31 October 2015 - Bristol City 1 Fulham 4
What does 'playing well' mean?
Because Steve Cotterill is convinced we did it in the first half-hour at Ashton Gate. He said as much to the club's media team after the match. We were the better team for the first 30 minutes, apparently, despite conceding two goals in that time. And the manager's right when he says that, in a way, the weekend's game sums up our season, because we keep hearing this. We played really well, we were probably the better team but then – oh no! - somehow the opposition have a chance, they take it, and we've got catching up to do. We lose, maybe we draw, we don't (yet) win once we've conceded. Afterwards, we console ourselves with the fact that we've played well and we have lots of positives that we can take into the next game. And on we go.
Playing well presumably means playing in such a way as to maximise your chance of winning the match. It can't refer to a particular playing style, as such. All those victories for Mourinho over Wenger over the years have come as a result of Chelsea executing their game-plan – normally involving breaking up play, snapping the ball as soon as it crosses the halfway line, staying drilled in defence and maximising crosses and set-pieces – better than Arsenal execute theirs, which involves possession, fluid interchange, quick passing and committing midfielders forward. Most football fans will probably admit a preference for Arsenal's way of playing, but clearly the simple fact of playing in one particular style doesn't itself mean 'playing better'.
This applies to Bristol City because Steve Cotterill has embraced a creditably entertaining, direct form of football – not Arsenal, perhaps, but something closer to the Brendan Rodgers or Jürgen Klopp model. It's based on high pressing, aggressive, direct running, moving the ball forward from front to back and giving almost all the team's players license to join the attack. When it works it works brilliantly, and we stormed a weak League One last season largely by blowing other sides away with our speed and relentlessness. That basic principles haven't changed this season yet – as we've seen – the results to date have.
So if we've stuck with our successful system, and have been playing well in more games than not, why have the results not started to turn our way as – over 14 games – you'd expect them to?
A look at the statistics doesn't help us much. In our last five defeats – 1-4 this weekend, 1-2 against Brighton before that, then 0-2 against Reading, 2-4 against Birmingham and 1-2 against Burnley – we appear to have done quite well. In four of those five games we saw more of the ball than our opponents, averaging 53% possession. And we've created chances, taking 54 shots in the four games. So, yep, fine, we're playing well – we're dominating possession, as we try to do, and we're creating chances.
But of course these are all attacking metrics. They show that the plan is working in an offensive sense. They don't tell us too much about what's happening at the other end. And this looks a bit less rosy.
In those five games we've allowed our opponents 65 shots on goal. Cotterill argues that the main difference between the sides in these 'good performances' is the clinical nature of our opponents, but the stats don't bear this out. In fact, our opponents have a 38% shots/shots on target ratio compared to our own 37%. The other sides aren't more clinical than us. What they are is better at defending.
This is pretty clear if you watch the goals from this particular game. (I know, I didn't either, but go on.) Fulham do well, but certainly for the first two, they don't really need to. Look at the first. One of our centre-backs, Luke Ayling, starts the clip in effectively the right midfield position, losing the ball. Once he does so, our actual right wing-back (wing-back, not winger, despite his starting position) fails to track their runner. This causes the only one of our centre-backs to start the clip in the right position, Aden Flint, to be dragged out of said position in order to cover. The Fulham ball is good and Dembele, in the space left by Flint, finishes well, but it's an easy run, an easy pass, and a fairly routine finish in all honesty.
The second goal is worse. I've absolutely no idea where Luke Ayling is – the camera focuses for much of the clip on the area to Flint's right, where you'd expect to see our right-sided CB in a three, but he's not there – and Flint is forced to knock the ball a bit long to one of our midfielders, neither of whom appears to have considered coming short to receive it. The pass is sloppy, it's immediately 3v2, and we're picked off.
The third goal is a beautiful free-kick (although at a saveable height), but the clip misses out the build-up. In that instance, Luke Freeman lost possesion on the halway line, and their player was able to burst forward to the edge of our box unimpeded by right wing-back, defensive midfielder or right centre-back. Freeman himself had to track back to make the challenge. He's an attacker, he got it wrong, got booked and they scored from the free kick.
Then the final goal – yes, OK, a good finish, but once more. Ayling is nowhere to be seen, Flint is pulled into his position, which means that once again a simple ball completely opens us up. Neither Marlon Pack nor Korey Smith are helping out, and Tunnicliffe finishes the one on one rather nicely.
