By Alex Scott
City have had a pretty dismal twelve months. One year ago, on 2 November 2019, they sat 2nd (!) in the league, and although the performances were tailing off, promotion under Gary Bowyer was on. However, as key injuries began to mount, his tenure quickly began its endgame.
Stuart McCall in his latest return has largely been unable to arrest that slide, with the side continuing to splutter along as inconsistently as they did before he arrived.
Inconsistency isn’t their main issue, mind; their key problem is that they’re just not very good. In fact, over the last 12 months, since those heady days in the promotion places, they’ve been the equivalent of a 51-point team.
To confirm, 51 points a season doesn’t get you very far. In fact, over the last decade, that would, on average, equate to a 20th place finish in League Two, and in fact in 2013 would have got them relegated.
So, all in all, a bit of a long walk to illustrate that this team isn’t very good, and hasn’t been for a while. Time is progressing at a curious pace at the moment, but by my reckoning the last time City actually played well – a 2-1 home win against Swindon – was almost 13 months ago, which is approximately four lifetimes in 2020 years.
Now, with the above illustration in mind, it’s worth trying to put them in some historical context. Since the 1958 league re-organisation, City have always maintained their league status by hook or by re-election (Four! More! Years!) but whilst they have been bad frequently, they’ve seldom been this bad.
By my money, or to be more accurate, Wikipedia’s money, this team is the second worst side the club has fielded in over half a century, and even then, only just. The 2011-12 team were actually better in terms of goals and wins, though we are splitting inept hairs now.
So, again, an even longer walk to illustrate us that this team is not just bad, it’s historically bad.
And despite all the fun of the last eight or so years, we are – almost exactly – back where we started. A neat bookmark to the history making era. We have long left behind our era of gradual and glorious progress, but over the past twelve months, we have tumbled back to square one, leaving us trying to find the wherewithal to try scale that hill all over again.
Three straight defeats also have started the usual questions of just how we do that. Let the airing of grievances begin!
Jason made the argument for continuity and a focus on process not personality yesterday, one I broadly agree with so won’t go through the motions of reiterating. Three defeats does not a crisis make.
Though, as above, it’s not really just three defeats is it? And Tim Penfold’s beloved expected goals outcomes notwithstanding (which are surprisingly sort of okay I guess) it’s not like they’ve been unlucky recently is it?
Whatever happens, the people at the club can’t really have any complaints, it’s not like things are going well.
At this stage, I’ll be clear that my personal preference for keeping the manager is more emotional than rational, supported by a pretty strongly-held belief that a change probably won’t make any difference anyway.
We’ve seen some of these players for years now, in countless formations, and at some point we’ve got to throw up our hands and accept, they’re just not very good. Anthony O’Connor was recruited – don’t laugh – to lead us to the Championship. Every defence he’s been a part of here has been terrible, and they’re now one of the worst five sides in the land.
If we can all acknowledge that the players just aren’t very good the question of how we rescale this hill is going to take a little more thought. It’s probably not an overnight fix. They may be underachieving, but nevertheless, they’re just not very good.
So what does history tell us?
As we saw a moment ago, the closest parallel to this team in the club’s history is the 2011-12 team, which was the first Phil Parkinson year. Craig Fagan, Marcel Seip and all. That this team is as bad as that team is a reality which feels hard to grasp for me at least, but probably shouldn’t be. We’ve watched this team for a year now, how many of these players are significantly better than the players in that team?
Another thing I am finding very hard to grasp – see above the circuitous passing of time at the moment – Stuart McCall has managed us for 15 league games this stint. Fifteen! Or approximately 75 games in 2020 years.
Fifteen games really aren’t very many to judge a manager, especially when he’s used around seventeen different formations in those games.
Out of interest, I compared Stuart McCall’s first 15 league games to Phil Parkinson’s first 15 games in that 2011-12 season.
Now, notwithstanding my sort-of-half joking take on a recent podcast that in 2016-17 McCall sort-of proved himself a better manager than Phil Parkinson (look at Mark Marshall and don’t @ me), we will probably all accept Parkinson as our best ever manager, but in his first 15 games he was worse than McCall has been this stint.
Now, people were probably calling for Parkinson’s head then – as they were when he took over Bolton and Sunderland – and all were pretty compellingly proven wrong (tbd on the Black Cat Ultras). So McCall probably isn’t being treated unfairly by pressure being exerted on him by the fans. Though everyone, especially the club, should probably take a breath. It feels like longer than it’s been.
Beyond the two teams being similar, it’s worth revisiting the other parallels between these two teams. Parkinson took over mid-season after a disastrous recruitment job by a predecessor and struggled for a long time to turn them into something productive. It took him until Christmas to find a run of form, and even then remained in trouble until he unearthed Nahki Wells late in the season.
