THE job of a manager is only ever a work in progress.
Opportunities for reflection tend to be the bitter preserve of those who no longer have a team to pick on a Saturday, an occupational quirk being that notable milestones are often acknowledged only in passing. Derek McInnes knows that only too well; this season having already marked his first anniversary as manager of Bristol City, the occasion serving as a timely reminder of the vagaries of his occupation. Having rescued the club from the threat of relegation last season, the date coincided with a 3-2 defeat by Bolton Wanderers and a run of seven straight losses.
That was hardly cause for celebration and neither is the club's league position, City teetering precariously above the relegation places of the npower Championship. It is a similar position to how McInnes found the club when he was appointed in October last year, before the Scot went on to successfully restrict his side to just 14 defeats during the remainder of that season to allow them to sit on a 10-point cushion above the drop zone come the end of it. McInnes had accepted that challenge when he took the job but it was not one he was keen to face again quite so quickly.
It is a situation which has been brought into sharper focus since it was mirrored by city rivals Rovers, Mark McGhee arriving just in time to save the club from relegation from League Two last term only to lose his job two weeks ago after the club slid back into the bottom places. Other Scots such as Owen Coyle, Steve Kean, Neale Cooper and Micky Mellon have also left posts in England this year after their capacity for success became diminished by poor form.
McInnes cannot afford self-doubt, though, and instead must continue to see the value of his methods and his squad. That will feel easier this season given he has remodelled it to suit his plans. He arrived at Ashton Gate to find a bloated squad feeding on an exorbitant wage bill; his first act was to cut eight players loose to make room for improvement.
"We had umpteen players, too many, and you couldn't see the wood for the trees," said McInnes. "You are trying to work with a manageable number in training sessions every day and we had far too many players. The logistics of that was the only real difficulty. The budget for the squad was getting out of hand. The owner was writing off money every year and no matter how wealthy your owner is, the club has got to be seen to be run properly. With financial fair play coming in next year as well, we feel we are well on the way to being able to cope with that.
"I feel the squad is my squad now and that brings its own benefits. I certainly think that, a year on, there are a lot of people in key positions that are much improved. We just need to make sure that the same improvement and optimism is on the pitch, and I do believe that the course of the season will prove that the changes we've made have paid dividends. We will more than prove our worth in time."
The words seem to pre-empt a challenge to his position but McInnes does not feel under threat from his bosses at City – "It feels comfortable, feels like home and I am very comfortable working for the chairman and the owner. I have a good relationship with them," he said – although working bonds have a nasty habit of cracking under pressure from supporters. His popularity with fans will rise and fall with results but it is more assured among his players.
"We have a way of working that feels right and we feel that we have to be close to our players," said McInnes, who illustrated his point by interrupting the conversation to acknowledge a salute from Jody Morris, the midfielder he sought from St Johnstone in the summer. "Players will play for the club some of the time, they will play for themselves some of the time but they will play for a manager all of the time. It is important that I have a real relationship with my players.
"Of all the elements of the job that I have to fulfil, be it media, corporate, dealing with boardroom members, youth academy members, staff and all the rest of it, the most important time of my week is my contact with my players. That closeness will, over the course of the season, pay dividends. You have to believe in what you are doing."
INTERVIEW McInnes cannot afford self doubt as he finds himself in familiar territory, writes Chris Tait