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Saturday, 3 August 2013

It's here, at last! The Exiled Robin's Bristol City pre-season preview

For those of you who have listened to the first few episodes of 'The Cider Diaries', then this post is unfortunately a substitute for the big pre-season preview we had planned.  Technical and recording issues tonight meant we couldn't gather enough content of a good enough sound standard to produce, so had to abandon ship and we'll try again on Monday to review day 1.

So whilst there's no way to replicate four people's views in a 30 minute recording, I can at least give you a flavour of what was discussed - or attempted to be discussed - and also set the scene for the start of the new season....

There's little doubt the break has been busy and full of promise. 109 days have passed since the defeat against Birmingham confirmed our meek surrender to relegation and Sean O'Driscoll has been busy on and off the pitch forming the squad into the sort of shape he expects.  This has not only meant a flood of new, young, hungry players but also taking on board the current members of the squad and trying to educate them and transition their mind from that of defensive, nervous relegation battlers into thinking, proactive leaders, ready to bounce back.

Flint, Wynter, Williams, Pack et al have given the squad a new and fresh look, whilst the likes of Bryan and Reid are chomping at the bit to secure a place in the first team squad.  But whilst this is all looking to the future, let's not kid ourselves it's all for the good.  Whilst much has been made of the new, younger targets, the players who have left are hardly has-beens.

Davies, Heaton, Anderson, Skuse and Nyatanga are all aged 24-28 and in or approaching their prime, whatever fans thought of their quality or attitude. Stead was a more than capable line-leader who still had plenty to offer at 30 years old.  

The new look side has potential, fewer scars and could, in time, be better, but right now, before a ball has been kicked - we're a weaker side.  This side needs time to gel, time to develop and make mistakes.  The likes of Carey, Fontaine, Kilkenny, Pearson and Baldock have vital roles to play in helping those around them learn, and helping them recover from the inevitable low moments.  

For this reason I, for one, have no issue with the signing of Marlon Harewood.  No he's not in the "criteria" but that was never intended as a steadfast rule, more a rule of thumb.  The youngsters will need a few old heads around them and the reports coming out of Barnsley are of a top professional, with an attitude that helps team-mates.  He's taking his coaching badges which indicates a willingness to still learn and develop his career, and this bodes well.  He will not score 20 goals, but then neither would Stead have done.  He will, especially alongside Sam Baldock, help build attacks and create chances for his more skilful, pacier partner.

This of course assumes Baldock is still a Bristol City player come September 1st.  His placement between the management team for the annual photo-call may give him some incentive to stay - he can lead this team to promotion - but if a Championship side with cash and in need of a striker, say Burnley (having just sold Charlie Austin) comes in, there won't be any stopping him I suspect.

And, Kilkenny, That midfield general, the 'quarter-back' of the team - and that's just how he likes to style himself!  He has become the Marmite figure within the City squad.  Those that see his passing as instrumental to play advocating his inclusion, those that see him standing around pointing, moaning at referees and letting his opposite number skip past him at ease, wishing he was elsewhere.  This year is make or break for him. He has the potential to be the catalyst, perhaps alongside Jordan Wynter who can act as the engine-room support Kilkenny needs.  I can't ever see Kilkenny working within a central two in midfield in the Championship - he's not strong enough and doesn't have the all-round game - but you wonder whether with the right partner he can manage it at this level, and dictate games in the way he always threatens to do.  A more consistent performance (and attitude) from him could make all the difference.

Assuming Albert Adomah leaves, a forward line of Baldock, Harewood and Emmanuel-Thomas could take this division by storm, but 'could' is the operative word.  Without the right levels of respect for the opposition and the league, we could equally end up scrabbling around 9th place - as we did last time we were relegated from the second tier.  Despite the well-executed relegation clauses, the wage bill will be amongst the highest in the division and we'll be seen as a target for most of our rivals.  Baldock was probably on £15-£20k a week in the higher division, so I'd guess he's still on £10k in League One.  This is a phenomenal amount of money at this level and I suspect only Wolves are paying any player any more than that.  Yet despite that we're trying to tag ourselves as outsiders, in with a chance of promotion but by no means dead certs.

Let's assume for the purpose of the rest of this article that we are going to be up and around the top 6-8 places, in which case our 'rivals' are those in with a shout of going up.  On behalf of 'The Cider Diaries', I asked some Twitter followers some questions last week to which  I received a great response.  First up was a question about who will be holding aloft the trophy next May.  Of those who responded, two-thirds agreed with the bookies who have Wolves as short-priced favourites for the title, whilst over 60% felt Peterborough had retained a strong enough squad to be joining them in going straight back up.  Aside from City, Brentford, and Sheffield United had a few nominations, whilst Bradford, Notts County and Preston also had support.

