The motivation behind this series of articles was twofold. Firstly, I got very fed up with the idea that last season’s relegation was the fault of one single person, or group of people. So much went wrong, with so many people making mistakes, that focusing blame in one direction (even if that was at Sisu) just didn’t seem possible. Sure, the actions of some clearly had a more prominent influence, but in my mind at least, things always struck me as being more complex. Being fixated on a single problem did nothing but allow the smaller issues around it to rankle further.

Secondly – and by far the more complex thing for me to deal with personally – I’ve struggled since his arrival to develop a consistent opinion on the work that Andy Thorn is doing. As the season wore on, the negativity in approach on the pitch, coupled with blind optimism off it, left me infuriated. Then we’d go and win a game, he’d throw in a quip in the post-match interview, show some of that trademark gruff emotion, and all I’d want to do is give him a hug. The lovable bastard.

I know, peculiar behaviour. But when you like a guy, you like a guy. In the same way I guess to how everyone at the club loved Michael Doyle, so would allow his regular boobs to go unrecognised.

So by diverting my attentions from the Andy Thorn argument for a little while, I hoped this may help distance that confusion (and potentially unhealthy affection) and bring some much-needed clarity and balance to my thinking.

As with the other pieces, I want to look at the different perspectives rather than fully argue the toss one way or the other – at least that’s the intention. He’s done some good, and he’s done some bad. But it’s simply not possible, given the mitigating circumstances with the lack of support from the owners, to say unequivocally; it’s all his fault.

What I want to do is collate some pieces of the argument that I’ve been battling about with in my mind the last 9 months. What has he done wrong, where has he got things right, what are the mitigating factors, and most importantly seeing as he’s going to be here next year, where would I like him to improve.

So, Thorny. AT. The Thornmeister General. Andy. Whatever you want to call him or your thoughts towards the guy – let’s deal with the facts first. He is still the manager who has taken us down to League One. I went through the players individually in my last post, and came to the conclusion that there was more than enough there to have kept us in the division, if they’d performed to the standards that we’ve seen many of them do before. Andy Thorn is the manager of this group, and was unable to bring that out of them. Why is that? Here’s what I think.

I’m a little cynical of the whole idea of motivation as a measurable trait of a manager. At least not the conventional idea of what constitutes a motivator.

There were endless complaints talking it being his job to “motivate” the players. Personally, I see a difference between the Mike Bassett-style ranting and raving which is motiviation in the romantic sense of the word, and the underlying influence a manager can have on a team by instilling a level of expectancy and ambition in them.

Brian Clough for instance, was a character who was often seen by many as the ultimate motivator – with that ability to get the best out of players and to somehow push them to find an extra level. Yes, he’d shout and bawl, and command respect from his players, but from the documentaries and listening to the players who played under him, it was the enforcement of high standards which always struck me as the most important of his methods. Any manager can shout and rally the troops at half-time, but if behind that is the understanding that 6 rated performance will be enough to keep everyone happy – the real pressure to perform isn’t actually there.

I’ve no doubt that Thorn can scream and shout with the best of them, but I’d argue that it’s the cultural (and potentially sub-conscious) standard that players believe to be acceptable which drives success and consistency. Excuse the extreme example, but if you place Cyrus Christie in the West Ham team, and watch him slash the ball out of play in utter panic – he’d be crucified (whether he’s a kid or not). Not for making a mistake particularly, but more for the intention of his actions and the ease at which he reliquished possession. There’s a standard.

At Coventry, that sort of behaviour on the pitch was regularly seen, and it was accepted, and possibly even enforced because of the tactics and the messages from the sides.

I’m in danger of hi-jacking my final posts in this series which look at the coaching team as a whole, and the culture at the club, but I think the point I’m trying to make is that I see Thorn’s biggest fault being the accepted level set for the team approach and performances.

He spoke very openly about wanting the team to keep the ball, and how often we were the better team in the match. That’s all very admirable. But this style was when there was little pressing of them, so this idea became little more than an illusion, and possibly blinded him from some of the other methods which fundamentally impacted on the standard of football that the players took on to the pitch.

