|A year on from a Scottish Cup win, is ICT chairman Kenny Cameron running out of patience with John Hughes' whinging?|
Delaying the presentation of Manager of the Month awards until 10 days after the end of said month can make the decision look pretty daft. And so it seemed on Monday, when John Hughes was named Manager of the Month for April just a few days after Caley Thistle capitulated at home to a doomed Dundee United side. But the logic behind the award wasn't daft - only Celtic amassed more points than ICT in April. It's just a shame that they couldn't have given it to him a week earlier.
The timing removed rather a lot of the shine from a rare positive in the Highlanders' season. 2015/16 was always likely to be an anticlimax, following on from the greatest campaign in the club's history; a third place finish and a Scottish Cup win were always going to be impossible to emulate. But Caley Thistle missed out on a top six finish for the first time in four seasons. On the flip side, they've never really been in serious danger of dropping out of the top flight at any point, which means that the most appropriate adjective for this campaign is probably 'banal'.
There are caveats. A lot of good players have moved on in the last eighteen months, ones that most Premiership clubs would struggle to replace. The loss of Ryan Christie mid-season left a hole that was impossible to fill at short notice. And the injury list has been lengthy all season, not helped by an early start in the Europa League.
Regardless, no-one at the club is satisfied about how this season has gone...and therein lies a problem. Just a year after that incredible cup triumph, there are signs that the relationship between manager and club is turning sour.
The manager isn't happy
Hughes' disgruntlement stems back to October, when he was touted as an early favourite to replace Jackie McNamara at Tannadice. United even made an approach to speak to him, but they were too tight with compensation and so Caley Thistle refused to let him. Some would say that, given subsequent events, he dodged a bullet there.
Yogi was rewarded with a new two and a half year deal in December. But within days he felt the need to moan about what had happened a couple of months earlier. "I was a wee bit disappointed that they didn't let me go and speak to Dundee United...That doesn't mean that I was going to go. They might have had a little more trust, I can look after myself", he told the press. Aye, sure. You were just going to go down for a wee natter. Pull the other one, it has got bells on.
But the more prominent problem is one of money - money for next season's playing squad, in fact. It feels like whenever Hughes speaks to the media, this is the only subject discussed. And he certainly doesn't sound pleased with his lot.
The club has made overtures to the out-of-contract Partick Thistle trio of Abdul Osman, Steven Lawless and Stuart Bannigan. It certainly didn't surprise this author that these moves have proved fruitless; Osman is Thistle's captain, and its likely the new deal he signed with them last week pays him well. Bannigan has attracted bigger clubs than Caley Thistle. But Hughes still felt the need to grump to the media about the financial limitations that had apparently stifled him.
It was a step too far.
The board isn't happy
ICT's board are generally a reserved bunch, more interested in action than talk. So this club statement at the end of April was very interesting indeed, particularly as it came a few days after Yogi's public whinging.
If the comment that "this season has seen the club's largest-ever playing budget. The cost of a 25 strong first team pool was far in excess of anything we have ever experienced at the club" was a slap on the wrist, then the follow-up "players will sustain injuries and there’s little point in feeling sorry for ourselves over this. It is the responsibility of the management team to replace them and the Board have provided the finances required this season to enable this" was a smack on the chops.
Caley Thistle run a tight ship, intent on operating as a viable business - something that Dundee United and Kilmarnock fans might envy. It does mean that the playing budget is inevitably one of the lower ones in the Premiership - I'd estimate that only Partick Thistle and Hamilton pay lower wages.
But it's not as if directors are trousering money that could be spent on the team. In fact, they came up with a 'rainy day fund' to bring in reinforcements in January. Hughes squandered this on Liam Hughes, Ryan Williams and Alex Fisher. Who, you ask? Well, exactly.
One would think this admonishment might shut Yogi's trap...but he decided to fire another salvo: "We have lost too many quality players in my time here and not replaced them. I think the fans deserve some quality players here to excite them and hopefully that will be the case. I think we need to move the club forward. You either stagnate or you move forward. There is a wee bit of to-ing and fro-ing to what direction we're going to go in."
Cue another thinly-veiled public rebuke from the chairman, who reiterated that, this season, "the manager has obviously had a fair bit more money". That appeared in the P&J yesterday. Today, on the Inverness Courier site, Hughes found another reason to criticize the board - apparent inaction over a new contract for Greg Tansey. "I thought Greg Tansey would have been well down the line by now. I'm really surprised we've not spoke to him."
This is all getting out of hand. Caley Thistle are not a club that washes their dirty linen in the press. Any disagreements - and I understand there were plenty between Terry Butcher and the hierarchy back in the day - are usually kept strictly in house.
What Hughes thinks he is accomplishing is anyone's guess. Does he think he can shame his bosses into finding more cash? Does he see this as a playground argument where he'll win, in spite of all reasonable opposition, if he shouts loudly enough for long enough?
Is he preparing the ground for a resignation, on the pretext that he has taken the club as far as he can (unlikely, given the two years left on his contract)? Or is he just really crap at dealing with the media? It could be the latter - I'm told by journalists that he genuinely hates interviews because he feels his words get twisted and he isn't a confident public speaker.
However, the manager's current narrative - basically, that he hasn't got enough money to build a decent team - is rather self-defeating, as it's surely going to put potential signings off coming.
The fans aren't happy
As for the fans, they are mostly coming down on the side of the chairman.
Obviously they'd all like to see good money spent on good players. But there is some realism about how that can be achieved, though perhaps not enough given that finishing seventh or eighth in the table would be considered an underachievement, whereas it can be argued that it's a decent effort given the size of the club. However, Hughes and Terry Butcher before him have previously done fine with the resources given to them.
More significantly, the relationship between the supporters and Hughes has always been fragile. He replaced a popular, flamboyant manager in Terry Butcher, and the rapid change to a possession-based style of play did not provide positive results initially, or much entertainment for that matter. But you can't argue with success, and last season Caley Thistle were not only successful, but often great to watch too.
Not so this season. It's not just that results have been mediocre; the entertainment value has often been zero. Too many home games have been complete borefests, with the hosts passing the ball sideways without any obvious purpose, and goalmouth action at a premium. Then the opposition will go and score, frequently as a result of a defensive blunder. Performances have been better on their travels, but of course most season ticket holders aren't at those games.
Hughes' treatment of the immensely popular David Raven has also bred resentment. Now in truth Raven is 31 and has already shown some signs of slowing down, so his impending exit is not as outrageous as some would make out. But in the context of the defensive problems, particuarly as Josh Meekings is played out of position on the right and Danny Devine continues to play at centre-half every week despite a dreadful campaign, it's another stick to beat the boss with.
There's also concern about summer recruitment. Hughes is clearly capable of coaching up players - he's turned Carl Tremarco into a footballer, so he must be a quality coach. But his record in the transfer market has never been reliable at other clubs. There's a real worry that he'll bring in another bunch of Dani Lopezes and that next season will be a huge struggle.
My own view can fluctuate in the blink of an eye. Recent form had been impressive, but the debacle last week shook my faith in Hughes once more. On the other hand, who would replace him? I don't doubt that there are plenty of competent coaches out there, but even appointments that seem clever (Mixu Paatelainen!) can often go terribly wrong.
We'll see how this plays out. But as time passes, this looks more and more like a marriage heading for an unhappy divorce.
Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.