Conversations with Paul Binning (Bristol City)
Following Keith Millen’s exit from the managerial post at Bristol City earlier this week, we are very pleased to welcome Paul Binning for our latest interview. Paul trades under the name @cider1977 on Twitter and runs the consistently enjoyable blog, The Exiled Robin. He also contributes a regular feature on social media and football that appears in the Bristol City matchday programme and I was lucky enough to pave the way for this conversation when I met Paul in person at Bedminster Cricket Club last week. Here are his thoughts on the interregnum at Ashton Gate:
LR:Keith Millen was unlikely to survive Saturday’s 5-0 defeat at Blackpool although having seen Bristol City dominate most of the game against Reading last Tuesday, one has to feel for him. Where do you think it went wrong in Millen’s spell in charge and do you think the circumstances of his on-off recruitment as manager in the wake of the Steve Coppell debacle meant it would always be difficult for him from the word go?
PB: It was always going to be difficult for Millen. Without wanting to sound too much like Donald Rumsfeld, Steve Lansdown felt it was the right thing to do to stabilise the club by instantly handing over a three-year contract to a ‘known unknown’ rather than an ‘unknown unknown’ when Coppell resigned (it happened within an hour). Whenever you appoint from the fictional ‘boot-room’ there are always groups of fans who label it the cheap option. There were also groups that said from the start Millen was too nice and not hard enough to be the top man. These are views from afar as no-one really knows what happens on the training ground or in the dressing-room, but are the sort of comments that stick unless success is quickly achieved.
Last season turned into a respectable campaign with safety achieved in mid-April — despite being bottom in January — and Millen’s signings were very much to the fore. Stephen Caulker at the back and Jon Stead and Brett Pitman up-front in particular played key roles and some credit was passed the managers way for the men he’d brought in. Budgetary restraints and a lack of player outgoings held him back this summer, and only one signing was made who was likely to challenge for a regular first-team spot, Neil Kilkenny, despite all fans knowing there were glaring gaps in our back line in particular.
Selections this term have been questionable. Strikingly, Stead has barely featured, Caulker has gone to the Premier League and Pitman has only just been handed back a place so three of last year’s white knights have been conspicuous by their absence. Marvin Elliott, named in the PFA Championship team of the year in our play-off final season playing an energetic holding role, has been forced to play further forward, almost in ‘the hole’ at times, but it’s painfully obvious he can’t pass or shoot well enough to play there and is certainly no Maradona.
Unfortunately Millen appears to be a manager unable to make the creative changes required if things aren’t going well on the pitch and the recent Reading match you allude to was a case in point. Despite a season’s best performance for an hour, everyone in the ground was aware what was coming once Reading scored their first and the game should have been strangled; the midfield flooded and defence strengthened. Millen had three strikers and a right-back on the bench, waited until it went 2-2 and then brought a 6ft 3in striker on. And he played him left wing.
He has also possibly remained too loyal to the players he has worked with, fairly successfully, for a number of years. Louis Carey, Cole Skuse, Liam Fontaine, Marvin Elliott and Jamie McAllister have all been pretty much guaranteed a place when fit but must all, possibly with the exception of Fontaine, be looking over their shoulder with a new man on the way. With most fans calling for a clear-out from top to bottom, these stalwarts could be the first to find the new broom sweeping their way.
LR: I must admit that Millen never struck me as too nice and, as a player, he always seemed like the leader type — so part of me is surprised it didn’t work out even if the appointment did remind me to an extent of that of Brian Tinnion a few years ago. It’s hard to see City going for another internal appointment — that is, if it weren’t for the looming presence of David James. Do you think “Jamo” would be a good choice as a manager should he want the job and, if so, do you think he should step down as a player?
PB: On the face of it James appears to have most of the attributes required to be a good manager. He’s clearly a thinking footballer, would have instant respect of the players and would have enough contacts and pulling power within the game to attract new players. I get the feeling James is confident/arrogant enough as a character to feel he could do both jobs, and I suppose as a goalkeeper you’re better placed than anyone to see what’s going on across the pitch, but on a practical level we only have one other senior ‘keeper so he probably couldn’t retire just yet.