These aren't just any old chances. The third aside, these are a tap-in, a 3v2, and a one on one. They're the sort of chances you expect strikers to take. Not all chances are created equal. Fulham were well organised at the back, hard to get around, and ensured that the shots we got away were largely from distance or after long, patient passing. It's not acceptable to say that Fulham happened to be more clinical or that we made mistakes. You'll never cut every error out of the game, it's played by humans. Ronaldo's missed sitters. Messi's miscontrolled the ball. Pirlo's undercooked passes. Our problem is that we play in such a way that a single mistake can immediately open us up.
And yet those goals came in the first half an hour when we were 'playing well'. And this is what concerns me. We were playing in such a way that we were always going to be vulnerable – playing with our centre-backs out wide, our wing-backs in the attack at all times, none of our midfielders further back than the centre circle. You know what? Of course it's possible to force the issue when you've eight players in the opponents' area at all times. Of course you'll pin them back a bit. Of course you'll control possession. You've more options than the other lot, more people to receive the ball.
But the flip side of this strategy is that you are permanently five seconds from conceding. It's like committing every chess piece on the board forward. You will by definition pin a number of your adversary's pieces back, because you'll control a lot of the angles by which their king can be reached. But your own king can be completely exposed. If they get a rook down the side you're done for almost immediately.
City's “good performances” and their habit of conceding goals have regularly been expressed as a baffling correlation. The official match report for this game makes this exact mistake, saying that “Seven would become eight by the 18th minute despite the fact that much of the time between the goals was spent in Fulham territory.” It's not 'despite', it's 'partly owing to', particularly when just two paragraphs later the report approvingly describes a centre-back joining the attack. We have seven players who should play further forward than our centre-backs. They don't need to be that far forward on the quarter-hour!
Let's stop claiming we're playing wonderfully when we're turning Championship matches into wide-open turkey shoots. Let's stop pretending to be baffled when we keep using Luke Ayling and Derrick Williams as auxiliary midfielders, then let in goals.
And let's not blame the system – 3-5-2 is a perfectly valid way to set up. It's not the fault of those three numbers and two dashes that our centre-backs are instructed to take the halfway line as their default starting position, that our wing-backs play like wingers (understandable; one is a winger, the other is far more winger than full-back, and Mark Little's not a great deal more defensively-minded), that our holding midfielders play like number 8s more than number 4s (which of the two is the committed DM, and why can't I easily work that out)?
These are tactical instructions coming from the manager. And they need sorting out or else we'll be in a relegation battle for the entire season.
And if we go down, I've no interest in hearing that we did so 'despite playing great football all season', thanks very much.
Wednesday, 5 August 2015
I’ve done a couple of things I’m not proud of this month. I’ve handed over money for service I won’t boast about. And the worst thing is that, I know, I’ll go back.
I’ve bought Forever Bristol membership, and I’ve bought a ticket to Hillsbrough for the opening game of the season. While neither of these are shameful, precisely, both of them have left me at the very edge of my moral comfort zone.
Second things first. The ticket for Sheffield Wednesday cost me £39. Which, undeniably, is a hell of a lot; enough for a lot of people, very reasonably, to decide that it’s not worth the candle. And the Supporters’ Club and Trust have gone further, and announced that they’re not going to attend. They’ve stopped short of calling a boycott because some people have already booked travel, but they’ve made it very clear that this is the next best thing.
They are, of course, absolutely right. Exploitative pricing is a major issue in football at the moment, especially in the revoltingly rich upper divisions of the English game. Fans prize loyalty above any other trait, but the clubs upon which they bestow this prized characteristic strip-mine it for money. It’s a bad, bad business, and City fans are right to stand up to it.
But. This was the game I looked for when the results came out. This is the game which my friend Dave the big Sheffield Wednesday fan were planning to organise a night out around. And there it was, first game of the season, barely a month after the fixtures came out. It was too perfect not to.
So I'm going up on Saturday; I've held my nose, not looked at the bank account, and bought a ticket. I'll send some money Sheffield FC's way, but I won't be able to pretend that's any better than giving a quid to one homeless guy in every twenty as an assuaging of the conscience. I'm looking forward to the first game of the season, looking forward more to the evening out in a lovely city – but don't get me wrong, if the SC&T had announced a full boycott I'd have fallen in line. I'd never break a boycott. I'm all too aware I'm using a semantic distinction as justification; but it has to be enough.
