Steve Cotton: Liam Middleton did his best for Bristol Rugby
Occasionally as a reporter there are stories that come to affect you personally – and, believe me, the gig is much rawer if you happen to be assigned to report on war or health or social issues.
In sport, which is regarded by many as being the toy department of the journalistic trade, the lows now and then involve a death, or, as is more likely, the premature retirement of a young man or woman in, or close to, the prime of their career.
But the main level of personal involvement and disappointment we get to experience on the sports desk is the dismissal of a decent human being who is doing a job to the best of their ability – and that, for me, happened this week with Liam Middleton.
I will get to his record later – of course, with such an intro, there must at some stage come a “but” – but Liam Middleton, without question, is a decent man who did his best.
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Our heavyweight cards have FREE UV silk coating, FREE next day delivery & VAT included. Choose from 1000's of pre-designed templates or upload your own artwork. Orders dispatched within 24hrs.
Terms: Visit our site for more products: Business Cards, Compliment Slips, Letterheads, Leaflets, Postcards, Posters & much more. All items are free next day delivery. www.myprint-247.co.uk
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Wednesday, May 22 2013
I never imagined he was the kind of person with whom I could discuss music or politics or films or literature – but that was irrelevant. We would speak two or three times a week about rugby – and when we did, the exchanges were honest and open.
I would ask him questions – sometimes tricky, sometimes soft – about his rugby team, Bristol, and he would give me answers – sometimes guarded but as a rule not – about that team. In terms of his media cordiality and the quality and openness of his answers, he grew into the role, becoming a confident, analytical, measured speaker.
We fell out once. It was after Bristol had been beaten 63-7 at Nottingham in November last year. To his credit, Middleton appeared pitch-side for his post-match interview, which must have been the last thing he felt like doing, and gave the kind of responses you may have expected him to offer.
Feeling that such a pitiful display demanded a slightly edgier set of quotations for the following day’s paper, I approached Dan Montagu, the forward who had left Bristol under a cloud last summer. I ended up writing the following paragraph: “As for the reasons behind his controversial exit from Bristol, Montagu said any questions should be directed to Liam Middleton, Bristol’s head coach. “You can ask Liam about that,” he said.”
At Bristol’s next midweek media session, to preview the home game against Jersey, who coincidentally are their opponents today, I sensed Middleton was not happy about something I had written in the wake of the Nottingham defeat.
“I don’t take any issue with you criticising the performance, but I felt that including the comment from Dan Montagu was unfair,” he said. “I felt it was a case of you twisting the knife.”
“That wasn’t my intention at all,” I replied. “I just felt Dan’s opinion was valid, given you got rid of him in the summer and his team had just beaten you by 60 points.”
We shook hands, agreed to disagree and moved on to questions about the next game: the way a relationship between a head coach and what the Americans would call a “beat reporter” should work.
Don’t get me wrong, Liam Middleton was not a perfect coach, and earlier this week I wrote just as much. His team’s meltdown in the first leg of the Championship semi-final against Cornish Pirates in Penzance last May was the stick with which he was beaten until the end of his reign. Even now, that 45-24 loss (which was a 24-19 lead with 17 minutes to play) is deemed by many to be the defining image of his time in charge of Bristol.
And yes, this season’s current position of fifth is not quite up to scratch, at least not when you consider Bristol finished top of the pile last season – both in the regular season and in their play-off pool.
But therein lies part of the problem. When Middleton was plucked from his role of academy manager to take over as head coach in the spring of 2011, little was expected of him. Under Paul Hull, Bristol finished eighth in the Championship in 2010-11 – four points from the ignominy of having to compete in the relegation play-offs just to maintain their second-tier status.
In Middleton’s first season – with largely the same group of players – they finished top by seven points. Regarded as an impressive talent-developer (the progress of Jack Tovey, George Watkins, Ben Glynn, Marco Mama and Mitch Eadie under his tutelage backs up that claim), Middleton was promoted quickly to the first-team role – and who in his position would have said no to such a promotion? Not me and not, I would wager, you.
His instant success in the role made many people assume he would steer the club back to the Aviva Premiership – and, yes, last season’s Cornish cock-up was undeniably an almighty missed opportunity. Had Bristol reached the final – and they beat the Pirates 29-18 in the second leg – they would have faced London Welsh, a team they had beaten away from home during the play-offs, in the final.
Had that scenario played out, we may now be discussing a Premiership survival bid, or even something grander.
But Middleton and Bristol failed to take advantage last May – and, as a result, he was never in credit with the board or the supporters this season.
A bad start to the campaign increased the pressure, while Andy Robinson’s arrival as director of rugby left the head coach requiring snookers to save his job. But one thought: aside from the personal aspect, aside from the failure to win promotion and the fact Bristol are now outside the play-off places, Middleton’s story is another example of a genuinely talented coach being lost to a club because he was promoted too quickly and failed to fulfil his early promise.
If there is a cautionary tale to be taken from this episode, it is not merely that the nice guys do not always succeed. It is that clubs sometimes are too eager – both to promote skilled, inexperienced coaches, and to dismiss them altogether when things go wrong.
SHIRT REMOVAL IS JUST OLD HAT
Credit to Swindon Town for their victory at Yeovil Town in Tuesday’s televised League One derby-that-isn’t-a-derby at Huish Park.
The Robins deserved their 2-0 win against a Glovers side who seemed paralysed by stage fright, having been unbeaten in their previous ten home matches in the league.
In fact, I spent much of Wednesday morning defending Yeovil to those whose only viewing experience of them this season was the previous evening’s tame surrender.
Swindon were sharper, more purposeful and more clinical – and their second goal, which came from the last kick of the game, even knocked Yeovil out of the play-off places.
But one blemish on Swindon’s excellent performance was James Collins’ celebration when he scored that second goal. The whipping-your-shirt-off goal celebration is one of the most unnecessary and ridiculous things in football – and not merely because it leads to a yellow card as pointless as it is automatic.
Bowlers do not remove their shirt when they take a wicket, nor do rugby players when they score a try, jockeys when they win the Grand National, or lawyers when they win a case at the Old Bailey.
The shirt-removing fad is not a new one – but, with referees inevitably producing a deserved yellow card, you may have thought it would have died out by now.
TERRIFIC NEWS FOR SOMERSET
Somerset spent most of last season battling against injuries and players’ unavailability – and still finished second in the County Championship.
So the news that Nick Compton will be available for three of their first four matches this season – and that Alfonso Thomas has opted against taking up his Indian Premier League commitments to spend the whole season at Taunton – is an important early boost.
With teenage bowling sensation Craig Overton earning rave reviews for his displays in the England Lions camp over the winter, and Marcus Trescothick fit again, key pieces seem to be falling into place to set Somerset up for a positive start to the season.
All they need to do now is decide who will keep wicket.