COMMENT: There will always be casualties in a revolution - as Liam Middleton discovers to his cost at Bristol Rugby
LIAM Middleton was dismissed as Bristol head coach after back-to-back defeats against Nottingham and Moseley – but the writing had been on the wall for him for much longer.
The minute Bristol fell apart in Penzance last May, losing 45-24 to Cornish Pirates in the Championship semi-final – despite having finished top of the table – there were questions about his leadership.
The minute they collapsed at Nottingham in November, losing 63-7, the doubts about his long-term future at the club again surfaced.
The minute they appointed Andy Robinson as director of rugby last month, it was clear the club’s board felt Middleton was not equipped to take them to the next level.
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Since Robinson’s arrival, Middleton had effectively been taking part in a live audition every working day. We found out yesterday that he had failed that audition, unable to convince Robinson he would be able to contribute enough in terms of taking the club back to the Aviva Premiership.
Too often during Middleton’s reign, Bristol were unpredictable – following up an impressive victory with a bewildering defeat.
Too often, they seemed susceptible to the kind of collapse they suffered at Cornish Pirates in last season’s semi-final. In that game, Bristol led 17-3 – and, with 17 minutes to play, they were 24-19 in front. But they disintegrated when it mattered most, losing 45-24 to give themselves far too much to do in the return leg.
At Leeds in September, they fell 27-0 down at half-time, eventually losing 50-31, while the 63-7 drubbing at Nottingham was so bad it prompted chairman Chris Booy to publicly claim he would not be making any knee-jerk reactions as far as Middleton’s position was concerned.
The recovery from that loss at Meadow Lane was impressive enough, with Bristol – who had lost four of their first six league games of the season – winning 11 of their next 12 in all competitions.
But the one blemish in that impressive run came again at the Mennaye in Penzance, a venue – much like Moseley’s Billesley Common – that will probably torment Middleton for the rest of his coaching career and possibly even his life.
The past few weeks have effectively been a microcosm of Middleton’s reign as Bristol head coach – a quite remarkable win at Bedford being followed by defeats to Nottingham and Moseley. Too often under him, it felt as if it was one step forward, two steps back, while some of his selections have baffled even those who launched the most emphatic defences of his record.
In many ways, though, Middleton was a victim of his own success. For a start, he put right many of the wrongs from the shambolic 2010-11 season earlier than anyone could realistically have expected.
Bristol finished eighth in 2010-11, scraping into the play-offs. In 2011-12, at the end of Middleton’s first season as head coach, they finished top of both the main Championship table and their play-off pool.
Middleton improved their fortunes dramatically and quickly – but, without a strong relegated Premiership team in the Championship last season, the harsh reality is that the improvement he oversaw was not quite dramatic or quick enough.
With a strong Newcastle being relegated last summer, Bristol had missed a golden opportunity to get back into the Premiership – and Middleton never quite recovered from that.
Far too often, succeeding in professional sport boils down to taking the opportunities that come your way. Middleton’s Bristol were found wanting in Penzance – and, perhaps more so than defeats against Moseley, Leeds or Nottingham, or any of the many superb victories he enjoyed, that heavy loss will provide the strongest image of his reign.
There were highlights, of course, with his record against perennial Championship high-flyers Bedford particularly impressive, and a 26-20 win at eventual champions London Welsh last April hinting at brighter things that did not quite arrive.
He was more Harare than Hartcliffe – but despite not growing up in the city, he immersed himself in the club’s culture and ways, even if his constant references to ‘Bristol Fashion’ sounded a little contrived and even corny.
But Middleton was genuinely eager to develop a conveyor belt of homegrown players. The progress of Jack Tovey, George Watkins, Ben Glynn, Marco Mama and Mitch Eadie reflects well on his ability to develop talent – and his calling may eventually be as a top-level academy coach.
That is not to say he will not make the grade in a lead role somewhere – Middleton is only 35 and, by his own admission, still has plenty to learn.
He had hoped to learn much of that from Robinson – the former England, Scotland, British & Irish Lions, Bath and Edinburgh coach – who recently arrived at the club. But the new director of rugby has decided otherwise.
Steve Lansdown has shown with the recent signings that have been announced, including the arrival of Robinson, that he is serious about making Bristol a major rugby force again.
But there will always be casualties in a revolution – as Middleton, a decent man who did a good but not quite good enough job, has just discovered to his cost.