He could talk all day long about being a passing side – believe me, I’m the biggest advocate for being sensible in possession and valuing the ball – but seeing as one of our core tactics was to bring every single player back into our own penalty for each corner, that decision ultimately filtered through and had an impact on various other aspects of the game. In its simplest form, this left us with no outlet if ever the ball dropped to us from the set-piece, resulting in a hoof up field or high-risk pass, at which point we’d find ourselves soon defending again.

It’s these sorts of tactics, and the time-wasting and apparent reluctance to push for victory, that really frustrated fans – it certainly wound me up. The formation and mindset was regularly a defensive one, so when we needed to force the issue and grab an equaliser (it was never to grab a winner), the players seemed unable to adapt and had little ideas. There was a mix of players happy to hoof it, players hoping to keep possession but with no attacking options, and Joe Murphy whose sole aim in every game was to waste as much time as possible if it meant avoiding defeat. Even when wins were vital.

His philosophy when he took up the role was solid and progressive, but I just wonder how many factors contributed to the eventual degradation of this approach, and subsequent creation of what must be the world’s worst “passing” team. Somewhere, there was the influence and direction to keep the ball, but this became so diluted that it evolved into little more than a pass or two between Keogh and Cranie, while the rest of the team outright refused to offer for the ball or break from their defensive mindsets.

Could this really be all him? Or was this the result of a conflict of messages confusing the hell out of the players? I’m postulating now, but there’s certainly been a decline in technical standards since Steve Harrison has been responsible for coaching, and as I’ve mentioned many times before – I can’t help but wonder how much the resulting product on the pitch is Thorn’s vision, and how much is the creation of Harrison’s tactics. Thorn’s got the title, so the buck must stop with him, but the assistant manager has huge responsibility in coaching the team – and given his experience, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s helping guide an inexperienced Thorn along.

One to build on for the next post, I think.

The final, and most recognised mitigating factor, has been the support given by Sisu to Thorn to do his job.

Okay, he must have knew what he was getting himself in for when he took the role. But surely even he couldn’t have imagined how the summer would turn out for him.

To lose the players he did was tricky enough – it wasn’t just the big names that was the problem, the sheer volume of bodies leaving the door greatly restricted his options. But to then be given scope to bring in just three reinforcements (two of those Goalkeepers) – well, that left him with a huge problem.

His first team should have been able to perform. The issue he had was how restricted his options to change things were. There’s little denying that whatever the complexities behind coaching, motivating and tactics during a game, the biggest influence any manager can have on a match is by bringing on a fresh player to affect the game or replace someone who is performing badly.

Thorn didn’t have those options. Not really. Another criticism you’ll hear of him goes back to his scouting days, and how he recommended many of the players so can’t complain. But let’s not forget – he will have done so for a very different team dynamic. Do any of us really believe that he suggested Carl Baker to Coleman because he was going to be a star first-teamer? No, of course not. A lot of the players were brought in to supplement the first teamers in previous squads, but given their level, were never planned first teamers themselves. They should be able to perform or have enough ability to perform at the level when needed, but they weren’t reliable star performers – they were truly squad players.

For this side of things, I do sympathise with him. Coupling the squad he had with the savage injury problems at times, can you imagine what he must have felt looking back at the bench and seeing Roy O’Donovan and Sky Blue pissing Sam waving back as his only salvation. Lord almighty.

But it was the mistakes in approach and as with other managers, the possible inability to recognise these problems, which I’d point to as being his main errors.

The worry we have now is that it’s looking likely that we will enter our League One campaign with a similarly depleted squad. Forgetting the financial issues, we all want, hope and expect next season to be a whole lot better than the last. To do that, we have to lose the negative mindset and improve the standards that should be embedded in all that we do on the football pitch.

There surely has to also be a recognition by Thorn of the mistakes he made himself too – not just focus all his blame at the circumstances around the club. That’s lazy. The support he’s had from fans is unprecedented, because most understand his frustrations at the restrictions he has to work under, but he has to be clear – there was more to our relegation than that.

Has he got enough about him to identify and acknowledge the mistakes, the courage to question the methods of him and his coaching team, and most importantly, the conviction to enforce changes to his techniques?

We can only hope. It’s going to be another long season otherwise.

 


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