Before I even bought that ticket, though, I'd caved and bought Forever Bristol membership – and that really stuck in the craw. I dislike the concept of Forever Bristol immensely. It's the Speedy Boarding of the football world – an opportunity for the seller to monetise, rather than the provision of a service, the non-removal of an already existing service. If you don't offer Speedy Boarding, everyone gets the same chance to board the plane – as soon as you do, you take away that first chance from passengers who don't pay the premium. Forever Bristol is precisely the same. If it didn't exist, everyone would have the same chance to buy tickets. Introduce it, and suddenly you create a second tier of fans, which we all have to pay £20 to avoid joining. The club has to do nothing – literally nothing – extra, except stick out a virtual hand and extract a crispy purple note from fans who'll be buying tickets anyway.
The only way this can work, of course, is by frightening people into joining the upper tier. After all, if nobody bought Speedy Boarding, nobody else would feel they had to. There would no longer be a queue to jump. And all last season the club's website yelled at us that we had to become FB members if we wanted to see the games. This reached a particular nadir after the FA Cup draw pitting us against West Ham when a Forever Bristol membership ad, rather than news of the fixture itself, took pride of place on the website.
The West Ham game still didn't sell out to members, mind; I think only the last game of the season did. Which must have provoked sighs of relief from the accounts department. A Cup game hadn't, the game where we sealed the title hadn't; thank God that at the very last minute they showed the fans that without paying the premium you risked getting bupkis.
Hang on... now I think of it, it's odd that a match didn't sell out to members until the last possible opportunity for one to do so...
...and after some more attractive games had failed to. You don't think...?
No. I'm sure it was all above board and honest.
Now I'm not an idiot and I understand that scarcity = demand = increased pricing. I get that. But we seem to have the worst of both here – increased prices this season and a membership fee if you actually want the opportunity to pay any of them.
And yet I know all this, and I complain about it, but once again I have the wallet out. Why? Why have I chosen willingly to be exploited, once by my own club, once by a bunch of Yorkshire blue-and-whites to whom I have no allegiance?
As ever, the answer at its most reductionist is: because football. But that won't quite do. The simple action of walloping a ball into a net can be exciting, sure, but it's hard to believe it's exciting enough to mesmerise us all into agreeing to this mechanised asset-stripping.
Football isn't just football for most of us. It's not the 'bunch of lads kicking a ball around' of repute. It's a weird bundle of connections in our mind, pre-season most of all – echoes of triumph ringing around the brain, the chemical memory of those endorphin rushes, those odd moments when everything aligns in a wonderful, natural high. It's the friendships it's connected with, the old friends I most often see at Ashton Gate now, the new friendships the game throws our way, the sharing of something mutually beloved. And more than that it's the primal sense of identity, of belonging; as humans we congregate, if not at football games then music festivals, airshows, comic book conventions, whatever you like. For everyone reading this, football provides something – several somethings – that I think drive us as animals. Great swathes of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs can be fulfilled at your local Championship ground, 3pm every other winter Saturday.
That's why advertisers are so desperate to stick Ray Winstone's stupid face into the Champion's League; why David Fishwick Minibus Sales hangs on to that prime location at Turf Moor; why Manchester United have an Official Office Equipment Partner. Everyone knows that – but it's indirect. “When football strips away their higher brain functions” runs the commercial logic, “we'll step in and shove our tat right down their pleasure centres”.
What I've been paying for is the real thing. The direct hit. Liquid football. And like anyone who comes back for more when they know they shouldn't, who spends money they don't really have, who has an order of priority they probably won't admit to anybody, I'm far too tarnished to start pretending my hands aren't dirty.
And I can't wait for the season to start, so that my millions of fellow-sufferers and I can debase ourselves once again.
Sunday, 19 April 2015
I remember another sell-out home game against Coventry City. An equally vital one, potentially decisive in terms of the division we'd spend the following season in; League One or the Championship.
Three years and nine days earlier, we met Coventry in a massive relegation tussle at the bottom of the Championship. Tied at 1-1 after Jon Stead had scored at both ends (or rather, the same end in different halves), Derek McInnes brought on a raw young winger called Yannick Bolasie. You'll remember him – he's apparently now worth £20m, although in fact he probably isn't. His goal with his first or second touch has evidently “lived long in the memory”, since I can remember it now. I can remember calling “go on, Yannick, make yourself a hero” when he came on; well, didn't he just.
And I can also remember that goal taking the lid off the place. According to Google it was in the 82nd minute and put us four points clear of relegation with four to play. So you'd expect the fans to have been pretty damn chuffed.