The other internal option they do have is assistant manager Steve Wigley, who is gaining a perhaps unfortunate tag of getting teams relegated and is involved in the England under-21 set-up under Stuart Pearce, but he would be a hugely controversial and unpopular choice with the fans.
These things do tend to be cyclical when they don’t work out, and just as I expect the next England manager to be English, I’d expect an external appointment at Ashton Gate this time around. Chief Executive Colin Sexstone has however said earlier this week that he’d like the backroom staff (all ex-City players barring Wigley) to remain in place if possible so I hope that doesn’t hinder the appointment of a fresh pair of eyes if it all looks a little too cosy.
LR: I think you could be right about James – the contacts he might be expected to bring to the club would probably provide quality but also high wages – I wouldn’t expect the likes of Benjani or Kanu to add much to the battle against relegation for instance. When the job was advertised following Gary Johnson’s departure in 2010, one of the names linked was Sean O’Driscoll – a man whom most right thinking supporters will feel was very harshly treated after providing Doncaster Rovers with some of their very best years. So, to continue the mood of mindless speculation, is he the sort of man you would like to see take charge?…and do any other candidates catch your imagination?
PB: Sean O’Driscoll would be welcomed by many, including myself. The style of football he played at Doncaster was a joy to watch at times and not only that, as you say, he was successful with it too. Derek McInnes from St. Johnstone is the current odds-on favourite and I’ve got to admit I don’t know a huge amount about him other than the fact they recently won at Celtic Park and his record is impressive – winning the first division title and subsequently keeping the Saints in the Scottish Premier League on meagre resources for three consecutive seasons. He’s also reached a semi-final of the cup.
For some of the more highly-expectant fans neither O’Driscoll or McInnes would be a big enough name and Dave Jones, Alan Curbishley – who has been out of the game a long time now – and Billy Davies – who seems to create ructions wherever he goes – are all names being bandied about. I’d welcome Dave Jones personally. If you look beyond the ‘bottlers’ tag Cardiff earned themselves and the expensively assembled squad in his last season at Cardiff, he generally had a number of seasons with good teams, playing good football and not necessarily paying through the roof. He signed players like Bothroyd, Whittingham, McNaughton, Burke, Gyepes, Gerrard – any of whom would walk into our side at the moment – and generally made them better players.
My concern with anyone of that stature is the salary they’d expect and the budget they’d want available. It’s one thing taking that gamble as a Championship club, but if we were to end up relegated……it’s something which has to be on the mind of the Board when they make this most critical of appointments. That then becomes a double-edged sword though. If you don’t want to pay the salaries you have to pick a less proven manager and that instantly becomes a more of a risk when we’re fighting for our survival in this league. That’s why in my mind, if we can’t get or afford Dave Jones, Sean O’Driscoll is the man as I feel he sits neatly between those two categories.
LR: Derek McInnes was a real leader on the pitch in his West Bromwich Albion days and is tough and no nonsense — although in recent years, the record of managers who have been successful in Scotland has been mixed on their joining football league clubs — judging by the players recruited by Gordon Strachan, Tommy Burns and Craig Levein, I would guess that the lower reaches of the SPL are roughly equivalent to League 1 in England. I am with you in holding a high regard for Dave Jones. A move to Nottingham Forest might suit O’Driscoll more in geographical terms.
You mention the slightly below par performances of some of Gary Johnson’s stalwarts such as Louis Carey and Cole Skuse, but what of Nicky Maynard? I thought he looked excellent last week in tandem with Pitman, but I understand his performances have dipped a little this season following his refusal to move to Leicester. Do you think he is holding out for an offer from the Premier League?
PB: Yes McInnes might be exactly what we need in that sense, anyone who has captained Millwall and been held up by his manager at the time as ‘the model Millwall player’ must have a bit about them!
Maynard has had a mixed season. He started where he left off last season; bright, energetic and constantly troubling the opposition goalkeepers. Three goals in his first three games, including two in our only win at Leicester, put him top of Sven’s list of targets for the cash-rich East-Midlanders. It was reported we turned down a £6m deal which in hindsight looks like possibly a poor decision, but at no point did Maynard indicate he wanted a move to another Championship club, and it does indeed look like he is holding out for a move directly to the top flight.