The best manager in the club’s history spent his first year fighting against a broken squad until he could reshape it in his own way, to then become the best manager in the club’s history. It’s also fair to acknowledge – whatever your view – McCall is in a not dissimilar boat.
Of all the minutes played this season, almost 80% have been used by players who were here before McCall arrived. It isn’t fair to call this his squad, in the exact same way it wasn’t fair to call that 2011-12 squad Parkinson’s even though it had Kyel Reid and Ricky Ravenhill in it.
Now, you could reasonably counter that McCall had an off-season – of sorts – to recruit whereas Parkinson was limited to free agents. And that is fair. And you could reasonably think that difference is sufficient to differentiate the two managers at this stage of their stints.
I do think it’s important to note that not only did McCall inherit a squad which wasn’t very good, he inherited one that was largely under contract for this season. And whilst the club has flexibility under the salary cap, we don’t know the flexibility of the actual cash that is available, especially during a world-altering pandemic when the club has essentially no income.
McCall could have tried to bring in a new squad, or at least more of one in the off-season. He eschewed this on the grounds that he didn’t want a big squad, and in essence put his faith in the players already under contract. Especially with the James Vaughan case, McCall has been pretty up front that he prioritised the culture, on the gamble he could then coach the players into a winning team.
Parkinson in his stint immediately brought in Kyel Reid and by a few months in was well into an ostracization process with Guy Branston and Ross Hannah, amongst others. Despite his latter prioritisation of personality first, in this first year, he got the players he needed in, and backed himself to keep the culture positive. This, in essence, is the difference between the two.
Now putting this faith in the players already at the club could very well be a fatal gamble for McCall. The side continues to be incapable of scoring any goals or keeping any clean sheets, no matter the combination. He may have preserved the culture, but potentially at the cost of his own job, if he can’t turn things around. Coaxing performances out of this squad between now and January will likely be the biggest managerial challenge of his career.
Whatever your view of his performance so far, it’s clearly not his squad. And whilst we can opine that he should have done more in the off-season, which even he would probably accept now was a mistake, we don’t know the financial situation of the club, other than it’s not very healthy. Having high earners sat about on the sidelines might not have been an option with the cash they have to hand.
The manager isn’t extracting much out of this team, but it’s still early days, even though it feels like it isn’t. There are very recent and very clear parallels that should give us optimism. This side just isn’t very good. McCall has some culpability in that he didn’t do more to improve it in the summer, but the bigger problem are the years of recruitment that got us here in the first place. From the League One playoff final to almost our worst side in 50 years in a little over three seasons.
The people who signed these players may have long gone but the people still in charge at the club, and the structures they have put in place over years should look at themselves, and their actions, before they look at McCall.
The squad value that has been squandered since the summer of 2017 is barely comprehensible. And the fact the club has been managed by eight people in that time probably has something to do with it. That should be instructive.
Epilogue. Part 1. 20 May 2017. Colin Doyle, Tony McMahon, Rory McArdle, Nat Knight-Percival, James Meredith, Mark Marshall, Josh Cullen, Romain Vincelot, Nicky Law, Billy Clarke, Charlie Wyke, Rouven Sattlemaier, Stephen Darby, Matt Kilgallon, Tim Dieng, Alex Gillead, Alex Jones, Jordy Hiwula.
Epilogue. Part 2. Shay McCartan, Jake Reeves, Joel Grodowski, Paul Taylor, Adam Chicksen, Lachlan Barr, Omari Patrick, Dominic Poleon, Josef Hefele, Jordan Gibson, Lukas Raeder, Ryan McGowan, Callum Guy, Kai Bruenker, Tom Field, Luke Hendrie, Adam Thompson, Matty Lund, Stephen Warnock, Thomas Isherwood, Anthony O’Connor, Richard O’Donnell, Ben Wilson, Hope Akpan, Billy Clarke, Calum Woods, Sean Scannell, Kelvin Mellor, Jack Payne, George Miller, Sherwin Seedorf, Connor Wood, Eoin Doyle, Josh Wright, Joe Riley, Lewis O’Brien, David Ball, Jacob Butterfield, Jermaine Anderson, Paudie O’Connor, Karl Henry, Jim O’Brien, Paul Caddis, Clayton Donaldson, Matty Palmer, Tyler French, Adam Henley, Sam Hornby, James Vaughan, Zeli Ismail, Ben Richards-Everton, Harry Pritchard, Dylan Connolly, Glenn Middleton, Aramide Oteh, Chris Taylor, Luke McGee, Dylan Mottley-Henry, Lee Novak, Callum Cooke, Kurtis Guthrie, Jamie Devitt, Levi Sutton, Billy Clarke, Gareth Evans, Elliot Watt, Bryce Hosannah, Austin Samuels.