But it's perhaps still odd that the atmosphere that day – at the end of a completely awful season – was so much better than the atmosphere against the same opposition this weekend, when we won League One at the end of a completely brilliant one.
We know the facts: we've just claimed our first league title of any kind for sixty years and we'll set our highest ever points total in doing so. Yet Ashton Gate was a little flat on Saturday afternoon, there's no question about it. The pitch invasion at the end felt a bit token, a bit forced, the product of obligation rather than effervescence. Having been at all three matches, I'm fairly sure much less of the pitch was covered than after the game in 2012 against Barnsley which kept us up, let alone after our last promotion, in 2007. And yet these games came at the end of seasons which were, in the first instance, pretty awful, and in the second, really good but still not title-winning.
I think there are a few contributing factors here but I think one is absolutely key.
First of all, of course, we've now got a smaller capacity as a result of having a three-sided ground. So not only were fewer people present, but the atmosphere wasn't locked in – it wasn't bouncing off every side, being sent back into the centre with interest by every group of City fans. But that's not all. It can't be, because not everyone went on the pitch anyway, and because there were large sections of the ground where not much singing was taking place at all – including around me, in the north end of the Williams.
Secondly, it was in the end a 0-0 draw. There's always been something slightly unsatisfying about 0-0 draws; the lack of a goal denies you the release of tension which elation in football is all about. After Tuesday's astonishing result at Valley Parade, I expect that most people (including me) were expecting the odd goal on Saturday. But that's not all either. It can't be, because we've all seen occasions in which a draw (or even a defeat – see Monaco v Arsenal earlier this season) has led to untrammelled joy.
Thirdly, let's be honest; we all knew we were going to win the league, didn't we? I'm not sure that anyone would have expected Preston to win every remaining match, not in this league that's wanted consistency throughout. And we've not lost three in a row all season – clearly it was unlikely we'd start now. But that's not all either. It can't be, because you can be damn well sure that Chelsea fans will celebrate when they win the league. And I assume Bayern fans will as well, although even that must be getting a little dull for them, now.
I think the fourth reason has a lot more to do with it. In the end, what we did this weekend was win a league we should never have been in to start with. Sure, after six promotions in which we don't win the division, finally breaking that statistically anomalous run was great. But if someone had said to you, five years ago, when Keith Millen was in caretaker charge of a team that had spent a couple of years starting to slip “don't worry, it gets better, you'll win the League One title soon” I'm not sure that would have been much comfort. You might in fact have been tempted to hit your imaginary comforter.
This is the problem with a lot of what we've been offered this season – all of this “once in 60 years we get something this good”, “best season ever” narrative. It just isn't true. It can't be. Because this season came with a ceiling, and that ceiling was “45th best club in Britain”. We've just had several years of beating that automatically, of being unable to finish below 44th. I think it's reasonable to be slightly nonplussed at finishing 45th.
Nothing says more about who we are as a club than our record for winning the Football League Trophy – whether you call it the Freight Rover, the LDV or the Johnstone's Paint – more than any other side. It means we're theoretically a bit too good for this level, but we keep finding ourselves here all the same. Lots was made about Mark Little “retaining” the JPT having won it with Peterborough last season, but again I wonder whether that's the accolade it sounds like. Is he, too, better than this division but not quite Championship level? We'll know in a year, I suppose; certainly I think you can only call someone a record-breaker if it's a record anyone ever mentioned or might conceivably have hoped to claim. I'm not sure any young player dreams of winning the thing once, let alone twice on the bounce.
None of this of course means that we shouldn't enjoy winning a competition or two, if because of systemic mismanagement we end up in them again. Of course we should. But there's always going to be an upper limit to the joy you can take from winning a division containing Crawley, Fleetwood and Rochdale. The game I enjoyed most this season was the away-day at Preston because, you know what, it felt like the Championship again. It felt like the sort of game we'll get a lot next season. Two good sides, in a proper stadium, in a proper city, going at it. It's worth a thousand 2-1 wins at “the checkatrade.com stadium” and I'm looking forward to lots more of that. I'm also very pleased we got this done in what felt like, when we went down, the minimum time possible; we haven't got stuck like poor old Sheffield United, and that's a good thing.
But if we were to accept this as “one of the great Bristol City seasons”, we'd also have to accept that in finishing in the Conference's top two, Bristol Rovers are currently enjoying one of the greatest in their history; their first placing this high in a generation. And come on. Nobody's going to accept that, are they?
