The most pertinent moment came when the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner – created for that gloriously sunny afternoon against Rotherham five years ago when David Noble and Alex Russell made themselves City heroes for life – was unfurled in the centre of the Dolman Stand. The years spent trying and failing to get out of the third tier had come sharply back into focus in the past few months as the spectre of relegation loomed and today was all about shutting that door.
Whereas that day of celebration in early May was about jubilation and excitement, today was all about relief and reprieve. For one more season at least the away trips will be to Elland Road, Molineux and the City Ground rather than Bury, Hartlepool and Shrewsbury.
The faces of the players when they came out for their lap of honour said it all. There were no jigs, no pumping fists and few broad smiles. The tone was more of an embarrassed nature, all of them acutely aware that the applause for them was down to their efforts and hard work in the last seven games rather than the corresponding number of months. They’d got us into that position, and fortunately they’d managed to scramble us out of it. There was plenty of happiness, of course, at a job eventually well done, but it was more a set of rueful grins than beams of exultation. Jon Stead’s face at the end and his interview on the Football League Show told the story – relief and delighted with the support the team had received, but a touch bewildered at just how celebratory the fans had been.
So what went so wrong? An article I wrote for The 72 Football upon Derek McInnes’ appointment in October was well-received and dealt with many of the underlying issues at the club, whilst an article from Andy Stockhausen in the Evening Post recently was probably the most insightful piece in that paper for many a year and offered similar views.
Many of the issues dealt with are still present and undoubtedly affected the performances this season. Essentially results have been achieved in two runs of form, the first one following the appointment of McInnes which took us from the basement to a position in mid-table, and then at the most crucial stage, just as relegation fears were once again at a peak. Aside from that there have been some truly dreadful runs of results and performances.
The underlying soft belly was exposed to the maximum during the bleak late-winter when everyone from Crawley to Brighton to Blackpool picked City apart at will. Then almost as suddenly as the inept performances began, the general attitude seemed to once again step up a few levels.
Stead re-establishing himself in the starting line-up was probably the key point in the season. His tremendous workrate, determination and willingness to put his body on the line seemed to spread throughout the team and that’s what earned him the Player of the Season award from the supporters – he showed he cared when it looked like so many others didn’t. The fact that he won the award despite having been on the pitch for less than six hours up until February 25th when 32 games had already been chalked up says all that needs to be said about the rest of the side.
Even though Louis Carey and Jamie McAllister were only reunited for a couple of matches, it seemed to boost the ability of the back four – especially alongside loanee Stephen MacManus – to hold out under pressure as their never-say-die attitude inflicted itself upon the rest of the team. Dean Gerken’s arrival for David James – who has surely played his last game at Ashton Gate – also played a part whilst the signing of Andre Amougou seemed to be the moment that, looking back, sealed the deal.
His uncompromising style was exactly what was needed and added attributes to the back line not seen since the days of Shaun Taylor. His arrival seemed to lift Louis Carey for one final push and if ever an image should sum up the legendary captain’s time at City it was his interview on Sky Sports with one eye virtually shut, a huge swelling and blood pouring down his face.
It would be easy to forget in the celebrations that the recent key games against West Ham and Coventry, City actually went behind. Had this happened back in September, or even February, there would have been little chance of the side having enough about them to get back into the match and get a result. The team that has played the last seven matches has a different feel about it.
It should also be noted that City have only actually overcome eight sides this season. Doubles over four (to date) have propelled the club clear of danger but more than two-thirds of next year’s Championship line-up will have few recent memories causing them to fear the fixture.
A strange element of the season has been the results against the top sides. A double over Southampton still feels like a dream whilst West Ham were unable to defeat us over 180 minutes. Champions Reading were made to look as poor as any side for 70 minutes back in September, Birmingham required all their battling qualities to not succumb to defeat at St.Andrew’s recently and we scored both of Cardiff’s goals in their win in the Severnside derby.
Focus on these games and there is hope. However there are too many other games and performances in mind that deflate any over-ambitious thoughts soon enough.
This summer will prove as crucial as any in City’s recent history if a similar struggle is to be avoided next time around. The squad is woefully lacking in creativity and ability to get goals although the back of the net has at least been rippled more often in recent weeks. A good team goal today was followed by a soft-looking penalty, Cole Skuse is not going to knock a left-footer from 30-yards through an England goalkeeper very often and we certainly can’t rely on the sorts of scrambled, pinball wizard style and deflected goals that went a long way to sealing our safety against Coventry.
Of course teams are going to score some fortunate goals during a season, but they should be nice bonuses rather than relied upon and it has to be said City have received a generous amount of luck during the last seven, unbeaten matches. It also should be noted that finally, perhaps for the first time in a couple of years, the sheer hard work, effort and bloody-mindedness of the players went some way to earning these strokes of fortune. Players have to get in position to shoot to get deflections or to force the keeper into an error, and the attacking players generally have to be threatening with the ball in the penalty area to win the chance to beat the keeper from 12 yards. Much ridicule and jest is made of the number of penalties Manchester United win at Old Trafford, but they generally win such a volume because they spend so much time inside the opposition’s area.
