So much has changed since Owen Coyle was sacked from Bolton Wanderers a year ago
ON the face of it there seems very little difference between the situation in which Wanderers currently find themselves and the one that got Owen Coyle the sack exactly one year ago.
Back then a wildly inconsistent side that had just dropped out of the Premier League was heading into an international break sitting 18th with three wins from their first 10 games, smarting from an ugly defeat at Millwall.
As things stand now, Dougie Freedman’s team have timed their return to form perfectly, recovering from a 10-game winless streak to beat Birmingham City on Saturday; and now sit 20th with eight points.
Neither league position comes close to where the club, nor its fans, want to be.
But realisation is now dawning at the Reebok. Twelve months ago Wanderers had simply failed to grasp what would be needed to bounce back at the first time of asking.
In their defence, Coyle and his squad had been through a lot. And the mental strains of relegation, the Fabrice Muamba episode and any number of crippling injuries had all contributed to a team that had lost its edge.
Should those problems have been spotted earlier? Had the Scot made more significant changes that summer and brought some sturdier characters to the club to complement his Premier League quality, a very different story could have unfolded.
His unwavering belief that fortunes would change was based on the faith he had in the squad he had created.
Is it telling, however, that four months into his reign at Wigan Athletic, Coyle has not signed a single one of the players under his charge at Bolton.
For his successor the task appeared to be to take an under-performing group and turn them into promotion contenders. Clues gained over the last year show the job was much bigger than that.
Gradually, through Sam Allardyce, Sammy Lee, Gary Megson and then Coyle, a playing budget had been built up that was simply unsustainable for a club of Wanderers’ size – let alone one in the Championship.
Financial Fair Play was voted in to add yet more scrutiny to the club’s finances and so it became more than a case of Eddie Davies simply investing more cash.
A complete new business model had to be created.
Time will tell whether Wanderers have been successful on that front, suffice to say that accounts due out later this year are unlikely to make pleasant reading.
The changes are not confined to the bank balance, however, and Freedman’s biggest task in taking over from Coyle was to attempt to transform the attitude within the whole football club.
Despite fighting tooth and nail to bring in free transfers like Alex Baptiste and Marc Tierney, or cheaper, bonus-related deals like Jermaine Beckford over the summer, you sensed Freedman would have liked to have done more business if he had been able to.
The squad that turned up for pre-season this summer was not recognisably different to the one Coyle could have selected from his last day in charge at The Den.
Yes, they were the same side who had finished the second half of the previous campaign on the up, missing out on the play-offs by one goal, but also very close to the one who had wilted under the pressure in the Premier League and in Coyle’s final days in the Championship. Freedman’s recent decision to add three loanees – Kevin McNaughton from Cardiff, Liam Feeney from Millwall and Neil Danns from Leicester City, could prove a landmark moment.
It was the first post-Coyle admission that character was lacking.
The bench at Blackpool last Tuesday night totalled around £15million in transfer fees, excluding the price paid at tribunal for youngster Rob Hall. Five of the seven had been signed by Coyle.
It was a bold statement from the manager but signalled a change in results that probably didn’t save his job – as there was no indication that it was under immediate threat. It certainly bought him some time with the frustrated supporters.
How the big earners react, especially some who are in the final year of their Reebok deal, will be very interesting to see in the coming weeks.
Freedman is now shopping in a very different store to the man sacked 12 months ago and, if Wanderers do return to the big time, aiming to ensure their place at the top table is not taken for granted as it may have been in the past.
***** SO one year down the line, are Wanderers better off for having sacked Owen Coyle and replaced him with Dougie Freedman? We break down the key areas.
On the staffing front, Freedman seems to have a more proactive backroom with old hand Lennie Lawrence and ‘sergeant major’ Curtis Fleming calling the shots and a beefed-up medical and analytical team.
Coyle had a trusted team behind him but his hands-on approach perhaps denied him a chance of looking at the overall failings of his team.
Rejecting the offer of help from Sammy Lee was also a mistake.
Coyle lost only Nigel Reo-Coker from the squad relegated from the Premier League and added a few experienced heads like Andy Lonergan, Keith Andrews and Matt Mills.
Some believe his reluctance to take a clean broom to the squad was a major contributing factor in his sacking.
Freedman has had to strip down the squad further – with the likes of Martin Petrov and Kevin Davies leaving and Marcos Alonso sold.
Others have been allowed out on loan and the squad currently looks thinner than it did 12 months ago.
Freedman was praised last season for the organisation he brought to the side – and his midfield possession game worked wonders in the post-January surge.
Things haven’t gone anywhere near as well this season, although there has been improvement in the last two outings. Coyle wanted to play attractive football, with traditional wingers like Martin Petrov, and when things were going well the team were a joy to watch. After and during relegation the players resorted too much to direct football and there did not seem to be an alternative to the 4-4-2 system he used in the better times.
Coyle’s dressing room was always upbeat and the manager’s motivational qualities were one of his main strengths.
Even on his departure there were no rifts but critics would suggest that a harder-line approach would have brought some into line. The oft-quoted table tennis culture was an area of concern.
Freedman arrived with the opposite approach. Early changes to the training schedules and way of life at Euxton put some noses out of joint – but the end result has been a more straightforward working environment. The Scot runs a tight ship.
Coyle was sacked after winning three of the first 10 matches of the season. But results had been on the wane for a long time prior to that decision. Wanderers lost eight out of the last 10 games of 2011/12 – including THAT FA Cup semi-final against Stoke. Between August and December 2012 the Whites lost 14 out of 17 games.
Freedman took a while to turn the ship round but seemed to have done so after winning nine out of 12 games in February and April last season, eventually missing out on the play-offs by a single goal. The less said about this season’s start – the longest winless stretch from the start of a campaign in 111 years the better.