Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
For Derry City, grabbing three points from Bohemians is almost customary at this stage. With ten defeats out of ten since Kenny Shiels assumed the Brandywell helm, the Gypsies are the Generals to Derry’s Globetrotters. One could be forgiven, then, for seeing the Candystripes’ victory at Dalymount Park, last Friday evening, as somewhat routine.
But, of course, it was anything but. One point on the road, let alone three, should have been manna from heaven for a manager who lost five of his prior six games. Instead, Shiels’ mood — bizarrely — seemed as foul as ever.
Not satisfied with a pressure-lifting win, the Magherafelt native disowned the manner in which it was secured. In tossing their manager’s “philosophy” out the window, instead flipping to an “ultra-cautious” and “agricultural” mindset, Derry’s players committed a mortal sin — they crossed the boss.
“We didn’t play much football in the second-half,” moaned Shiels, on RTÉ’s Soccer Republic. “There’s a way of winning and you have to win the right way.”
Bewilderment at that last line quickly gave way to understanding. In one sentence, Shiels told us everything we need to know about his moribund Derry reign. He is, in fact, telling us why the Candystripes have lost seven games on the road this year.
Shiels is also telling us why Derry’s appalling defensive record is bested by all but Limerick and Bray. And he’s telling us why his side shipped ten Europa League goals to Midtjylland last year. Shiels has his philosophy, and boy is he not for turning.
Dogma can be dangerous for a football manager’s job security, particularly in these more tactically enlightened times. Now, more than ever, coaches must be flexible in their instructions, tweaking in response to each opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Horses for courses, if you like; the kind of whatever-works pragmatism that has brought Cork City such success under John Caulfield.
Shiels, in many ways therefore, is something of an anti-Caulfield. He is precisely the kind of dyed-in-the-wool footballing aesthete that should appeal to the Johnny Wards of this world. Yet, Ward chose Shiels over Shamrock Rovers’ hapless Stephen Bradley to rake over the coals on the latest edition of LOI Weekly.
Let’s face it: if Shiels can’t even preach to his choir anymore, his goose is surely cooked. And if it is, it’s difficult to harbour too much sympathy for the 62-year-old.
Yes, losing three-quarters of one’s first-choice defence would be difficult for any manager to bear. The untimely passing of Ryan McBride, and the ensuing departures of Aaron Barry and Dean Jarvis, forced Shiels to cope with only one of the starting back-four (Conor McDermott) that kicked off 2017.
Few of those signed to bridge the gap have come close to touching their predecessors. Darren Cole and Eoin Toal were recruited last July to help fill McBride’s shoes. But Cole, 26, failed to make the professional grade in Scotland. And Toal, 19, is still struggling with the massive step up from junior football.
Niall Logue, a February recruit from the US, hasn’t been seen in the starting lineup since Shamrock Rovers smashed six past Shiels’ latest attempt to bed in a back-three. And Gavin Peers, 32 now, has continued the decline evident throughout his 2017 stint at St Patrick’s Athletic.
Only loanee left-back Jack Doyle, in from Blackburn Rovers until season’s end, has looked up to the required standard. Shiels’ continued commitment to passing out from the back, therefore, looks like madness; contributing to two of those six Rovers goals back in March.
Shipping 37 goals in 22 games, then, perhaps comes as no surprise. The masters of renewal in recent years, even Derry could not withstand their latest turn as a feeder club to the bigger boys. That, I’m sure, is the narrative Shiels would have you believe. And, yet, the club’s defensive decline, year-on-year, is stark: the Candystripes only conceded 40 throughout the entire 2017 season and an impressive 29 during Shiels’ maiden campaign.
Such a precipitous annual drop-off — from 1.21 conceded per game to 1.68 — cannot solely be down to personnel changes, can it? Nor can it be down to Shiels’ bete noire, his deflection target of choice: the much-maligned League of Ireland officials.
Shiels, of course, made something of a name for himself in Scotland by berating officials. Indeed his stint at Kilmarnock was, in part, cut short due to a series of touchline bans the fiery one earned for impugning the talent — and, occasionally, integrity — of Scottish referees.
In fact, Shiels was fortunate to escape a similar ban for his ill-advised comments in the wake of last week’s defeat at Turner’s Cross. Although all four Cork goals could be traced back to inadequate coaching, the Derry manager refused to look within, instead declaring he “wasn’t happy with the refereeing,” feeling that “everything was designed for Cork to get back [to the] top of the league.”
