Sunday, 19 April 2015

A theory of relativity

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 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

Forced perspective

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.