Tuesday, 29 April 2014

What of our future?

26 April 2014: Bristol City 0 Crewe Alexandra 0

I'd not looked forward to the opening day of the season with such anticipation in years; probably not since we responded to reaching the Championship playoff final by signing Nicky Maynard, and anyway the first game of the season that year was in Blackpool so I didn't go. The summer of 2013 saw phase one of a clearout of the older, more expensive players – or those we were able to clear out – and an influx of young, talented ones. Jordan Wynter, Frank Fielding, Derek Williams, Marlon Pack, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, all under the tutelage of Sean O'Driscoll. Relegation or no relegation it was an exciting concept.

And that first game, that 2-2 draw with Bradford, was encouraging in itself. OK, it wasn't a perfect performance; the first of those Frank Fielding moments that perhaps defined Phase 1 of the season took place, the keeper dashing madly out of his area and allowing Nakhi Wells to equalise in the first half. But it was an entertaining, attacking game of passing football, plenty of goals, and a real sense of a new beginning.

This weekend I went to another draw at Ashton Gate, and it was awful; very few attacks, neither goalkeeper massively stretched, a pathetic pitch celebration at the end, a simultaneous victory for Bristol Rovers, all against a poor Crewe side who may still go down. I can't, of course, criticise the team too much – our lack of vigour was surely borne from our status as mid-table survivors, and I'd hoped earlier in the season that Cotterill would bring the season to a humdrum end simply because it'd mean we weren't fighting a relegation battle. So in that sense I got what I wanted, but it wasn't much of a football match, and it wasn't a patch on that opening day 2-2.

But you can pick and choose selectively to prove anything, and everyone reading this knows that a hell of a lot happened between those two draws bookending the Ashton Gate season. We know what happened to that “project”, to use the footballing term, before winter had really set in.

Because the first third of the season was an attempt to do something for the long-term, an attempt sunk by poor results, only one of which came anywhere near the date at which the manager was removed.

That first third ranks as one of the most frustrating three-month spells of my life as a City fan, which is saying something. The consistent promising talk. The periods of games which would seem to live up to it. The periods of games which, yes, composed of sterile domination followed by a loss of nerve and a long ball to a short man. Those knocking-on-the-door 0-0s which looked like turning into 1-0s only for two great chances to come and go, and actually turned into 0-1s thanks to the outstretched foot of Aden Flint.

“Nearly” will always be the most disappointing, and perhaps the most damning, word in the football vernacular. Better to not compete than to lose in the 90th minute, perhaps, and we lost in the 90th minute a lot. We didn't take our chances, defenders made individual errors, things didn't quite click. But would you expect them to? A rebuilt team, half the wage bill on the treatment table or out of favour in the pockets of Pearson, Kilkenny, Fontaine, Marv. A side learning, a side chronically unable to get that bit of confidence that a win would have given them.

And then of course the infamous seven-game mini run, with its single defeat that was leapt on and picked over. It counted more because it had happened at home, one felt, a fine performance at Prenton Park seven days before unaccounted for. And more frustration now as, one good performance later, the die was cast. Frustration for those who thought they'd seen signs of things coming together, but would never, ever know.

Which took us into the second section of the season. The section that made you long for mere frustration, the section that was agony.

Steve Cotterill ripped it up and started again. And why not? He'd been given a different goal, the transfer window was evidence of that. In came experience, out went youth (a single start and plentiful sub appearances for Wes Burns not outweighing the sudden dearth of opportunities awarded to Bobby Reid and Joe Bryan), Steve: you have to keep us up and this time ain't doing it. Build another one.

And Cotterill's Survival Machine Phase I didn't work. No reason it should, it had been pulled together quickly enough from spare parts, made out of this and made out of that and whatever was at hand. But the early weeks of 2014, in particular, were painful, the defeat at Brentford probably the nadir – Parrish, El-Abd, Flint and Barnett will probably never be in the same City team again, and without writing them off too much, thank Christ.

