Monday, 27 January 2014


17 January 2014 - Bristol City 2 Milton Keynes Dons 2

City fans are a naturally divided bunch. Whether that's truer of us than the fans of any other given club, I couldn't tell you, but from Lee Johnson to Sean O'Driscoll the fanbase has never been short of subjects to disagree vehemently about.

Chief amongst those this season might well be the 'Five Pillars'.

The Five Pillars were announced towards the end of last season and represented the distillation of City's strategy; the five key principles which would be adhered to in order to build a sustainable club with a sound base. By prioritising Community Engagement, Academy and Youth Development, Player Recruitment & Talent Identification, Financial Prudence & Control, and Facilities, City would begin to take a genuinely long-term view. No more quick fixes, no more sticking plasters. Decisions made today would now be on the basis of the effect tomorrow. In turn, these Pillars ought to guarantee that there would be City fans in the future, that they would have home-grown players to support, that their club would no longer offer long contracts to declining players, that the club would not be vulnerable to administration or predatory owners, and that there would be a fit-for-purpose stadium together with good quality training facilities.

Personally (while I had a slight concern over nicking the way a major world religion expresses its tenets to talk about the strategy of a football club) I welcomed the articulation of a clear strategy. Some fans argued that this is simply codifying what all football clubs do as a matter of course, but I didn't buy that argument; while all football clubs presumably have some sort of community programme, academy, scouting network etc, there are also a number of other things football teams do: maximising commercial appeal, say, developing their profile away from their home city, and looking after long-term and older fans. City probably do all of these things too, but the point of the Five Pillars is that they comprise the things that can't be messed around with, that the club will stick to when choices have to be made and when push comes to shove.

For my sins, I spend a fair bit of my professional time analysing strategies, and the Pillars don';t feel too bad. They're relatively forward thinking and mark out the type of club we aspire to be – a Swansea or a Southampton rather than a Cardiff or a Hull. The very fact that I can say “these are clubs that seem to do this sort of thing, these are ones that don't” I think proves the point that the pillars aren't just best practice – they're a more important statement of intent. They're clear enough to be comprehensible and thorough enough that everything we do should contribute to them.

Thing is, though, it seems that they're also transient. There's been a lot of talk about this recently, and there's no doubt for me that the spirit and letter of our “Player Recruitment and Talent Identification” pillar has been moved away from, for the time being at least. The wording of this pillar, in part, is:

Revealed by the club’s majority shareholder Steve Lansdown in January, the club has taken a major change in direction with regards to its policy on recruitment.

The club aims to sign players aged 24 and under more often than not, with older recruits becoming an exception, rather than the norm.”

In Steve Cotterill's first transfer window we've signed two players permanently – Karleigh Osbourne, 25, and Adam El-Abd, 29. Both are defenders. We signed two defenders in the summer, too – Aden Flint, 24, and Derrick Williams, 20. This is a pretty clear shift. All are most comfortable at centre-back so with the best will in the world they can't all play regularly. And entirely reasonably the new boss is likely to prefer his own players.

A lot of people have been prepared to accept this on the basis that we've not been doing very well of late, and the long-term plan has to be put on hold while we sort out the short-term. I can understand this argument, but it speaks to some fairly terrible strategic thinking at Board level if we do indeed have a strategy that we can only adhere to when we're winning games.

The point of a strategy is that your short-term tactics, whatever they may be, need to measure up to it. If a strategy is so poorly defined that under certain circumstances it's impossible to stay with, then frankly it's pretty ill-thought-through. Anybody developing a strategy needs to know what the risks, short-, medium- and long-term are, and they need to know how those risks are mitigated in line with the strategic aims, the pillars.

Having a bad start to the season was always a possibility given the level of turnover in the summer. It's ridiculous to say it wasn't; so many new players in a division that's infamously tricky always made that a chance. And as well as being reasonably likely, such an eventuality would have a significant impact on the club. For that reason it should have been one of the main risks the club foresaw, and they should have had a decent plan available for dealing with it. Clearly they didn't – the action we got was divergent from the strategy, which means one of two things. Either the response was wrong, or the strategy was.