The close season will see the most dramatic overhaul of the squad Ashton Gate has ever seen, with nearly 20 players out of contract. Of the loan signings I can’t see McInnes wanting to sign anyone other than Amougou for the long-term but he may be too expensive or snapped up by a rival. His contribution to our survival will not have gone unnoticed by the likes of Leeds and Ipswich who have both conceded too many goals this season. Decisions will need to be made on a number of other high earners and it’s not only those out of contract that may be heading for the exit, with Kilkenny and Pitman potentially most at risk of not being a part of the tough Scotsman’s plans next time out.
However, surely there is a part of McInnes’ mind wary of stripping too much of the squad away and having to start totally afresh in August – our friends from across the city did much the same 12 months ago and suffered a dreadful start whilst trying to bond the new colleagues together.
A new goalkeeper is a must, however well Gerken has played in the past few weeks and a left-back remains a priority at the back. If Amougou can be signed then alongside Fontaine and Wilson there’s a solid base. Up-front there remains a need for a pacy striker with an eye for goal – Stead will contribute but it’s his all-round play that makes him such a valuable asset. Midfield needs the most attention however. Cisse, Skuse and Elliott are all too similar and if there’s a genuine push to become more creative only one can play regularly. Kilkenny can be a real asset but needs the rest of the midfield built around him and spends too much time moaning at referees and his teammates. Pearson has done a reasonable job on the left side but whether there’s a spot for him in a true four-man midfield is still up for debate. Adomah has had a disappointing second half to the season and someone needs to find his mojo again and reignite the spark in our most attacking and threatening asset.
It will be the biggest test for McInnes so far, bigger than the last few weeks. In Amougou (hopefully), Fontaine, Cisse and Stead he at least has a solid spine to build around and that could prove vital.
He has never tried to hide behind excuses but he has had to work with what he had this time around, the high volume of loan signings shining his lack of belief in the existing squad like a beacon. With so many able to leave this summer he has a unique opportunity to stamp his mark on the squad and get the type of player in that he wants. Managers rarely get a second chance these days so if the wrong decisions are made then he’ll be totally accountable. His signings to date have been mixed but Amougou has probably tipped him into credit. He and Pearson in particular have added value, whilst Ricky Foster has established himself in the side. Chris Wood brought little that Jon Stead couldn’t already provide whilst Davis, Ephraim and Keinan have played peripheral roles.
Finally a few words on the previous, oft-maligned, management. Without offering the suggestion that he was the right man for the job, it should be noted that much of the criticism of Keith Millen and the reasons for his failure was down to his “inexperience”, and the board were accused of taking the cheap option by appointing from within. Indeed, the latter accusation has been mooted by some of the less patient fanbase about the current boss, with many seemingly still bewildered as to why David Jones or Billy Davies didn’t become manager of an in-fighting, bottom of the league side and some still insisting that McInnes is out of his depth.
I have little doubt some Reading fans were saying the same about Brian McDermott.
Indeed, many of those who regularly attended Old Trafford in the late-eighties were saying much the same about their Scottish import.
Generalisations and sweeping statements are totally pointless and unfounded. The background is a factor but would you rather have had Dave Jones or Brian McDermott as the manager three seasons ago? Would you have picked Alex Ferguson over, perhaps, George Graham if you had the chance to go back 25 years? No decision can guarantee success and time must be allowed for anyone to make their mark.
Also to note, despite wholly accurate suggestions that the recent recruitment policy has been sporadic and failed to address certain key areas, Jon Stead and Yannick Bolaise – both Millen signings, joined last year’s winners Albert Adomah (Coppell’s) and Steven Caulker – another gem unearthed by Millen, via Yeovil – in collecting the top player awards. Without knowing the details, the other key Coppell signing – Kalifa Cisse – must have been pressing Stead for the honours this time around.
Whilst it’s easy to think of David James and Nicky Hunt, of Damion Stewart and of failing to sign a decent left-back – both Millen and Coppell have played their own part in the successes, as well as the failures, of the last two seasons.
However the club is now under McInnes’ control and he will determine much of the future. Part one of his role is very much ‘mission accomplished’. Bottom of the league and adrift when he arrived, I noted at the time that 21st position would be grabbed with glee by every single supporter. Portsmouth’s financial woes may have aided the situation but to even be here is testament to the change in approach brought about by ‘Del’ and ‘Doc’.
Part two is to revamp, helping to address the £30m losses in due course, but re-establishing City amongst the middling clubs in this league.
From there, who knows, but for now it just feels so good to be able to shout from the roof-tops “We are Staying Up!”