Steven Pressley: Just Another Fall Guy?

We may have failed to win our past seven games, we may have dropped into the bottom four but can anyone say they saw Steven Pressley’s sacking coming?

The timing is strange to say the least. Things had been improving in recent weeks, a little too slowly perhaps, but a point against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane is not to be sniffed at. Pressley has certainly done much worse and maintained the full faith of the board. The timing of it means that there is incredible pressure to get the next appointment right otherwise we will be in League Two next season.

It’s this strange, almost arbitrary decision-making that hindered Pressley during his time at the club and meant that he never got the chance to fail or succeed on his own terms. Whether you rated Pressley or not, it’s tough to tease apart what failings came about as a result of the decision-making (or lack thereof) at boardroom level and what failings were of his own accord.

Young, idealistic and replete with a fetching notebook - Steven Pressley in his early days at City.
Young, idealistic and replete with a fetching notebook – Steven Pressley in his early days at City.

When Pressley arrived it appeared that he was a manager married to the idea of playing patient, passing football with a lone striker. The points deduction a few weeks after his arrival, meant that he had 10 meaningless games to assess the options in his squad. An okay record of three wins, two draws and five defeats left us Coventry City fans none the wiser as to how he would do in proper competitive league fixtures.

Pressley was unable to build a team tailored to the approach that he arrived with thanks to a summer involving administration, exile to Northampton and a further points deduction. Instead of doing what a lot of other managers would have done in this scenario and either resigned or whinged, Pressley adapted his methods to suit the players he had left.

The stars of that golden period of four months when Coventry City were playing the best football ‘witnessed’ in a generation were Leon Clarke and Callum Wilson who rattled in just over 30 goals between them in a short period of time. But other players too were making big contributions with Jordan Clarke, John Fleck, Cyrus Christie and Conor Thomas being played in roles perfectly suited to their qualities.

The big ‘what if’ for Steven Pressley will always be what would have happened if all of this had been at the Ricoh Arena. Would it have been possible to foster that freedom of expression? If it had been, could it have been kept up? Would Leon Clarke not have sulked off in January?

Football is all about seizing opportunities when they come, look at Leyton Orient. The realities of Sixfields bit and high calibre replacements for Leon Clarke couldn’t be sourced, the team completely lost form without their on-pitch leader and we were very nearly relegated.

This defeat to Brentford and his handling of Chuba Akpom really had me worried last season.
This defeat to Brentford and his handling of Chuba Akpom really had me worried last season.

Upon reflection, the period after Leon Clarke’s departure defined Pressley’s eventual career at Coventry City. Visibly drained by the size of the challenge at Sixfields, that loss of optimism was transferred to the team. We attempted to continue that fast, pressing style of football but it quickly began to feel like the team had lost that sense of a common goal that they previously had.

There were two directions that Pressley could have followed from the point that that became apparent. Either find a new common goal that the players could strive towards, maintaining that positivity of old, or accept the team’s limitations and alter the style to make sure that there were less exposed. With the prospect of relegation to League Two looming, the latter was more achievable in the time we had to secure the points to survival and we remained in League One by the narrowest of margins.

Pressley took this negative plan into the following season, understandable as the prospect of another year at Sixfields loomed. An early surprise win at Sheffield United would have given him and the team belief that with expectations low, the team could keep itself out of trouble by playing risk-free football.

Events took another about turn on Pressley as the grand return to the Ricoh Arena was announced just days after that win over Sheffield United and suddenly expectations were rapidly altered. Getting that win against Gillingham felt important at the time but the limitations of the team were apparent despite getting the result. This was a team that struggled to create opportunities and against teams suddenly happy to take a point away in Coventry, the team was not set up to take advantage of the massive opportunity that our return to the Ricoh Arena should have been.

The loneliness of playing for Coventry City at the Ricoh Arena.
The loneliness of playing for Coventry City at the Ricoh Arena.

Ever since Reda Johnson’s rash red card against Scunthorpe back in September, Pressley has never adapted to his plan for this season failing. Like the time he lost Leon Clarke, Pressley could have stuck to the old plan but decided to pursue an opposing one. But from that point onwards it never felt like the team was playing with a set identity.

Pressley was an ideas man, someone who needed stability, patience and times to work out what works and what doesn’t. Pressley’s enthusiasm and aspirations to build a better club here was what allowed us to survive Sixfields. Ultimately, it was his lack of pragmatism, the ability to adapt to sudden changes in circumstance was what cost him his job.

With the club facing up to a relegation battle in League One, we need a cohesive atmosphere around the team. During that Scunthorpe game, there was pressure on the players for almost the entire 90 minutes. That is an unnecessary pressure to have when the team is in a relegation battle. Getting rid of Pressley should take some of the pressure off the players and allow for some greater patience from the fans.

No matter how much faith the board may have had in Pressley, that had to have been a big factor in the decision-making as it affects the team’s ability to get results and ultimately could decide whether we stay in this division or not. Rightly or wrongly, Pressley was never someone to take into consideration the feelings of the fans which meant that he was only eventually going to be judged by the fans on results which weren’t coming.

If Pressley can return to that energy that he arrived at the club with, he will be a massive success elsewhere. In fact, had he not had to endure our time at Sixfields I am almost certain that we would be now having a much better season. This club dragged Pressley down to our level and I am more worried about where we go next.

Contrasting Pressley and Robins for a moment, would Robins have followed the same trajectory as Pressley had he stayed on? Is this club going to constantly either lose great managers or be unable to give them the best chance of success?

To his credit, Steve Waggott has got the past two managerial appointments right. We will find out with the next appointment whether the past two to three seasons are indicative of the club’s trajectory or an exceptional period of instability.

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