He did spend a few games in the doldrums following the closing of the transfer window, including a second missed penalty of the season which probably cost us at least a share of the points at Elland Road. However in the last two home games he has looked back to his best and his partnership with Pitman has always appeared to be one that could bear fruit, especially at home. They have similar football brains and link up very well. They seem to know which area of the pitch the other is utilising and can each flick and weave passes through the defence for the other to run on to.
There could be a big decision for the Board to make in January. If we get offered £3-4m from a top Championship club they’ll have to decide whether they want to force Maynard out of the door for the financial benefit, or hold onto him to try and maintain our Championship status and lose him for nothing next summer. Unless the new manager appointment is one that intrigues him enough to sign the new deal that is still on the table.
LR: It’s good that you give full due to Pitman who was a revelation to me last Tuesday – strong, bustling, but with no little skill – he’s really shaping up to be a good acquisition.
Having flown close to the sun in that gallant expedition to the play off final against Hull, do you think a slow malaise has developed around the club? I still really enjoy Ashton Gate for its superb atmosphere but is there any latest on a possible proposed stadium move?
PB: I’m not so certain there’s a malaise as many fans — including the Board according to most of their statements — seem to think we should be near the top and challenging. I struggle to see that personally at present. Even in our play-off season our average attendance was in the bottom 10 in the division and we must now be close to the bottom with only c.11-12,000 coming through the gates. Alongside this, when he departed the Chairman’s seat in May, Steve Lansdown stated there was no bottomless pit of money and any new spending would have to be fully justified. Everyone seems to be quoting Blackpool, Norwich and Swansea as the model to follow but that’s a far, far easier thing to say than to actually do.
The latest on the new stadium is that approval is within grasping distance, but there’s enough of a protest being put up by a tiny minority of locals to be unable to put a date on the start of work. Originally residents tried to claim that the wasteland (and general rubbish dumping-ground) was actually their village green, meaning building would never be allowed. This was eventually overturned with Steve Lansdown giving up half the land that he owns as a compromise.
But it has now reached quite an incredible position where Long Ashton Parish Council (total population 4,822) has decided to spend a large amount of its parish budget to fight the case further, despite both its neighbouring County Councils (Bristol and North Somerset) approving the plans. It is beyond the vast majority of people how that sort of cost can be justified from a cash-strapped small parish council when the residents are generally in favour of the stadium and want to know where the money is for their new playground. The fear is that it all becomes too much hassle and Lansdown walks away, and that would be disastrous for our long-term future.
LR: In our joint season preview with The 72 Football, you mentioned that the club were £20 million in debt and made an £11 million loss last season, despite Lansdown’s continued welcome philanthropy as an investor — and yet the club paid the fifth highest wages in the second tier. From the outside, it would seem that City should probably regard a continued presence in this division as an achievement and that trying to match the big spending of clubs like West Ham and Leicester would be unwise. That said, Bristol City do have serious big club potential and the ground issue would appear to be key. For the first time in eons two divisions separate the two Bristol clubs — should City take advantage of this to assert themselves as the undisputed top dogs in the region?
PB: It goes back a little to my last point. The Board still feel we should be near the top challenging for promotion and have paid to try and achieve that over the past two years. As much as everyone would love that to be the case, that cannot continue in perpetuum without achieving something and there has been a steady decline over three to four years in our positioning and, as I mentioned earlier attendances have been steadily on the slide also.
I think most would accept our natural position in the football world is somewhere in the middle to lower end of this division, meaning a play-off challenge would mean slightly punching above our weight and relegation meaning we’ve slipped below our average and need to bounce back quickly. But as Southampton, both Sheffield clubs, Leeds, Forest et al can testify, no-one has a divine right to life in the top two divisions.
It’s the first time ever that the two Bristol clubs have been separated by two divisions and I just hope it lasts for at least another season! It’s been more than 10 years since Rovers were last above City in the league so I don’t feel local top-dog status is at risk and I think we have bigger fish to fry with Cardiff, Swansea (local) and possibly Reading all seeming to be more appropriate markers for where our standing could and should be.