I don't think the strategy was wrong, at least not that part of it. I think that bringing in predominantly younger players is a very, very sensible policy, and one has to accept that losing games due to to mistakes, or not being able to control matches as we might prefer, is the only way a club like ours can thrive in the long term. Doing the opposite is what got us here. I can understand the word “exception”, but if there was latitude to make exceptions in January then there ought to have been latitude to permanently sign an exceptional, experienced centre-back in August (O'Driscoll's loan market activity makes it quite clear to me that he knew the squad was missing one). A change of policy here makes the entire thing meaningless. If your strategy's right, you don't change it in response to events; you respond to events in line with the strategy.

Cotterill and the board have obviously agreed to change it. The problem is that the only guarantee here is that young players don't develop if they don't get played. And while we've seen a fair bit of Williams I'd be surprised if he keeps his place – even more surprised if he and Flint both play when we're at full strength. There's no guarantee, however, that Adam El-Abd is the man who'll keep us up. Clearly having an experienced Championship level centre-back improves your chances. But it doesn't, can't, guarantee anything.

Cotterill's brief seems to be different to O'Driscoll's – he's been told to keep us up then worry about improving the team, rather than doing the two at once. But focusing on the short-term hasn't yet paid dividends – his first seven games in charge have produced precisely as many points as O'Driscoll's final seven, with the only difference between two surprisingly similar records being that we've conceded one goal more under Cotterill. This isn't to have a go at the new boss, who's done much right since arriving. It's to point out that there are no guarantees in this business – our form, which had been steadily improving until O'Driscoll was removed, has plateau'd. Given the counteracting effects of a new manager bounce (positive) and a lack of continuity (negative), you might have expected something roughly along these lines. But plateauing won't do if we're to stay up. We need to get our form improving again, just as it did in November and December.

Cotterill's lack of strategic restrictions mean, perhaps, that he has more cards to play when it comes to keeping us up. But if we do go down now, we go down in worse shape than if we'd done so after a season of bringing through young players and developing a style. Given that we can't know what would have happened had we kept O'Driscoll it seems an odd gamble to take. We've not learned the lessons of the past, we risk reaping the consequences of abandoning the strategy because, frankly, we don't seem to have realised why one was a good idea in the first place.

Funnily enough I think Steve Cotterill just might be good enough to keep us up. And he'll have done well if he does. But if so, we need the board to recognise that long-term planning isn't only for times of plenty. Football is a constant gamble, with too many factors in play to guarantee anything over a game, a month, or half a season even. Like any gambler a good football club needs always to minimise its losses. And in my view City have been guilty of failing to do that.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Entertain me

29 December 2013 - Bristol City 4 Stevenage 1
4 January 2014 - Bristol City 1 Watford 1

What a strange feeling I had leaving Ashton Gate on Saturday. A new and unusual one: fun. Pure, uncomplicated pleasure. Not something I'm used to feeling washing over me after a day spent in the cold and the rain in BS3.

Mad, really, isn't it? I spend £400 every summer on a season ticket. I spend £30-£50 on rail fares for every game I go to; half that again on overpriced First Great Western food and drink; and perhaps most costly I give up 20 or so of my precious Saturdays every year. And I do it for something that I rarely enjoy. What was striking was the genuine sense of novelty provoked in my by feeling that I'd enjoyed my day's leisure.

Everyone knows how painful it's been to go to Ashton Gate for the last couple of years, but this isn't really about that. Because I've also come away from the stadium feeling triumph, elation, or even out-and-out joy. (Honest I have, albeit not much in recent years.) And each of those moments has been worth the financial outlay above times several, which is good as it's the only basis on which I can justify it – that what I'm paying is the mean value of a fervour which may hit me only once in ten visits, but when it does is worth ten times what that particular trip cost.

It's unusual therefore to simply feel that I've paid the right amount for a good afternoon's entertainment. But that was Saturday. With the pressure already released by value of a) no league points being up for grabs, and b) being the underdogs by a division-and-a-bit, this didn't ever feel like a day that was likely to be upsetting. For that matter, we took the opportunity of the FA Cup to sit in different seats, breaking another unconscious link between this game and the numbing routine of League One.

