The Devil’s Advocate
It would be fair to say that there has been a fair amount of anti-Gavin Wilkinson material on this site. I’ve stated in the past that I felt the sacking of John Spencer was the correct decision, but only half the job as I felt, and still feel, that Wilkinson bears a large culpability for the club’s woes.
However, a couple of tweets I received got me thinking a bit.
Playing Devil’s Advocate can be a useful intellectual exercise, or so I find. Most Timbers blogs, and the overwhelming majority of the #RCTID feed on twitter tend towards anti-Wilkinson sentiment, but I think it’s good to explore the other side of the argument as “herd mentality” can sometimes take over, making it easy to get swept along. By arguing against yourself you can explore why you feel the way you feel and it can make your arguments stronger. Besides which, debate is always good.
So, while I may not be a fan of Wilkinson, what is the case for his defence? That’s what I’ll (hopefully) explore here.
Since Merritt Paulson took over the Timbers franchise back in May 2007, much has changed at the club right down to the very ground itself, which was redeveloped for the step up to MLS in 2011.
One of the biggest constants held over from Paulson’s first day is Gavin Wilkinson. Wilkinson, a former player and team captain, was made head coach at the end of the 2006 season following a disastrous year that saw the club toiling under the management of Chris Agnello.
For all of Paulson’s reign, Wilkinson has been right there with him. When the Timbers won the MLS franchise, Wilkinson stepped aside as head coach, yet retained his position as general manager.
Wilkinson clearly has the respect of the team owner, and has had a lot of influence in the preparation for Major League Soccer. The hiring of John Spencer would’ve been Paulson’s first head coach appointment and I’ve no doubt that Wilkinson’s coaching expertise was of crucial importance.
Though John Spencer never worked out in the end, he came into the job with a great reputation as one of the league’s finest up-and-coming coaches. He’d worked closely with Dominic Kinnear at Houston Dynamo and had great knowledge of the intricacies of working in MLS. The lack of top flight experience was a problem for the timbers in moving up, but in Spencer they seemed to have the best of both worlds – someone with MLS experience, but who would yet bring a fresh look to the expansion club.
With the search for the Timbers second permanent head coach presumably in it’s final stages, Wilkinson has undoubtedly been influential once more. Paulson has defended his general manager on twitter, stating, “If I thought it was [Wilkinson] who was the issue than [sic] it would have been different presser at midseason”.
Hindsight has a habit of making past decisions look foolish, and it’s easy to sit back now and say that the Timbers should’ve appointed someone with experience to ease the club into the top flight. Going with Spencer was a brave choice even though it seems to have been a mistake now.
Not even Wilkinson’s staunchest supporters would claim he had made no mistakes in his tenure. “He has made some mistakes but he’s done a ton of good and a lot has gone on that nobody sees”, said Paulson.
The club’s trade record can also make for painful, retrospective, reading.
Kenny Cooper scored against the Timbers at the weekend, and his form this season for New York has been a source of rancour for some. His time in Portland was professionally frustrating for all involved, but it wasn’t Wilkinson who failed to get the best out of Kenny Cooper.
Indeed, there were mixed feelings regarding the trade at the time.
Another trade that looks poor in retrospect was that of Moffat for Chabala and Palmer. This looks especially bad as Adam Moffat went on to play in the MLS Cup that year while the Timbers failed to reach the play-offs, but in the context of the times when the move was made, I don’t think it stacks up so badly.
It’s easy to forget that Adam Moffat could hardly get a game for the Timbers. Four appearances, all of them as sub, for a grand total of 100 minutes of playing time. Again, it wasn’t Gavin Wilkinson’s fault that Moffat couldn’t dislodge either Jewsbury and Chara as John Spencer’s favoured midfield.
With the club lacking cover at full-back, a move that saw a bench warmer shipped out in return for two full-backs seemed like a great piece of business. Lovel Palmer had been a regular for Houston since his move from his native Jamaica.
Looking back, the move can leave you smacking your head as Moffat continues to feature in the Dynamo’s midfield, while Chabala has been moved on and Palmer is as popular with a section of fans as Todd Akin in a rape crisis center. But beating Wilkinson with that stick seems like petty revisionism.
