Sunday, 28 April 2013
Take yourself back six years. For six years ago next weekend, Ashton Gate was packed to the rafters on a sunny day with gloriously happy Bristol City fans, with red shirts aplenty on display in the May sunshine. Rotherham had turned up for an end-of-season game with fewer than 100 fans so almost every inch of the ground was full of noisy, happy City fans. Gary Johnson had finally got us promoted and had done so in style. BS3 was a very happy place to be.
Now ask yourselves a question, but before you do just remember the calamity that followed our previous promotion; John Ward’s sacking, Benny Lennartsson’s singularly disastrous reign, expensive signings no-one had ever heard of, Chairman Scott Davidson posting his team selections under the dressing room doors.….
If someone, right at that moment just over half a decade ago, had offered you six unbroken seasons in the Championship, one year escaping relegation, one solid fifteenth place, two tenth-placed finishes and a play-off final – the very brink of the Premier League – at Wembley included, what would you have replied?
Play-off success: too much, too soon?
If someone had said you’ll have trips to St. James’ Park, Upton Park and Elland Road, Molineux, Ewood Park and Hillsborough, that you’ll sign a young defender who will go on to play for England and a winger who’ll star for Ghana, I reckon most would have snapped the offer up without a moment’s hesitation?
Indeed, if you’d been offered just that one infamous night against Crystal Palace – that moment when Lee Trundle’s shot hit the back of the net, or when Michael McIndoe’s free kick sailed past Julian Speroni, many might have taken it right there and then.
Because that all sounds pretty good, right?
Shouldn’t we be going down thinking “Ah well, it’s disappointing but we’ve had a good run, now let’s get back up and do it all again”? After all, we remain one of the smaller clubs in the division, with attendances hovering in the bottom third.
But, no. It's depressing, it's frustrating and it's bewildering.
The problem at City is that we’ve had all that, but it’s been the ‘wrong’ way around. Instead of building slowly, gradually implementing a higher class of player into a confident and successful squad, and incrementally building the club into an established Championship performer, we had it too good too early and everyone got greedy.
Steve Lansdown did, and has spent £40m of his own fortune paying for the debilitating dream. The players did, early on at least. We, the fans, certainly did.
Even this season, a season that has ended in despair and mass disgruntlement, began with talk of a play-off push. Indeed, after three matches, some of the more emotionally-extreme fans were talking about a challenge for the title. I remember corresponding with some on Twitter who couldn’t understand why Nicky Maynard had joined Cardiff after we’d thrashed them during our bright start to the season, and became personally irate when I suggested Cardiff would finish well above us. Short-termism is the cause of many a row in this interactive and immediate world.
The signings of Sam Baldock, Steven Davies, Tom Heaton, Greg Cunningham and Paul Anderson all looked to be of good quality, and there was still time to sign that centre-back, an Andre Bikey, or another Stephen Caulker, before the transfer window, or even the loan window, was closed.
But that man never came.
Last season’s end-of-season review went over many points that won’t be repeated here, but ultimately the club has had a long, slow and drawn-out decline, leading ultimately to relegation in the most subdued and depressing manner. Three years of staid, poor quality and long-ball football (barring the first few months of this season when we scored goals for fun but let in even more!) have left its mark on the club and its supporters.
And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, the already relegated side come up with a pitiful display, surely worse than any that had preceded. Personally, I can never remember being so tempted to leave a game with half-an-hour to go as I was during the Huddersfield game. Rarely can there have been a performance so devoid of…well, anything. No pride, no passion and seemingly no care for the club or the fans who had turned up. To a man the Terriers were faster and more alert, quicker to every ball and stronger in every challenge. Only Jon Stead’s introduction late on seemed to galvanise a marginally better approach, but by then Huddersfield were already celebrating survival. Fans, ready to applaud the players despite having already been let down so badly by finishing many points adrift at the bottom, left in droves and the poorly titled ‘lap of honour’ must have been hastily brushed under the carpet with fewer fans remaining than would turn up for one of the under-21’s games.
It summed up our season in a nutshell. Goals came from all angles, but especially straight down the middle of the pitch. Right through the core of the team in a manner of a training exercise, without a tackle or challenge worthy of the name, in an all too similar way to at least a dozen others since August.