For all these reasons it didn't matter that we didn't win. Sure, it would have been nice to do so, but what we did was just fine. We matched a side who aren't just in a higher division, but who made a habit of finishing above us even when we were in the same division. We equalised 60 seconds after going behind, which was lovely. We played good football, produced a fair few portents of continued league success, and yeah – we entertained a crowd who were there to be entertained, to support their team and to enjoy the day. It was terrific, and the fact that it set up a replay a short train journey from Euston (and therefore another game I can go to) was an extra bonus.

It was actually a lot more fun than the previous weekend's game. Then, we'd beaten a relegation rival 4-1, our greatest margin of victory for well over a year, we'd pulled closer to safety and we'd completed the taking of six points from two games about which everyone said we damn well needed to take six points. That was great – winning important games is a terrific feeling, winning them well best of all. But for pure entertainment? The Watford game beats it hands down.

Partly that's because matching Watford blow for blow is a hell of a lot more satisfying than matching Stevenage; we were made to play better football in order to compete, and we did. Partly it's because 4-1 was, perhaps, a flattering scoreline, two quick goals followed by both sides conceding possession startlingly cheaply, a lot of rocky defensive moments so that the bottom side's consolation goal came as no surprise, but all of this hidden by the decisive, matchwinning, potentially season-saving finishing of our front two. But I think that a key factor is the lack of tension. Every time you arrive for a game (particularly if you support Bristol City, I concede) you're thinking about what a win will do for you, and where a defeat will leave you. The crowd follow goals going in elsewhere and get swept away with rumour, speculation and bullshit.

And goals are the release of all that tension. They're not just something we applaud because we like to see them, they're something we can't help but wildly cheer because that's when the levy breaks. That's the moment of “thank Christ, maybe not today after all”. They're a mini-death row pardon in a spectator experience that really is normally execution by a thousand defensive errors.

OK, it's fair to say that by 3-0 most of the tension had drained from our crowd, but I'd say not before – the third goal was great because at that point I wasn't convinced that Stevenage weren't about to score. And nobody wants a 2-0 lead to start slipping. We've seen what happens then too often. So it wasn't until the end that we could really relax and enjoy ourselves, and inevitably at that point our very poor opponents helped themselves to a goal. City can't, it seems, stop being City.

It's obviously terrific fun having tension released like that (cheeky) – indeed there are, tragically, one or two tension-releasing goals which I can remember as clearly and with as much joy as nearly anything else in my life – but I'm not convinced it's entirely good for you. I've never pretended to be a cardiac specialist, but something tells me that voluntarily placing oneself in a situation of slightly scared anticipation interspersed with random adrenalin shots isn't how those recovering from heart attacks are advised to recuperate. That said, crushing despair week after week obviously isn't ideal either. So, short of not watching football at all (plainly not on the agenda), or just watching football in which one is neutral (perhaps worse) having a game that you can treat as entertainment, a valid option like the theatre or a gig, once in a while is – in the original sense of the term – a tonic.

And I'd like more of this tonic, please. I'm fed up of every game mattering so much. Since the mid-table seasons, the ones that eventually did for Gary Johnson when he looked treasonably more like finishing 15th than 9th, it's been relegation battle after relegation battle. Before that it was two promotion fights immediately following a relegation fight. Frankly it's too much. You don't want football to lose all meaning, but surely, surely, at some point you're supposed to enjoy yourself?

The season after Johnson left, Steve Coppell came in, destablised the club, left after two games and asked Keith Millen to pick up the pieces, which Keith did admirably. He kept us up with a few games to spare, and I vividly remember going to the final game of the season. We beat somebody (memory says Preston?) 3-0. I remember Jamal Campbell-Ryce grabbing the last one. It was meaningless, and after all that heartache it was great.

Steve Cotterill may after all have been dealt a decent hand. The squad's a transfer window or two away from being perfect, but he has an opportunity that managers who take over sides in the relegation zone rarely have. He doesn't have a lost, despondent, directionless group of players. He's got a well-drilled one with some rough diamonds and a little quality. A side who have been improving all season, particularly since November – momentum which, to his credit, he's maintained and developed. He's been able to skip that standard attritional thing new managers do. We were already getting harder to beat. This is not a lost cause at all. All the work done to this squad could yet pay off, and that good second half of the season I predicted way back in July may well transpire.

There's a chance – just a chance – that we might enjoy more matches than just this one. And who knows? Next season, if we're really lucky, we might do so well that we don't enjoy any at all.