Chris Dunlavy looks at the career of Bristol City boss Steve Cotterill
LIKE so many young managers, Steve Cotterill entered the dugout not through choice but by necessity. A prolific striker with Burton Albion in Non-League, then Wimbledon and Bournemouth, his career was finished, slowly and agonisingly, by the injury footballers fear most.
“I did two cruciates,” said Cotterill, who was player of the year in each of his three full seasons at Dean Court. “First one knee, then the other .These days, I might’ve had a better chance of recovering, but not then.”
Cotterill overcame the first, nursed back to health by Sean O’Driscoll, then the physio at Bournemouth. Then, with supreme irony, he attempted to tackle O’Driscoll during a training game and did the other one. With no cartilage left in the knee doctors told him to call it a day. That was 1995, and Cotterill was just 29.
“Heartbreaking,” he says. “But it’s funny. When your career finishes early, or it’s taken away from you, it can give you a bigger incentive to stay in the game. And I’d already done my badges – I started them when I was at Wimbledon – so I had a head start.”
Not that it opened too many doors. Cotterill’s first job was at Sligo Rovers, who he led to Europe via third place in the League of Ireland.
Then came 14 months of unem- ployment before a life-changing return to Cheltenham, the place where Cotterill was born.
Raised on a council estate in the otherwise gentrified suburb (“There are some nice spots in Cheltenham,” he once said.“And then there’s where I grew up”), Cotterill believes a childhood with little money helped forge the honesty and hard-working values that he demands from his players.
It also prepared him well for life on football’s breadline with a club then in the Dr Martens League, two divisions below league football.
“We had one good stand, leaking gutters, puddles and holes and everything; awful pitch, a turnover of £100,000 and 400 supporters,” said Cotterill.
Yet five years later Cotterill had guided Cheltenham to Division Two (now League One), via the Conference, the promotion playoffs – and won the FA Trophy to boot.
“I have played under some great managers, but he is the best without doubt,” said Julian Alsop, a striker at Cheltenham from 20002003 who remembers gruelling pre-seasons under Cotterill.
“His football knowledge was amazing and I was always impressed with what he had to say. He came across so well and his man-management was so good. He built a team of leaders at Cheltenham and topped it off with Tony Naylor, who is probably the best signing the club ever made.”
Subsequent moves didn’t quite work out. Cotterill joined Stoke in 2002, only to leave 13 games later to become assistant to Howard Wilkinson at Sunderland.The pair lasted just 27 games before being dismissed and from then on, Cotterill started his career as a football firefighter.
At Burnley, in 2004, he inherited only eight players from Stan Ternent, but gradually assembled a side so talented that it formed the basis of the team taken to the Premier League by Owen Coyle.
Then, after three years out of the game, he took charge of a Notts County side left in ruins by the Munto Finance debacle and promptly led them to the League Two title with 14 wins from 18 games.
In 2010, he inherited a Portsmouth side with only three senior players, a transfer embargo, and run by administrators. He kept them up, and – briefly – challenged for the Championship play-offs.
Then came Forest, rudderless and cash-strapped, fresh off the back of Steve McClaren’s disastrous 111-day reign. It wasn’t pretty, but again Cotterill kept them up.
And now he finds himself trying to keep Brsitol City in League One. Cotterill doesn’t want to be known as an escape artist, but he does relish working on a shoestring.
“What happens when you don’t have a lot of money is you end up with team players rather than star individuals,” he said while in charge of Burnley.“If you have lots of money, you might have a lot of very good individuals, but then you don’t always get a team.” And according to Howard Wilkinson, he is pretty much a sure bet. “Steve has improved every club he has ever managed,” said the former Leeds boss.
“He does not just get results on the pitch but he improves the overall well-being of a club. He works very hard. He is very, very dedicated, almost obsessive about the game. His teams reflect that.”
PROUD ROBIN: Cheltenham's Steve Cotterill lifts the FA Trophy