The two key elements for me remain as they were one year ago, when I suggested City must improve the balance of the squad and rid the club of the soft core.
To be fair to Derek McInnes, and few are these days, he did a lot to resolve point one. I’ll come back to the commanding centre-half issue, but we came out of last season in desperate need for additional firepower, a left-back we’d required for three years, and a solid goalkeeper to replace David James.
In Baldock, Davies, Cunningham and Heaton, McInnes signed four good quality Championship players who have all played their part in the more positive parts of the season and, subject to wage expectations, most would like to see remain with the club to challenge for promotion next time around.
The yearning for two top-quality strikers (who it must be said don’t compliment each other at all well) was brought into sharp focus by owner Steve Lansdown this week, who squarely laid blame at McInnes’ door by suggesting his insistence in pursuing both front men left little spare change for the centre-half role that has proven so critical.
I’m hardly providing a Gary Neville-esque moment of footballing insight when suggesting the lack of a big, strong and forceful centre-half has been the most important aspect of our dismal season. Both Lansdowns, O’Driscoll and almost every supporter knows it. Even the Evening Post has pointed it out, which only underlines the bewildering lack of any solution.
However, the robustness and solidity apparent during our one good run of the season, and again at Hull last Friday, showed me that Fontaine, Nyatanga & Carey could have adequately filled the second spot, but none have it in them to be the main man (any more, in Carey’s case it should be noted). Yes Fontaine has had a dreadful season and made some horrendous mistakes, but he had no-one to turn to for help, and when his confidence was shot to pieces we had so few options that we couldn’t rest him and take him out of the firing line.
Equally in midfield, the likes of Skuse, Elliott and Pearson have their critics, but when paired with a quality ‘breaker-up’ of play – the likes of Kalifa Cisse for instance – or a creative spark, it might have been adequate enough. Indeed it seems as if Skuse in particular might remain in the Championship whilst the rest of us sink and travel to Shrewsbury and Rotherham. Five consecutive managers have picked Skuse and Elliott regularly in the Championship, so they can’t be that bad, can they? But again, as with the back line, we didn’t find that strong, spine-moulding, high quality individual.
Up-front Davies and Baldock provide plenty of skill and Championship ability, but neither can provide the fulcrum at the head of the spine. Stead can, and it’s no coincidence the better performances appear to have again come when he was leading the line, but the likelihood of him dropping to League One seems slim.
If nothing else, three players are needed. Strong, leaders of men, each willing to run until they drop and crash through brick walls in the desire for success. Players able to control the middle of the pitch and let the ‘softer’, arguably more talented, players work around them.
On reflection, three games shaped the season. It seems like a lifetime ago but the 5-3 home defeat to Blackburn seemed to rattle McInnes’ faith in the gung-ho attacking approach that had brought comprehensive wins against Champions-elect Cardiff and play-off contenders Crystal Palace. The approach was toned down, formation and line-up altered incessantly and things were never the same for the Scotsman again.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to think, whilst sitting and watching the goals flying in, that the style of defeat against Leicester was the sort to get managers the sack. Had you told me at 2pm that McInnes would be out four hours later I wouldn’t have believed you. By 5:30 it barely registered a tremor of surprise.
Most significantly there was the ultimately pivotal game at Wolves, who look likely to be joining us beneath the halfway marker in the league next time around. Two months of Sean O’Driscoll’s influence had provided a potentially season-saving upturn in fortunes that were being rubber-stamped with a 1-0 half-time lead. The final twenty minutes were weak enough to allow that lead to disappear, and from potentially being clear of the relegation zone, City were plunged right back into trouble and they never recovered. Following a run which had yielded 17 valuable points from just ten matches, the blow of losing that lead led to the subsequent eight matches producing just a pair of draws and the end result of the season was thus defined.
