Sunday, 3 January 2016

Failings of the Chief

Saturday 2 January - Reading 1 Bristol City 0

Let's start by putting our cards on the table, shall we?

Even after this game, when yet again we played “well” without looking that likely to score and always looking as though we could concede, I am not particularly strongly bothered about whether Cotterill stays or goes. However, I must confess that if the board were to move him on, I wouldn't shed a tear. Given a binary choice, I'm very vaguely on the 'sack' side. My concern, principally, is that I don't see a great deal of evidence that he'll turn around our form and start winning more than a game a month. His diagnosis of why we're in the bottom three is light on areas for improvement and heavy on bad luck. After half a season, that's frankly a bit thin. If I get something wrong at work, I want to be able to say to my boss “this is what's wrong and this is how I'll fix it”, or I'd expect to lose his faith. I'm not hearing anything like that from Cotterill and that's why I've lost my faith. He – and, indeed, his captain – have been using the language of “keeping on doing what we're doing”, despite the fact that “what we're doing” has us in the bottom three. It's like watching the residents of Springfield trying to dig their way out of the deep hole they've dug themselves into.

But it wouldn't be in character for Cotterill suddenly to decide that everything's broke and needs fixing. Changing isn't what he does. Last season, I identified my two chief concerns about the manager: his tactical flexibility and his ability to change a game. These weaknesses have been ruthlessly exposed this season, but they are core to Cotterill's management style. He likes a small squad so he can keep his players motivated, something he's clearly exceptionally good at, but this leaves him with little leeway to make changes when necessary. He stumbled upon the 3-5-2 at the end of a difficult spell in his first season, and he's barely dared to change it since. This was fine when we had the League One cheat code of Steve Lansdown's backing, but it's not the same in the Championship.

Our poor form has also exposed a bit more of Cotterill's character, without the glare of good results to blind us. And it's, frankly, a bit rum. He doesn't seem to be too good at taking blame for defeats, whilst being happy to bask in the credit for good decisions. The 1-1 draw from behind with QPR was down to him being cunning enough to rest our strikers, apparently, while the 1-1 draw from in front with Charlton had nothing to do with him failing to respond after Pack missed his penalty and the team was gripped by anxiety. He can be pretty disingenuous about the quality of the team's performance, the number of games we play in a week (Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday is not three games in a week, Steve) and indeed his own managerial career, moaning in December that he'd “never had a golden ticket” unlike certain managers, rather ignoring the cash advantage he had over most of the division last season. His interviews after defeats are painful to watch, full of awkward silences, cliched footballese, and astonishingly frequent references to a game which might have happened, were it not for the opposition's bad manners in scoring against us.

(Seriously, this has gone beyond a joke now – how often does he say he'd “have been interested to see what would have happened if we'd got to half time 0-0”? I'd have been “interested to see what would have happened” if I'd been posted last week's lottery numbers, Steve, but sadly that's not the way it panned out.)

If that reads like a bit of a character assassination, it's because – fundamentally – Steve Cotterill isn't really my sort of football manager. And that's OK. I'd never demand that Bristol City appointed only the sorts of managers I personally get on with. But does it matter, for me personally, if the guy in charge isn't somebody whose Kool-Aid I'm comfortable drinking? If he turns the season around [now?], how does my personal antipathy to him affect my relationship with the club?

I think a lot of people would say that it's completely irrelevant. If a manager wins games, he wins games, and that's all there is to it. Managers aren't in the charm business, they're here to accrue points. That's a fair philosophy and a perfectly reasonable position to hold. But scratch the surface, and I'm not sure it's as widespread as you might think.

When a club needs a new manager, results might be the main criterion by which fans will draw up their personal shortlists, but they're unlikely to be the only one. Look at Manchester United right now, a club which could well be the next stop of a manager, Mourinho, with a nigh-unsurpassed record of success over the past decade. It's not, however, at all clear that United fans want him to right their listing ship. For all the badly-printed Mourinho scarves, he fails to embody the ethos that fans of the great old club desire. Partly this is because his reputation is that of a defensive, negative 1-0 merchant, but partly it's because of his focus on the short-term and inability or unwillingness to develop players, and partly because he comes across as an unpleasant sort, with his eye-gouging of Tito Vilanova only the most egregious of his misdemenanors. It's rumoured that it was this reputation which led Bobby Charlton to veto his shortlisting for the post after Alex Ferguson's depature. Most would expect Mourinho to give United a title, and few expect van Gaal to do so, but that doesn't mean that their fans are clamouring for the Portuguese.

Across the M62, Liverpool have a new manager who was welcomed not simply because of some immaculate record – indeed, like Mourinho, JΓΌrgen Klopp's most recent season consisted of a surprising, prolonged battle against relegation – but because he was seen as a good fit for the club, both in terms of style and personality.

It's clear then that many, perhaps most, fans are looking for something more than guaranteed results. And as soon as you make that concession, you're just arguing about where you draw the line. How much do you want your side to be a paragon, and how much do you just want it to be a champion? Are you an idealist or a pragmatist?

I've never made a secret of my idealism. I want my club to model the right behaviours and to have a manager who I can respect. I was encouraged, around the time of our relegation, by the much mocked “five pillars”, and disillusioned when the strategy was either abandoned or just comprehensively played down. I've said before that over the course of your life, you'll probably see as many defeats as wins, have as many lows as highs. That taken into account, I want to come by those highs in something approaching the right way.

I don't think this makes me particularly special. Nor do I necessarily think it's the right way to follow football. And I'm conscious that, despite the amount of internal time I dedicate to City, my exiled status makes me a semi-detached fan, not part of the perpetual bragging rights battle in many a Bristol workplace, which I should imagine sharpens the pragmatic instincts somewhat. But, in my personal experience, Cotterill's Bristol City have been just that fraction harder to get behind than Johnson's, or, frankly, McInnes' or O'Driscoll's.

Is that heretical? Should every fan be 100% behind the club at all times? Well, possibly, but clearly they're not. Many of the best managers create something close to a personality cult, pulling fans in, making them feel part of a wider endeavour. Johnson did this. Klopp did, at Dortmund. Van Gaal isn't interested in it and that's part of his problem at United. But if fans can be pulled in, can give more, than it follows that they aren't giving 100% as a default setting. I think that right now I've lapsed to the bare minimum support. It's still a lot, enough to propel me to games, enough to have caused me immense pain when Nick Blackman scored yesterday, but it's not all-consuming. I feel like there's a sheet of glass between me and the club right now. Being regularly presented with 'Bristol Sport' branding doesn't help with that, frankly, and neither does the club's permanent figurehead being that vilest kind of hypocrite, the grammar-school educated tax exile.

It's the red that keeps me coming back, the red and the players who are very clearly trying their best. I applauded them off at Reading not because they'd played outstandingly, but because they'd done what they could, and it simply isn't their fault that as a group they aren't quite good enough.

Now. None of the above is a good reason for wanting Cotterill to go, although as I've said I wouldn't be disappointed if he did not. Nobody's job should depend upon capturing the heart of every member of a group as diffuse as fans of a football club. While Cotterill's in charge, I'll keep going, I'll keep supporting the team, I'll pay for matches and I'll hope for wins. I don't want to be in League One next season more than anybody else. But I can't help thinking that I might be more engaged in the next managerial cycle.

Unless we employ Steve Evans, or Harry Redknapp.