Wilkinson’s interim appointment as head coach was met with derision and concern from some quarters but he has the respect of the coaching staff, many of whom he has worked with in the past.
Amos Magee was an assistant under Wilkinson during the Timbers USL days, and Cameron Knowles, a fellow Kiwi to boot, was one of Wilkinson’s first signings as head coach, back in 2007. Knowles joined the coaching staff at the start of 2012.
Sean McAuley also joined the coaching staff this year, following the departure of Spencer, and the ex-Sheffield Wednesday coach played alongside Wilkinson in the Timbers defence during the 2002 season. His appointment was hailed be Paulson as “a great add” and Wilkinson has also spoken about the fresh voice that McAuley has brought to the locker room.
Merritt Paulson has also asserted that Wilkinson has the respect of the players, saying that the “state of locker room is extremely happy” and that Wilkinson “has been popular w players season [sic]. we create anonymous feedback outlets. obviously w 30 guys, always outliers.”
There may be speculation about how those “outliers” are, or were. Certainly, reading between the lines, there doesn’t seem to have been a great deal of love lost from Troy Perkins following his recent trade to Montreal, and some fans speculate that Kris Boyd’s relegation the bench against New York (where he was subsequently unused as a sub) are a sign of tension between the club’s high-earning top scorer and Wilkinson.
It’s all speculation though and unless Paulson is flat-out lying there’s no reason to doubt that most of the locker room is fully behind Wilkinson and his short-term appointment.
The sense of continuity provided by having Wilkinson step in while a search is carried out for a new head coach has given the locker room a sense of stability that can easily be lost when a manager is sacked and big changes are made.
Paulson’s rather crude assertion that “the same morons starting this [#GWOut] movement [would] line up to kiss gavin’s ass”, while somewhat lacking in diplomacy, does speak to the continued ambition of Paulson and Wilkinson.
The team owner had previously set goals for the club’s second year that have clearly not been met, but the road map remains the same. Together they are building a squad that is capable of delivering success commensurate with the level of support they receive. Should they start to deliver the results they seek in the 3rd and 4th years, then this season will be looked back as little more than an unfortunate detour off course.
The hiring of an experienced, and respected coach such as McAuley is a part of the rebuilding process, and the club continue to change things on the field. Kosuke Kimura was signed shortly before Spencer’s sacking, and since Spencer has gone the changes have continued apace.
The trade of Perkins was a controversial one, the merits of which continue to be debated by fans and pundits alike, but Wilkinson and Paulson have been steadfast in asserting that bringing in Ricketts was an “upgrade”. Paulson tweeted that the “team was broken and system needed to be torn down and rebuilt” and this what we’re seeing now.
Mike Chabala was moved on to DC United – a move that makes sense for both parties in my opinion, as Chabala never really impressed upon me that he was a guy to command a place in the match day 18, never mind the starting 11 – while New Zealand international Ian Hogg has been brought in on what is effectively an extended trial. Bright Dike, one of the star players in the Timbers final USL season, was promptly recalled from loan at LA Blues upon Spencer’s departure to bolster the attack, something he did to fine effect against New York. It’s unlikely that the club are finished reshaping the team this year as, with Paulson on the “verge of hiring a terrific coach“, it seems that some of the moves are being guided with this new appointment in mind.
“I’ve been responsible for bringing all those players here. Now it’s up to me to get a little bit more out of them.” The words of Gavin Wilkinson on his appointment as interim head coach are very telling to me as they indicated the front office’s belief that Spencer’s great failing was in not finding a way to get a good return out of the squad at his disposal.
A record of 5 defeats and 2 draws in his 7 matches, with 8 goals scored and a whopping 18 conceded, makes it easy to dismiss Wilkinson’s record as interim head coach. However, since it’s a role he’s made clear he doesn’t want on a permanent basis, so it’s hard to see how his record as a coach can be used to beat him if he’s no interest in being coach. Rather his remit seems to me to have been to address how the team is playing, and this is perhaps a better way to measure Wilkinson’s time in the hot seat during this difficult transitional period.
