Football League Round-Up: Birmingham City Sack Steve Cotterill

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 04 March 2018, 20:39

The Championship witnessed another sacking over the weekend after Steve Cotterill was sacked by Birmingham City. Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) takes an in-depth look at his Blues departure, along with four other Football League talking points.

Cotterill out the door

Steve Cotterill has left his post as Birmingham City boss after Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Nottingham Forest. The parting ends a 27-game tenure during which the 53-year-old suffered a bad relationship with supporters, which was based on more than just results.

Blues have taken more points than five other teams since his October appointment and conceded fewer than seven, having won just six games in the preceding 10 months. It is important to recognize that Cotterill worked hard to address the problems and his exit – which means appointing a sixth manager in 15 months – does not equal the end of them.

However, there were two key areas where the former Bristol City boss fell. Firstly, defensive tactics: the likes of Cheikh N’Doye and Maikel Kieftenbeld have played in the number 10 role, largely due to what they might offer without the ball, which leaves the Blues lacking quality in transitional phases and that’s reflected in a return of 16 league goals in 24.

The other problem was his apparent reluctance to face criticism. Walking past dissenting away supporters who had paid hefty sums to go to Fulham, without any acknowledgement of the performance in defeat, will sadly be a defining memory of his tenure.

The divide he was partly responsible for creating made his job harder: every defeat led to an immediate inquest, while any win felt like a reprieve rather than cause for celebration. Blues had a run of victories after Christmas to haul themselves away from the bottom three, but then came the turning point.

Cotterill made heavy changes for an FA Cup clash with Huddersfield – which Blues lost 4-1 after extra-time – in hope of a fresh performance in the Second City Derby the following Sunday. That didn’t materialize though and while on paper, a defeat away to prime automatic promotion contenders was no disaster, the perceived lack of fight in the performance grated with fans.

Morale has since deteriorated rapidly with similar displays against Brentford, Millwall and Barnsley, making Cotterill’s position untenable. While Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Nottingham Forest might have looked like the final straw, the performance was improved, so it might be that the board had made up their mind prior to kick-off.

Most Birmingham fans are understandably pleased that Cotterill has gone – but the issues at the club show no signs of following in his wake.

Picking Cash pays for Karanka

Nottingham Forest’s 2-1 win over Birmingham could not be described as a classic; the only discernible difference between the two sides was the quality of the shooting.

Joe Lolley, a boyhood Aston Villa fan, enjoyed his third goal in his seventh appearance against the Blues in the sixth minute. He latched onto Lee Tomlin’s clever flick before driving into space and shooting inside the near-post, helped by some suspect goalkeeping from David Stockdale.

Their visitors got into a presentable area on three occasions in the first half, but poor end product allowed Forest to hold onto the lead. They needed a couple of saves after the break from Costel Pantilimon, who appears to have progressed since his performance against Hull a couple of weeks ago.

The Romanian got a hand to Sam Gallagher’s header before parrying Lukas Jutkiewicz’s long-range effort, but Aitor Karanka’s men could also have added a second: Matty Cash’s rasping drive had earlier hit the bar.

Cash, who had looked bright and inventive all afternoon, deserved his goal on 79 minutes. He picked up a delicious cross-field ball from fellow academy graduate Ben Osborn – an auxiliary left-back – before driving low inside the far post.

Michael Morrison’s 87th minute header was enough to make the scoreline more reflective of the contest, but not enough to deny Forest back-to-back wins for the first time since October. Cash, who has improved immeasurably under Karanka, was of great value to his side.

Wednesday’s tough trip home

The 320-mile round trip from Sheffield to Bristol is not the easiest jaunt on the best of days, but it was especially arduous for Wednesday fans in Saturday’s conditions. They had a right therefore to feel somewhat let down by their side’s performance in a 4-0 loss at Bristol City.

It might have been argued pre-match that the climate might suit The Owls, who scored their goals in last week’s 4-2 defeat to Villa through set pieces and crosses. Any notion of optimism though went out of the window before the quarter-hour mark, when Wednesday deservedly fell behind.

