A minority of fans had been questioning Johnson’s tactics, signings and ability to get performances back on an upward curve for some months. By the time Chairman Steve Lansdown reluctantly decided to pick up the phone and invite his friend to what proved their last meeting, the majority of the supporter base probably felt it was about the right time. Four-and-a-half years of bouncing around the ground (because Johnson told us to), promotion, play-offs and a sniff of the riches of the Premier League had given way to dire home performances, a succession of loanee strikers who couldn’t score and an air of gloom and despondency around BS3. Even those fans who liked to remind others that we were still in the Championship when three years earlier we had been travelling to Hartlepool and Carlisle, couldn’t avoid the sight of a growing number of empty seats, with season-ticket holders staying away in their droves.
The reason a mid-season review of the 2010-11 season begins in the previous campaign is to set the context of the expectations in the south of Bristol in August before the season started.
Lansdown prides himself on stability and sensible, prudent running of his football club and his deep personal disappointment at having to fire Johnson would have been softened by the appointment of twice LMA Manager of the Year Steve Coppell. The ex-Man Utd and England winger, who had made a habit of getting promotion to the Premier League, was the marquee signing that everyone wanted.
The signing of David James – England’s goalkeeper for three of their four World Cup matches in South Africa – got the nation’s attention and put City amongst the favourites for promotion, as well as raising fans hopes to fever pitch.
Throw in the fact that the planned new stadium – selected to host England 2018 games should that bid be successful – was in the final stages of approval and you can start to get a feel for the level of hyperbole surrounding the club.
Three months into the season and the club was in tatters.
Coppell proved himself a creature of habit, although unfortunately not gaining promotion in this instance, but walking out days into a contract. One league game and a Carling Cup exit at Southend were enough for him to realise that his heart wasn’t in it. The Premier League hadn’t even kicked off! Erstwhile assistant Keith Millen was appointed on a seemingly lengthy three-year contract, but the Chairman clearly wanted to send out a sign of stability.
Eight goals conceded in pre-season games versus Aldershot, Torquay and Exeter proved a warning not heeded as newly-promoted Millwall came on the opening day and went back to the Isle of Dogs with a 3-0 win under their belts. By mid-October three goals had been put past England’s now-former number one in a match on no fewer than six occasions, with two Coppell signings, right-back Nicky Hunt and Damion Stewart, taking the main share of the flak from fans. Defeat at Severnside rivals Cardiff having led 2-0 left the club bottom of the league with just six points from 11 games and seemingly without hope.
The new stadium plan appeared to be on the brink of doing it’s very own version of Devon Loch, with fewer than a couple of hundred local residents nearing success in their attempt to get the land permanently ensconced as a ‘Village Green’, meaning nothing could ever be built on it. There are no viable alternative sites.
Then Sepp Blatter and his cronies decided that the best technical bid presented to them was worth just a single vote, meaning the World Cup dream was over.
So, what next? For the first three months Millen was forced to constantly shuffle his team around due to injuries, but in early October influential skipper Louis Carey, born and schooled within earshot of Ashton Gate, made his comeback after dropping a Barbeque on his foot during the summer recess. FEI (Future England International) Stephen Caulker was signed on loan for the season from Spurs. Such is the quality of their squad that their 7th choice centre-back is fast turning into one of the Championship’s players of the season. Four of Coppell’s five main signings weren’t anywhere to be seen as Millen put his faith in the players he knew from previous campaigns and a clutch of his own additions.
When Danny Haynes put City in front at home to Reading 2½ months into the season, it was the first time they’d even led a game at home. It stayed 1-0, and then leaders QPR were held to a draw in a battling performance live on Sky. One defeat in nine games, including a superb win at Swansea and comfortable wins against relegation rivals Leicester and Sheffield United left City very much central in an average but tight division. Keith Millen has transformed himself from “Johnson’s ‘Yes’ Man” into November’s Manager of the Month, and the team are playing a style of football all too obviously required by the fans; 4-4-2 with two attacking wingers and a goal-poacher up-front.
The two strikers involved in the recent run of form are both Millen’s signings. Jon Stead, who at 27 already has the tag of Championship journey-man attached to his name, is already endearing himself to the Ashton Gate faithful with hard-work and creativity in equal supply. His relative lack of goals is not an issue presently with Brett Pitman, who turned down Premier League Blackpool to join the Robins from Bournemouth, having scored a goal a game for the last eight games. The pair already link up like no strike pairing in the last ten years. Last season’s top-scorer Nicky Maynard will struggle to regain his place easily. Throw in the loan signings of Caulker and Danny Rose and fans are getting a warm feeling about the quality of player Millen has already introduced to the squad, despite having just 15 days of a transfer window to operate in.
Creeping into 2011 by just a day saw a number of ghosts laid to rest with an emphatic 3-0 victory over Cardiff. Almost one year on from the distinguishing moment of Gary Johnson’s decline against the same opposition, a fluid and exciting performance had the old ground rocking again.
There is still an awful lot of work to do, with 14 goals conceded in the six games since Christmas Day, the defence in particular is still crying out for more strength, pace and a couple of fresh faces. A creative midfielder is desperately needed for the tighter games, although that could affect the sometimes improved solidity if Cole Skuse or Marvin Elliott are asked to make way. A new goalkeeper will be required next season to challenge then 41-year-old James but that’s for the summer.
For now the January transfer window offers a chance for further enhancements to the squad, although the Chairman has made it clear that 30+ professionals cannot be maintained and a few could be on their way out. A shocking 2nd half performance in the FA Cup means there will be no lucrative cup run, and the more realistic fans will be more concerned about getting through the month without Spurs being offered big money for 19-year-old Caulker, or the threat of relegation could become the prime focus of another season.