Context is important. That's why we can't go too mad at success in League One, but why we had damn well better enjoy next season more, whatever we do and wherever we finish.
Tuesday, 14 April 2015
11 April 2015 - Preston North End 1 Bristol City 1
Over the last 18 months, Aden Flint has metamorphosed from lumbering, gaffe-prone lummox to the latest member of that part-lovable, part-tiresome gang, the “Cult Hero”. From Gary Caldwell to Robin Friday in 50 matches is quite the achievement, but this is a man with every qualification for the job. He used to be a tarmacker, he's hard to miss on the pitch at 6'6”, and he's inherently likeable, with a dry turn of phrase it's difficult not to warm to. Plus he's playing extremely well at the moment; the current League One Player of the Month, he's responsible for the unsual sense of calm amongst City fans when a high ball swigs into our box (a favourite stratagem at this level), as well as the sense of anticipation when we win a corner.
Oh, and when he was asked whether he wanted Swindon Town to go up, he used his mastery of repartee, of the easy bon mot, and came out with the timeless quip, “no”.
Maybe you had to be there.
I'm being a bit harsh, perhaps. City fans may have adopted this as one of the great footballing witticisms of the ages, up there with “we discuss it and agree I'm right” and all those times Lineker reminded Hansen that he'd been wrong about Manchester United's youth policy, but Flint wasn't trying to be funny. He was simply speaking his mind. His lack of diplomacy is a significant component of what we like about him; he's a bluff Northerner whose head is for heading balls rather than weighing words. But following the enjoyable victory over Swindon Town, the travelling contingent at Deepdale this weekend had made up a cheery little number set to that great Oasis B-side “Cum On Feel the Noize”. The main difference is that the lyrics aren't about a weekend on the razzle in the Black Country any more, but about how Swindon won't be promoted and serves them right too.
Now there is, obviously, nothing wrong with this. That needs saying now. In a division short on obvious rivals Swindon fit the bill well. They're from up the road (although if you have to specify why a derby is a derby, pace “the M4 derby”, it probably isn't a real derby) and they've been near us in the league for most of the season. So we can not like them at we can sing songs about them, fine. But, to borrow terminology from the election campaign, making Swindon's non-promotion a red line – saying “I'm not bothered who else goes up as long as it's not Swindon” - well, that just won't do, I'm afraid.
I think most of us would agree that there are levels of good and bad within football. Bad, especially. You've got the things people say are bad: swapping shirts at half-time, not returning the ball if your opponents have put it out of play, whatever. These mostly exist within the game itself. And then you've got the things that are actually bad: major tournaments consistently being awarded to oil-rich despots, say, or the pricing out of the working class, or Robbie Savage. These are things that exist outside the game – meta-football, if you like. What happens on the pitch matters, I'm not arguing that it doesn't; but it doesn't matter anything like as much as what happens beyond it, in the superstructure of football, where actual people's actual lives are affected. It doesn't matter one quintillionth as much.
And yeah, that brings me to MK Dons.
I've been fed up with MK Dons all season. Them beating Manchester United early on, that was amusing, of course, but when they kept hanging around the novelty wore off. The joke wasn't funny any more when City fans congratulated themselves for buying 5,000 seats at Stadium:MK, and it was positively tiresome when some cheered MK's victory at Swindon, of all people, the other weekend.
In terms of what they do on the pitch, MK Dons don't seem that bad; they play neat football with young players and they do it quite well. The manager's a bit difficult to swallow, but a lot of them are, including some a hell of a lot closer to home than Karl Robinson. They're a bit bland, because there's no half-century of animus with them as there is with most teams in this league, but not unpleasantly so. And they produced Sam Baldock, so cheers to them for that.
But off the pitch, in the realm of the important, they are quite obviously loathsome. They shouldn't exist, not only because they're objectionable but because they're dangerous. Their existence serves as a permanent threat to 91 other league clubs, or more precisely to their fans. MK Dons are a totem, sending the message that anyone could take your club away from you and there's nothing at all the football authorities can do about it.
Sure, we play this game about not liking teams. We don't like Crystal Palace because we used to play them a lot and we got grumpy with one another. We don't like Rovers because they're the other lot in Bristol and we want to be better than them. It spices up football, it creates a bit more narrative, a bit more fun. But it's a game; it has rules, and one of them is that we'll have a drink with a Rovers fan or a Palace fan later. I think we'd all believe that someone not prepared to do so would be taking the whole thing a bit too seriously.