If you want an at-a-glance view on things, the Player of the Year award has, for the second consecutive season, told you everything you need to know about Bristol City’s season. Whereas last season Stead picked up the award despite barely appearing until February, this season the official awards weren’t even given out and the Disabled Supporters selected Heaton for their prize, a goalkeeper who didn’t keep a clean sheet for the first 32 (thirty-two!) matches of the campaign and has shipped the vast majority of a whopping 80 goals to date, with 90 highly-unanticipated minutes still remaining. It’s fair to say those in front are considered the major weakness rather than the impressive ex-Manchester United and Cardiff stopper, who has resisted valiantly when given half a chance.
Heaton has been the best performer, despite conceding nearly 80 goals
I’m not going to bang on about formations here but I can’t leave the ‘what went wrong’ section without touching on it. One issue our fans – and fans of many other clubs – must get over is that to be successful we will not be able to play 4-4-2 with two flying wingers. Football has changed and the midfield become ever more stifled. The best teams in the world generally play three in the middle of the park, be it via a 4-5-1 or a 4-3-3 fluid set-up. Unless you have two excellent fullbacks and two highly complimentary central midfielders, able to gnarl and graft as well as prod and poke forward, 4-4-2 just simply doesn’t work any more. We might, might just get away with it in League One if we sign well and improve our attitude, but once we go back up we’ll get taken apart by most sides if we try to play as teams did in the 1980’s.
As the song goes, whatever will be will be (and we are indeed going to Shrewsbury), and there’s no point mulling over who’s to blame. There is no one person. Yes you can criticise Steve Lansdown for poor managerial appointments but he’s also appointed Gary Johnson and Sean O’Driscoll, not to mention bank-rolling the club to such an extent that ensures the Portsmouth path – thankfully – won’t be followed.
McInnes, Keith Millen, Johnson himself – have all certainly played a part in the demise, but each had their own restrictions and influences and each had some positives emerge from their reigns.
Stead, Brett Pitman, Heaton, Cunningham, Baldock, Davies, Caulker, Bikey and Anderson are amongst the signings they made that would form a very decent side indeed, whilst performances such as home to Southampton and Cardiff (x2) spring to mind when considering the better days enjoyed.
And how much can you lay blame at the fans door? Have we asked too much? Have we supported the club as others do? Have we been too quick to criticise managers, players, Board members – anyone associated with the club? It’s essential the whole club pulls together and drives towards one aim, or we’ve no hope of succeeding.
The timing of Gary Johnson’s departure has been previously agreed with on these pages but Wolves look to be the latest example of fans needing to be careful what they wish for when they decide the main man has “taken us as far as he can”. I wonder if they would be fronting up to a season in League One if Mick McCarthy were still in charge?
Whoever’s fault it may be, it’s a futile exercise trying to explore it.
For the first time I can remember I’m not particularly bothered about keeping many members of the squad. Heaton would be a great signature, whilst Cunningham and Moloney seem solid enough at full-back. Most would surely agree they’d love Stead to re-sign but that seems highly unlikely. I’m sure few would begrudge Carey another year on lower wages, whilst Anderson and Kelly have a lot to prove but are likely to remain.
Adomah will probably leave, whilst Baldock and Davies will undoubtedly have their suitors. Yes they’d all do a job at the lower level but if, say, £2-£3m could be raised by selling, along with the weekly wage budget freed up sufficiently, then the promise of a completely fresh team and approach could outweigh their natural benefits.
Skuse, Elliott, Nyatanga, Fontaine, Pearson – a whole string of names that, again, could probably do a good job in League One but how many would be taking to the forum pages to complain if they were moved on?
Foster, Kilkenny, Mark and James Wilson, Gerken and Bates could be shipped out in the dark of the night without many noticing.
Some will say relegation is a blessing in disguise, that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps they are the same people who also said that it wouldn’t have done us any good beating Hull in the play-off final and getting to the Premier League too early?
Whilst the sentiment is understood, to consider not playing at the highest possible level seems an oddity that doesn’t make sense. Gillingham and Oldham or Leeds and Nottingham Forest? Three or four games on Sky or one if you’re lucky? Crowds of 30,000 or 3,000? F.A. Cup Round Three or Round One?
Last time we went down we were favourites to go straight back up. It took eight years to recover.
For those that didn’t go through it, eight years is an awfully, awfully long time.
The Exiled Robin
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