COMMENT: Bristol football's Scottish gamble has backfired
WITHOUT wishing to put too fine a point upon it, Bristol football's Scottish experiment has ended in abject failure.
Few of those on either side of Bristol's football divide would have argued with the decisions to place Derek McInnes and Mark McGhee in charge of Rovers and City respectively at the time they were taken.
Indeed, the pair presided over an initial upturn in fortunes at the Memorial Stadium and Ashton Gate and Bristolians of both a red and blue persuasion were prepared to trust in men who, for the most part, had learned their trade north of the border.
Unfortunately, perceptions alter quickly in the kaleidoscopic world of professional football and opinion among City and Rovers fans polarised as optimism was gradually eroded by sub-standard performances and results and replaced by a festering discontent that manifested itself in falling attendance.
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Having guided Rovers to safety and a respectable mid-table finish in League Two last season, McGhee was expected to spend wisely in the transfer market during the summer and preside over a push for the play-offs this term.
But the reality proved altogether different and the Pirates, slow to come out of the blocks in August and hampered by a bewildering casualty list, embarked upon a slide so alarming that it concluded with the team slipping into the relegation zone and McGhee receiving his cards in the aftermath of a humiliating 4-1 defeat at York last month.
When City defeated Crystal Palace 4-1 and Cardiff 4-2 within the space of four heady days in late August, few Ashton Gate regulars would have predicted a similar denouement south of the river.
Having achieved his initial objective of keeping the Robins in the Championship during his first season at the helm, McInnes orchestrated a mass changing of the guard in the summer, moving 13 players out and bringing eight in to imprint his own character on the squad.
Although early-season optimism did not fade quite as quickly as it had on the other side of town, as August gave way to September, it became evident all was not quite as it should be in BS3.
While newcomers Steven Davies and Sam Baldock set about transforming the Robins into a free-scoring team, a defence that was in urgent need of a makeover repeatedly let the side down. City's inability to keep a clean sheet proved an Achilles heel, draining confidence and undermining everything the manager and his staff tried to achieve.
By the time Leicester triumphed 4-0 at Ashton Gate on Saturday, City had shipped an astonishing 54 goals in 26 Championship games and had sunk to the bottom of the table. They are still the only one of the 92 professional clubs in England and Wales not to have shut out the opposition this season.
A wretched record of 13 defeats in the last 19 games resulted in McInnes losing his job almost a month to the day after Rovers parted company with McGhee.
Hindsight is a marvellous thing and, no doubt, a good many of those who welcomed McGhee and McInnes with open arms will now be questioning the decision to appoint them in the first place. Such behaviour derives from human nature and has to be endured.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the risks that were inherent in employing McInnes and McGhee. In both cases, club directors took a calculated gamble, only for it to backfire badly.
Although McGhee's CV included previous managerial experience in England at Reading, Leicester, Wolves, Brighton and Millwall, he had not worked south of the border since 2006.
He lost touch with the English game while working at Motherwell and Aberdeen and then spent almost two years out of the game after leaving Pittodrie in 2010.
Certainly, McGhee's knowledge of League Two was questionable and his transfer dealings, team selection and tactics suggested a man not yet fully cognisant of the basic qualities needed to succeed in the basement division.
Similarly, McInnes had no managerial experience at Championship level when he succeeded Keith Millen as City boss in October 2011. Having proved immensely successful in his first job in charge at St Johnstone, he sought to deploy the same methods that had served him so well in Perth in his new role in England.
Although there were notable exceptions to the rule, he tended to look to his native country when recruiting staff and players and Ashton Gate resembled a little Scotland by the start of this season.
The problem with that was, the players he brought in from north of the border were no better than the ones they replaced and, in some cases, not even as good. The point I am making is a blueprint for success in Scotland does not guarantee anything in what is a very different environment in the English second tier.
As results and performances dropped off and McInnes began to come under pressure for the first time, his methods increasingly resembled those deployed by his fellow countryman on the other side of the city.