MK Dons exist outside that. (Cardiff, of course, rather beautifully combine being game-rivals with an actually unpleasant football club beyond the pitch as well, and it's hard not to look forward to playing that lot next year.) Even if we don't have game-reasons for not liking them, the real reasons to despise them are clear, present and unignorable.
My local team, Dulwich Hamlet, have a slogan amongst the fans; “Ordinary Morality is for Ordinary Football Clubs”, they say. Now if I'm honest I'm not quite sure what that means. I think most football clubs are quite a few moral niches below ordinary; amoral at best, the 92 collectively are. But if a football club has any value, if those colours, that history, that dear old stadium has any meaning whatsoever, it must be morally right to resist the trend of devaluing, asset-stripping and preying upon those dear old associations for the sake of a quick, dirty buck. And as an ordinary football club, which is the most important thing in the the British sporting tradition, let's aspire to a bit of ordinary morality.
Let's keep Swindon as our rivals. But let's not forget what's really important. And if Swindon play MK Dons in the playoff final, let's be Robins together for a day.
Wednesday, 25 February 2015
24 February 2015 - Millwall 1 Sheffield Wednesday 3
My mate Dave is a big Sheffield Wednesday fan. That is to say he's a fan of the Owls who happens to be sodding enormous – clear of 6' 6” I'd guess. He follows the team a bit, and he'll go and watch them when he can work attendance at their game into his real hobby, which is getting drunk with pretty women and silly men.
Somehow he talked me into attending this one to fill the “silly men” quota. So I dragged myself out to South Bermondsey when I could have been watching Barcelona beat Man City, under the specious rationalisation that I was scouting the sort of mediocre opposition from which I expect City will need to take points next season.
(On which point, by the way, I have few concerns. Despite Wednesday's excellent performance in the second half, which owed a lot to the genuinely fine attacking play of Jacques Maghoma, I felt that on present form City would beat either team relatively comfortably. We'll have no problems adapting to the middle of that division, I suspect.)
I went in the spirit of companionship and bonhomie, and as someone who always enjoys live football, rather than because I was expecting the team third-bottom of the divion and the team whose previous seven-game form read D3 L4 to produce an encounter for the ages. And the first half lived down to my expectations, a scoreless heap of nothing in particular distinguished perhaps by the moment Wednesday left-back Claude Dielna took a touch of the ball, found himself with time to think, considered his options, and very calmly and deliberately lobbed it over the left-hand touchline and out of play.
After the break though things were different, and once the badly out of form Yorkshiremen had scored the goal that gee'd them up whilst demolishing the fragile confidence of Ian Holloway's men the game was almost entirely played in one direction – right down the pitch towards the voluble travelling support. We were up towards the back where, at the Den as everywhere, the loudest and least inhibited of the away support tend to congregate. I found myself almost entirely sucked in by the frisson Wednesday's performance generated, and celebrated the goals like I had swallowed Henderson's Relish from the teat. It was exhilarating.
It was also probably the most exhilarated I've been at any football match this season. Since my team is top of the league, and I've been to quite a lot of their games, that has to be a concern.
Part of the reason I think is that I was caught in a very particular mood felt by the Wednesday fans. Both behind me at the ground, and on the train back home, I kept catching variations on the same theme. “Two goals from open play!” a Wednesdayite would exclaim in great surprise. “An away win...” sighed another lad in reverent, mine-eyes-have-seen-the-glory tones.
You know what that's like, don't you? When you come away from a game thinking “we won. We actually went and bloody won!”
It's the best feeling in football. There's satisfaction in winning a game you ought to win by a nice, routine 2-0. There's great pleasure in seeing your team demonstrate clear superiority when running goal after goal past some hapless bunch of lower-league chancers. But coming into a game you may not win, entering an uncertain situation, scales balanced, nervous, turning up because it's what you do rather than because of your scintillating run of form, then scoring all the goals and claiming the points – that, my friends, is the good stuff.
And League One just doesn't offer that. Not when you've been there less than a couple of years it doesn't, anyway. Sure, last time around, when we'd had seven solid seasons before the glorious eighth, we'd become accustomed to playing at that level and really didn't expect to beat the better sides. So when we did it was terrific.
