COMMENT: Andy Robinson and Liam Middleton's partnership at Bristol Rugby can thrive - just look at Yeovil Town's Gary Johnson and Terry Skiverton
At Huish Park last weekend, shortly after Yeovil Town had beaten Scunthorpe United to briefly move up to third in the League One, both Gary Johnson and Terry Skiverton soaked up the adulation of the home support.
Those who stayed to cheer and applaud the players off the field chanted Skiverton’s name and sang a song about Johnson, with both acknowledging their public before returning to the home changing room to celebrate an eighth straight league victory.
But there were no guarantees it would work out this way. When former Bristol City manager Johnson returned to Yeovil last January, it meant Skiverton – who had been in charge for three years – dropping down to the role of assistant manager.
For the partnership to work, Skiverton had to buy into it, put any egotistical thoughts to one side, and work hard for the good of the club. The onus was really on the former Yeovil captain to make the alliance work. And it most certainly has worked.
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Yeovil were two points adrift of safety when the change took place; they ended up in 17th place, 11 points clear of danger. This season has been even more impressive. With 14 matches to play in League One, Yeovil already have more than the 54 points they accumulated in the whole of last season.
A team, who, since being promoted to League One in 2005 have only once finished higher than 14th, are now serious promotion contenders. And, while Johnson’s role in their rise is obviously significant, do not underestimate the part Skiverton – who had to swallow his pride and show great humility 13 months ago – has played.
I mention the Johnson-Skiverton dynamic not because of Yeovil’s stunning season to date – although, like Swindon Town’s triumph against off-field distraction, it is an incredible story. Yeovil’s budget is understood to be dwarfed by those of their promotion rivals.
No, I mention it because of a recent appointment in another sport. Bristol Rugby this week unveiled Andy Robinson as their new director of rugby, which effectively places him above the head coach, Liam Middleton, when he begins work this Friday.
The success of the partnership, much with Johnson and Skiverton’s, will hinge on Middleton, and whether he is willing to make it work and, to use a popular term of sporting parlance, buy in to it. Robinson has signed a contract until 2017, so his role is secure, and, having never previously worked with Middleton, there is no emotional attachment in the way there was when Johnson and Skiverton linked up.
But the basic premise is identical. As with the Yeovil Town board at the beginning of last year, those running Bristol – notably owner Steve Lansdown and chairman Chris Booy – have decided that the rugby management side of the club requires the presence of an experienced, proven leader at the helm to help guide a young coach in his first big job.
The early indications are that Middleton, much like Skiverton, is very much on board.
“I’m not an egotistical coach – my role as head coach remains as it is and I’ll continue to do that, but this will definitely allow me to do it better,” he said this week. “That’s what I’m excited about.”
Robinson has made positive sounds, too, saying he will respect Middleton’s position and confirming: “From the meetings I’ve had so far with Liam, I’ve been really pleased with the discussions we’ve had. I’m looking forward to working with him and the other coaches, the management and the players to create a successful team.”
Rugby and football are clearly very different sports, with very different cultures, but professionalism has driven them closer together in many respects – and that is why the parallels between Johnson’s Yeovil and Robinson’s Bristol are valid.
Recalling his first meeting with Johnson before agreeing to stay on as assistant, Skiverton said: “We talked about our philosophies, the way he wanted to move forward, and he said ‘I think this will work, but I really need you to buy in to it’. You can’t walk away just because of pride. I’m here to leave a legacy with someone who was a real figurehead for the football club.”
Robinson has not worked at Bristol before, but he has been a figurehead in the game of rugby – at Bath, England, Edinburgh and Scotland. With Bristol seeking promotion back to the Aviva Premiership – and now matching their words about ambition with heavyweight financial backing – snapping up a man of Robinson’s calibre was a sensible decision.
The way forward must be mapped out carefully – but there are precedents for such arrangements working out – and not just down the A37 in football, but in rugby, too.
When Bath narrowly avoided relegation in 2003, at Bristol’s expense, then-owner Andrew Brownsword sanctioned the appointment of John Connolly, an experienced and proven Australian head coach, to oversee first-team affairs and relieve the pressure on the two young coaches in charge of Bath at the time – Mike Foley and Brian Smith.
The following season, Bath finished top of the Premiership, while Foley and Smith went on to become successful coaches in their own right.
The opportunity is there for Middleton to learn from Robinson and help Bristol back to the dizzy heights – he just has to grasp it. Fortunately, the early indications are that, just like Skiverton, Foley and Smith before him, he is more than willing to do so, both for the sake of his club and his own career.