How that last comment escaped the FAI’s notice is anyone’s guess. But I’m sure Shiels’ pronouncements about his own players won’t have gone unnoticed in the Derry dressing-room. Summarily throwing his players under the bus, with remarkable vigor, the 62-year-old disowned his side’s “poor, poor defending.”
Particular spite was reserved for his defenders’ part in Karl Sheppard’s second goal, branding their apparent lack of communication “absolutely disgusting.” No word, of course, for the appalling defensive structure, and defensive transitions, that leave his players in the lurch week after week.
That’s the thing about being a defender of the footballing faith, a purveyor of the so-called “one true way” to play the beautiful game. As Arsene Wenger, the self-proclaimed “facilitator of what is beautiful in man” found out, it only gets you so far these days.
Sure, Aaron McEneff, one of two number-eights given licence to bomb-on in Shiels’ 4-1-4-1 system, is flourishing at the moment. And, with no defensive responsibilities to worry about, why wouldn’t he?
The 22-year-old has 10 goals and five assists already this year; enough to potentially attract the big boy suitors to the Brandywell again. But, rest assured that the likes of Stephen Kenny and John Caulfield would expect McEneff to do it in all four phases of the game. Shiels, on the other hand, doesn’t; he only seems interested in two.
Such undue focus on building attacks and counterattacks is paying off at the new Brandywell, at least, where Derry won all of their first five home games at the refurbished ground. But, away from home, where opponents are likelier to play on the front-foot, the Candystripes’ soft centre is ripped asunder time and time again.
It is here that Shiels’ gung-ho approach, with attacking full-backs, free eights, and a high defensive line becomes irrelevant; with no Plan ‘B’ ever on hand to paper over the cracks. Shiels, remember doesn’t believe in a Plan ‘B’; only in winning “the right way” — the only way.
So many of those 37 concessions, therefore, have felt like reruns of goals that came before. Sligo Rovers’ opener in their recent 2-0 victory at the Brandywell stands as a prime example: no pressure applied to midfielder Rhys McCabe, who duly dinks the ball over the Derry defence for his untracked partner, David Cawley.
This kamikaze combination of a high line, with no pressure on the ball, is deadly for unstructured Derry. So, too, is their collective failure to track midfield runners. Both deficiencies owe much to the freedom afforded to McEneff and his partner — usually Nicky Low — creating pockets galore either side of Derry’s holding midfielder.
For most of the year thus far, that holding midfielder has been Rory Hale, a 21-year-old Belfast native who shows little of the positional nous required to put out defensive fires alone. This obvious frailty was even evident at the tail-end of Derry’s six-game winning run, when Hale let Dylan Watts run off him for a Bohemians consolation.
Next time out, in a 2-2 draw at Dundalk, Hale incurred McEneff’s wrath by letting Robbie Benson go for the Lilywhites’ opener. Yet, it took Shiels a further nine games to share McEneff’s misgivings, and promote Hale to a more suitable number-eight role.
Cole, a natural defender, now sits at the base of Derry’s midfield triangle. But even he was caught ahead of the ball for the Sheppard insurance goal that Shiels attributed to communication breakdown. Garry Buckley, free behind his minder, provided the assist for the Leesiders.
And Derry, arguably the division’s most counterattack-vulnerable side, were caught on the break again for Cork’s fourth. Pity Cole, and Hale before him: when the structure is this slipshod, the personnel scarcely matters.
All of which begs the question: what exactly is Kenny Shiels doing on the training ground? Patterns of play sessions are certainly in the mix, as evidenced by the wonderful team goal that opened the scoring against Bohs — both eights, McEneff and Hale, combining to brilliant effect.
But what else? This is, after all, a side that has shipped more goals at corner-kicks (six) than any other. And they can’t defend in open-play, or transition promptly into defence, either. And, yet, all that’s worrying Mr. Shiels is that his players keep it on the floor, even when under the cosh in the defence of a priceless away lead!
Shiels, therefore, is Ireland’s Wenger, a man insistent upon seeing football as more of an art installation than a results business. That folly is certain to prove his undoing sooner rather than later. He is, like his French forerunner, already in danger of outstaying his welcome.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112