17 March ~ On Saturday, Coventry City lost 1-0 at home to Hull, the latest bad result in a miserable run of one win in 16 games. On Monday, the chairman, former player Ray Ranson, sacked Aidy Boothroyd, the club’s ninth manager in ten seasons. Given the team’s dismal form – since Christmas, they have belly-flopped from fifth in the Championship to 19th – Ranson is on fairly safe ground. In addition to the dreadful results, Boothroyd can be hard to like. His fortune-cookie-meets-Andy-McNab brand of wisdom (“Comfort zones are the enemy of the successful”) is ridiculous enough when you’re fifth; it's even harder to stomach when you are 19th and have just been cuffed 4-1 at home by Bristol City.
Boothroyd’s approach to the game, best described as Sam Allardyce without the pie charts, is also hard to love. Indeed, plenty of supporters expressed dissatisfaction with this “direct” style from the outset, even when it was maintaining the team in a play-off position. Boothroyd accepted this criticism but stressed that it was simply “work-in-progress” while he built the team in his image: the result of this building – which would presumably have reconciled the technique and imagination of Barcelona with the aerial threat of tree-like striker Clive Platt – would become evident as soon as he had explained to journeyman defender Richard Keogh exactly what was required. Until then, we would have to be satisfied with good results. When those fell away, and stopped masking the ugly football, his position was always going to be vulnerable.
Ranson referred to the ugliness of Boothroyd’s style when explaining the dismissal, saying the players had stopped responding and that fans had complained. But if aesthetics were among the criteria for the City job, Boothroyd would never have been hired in the first place. By mentioning style, Ranson was knowingly exploiting a source of supporter discontent to cloud the issue. The real problem was simply that the team had stopped winning or, in Ranson’s words, started “underperforming”. And, while Boothroyd is culpable for the team’s reliance on the long ball, the board must know that his responsibility for their general “underperformance” is more debatable.
Indeed, it could be argued that Boothroyd’s side weren’t even underperforming. Yes, results have declined dramatically in comparison to the first half of this season but, since 2007, when the SISU hedge fund took control of the club, Coventry have recorded league finishes of 21st, 17th, and 19th. Ranson’s insistence that a similar finish this season would constitute “underperformance” rests on the belief that the current team is the best “since the club got relegated”.
But from where is this improvement supposed to have come? The squad has not received significant investment since Boothroyd took the job. In fact, when attempting to demonstrate this increased quality, Ranson was forced to name players such as Freddy Eastwood, Aaron Gunnarsson and Sammy Clingan, all of who have played for City in previous disappointing seasons. These are hardly persuasive arguments for Boothroyd’s squandering of galáctico-style resources – they simply prove how little the squad has changed. Boothroyd’s team wasn’t appealing, and it wasn’t very good, but it wasn’t underperforming either.
The reason behind Ranson’s disingenuous claim of underperformance lies at the heart of the sacking: the squad is barely strong enough to subsist in the Championship, and has not been for the last few seasons. Somebody has to take the blame for that disappointment, and if the manager is not culpable, then the owners are. It’s an obvious conclusion, but it’s one that Ranson and SISU can’t acknowledge: if they do, they will have to answer difficult questions about why they won’t invest in the club, or sell it to somebody who will. And until they’re ready to answer those questions, it is easier for them to explain the lack of progress by pointing the finger at somebody like Boothroyd. Ed Wilson