Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.
I suggested at the start of the season that watching the team building process this season would be fascinating. Little did I know just how interesting it would be! But maybe that’s because I misunderstood Gary Mills. I thought he was married to a philosophy but in fact he’s a pragmatist in the style of his old boss, Brian Clough.
It’s been fascinating watching Mills work out how to make the most of the resources at his disposal. The conclusions he’s coming to aren’t the ones I’d anticipated, and surely aren’t the ones he’d foreseen when he recruited in the Summer.
Lee Fowler and Adam Smith are out on loan, while Cameron Belford is out of the team. Surely these players represent three of the flagship signings of the Summer: Fowler and Belford have come from the Football League while Smith was eagerly touted as a goal scoring wide player who would be able to make our possession-based approach sing, offering penetration and a burst of energy from wide positions.
However, Mills is showing himself to be a pragmatist. Much has been made, not least by myself, about his passing game credentials. However, he has clearly decided, after starting the season looking to monopolise the ball, that such an approach isn’t going to get the best out of his current crop of players.
Perhaps he’ll reshape his options in a transfer window and return to those principles, but for the moment we’re a more direct side, counter-attacking with pace, as the Barrow game showed when we failed to enjoy much of the ball in the opening stages but struck decisively down the flanks thanks to the effervescent Wes York’s speed down the right.
It’s not just his style at Gateshead and York City which has led Mills to be seen as a proponent of possession football. His playing career, spent partly under Brian Clough, is often cited as an essential element in the development of his coaching philosophy. I’ll bet that’s the case, but I also suspect that the lessons to be learned at the feet of Clough might be quite what we’d expect.
Clough is seen as the high priest of the passing game, his famous quote about God putting grass on the clouds if he’d wanted football to be played in the air often cited as proof. But reducing a person down to a few sound bites, while a popular pastime, is misleading, and Clough was a master of the pithy comment, irrespective of its accuracy. More significantly, Clough was the master of pragmatism. He knew that football is a results game, and he knew that if you had to abandon the aesthetics to get his team on track, then so be it.
Mills’ clear-minded approach is to be applauded: many managers are too proud to remove their signings from the team, too inflexible to alter their philosophy. Mills learned the most important lesson of all from the master: don’t get set in your ways.