away from, for the time being at least. The wording of this pillar, in part, is:
“Revealed by the club’s majority shareholder Steve Lansdown in January, the club has taken a major change in direction with regards to its policy on recruitment.
The club aims to sign players aged 24 and under more often than not, with older recruits becoming an exception, rather than the norm.”
In Steve Cotterill's first transfer window we've signed two players permanently – Karleigh Osbourne, 25, and Adam El-Abd, 29. Both are defenders. We signed two defenders in the summer, too – Aden Flint, 24, and Derrick Williams, 20. This is a pretty clear shift. All are most comfortable at centre-back so with the best will in the world they can't all play regularly. And entirely reasonably the new boss is likely to prefer his own players.
A lot of people have been prepared to accept this on the basis that we've not been doing very well of late, and the long-term plan has to be put on hold while we sort out the short-term. I can understand this argument, but it speaks to some fairly terrible strategic thinking at Board level if we do indeed have a strategy that we can only adhere to when we're winning games.
The point of a strategy is that your short-term tactics, whatever they may be, need to measure up to it. If a strategy is so poorly defined that under certain circumstances it's impossible to stay with, then frankly it's pretty ill-thought-through. Anybody developing a strategy needs to know what the risks, short-, medium- and long-term are, and they need to know how those risks are mitigated in line with the strategic aims, the pillars.
Having a bad start to the season was always a possibility given the level of turnover in the summer. It's ridiculous to say it wasn't; so many new players in a division that's infamously tricky always made that a chance. And as well as being reasonably likely, such an eventuality would have a significant impact on the club. For that reason it should have been one of the main risks the club foresaw, and they should have had a decent plan available for dealing with it. Clearly they didn't – the action we got was divergent from the strategy, which means one of two things. Either the response was wrong, or the strategy was.
I don't think the strategy was wrong, at least not that part of it. I think that bringing in predominantly younger players is a very, very sensible policy, and one has to accept that losing games due to to mistakes, or not being able to control matches as we might prefer, is the only way a club like ours can thrive in the long term. Doing the opposite is what got us here. I can understand the word “exception”, but if there was latitude to make exceptions in January then there ought to have been latitude to permanently sign an exceptional, experienced centre-back in August (O'Driscoll's loan market activity makes it quite clear to me that he knew the squad was missing one). A change of policy here makes the entire thing meaningless. If your strategy's right, you don't change it in response to events; you respond to events in line with the strategy.
Cotterill and the board have obviously agreed to change it. The problem is that the only guarantee here is that young players don't develop if they don't get played. And while we've seen a fair bit of Williams I'd be surprised if he keeps his place – even more surprised if he and Flint both play when we're at full strength. There's no guarantee, however, that Adam El-Abd is the man who'll keep us up. Clearly having an experienced Championship level centre-back improves your chances. But it doesn't, can't, guarantee anything.
Cotterill's brief seems to be different to O'Driscoll's – he's been told to keep us up then worry about improving the team, rather than doing the two at once. But focusing on the short-term hasn't yet paid dividends – his first seven games in charge have produced precisely as many points as O'Driscoll's final seven, with the only difference between two surprisingly similar records being that we've conceded one goal more under Cotterill. This isn't to have a go at the new boss, who's done much right since arriving. It's to point out that there are no guarantees in this business – our form, which had been steadily improving until O'Driscoll was removed, has plateau'd. Given the counteracting effects of a new manager bounce (positive) and a lack of continuity (negative), you might have expected something roughly along these lines. But plateauing won't do if we're to stay up. We need to get our form improving again, just as it did in November and December.
Cotterill's lack of strategic restrictions mean, perhaps, that he has more cards to play when it comes to keeping us up. But if we do go down now, we go down in worse shape than if we'd done so after a season of bringing through young players and developing a style. Given that we can't know what would have happened had we kept O'Driscoll it seems an odd gamble to take. We've not learned the lessons of the past, we risk reaping the consequences of abandoning the strategy because, frankly, we don't seem to have realised why one was a good idea in the first place.
Funnily enough I think Steve Cotterill just might be good enough to keep us up. And he'll have done well if he does. But if so, we need the board to recognise that long-term planning isn't only for times of plenty. Football is a constant gamble, with too many factors in play to guarantee anything over a game, a month, or half a season even. Like any gambler a good football club needs always to minimise its losses. And in my view City have been guilty of failing to do that.