The biggest change since Spencer’s sacking has been the adoption of a 4-3-3 system. Spencer seemed unwilling or unable to change from his tried-and-tested 4-4-2, his greatest tinkering reserved to adopting a flawed “diamond” system, so it’s perhaps understandable that there would be an “adjustment” period for players as they got used to the new system.
Early results were poor – the first three matches under Wilkinson saw the Timbers ship 5 goals twice and score only 3, but recent performances have been much improved, even if it hasn’t brought a great improvement in results.
There have been two draws in the last four matches, with a strong case to be made that a bit of luck or more composure in front of goal could’ve resulted in at least a couple of wins. The team have scored 5, and lost 7 – a record that would (measured across a whole season) result in the team being a single goal worse off than under the record under Spencer by scoring 10 more, and conceding 11.
For a team under reconstruction, and undergoing a change in footballing philosophy, that’s not such a bad return. Paulson seems to agree that performances are encouraging, tweeting that the “players [are] being used as they should and we actually have a system now.”
That system has brought about an improvement from a number of players. Darlington Nagbe has been a source for debate for much of the season as the youngster suffered from a mid-season slump in his form. Recently though there seems to have been the return of some of his old spark, and he had probably his best game in a long time against New York. The 4-3-3 seems to free up Nagbe from much of the defensive responsibility that Spencer’s use of the 4-4-2 placed upon him, and he’s benefiting.
Another player benefiting from less defensive onus is Diego Chara. The Colombian midfielder is now being used as more of a box-to-box midfielder under Wilkinson, and he’s been a revelation in the role. Essentially, he’s now playing more in the opponents first half, and putting his quick passing and intelligent play to use in creating for the Timbers, rather than solely destroying the work of the opposition. It seems much more suited to his abilities, though it does come at the cost of lessening the Timbers presence in defensive midfield, and perhaps contributes in some way to the leakier-than-usual back line of recent weeks.
With Chara renewed in midfield, Jack Jewsbury has also seen his game improve as the anchor man in midfield. There was a good post about how the clearly delineated roles for Jewsbury and Chara had helped them both, and it certainly seems that Captain Jack seems more assured and confident in the role now that he and Diego Chara aren’t getting in each others way at the base of the midfield.
In conclusion it’s clearly not been plain sailing. Results have been poor, and that is ultimately what matters. You don’t get points for style, or moral victories. Nor, unbelievably, for shots on goal and possession. The defence remains a big problem, and I suspect that the work to set it right – started with the signing of Kimura – has only just begun. I have my own doubts about David Horst’s abilities at this level, and I think at 29 we’re unlikely to see great improvement from Futty. Eric Brunner’s fitness remains an engima. Finding a partner for Mosquera must surely be a priority for Wilkinson and The New Head Coach Who Shall Not Be Named, though with the return to the club of Andrew Jean-Baptiste perhaps the youngster can stack his claim in the few weeks that remain of the 2012 season.
The fact of the matter is that Wilkinson is here for the long haul. Paulson is adamant that Wilkinson is “not going anywhere”. Consistency is the watchword, and “making [Wilkinson] a scapegoat and calls for heads in our 2nd year in league is bush-league“.
That’s not to say Wilkinson’s position is one for life. “If its like this next year than go ahead and call for his head,“ Paulson tweeted, though this won’t stop some fans making their feeling perfectly clear against Vancouver at the weekend. The next year, starting with the formal appointment of a new head coach, could make or break Wilkinson’s tenure with the Timbers.
Paulson views the #GWOut movement as a “witch hunt”, while a vocal section of fans see it as necessary to save their club. A new head coach make take some of the heat off the front office for a while, but it’s unlikely to dampen the fires entirely as both sides continue to entrench their positions. Even delivering a MLS Cup next year is unlikely to have fans lining up to kiss Kiwi ass as, I suspect, such success would be viewed as being in spite of Gavin Wilkinson rather than thanks to him.
Who is right will ultimately be another one of those things that will only become clear with hindsight. For now fans better just buckle up cos there’s no sign that the ride is going to get any less bumpy any time soon.
The defence rests.
As any twitter-literate Timbers fan will know, Merritt is rather fond of deleting tweets so you’re not going to find many of the quotes used here in his current feed. But trust me, they were all there at one point.