But this time is different, isn't it? It feels that way to me, certainly. We've not been in the doldrums long enough for victories to have the same meaning. We had two understandable wobbles in the first season, a just-relegated-building-a-team one and a new-manager-not-getting results one, overcome them, and been doing absolutely fine thankyouverymuch since then. We'll get promoted this season. We've been favourites, probably, since the opening day. The game we played that day, at Sheffield United, may in fact have been the most recent game we didn't expect to win, but did.
I've not once walked out of a game feeling utterly thrilled to the core, that wonderful pinch-myself thrumming through me like a plucked string. I've been happy quite a lot. I've thought “that's absolutely fine” a fair bit, I've thought “didn't we play well” from time to time. But overjoyed, no; not by winning a game comfortably in this dreary League One.
Because it plainly is dreary. What came down was so much worse than what went up that it was pretty clear this was a major opportunity to get out of the division. I'd guess we have a bigger budget than 21 other clubs. The two of a comparable size – Preston and Sheffield United – are underachieving, not because they're behind us but because they're scrapping with Bradford, Doncaster and Fleetwood. That won't do for famous sides like those two. And it's left the way open for us to run the division simply on account of hitting par for our budget whilst they fail to do so.
There's also the fact that even our close competitors are failing to give us a run for our money. The main reason we're seven points clear of third is that in both of the last two weekends, we've lost but so have Swindon. That's it. They could be a point behind us, but they're not. That's because they're a League One club on a small budget, so they'll be inconsistent and drop silly points. It's perfectly reasonable but it hardly adds to the tension of it all. And a break in tension is what creates real joy at football. It's why a late winner feels so much better than a fourth goal midway through the second half.
This time last year, our record – 67 points from 32 games, with a goal difference of 31 – would have put us third in the table. We'd have been level on points with Orient and Wolves above us, though – a three way tie! - having played a game more than Orient and a game fewer than Wanderers. Brentford would be a point behind us in fourth with a game in hand. It would have been completely brilliant. Imagine how vital every game would have felt. Imagine those clashes in Wolverhampton, in East and West London.
But there we are. Instead we're competently navigating a mediocre iteration of the division. We'll go up, great, but as far as I'm concerned the real thing will only start then. Getting back into the Championship and having to play well every week just to keep our heads above water. Real competition. Parachute payments. International players at the Gate. Difficult matches every week. And once again, that most underrated of footballing emotions – relief. The same relief, breeding the same delight, those Sheffield Wednesday fans felt last night.
Saturday, 17 January 2015
The full version of the Scunthorpe Telegraph "Spy in the Camp" article I provided ahead of this weekend's game with Scunthorpe United.
• City have been top of the table for much of the season and are clear favourites with the bookies for promotion - is there any fear they won't go up?
No football fan would ever say his team's a certainty for promotion, surely? But at time of writing it's hard to deny that things look good. We're duking it out with Swindon for top spot at the moment, but we've played a game fewer and are starting to put a bit of space between ourselves and third spot in the table.
That said, we know from earlier in the season how quickly a gap of several points can become a gap of just one or two, and the other three teams up there with us – MK Dons and Preston, as well as Swindon – have done a good job of keeping us honest so far. It seems fairly clear that two of the current top four will go up automatically, simply because it would take a surprisingly collective stumble for a Sheffield United or a Rochdale to catch three of us up. But we will have to continue to play well in order to stay at the front of the group. That's fine with me, I don't want us to go up by default – I want us to win the division with a bit of style if we can.
I think every City fan would also be terrified of a drop into the playoffs, since our record in that competition is so poor. Even a comfortable third-place finish would leave nobody at Ashton Gate confident that we'd navigate the end-of-season shootout with out opponents.
• Have the Robins been as convincing as a glance at their results would suggest?
Largely yes. We had a little spell at the end of 2014 when we were only winning games by a single very late goal, but I'm not convinced that's a sign of weakness. We're capable of dominating games against any side in the bottom two-thirds of the division, and at home we mostly do so. Away from home we're quick on the counter-attack, comfortable moving the ball around and a difficult team to beat. The squad balance between canny old pros with Premier League experience and young players coming into the prime of their career is impressive, and we always look to play on the front foot and attack.
Our main weakness is that we can always concede goals, the inevitable consequence of our attack-minded style and formation – although we haven't actually conceded more than anyone else in the division, I think we'll always give opponents a chance to score away from home. We've not been too bad at outscoring teams, though, and we're yet to lose a league game in which we score.
•Steve Cotterill has been at the helm for a year now, could he have done a better job?
