Saturday, 17 January 2015

Big in Lincolnshire

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.

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