Can Derek McInnes lift Bristol City from the basement?
“The new Owen Coyle? No, he’s better than that” – Paul Binning examines what may lie ahead for highly-rated new Bristol City boss Derek McInnes at the Championship’s bottom club.
Comparisons are inevitable in football. It’s taken Ryan Giggs’ unparalleled two decades of success to stop people talking about “the new George Best”. Andre Villas-Boas has followed an identical route to the self-titled ‘Chosen One’ and despite a very different approach and character you feel that he will need to better his Portugese predecessor and win the Champions League for those links to be totally dispersed.
And so it will be, on a far more local level, for Derek McInnes following his move south from McDiarmid Park to Ashton Gate this week. Coyle left the Saints in 2007 and within two years had lifted Burnley from the lower reaches of the Championship to the Premier League, fitting in a narrow Carling Cup semi-final defeat along the way. No-one in the south of Bristol is daring to think on that level quite yet as the priority this season has to be survival. Many would grasp 21st place with vigour if offered it right now.
However, the general feeling across football seems to be that City are better than that. People talk of the likes of David James, Nicky Maynard, Liam Fontaine and Marvin Elliott and suggest they deserve to be comfortable in mid-table. So what has gone wrong and what can McInnes do to put things right?
City have been on a steady three- year decline ever since Dean Windass scored his most famous goal to take Hull into the top flight. However there is a view that the decline started prior to that.
In January of that season, with the side nestled nicely in the top six and surprising everyone with their slick, passing style of football, Gary Johnson decided it wasn’t working and Dele Adebola was signed. Instead of playing the ball neatly from the back, working it through catalysts in midfield such as Lee Johnson and David Noble, defenders suddenly started hoofing the ball 50 yards forward. This approach wheedled a play-off position but never seemed to sit comfortably with the players.
This tactic hasn’t changed dramatically since, the only difference now being that instead of firing for a big man, the aim is down the channels, hoping star man Maynard can latch on to the ball and beat opposition defences on his own. Occasionally this works, such as at Leicester in the sole success to date this season. More often than not though, it doesn’t.
Direct football has never been popular and indeed never succeeded at Ashton Gate. Russell Osman was largely castigated during his time in charge for his long-ball style, whilst Tony Pulis signed a series of ‘archetypal-Pulis’ players and managed only six months in his only wholly unsuccessful stint as a manager.
From the many accounts of St Johnstone fans aired this week, McInnes has a variety of styles up his sleeve. Originally employing a backs-to-the-wall approach when playing against the Old Firm, he has learnt and revised styles more recently, using one-time enfant terrible Jody Morris in the ‘quarter-back’ position in gathering a 4-1 win over Rangers and 1-0 win at Celtic Park – amongst his best results north of the border.
In fact Morris has played more games for St Johnstone than any other club since his move from Chelsea, and McInnes appears to be the first manager to get the undoubtedly talented midfielder to control games in the way he always threatened to do at Stamford Bridge. Morris himself tweeted in the week “Sad to see the gaffa go..has done an amazing job at the club..Bristol City have landed a top top manager!!”
Another underlying carry over from that play-off final defeat is a distinct feeling of comfort amongst the senior squad, many of who got improved three-year contract extensions following that achievement and have possibly been cruising slightly ever since. An oft-used quote in the past few days has been the one bestowed on McInnes by then Millwall manager Nigel Spackman when he signed the midfielder, stating “Every Millwall player on that pitch should be a Derek McInnes”. With that sort of endorsement you get the feeling there won’t be too many sitting comfortably on their pay packets each week. Indeed, it’s taken only one training session for him to state that he’s got “probably too many” players to choose from.
The soft centre abundantly apparent within the club needs to be eradicated. A toughness and discipline has been lacking in recent times and at the very least Ashton Gate needs to become a difficult place to come and play. Last season it wasn’t until October 19th that the first home win was recorded. It’s still to come this time around and few sides survive with that sort of home record.
There is an overwhelming feeling of respect from those who have played for McInnes, plain to see from the reaction to his leaving Scotland. As well as Morris’ comments above, another former Chelsea player who played under him, Michael Duberry, tweeted “Happy that Del has got the Bristol City Job but sad the #Saintees have lost a brilliant manager”.
Sitting neatly alongside this level of respect is a sense that players genuinely enjoy playing and training for him, and the fun- factor has been somewhat missing at Ashton Gate for the past two years. He has already identified that excitement and passion is low, and that relates as much off the pitch as on it. 18 months of treading water has taken its toll on attendances and the buzz in the ground on match-day has generally disappeared. That clearly transcends onto the pitch and player confidence is woefully low.
McInnes’ resolute character and ability to stick to his guns has already shone through before he has even taken charge of a match with the appointment of Tony Docherty, his number two following him down from Perth. Early in the search for their new man, City Chief Executive Colin Sexstone talked about the hope that the new man could work with the existing coaching staff. Just 24 hours into the new regime and Alan Walsh, club legend and long-time coach has already gone. No-one seems quite sure of former assistant-manager Steve Wigley’s role, but it seems unlikely he’ll have much more to do once he passes on his knowledge and advice. A first success for the new boss.
The final area it seems as if McInnes can add real value is a long-term approach. In Gary Johnson, City proudly had the second longest-serving manager in the league but his reluctance to use youngsters, his stubbornness that saw him fall out with the more temperamental characters and an ever-expanding list of poor striker signings made certain his time was always numbered. The brief sojourn of Steve Coppell has been covered elsehwere, whilst Keith Millen never really had the backing of the fans and few expected him to last long.
This feels different. This feels like an appointment with a genuine intent to be long-term. The success of young players such as Murray Davidson at McDiarmid Park bodes well and City certainly have a wide selection of younger players who could grow together under the right man. Defensively the youngsters will learn from McInnes’ steeliness and organisation.
What is for sure is that McInnes comes here with almost unilateral support from all sides. City fans are genuinely excited and intrigued by the prospect of a fresh approach and a bit of mystery. The response from Saints fans this week has been remarkable, with comments such as ”thanks for a great few years”, “good luck, a deserved next step” and commonly “the best manager I’ve ever seen at Saints”. I have yet to find a fan who begrudges the move or, more tellingly, doesn’t rate ‘Del’ higher than Owen Coyle based on what they have seen.
Coyle himself has described his protégé as “everything City crave” and touches on the “tremendous” man-management skills alluded to above. They will be needed in abundance to get Maynard firing again and boost the confidence of two goalkeepers who appear intent on matching each other for mistakes. A young defence can learn a lot from two enthusiastic new faces and should benefit from a more astute tactical approach than Millen ever offered.
The buildings that featured as Nelson Mandela House are within close view of the City’s home, and if ‘Del’ can achieve anything like Coyle has in England then Bristol could well be the place to be “This time next year…”