In terms of this season at least, it's hard to think how! The manager is a wily old football man with something of the old school about him, a motivator and team-builder with infectious enthusiasm. He's well supported by our transfer mastermind Keith Burt, and by a chairman who obviously has a lot of faith in him.
Looking back over the year it's often forgotten that it actually took a while to come right for Cotterill – he got us out of the relegation zone after arriving, but plunged us back in, too, and was bailed out by some critical loan arrivals last February. But since the spring he's done little wrong and a lot right. I have my own concerns about his tactical flexibility and his ability to change a game, but it's looking increasingly likely that those aren't weaknesses many other teams in League One are well-enough equipped to exploit.
• City seem on course for a trip to Wembley in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy. That doesn't appear to have been a distraction thus far, can you see that changing?
With a maximum of two games left I'd be surprised if it did! Cotterill has been adept this season at rotating his squad when we have two or three games to play within seven days. Most of the players have looked fresh game after game, which is an advantage of having a largely young side, and progress in the JPT and FA Cup has if anything helped us keep our momentum up in the league. The truism is that when you're winning you want to keep playing games, and that's certainly how our players appear to have been thinking this season.
Inevitably there will be now extra games to play on the wet pitches of February and March, and that's where we might suffer any consequences of our success, but I think that our progress in the knock-out competitions has actually helped us get to where we are.
• If they do back up to the Championship, what will they have learned from their last season at that level?
I hope we'll learn from our last three seasons in the Championship, which saw a slow, inevitable slide down the table culminating in a failure to escape from relegation at the third attempt. In those three seasons we had four different managers and that, rather than anything we might choose to criticise any of those individuals for, I think was the critical factor. The club wasn't being run well at that point – Steve Lansdown is a wealthy benefactor but a deeply impatient man, and regular chopping and changing was never more likely to produce survival than picking a man and giving him a couple of years to make the squad his own. I think Keith Burt's arrival as director of football pretty much as soon as we got relegated demonstrates that we have learnt, and we accept that a good club needs to be coherent in the medium term.
Part of the reason those four managers had a difficult job to do was because they inherited a club which had massively over-spent under Gary Johnson, and at one point was paying more in wages than it made at the gate. Clearly that's unsustainable and both McInnes and O'Driscoll did a lot to change that around, however unpopular they may now be in South Bristol! But I hope we don't get over-excited again and mortgage our future on an attempt to reach the top flight. I'd be happy with progress and with squad development linked to our ground improvements, even if that means sitting in mid-table for a few seasons. The Championship's a great division to be in, after all – we needn't be quite so desperate to leave it this time.
• Matt Smith looked a good recruit on loan, but seemed to be getting a bit of stick prior to Christmas. Has his eight goals in four games going into the weekend silenced his critics?
I don't think we're the only club in the League whose supporters can be guilty of taking a short-term view! Matt Smith arrived short on match practice and therefore on sharpness, but since Boxing Day he's found his rhythm and has scored in every game since. A particular highlight would be the four he scored against Gillingham, which demonstrated his range of ability – he gets headers, sure, but he's far from a League One clogger. His third that day was a backheel reminiscent, go on then, of Thierry Henry, and his fourth was a left-foot volley from the edge of the box with a touch of Van Basten about it, if I'm allowed to keep getting overexcited.
Scunthorpe fans probably shouldn't expect him to play like an Henry/Van Basten hybrid on Saturday, and City fans shouldn't expect it every week. But it's fair to say that you won't find many in the away end who expect him not to score this weekend.
• Speaking of strikers, Keiran Agard and Aaron Wilbraham led the line when the Iron were beaten 2-0 at Ashton Gate in September. What's happened to that duo?
Both have suffered from relatively long-term injuries which have limited their appearances in the past couple of months. I think one of them might be fit enough for a place on the bench at Glanford Park but I can't be certain.
Even if both were now fit I wouldn't expect them to start because, in their absence, Smith and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas have struck up quite the rapport and on merit are clearly now our first-choice partnership. Squad depth like this is a reason I don't expect the JPT to have too much of a negative effect on us – I can't think of another club in the division with four attackers of this calibre available to them.
• Where will Saturday’s game be won or lost?
In wide positions. The speed and intelligence of our wing-backs, Joe Bryan and Mark Little, has caused problems for every team we've played this season. Shut them down and you remove a good part of our threat. They also tend to leave gaps behind them when they attack – our centre-backs are good at covering for them, but nevertheless a pacy winger if you have one is just the sort of player likely to cause us problems.