Still learning about his players, players we largely knew better than he did, the manager didn't seem to get his formation right from week to week. In a rare spell of good fortune I saw both of our wins in that period – a 2-1 at home to Carlisle in a real pig of a game, and a 3-1 at Leyton Orient that was pleasant at the time, but was followed by two more poor performances and poor results leading up to that nadir at Brammall Lane. I am a man of an optimistic disposition, however I try and hide it: I walked out of that Sheffield United game telling my friend Rich not to be silly, of course we weren't going down. But earlier this year I was working out the route from Peckham to Dagenham (or is it Redbridge?).

And then. And then. Things started to click, and the final phase of the season turned into our most enjoyable in years.

It was The Redemption of Frank Fielding that night at London Road that did it for me. Peterborough's borne witness to both false dawns (the Sam Baldock-inspired 2-1 win last season) and indeed false sunsets (after a 3-0 defeat there the season before I was convinced we were fading out of the Championship. And a bit of me wondered if this wasn't another inaccurate omen; after all a backs-to-the-wall 10-man performance is something even the poorest sides can pull out of the bag once in a while. But it really did feel like a turning point, trailing into the cold Cambridgeshire air that night. It was a third win on the bounce and we were only to lose once more between then and now. It was the moment Steve Cotterill found himself playing the right defence. But more than that it was when we became a team again, not the hesitant collection of footballers of the autumn, nor the disparate group of near-strangers we'd seen that winter.

It was Bristol City. It was constructed of loanees, it was designed to float rather than to fly, but no matter – it was Bristol City and it was a joy to watch. How much of it runs out at Ashton Gate in August we'll have to see. But this spring it was a team, and it was ours.

A baffling season, with some of the strangest swings in quality and in apparent ability I can remember. And probably one we'll never be able to agree on.

To some, nothing happened bar the removal of a poor manager not getting results. To others – including me – an exciting concept prematurely dispensed with due to teething troubles. We'll never know what would have happened if the board had kept their nerve, or perhaps more accurately swallowed their apparent dislike of O'Driscoll the man.

I'm not getting into the SOD v Cotterill argument because we'll never have enough data, or I don't think we will. I was into the promise of the future that the Board and SOD sold, and I thought it was abandoned far too quickly. As the team developed experience, both in terms of playing more games together and in terms of being augmented by experienced additions, it became a better side – something that could quite easily have been predicted in September, and certainly came true in March.

But what future do we have now? The next few months will be important as we really ought to be preparing for a promotion race. The fans' expectations have been raised – Cotterill has shown he can get us performing to the level our wage bill indicates we should reach, and that will surely be a Top Six wage bill next season. But coming with that will be the increased expectation of fans who will, surely, no longer accept a 0-0 home draw with Swindon followed by the loss of a 2-0 lead at Colchester with such equanimity. Equally the manager will have to start talking less about the form table, a mathematical construct with no prizes attached, and more about the real table for which he will have complete responsibility.

In order to do that one assumes we will need to hold on to some of that external experience, or to similar sorts of player. You can make a case either way for Wade Elliott's signing – he's been excellent but he is, after all, 36 – but the improvement we've shown with him and Simon Gillett in the centre has been plain. The balancing act between doing this and continuing to develop younger players will be key, though; we're in League One in part because of a series of short-term decisions, and now we're safe we cannot neglect the long-term.

We may need to replace the goals, and the leadership from the front, of Sam Baldock, although the size of bid you'd assume we'd need to cover a) the remainder of his contract, b) transfer and signing-on fees for his replacement, and c) a bit of profit for the books is starting to make me think he might stay after all. (That said, if the right offer comes in we must accept it; we cannot find ourselves in a Maynard situation if it can be avoided.)

When Steve Cotterill came in I said I'd judge him after two years, and I'll stick with that – fans have to be as serious about the long-term as they expect the club to be. But this is an important moment because, for the second time this season, we've been shown a vision of the future that is attractive. It's the near future, rather than the medium-term, this time; but it's exciting, and it could be an enormous amount of fun. We'll know by Christmas whether we've arrived. But what we do in the next few months will have a lot to do with whether we get there, or whether we go down yet another Bristol City dead end and find ourselves starting over again in a year.

An odd conclusion to draw after this weekend's game, but: it's never boring, is it?

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