Injuries had a part to play, but McInnes started to tinker with his team, constantly chopping and changing and sometimes fielding players out of position in pursuit of a winning formula and that elusive first clean sheet. By the time he had presided over a club-record-equalling seven successive defeats in October and November, City's team bore little resemblance to the one that had brushed aside Crystal Palace and Cardiff earlier in the season.
When the injuries cleared up and results and performances still did not improve materially, disgruntled supporters began to question the manager's team selection and tactics. Discontent reached a crescendo when the Scot inexplicably omitted top-scorer Baldock from his starting line-up at Millwall on New Year's Day, even though he had netted twice in a 4-2 victory over Peterborough just 72 hours earlier.
By the end, the manager's insistence on counter-acting and stifling the opposition meant he had lost sight of his best 11 and appeared to be applying negative rather than positive criteria to team selection.
In accounting for a meagre return of 17 wins in 63 games, the Scot's failure to address weaknesses at the heart of his defence can be seen as a key factor. It was already apparent that City were crying out for a dominant, first-ball-winning centre-half last season; indeed, McInnes acknowledged the problem when recruiting Andre Amougou on loan to help the Robins escape the drop towards the end of last season.
Yet, all subsequent attempts to lure a centre-half of similar ilk to Ashton Gate met with failure, Richard Keogh, Anthony Gerrard and Elliott Ward snubbing City in favour of rival Championship clubs and Swansea veteran Garry Monk electing to take his chance at the Liberty Stadium rather than drop a level.
McInnes brought in Stephen McManus on loan and offered a short-term contract to Matthew Bates in an increasingly desperate attempt to plug the gaps. In the circumstances, his refusal to use Louis Carey when fit was rather puzzling. Even at 36, the Bristolian is considered by many observers to be City's best defender.
Ironically, McInnes was close to signing Kyle McFadzean, Crawley's abrasive, no-nonsense centre-back when he was relieved of his duties.
Recruitment during what remains of the January transfer window will now become another manager's responsibility and the focus has necessarily shifted on to McInnes' successor.
The next appointment can be seen as an acid test for a board of directors that has undergone a good deal of change in recent times. Sources within Ashton Gate suggest majority shareholder Steve Lansdown will not have the final say and will encourage a board comprising his son, Jon, chairman Keith Dawe and director Doug Harmon, to identify and select a manager who can help save City from relegation.
Given he is the man who will have to foot the financial bill, that is hard to believe. Nevertheless, McInnes has gone and now the time has arrived when those charged with the day-to-day running of the club will be judged.
Lansdown favoured Mark Robins when last City were required to find a new manager, yet others, led by then-chairman Colin Sexstone, persuaded him that McInnes was the right man. But the majority shareholder seems certain to have the final say on this occasion.
Of course, whatever course of action they decide upon, the board will still need to win over sceptical City fans, many of whom believe the decision to remove McInnes should have been taken sooner.
Having backed him after awful home performances against Charlton and Wolves in November and December, the board were prepared to let McInnes spend money in the January transfer window. But the nature of Saturday's defeat to Leicester forced a sudden change of heart and Lansdown senior and his cohorts felt they had no alternative.
Given the way events unfolded, it is unlikely they have a ready-made replacement up their sleeves and they must now work against the clock to appoint a manager while he still has time to operate in the transfer market.
But the club's new and publicly-stated recruitment policy will rule out a good many potential candidates and limit their choice. City's avowed strategy of signing young players instead of expensive older ones may be admirable in some ways, but not all managers are prepared to work under such constraints.
First and foremost, the man who eventually succeeds McInnes must be willing and able to operate within the confines imposed by a board that is responsible for tackling a debt that now totals in excess of £41 million.
City have twice employed young managers on the relative cheap and may now wish to go for a more experienced campaigner to get them out of trouble in the 20 games that remain. But that costs money.
Based on the assumption that you get what you pay for, City's insistence upon value for money may yet hasten a return to League One.