Bobby Reid and Josh Brownhill executed a one-two sufficiently slick to make perplexed trio Federico Venancio, Daniel Pudil and Joey Pelupessy look like they didn’t exist, before Reid prodded home. Reid grabbed his second after a similar one-two with Marlon Pack on 35 minutes and Wednesday’s defence would be carved upon yet again before the half-time whistle sounded.

When auxiliary centre-back Pudil foolishly tried to close down Reid too far up the pitch without the adequate cover, the outcome was predictable: Venancio had to close in on Jamie Paterson, thus vacating space for Brownhill to tuck home from close range.

That goal rendered the second half a formality, but there was still room for the visitors’ performance to get worse. Tom Lees, who had replaced Pudil at the break, tried to play out from the back but none of his teammates moved, so the ex-Leeds man got caught in possession before Liam Palmer fouled Marlon Pack in the box.

Bobby Reid completed his impressive hat-trick from the resultant penalty – he and Bristol City deserve great credit for staying true to their principles in arduous conditions. The absence of a similarly firm identity at Sheffield Wednesday has given way to an apparent divide, which performances like the one on Severnside will do little to repair.

Another late show from Preston’s young guns

Sean Maguire had been out injured for four months, but he certainly made up for lost time on Saturday: the Irishman came off the bench to score twice and give Preston North End a richly deserved 3-1 win at Bolton Wanderers.

Not only did his double ensure his side stayed within three points of the play-off places, it also means that they now have a better record in the last 15 minutes of matches than any other side. For that, much credit should go to the club’s recruitment team, who have brought in players with unyielding energy and hunger.

When judging a signing, we often consider what that player has achieved or how many goals they have scored at the relevant level. Preston though, could be making us re-consider those principles.

Maguire has had positive spells with Cork City and Accrington Stanley in the last few years but given his lack of exposure at Championship level, he arrived at Deepdale with something to prove. Similar judgements could have been made about Tom Barkhuizen, whose only second-tier involvement prior to signing was 21 games – some questionably at wing-back – for a sinking Blackpool side.

Barkhuizen has been a hit and scored the equalizer on Saturday, while Callum Robinson – who was barely given an opportunity at Aston Villa – was always willing to press in wide areas. That tenacious attack allows Preston to not only win the ball high up the pitch, but also attack instantly in the transitional phases, catching tiring opponents off-guard.

Wizard of Oz works his magic

While most of the nation spent Saturday battling the Beast from the East, Walsall’s ‘Wizard of Oz’ cancelled his encounter with the Wicked Witch of the West on Saturday afternoon. Erhun Oztumer instead bagged a hat-trick for The Saddlers in a 3-0 win at Southend United, in a star performance.

Jon Whitney’s side needed Liam Roberts to deny Simon Cox and Dru Yearwood to stay level at the break, after which Oztumer showed his magic. After a driving run from George Dobson, whose energy will be hugely important in the absence of the injured Joe Edwards, The Turk had his chance. He picked up the ball on the right channel before cutting inside amid a reckless challenge from Michael Timlin, before firing inside the near-post on 57 minutes.

Just nine later, the star man had his second, whipping a 25-yard free-kick into the bottom corner with impressive expertise. The first two goals had been down to individual magic from Oztumer, but to complete his hat-trick, he merely needed to round off a fine team move.

Luke Leahy’s defensive capabilities had been questioned earlier in the season, but when Walsall have the ball, he is a very able technician. The left-back combined nicely with the energetic Kieron Morris on 85 minutes before crossing to the back-post, where Oztumer tapped home.

The former Dulwich Hamlet man has the talent befitting of a higher level than League One. Perhaps though, his diminutive stature and relative lack of pace makes him the type of player that a manager must make certain tactical allowances for and build his side around.

It might be partly for those reasons that Oztumer, as able as he is, has not moved in any of the last three transfer windows. Had he not remained in the Black Country, Walsall’s yellow-brick road to survival might not be quite so smooth.

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Graham Alexander
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