Ross Casey, expert football tipster for Easyodds.com, had this to say about the top of the league:

"The favourites to win the title this season are Wolves - priced at 7/2 at time of writing. Wolves have held on to a good squad of players so far this summer, albeit with many on the transfer list – they have brought in the experienced Sam Ricketts and made him captain whilst also recalling Leigh Griffiths after his impressive loan spell at Hibs. I think that with the squad they have and Kenny Jackett as manager they should be favourites for the league this season – especially as Jackett prefers direct football meaning they won't struggle as much on some suspect away pitches throughout the season. (Something Sean O'Driscoll's style of play may be hampered by). Anything but the title will be a big disappointment to some Wolves fans who have been let down badly by some big name players in the past two seasons.I am happy to back Wolves to win the title this year - although I can see why some people would be reluctant.

I also really like the look of Brentford this year. Being so close to the Championship last season will only make them want it even more and I expect them to be full of confidence and self-belief that they can accomplish their goal this time around. They have improved their squad and Uwe Rosler has proved himself to be a shrewd tactician. The likes of Will Grigg, Javi Venta, Conor McAleny, Ben Nugent and Alan McCormack are good signings and it appears more money could be made available come January. Back the Bees to buzz off to the Championship come May at 100/30. My dark horse tip would probably be our opening day opponents Bradford - who I rate as having a great chance of pushing for promotion. With a brilliant fan imitative and the excitement of a promotion and a cup final from last season they have sold 12,000 odd season tickets and will be in jubilant mood coming into League One. In Nahki Wells and James Hanson they have an excellent strike force and they proved against bigger clubs than those in League One that on their day they are capable of some swashbuckling performances."

I also asked Ross about some options for the Top Scorer market, as well as anything City-related that he could pick out. 

"The favourites for the top scorer market are Leigh Griffiths at Wolves (7/1), our newly named captain Sam Baldock (16/1) and Leon Clarke from the doomed Coventry City (16/1). I would normally go for a penalty taking striker in this market so Will Grigg, who has just signed for Brentford priced at 20/1 looks decent value. He scored over half of his goals last season at Walsall from the spot so surely he will be given the responsibility at Brentford who should score more goals than Walsall would have this season... the reason I wouldn't back Baldock is one he may be off come September and two we aren't creating a whole host of chances at the moment in pre-season - despite our improved style of play.

I believe a push for promotion will be a decent season for City. If we fall short of the play-offs it will be disappointing, but fans need to buy into the new vision for the club and it won't be a quick fix. As long as we are playing entertaining football, and show commitment like we did near the end of the season we should be happy that the trajectory is on its way back up. If we can fully indulge O'Driscoll's philosophy and buy into it we will improve as a club long term, featuring a squad of young and hungry players. In terms of specific Bristol City markets, Skybet are offering 5/1 we finish 1st or 2nd or 11/4 we finish with a play-off spot. If like me you aren't entirely convinced we will reach the top six then perhaps 6/5 that we finish 7th to 12th is the bet for you! They also offer a top goalscorer market with Baldock at 7/4 which looks an absolute steal providing he stays and remains injury free. Other front runners are JET (5/1) Taylor (who I like as a player but two goals in two seasons is not a happy return) (8/1) and inexplicably fourth favourite is Pearson at (12/1.)"

Our panel tonight largely agreed with the selections for promotion albeit with one or two wildcards thrown in for good measure, but we'll talk more about that in a future recording...for me, Peterborough are the likely winners.  Aside from Gayle they've by and large kept last season's team around them - and that was a team with promotion form for more than half the season.  If they hadn't made such an appalling start, they would have been challenging for a place at Wembley rather than Walsall.  With money to spend they can be right up there, alongside Brentford who have added quality to last season's near-miss outfit.  Sheffield United could be revitalised enough with their new passing style under David Weir to succeed in the play-offs at the third time of asking.

So, can we do it? By 'it' I mean get promoted?  Personally I feel it's a step too far to expect this year. We've made a lot of changes, and almost certainly have more still to come before the transfer deadline.  O'Driscoll has a reasonable size squad to choose from, but it's one threadbare in terms of experience.  This time next year some of these players will have nearly 50 appearances under their belt and be far better placed mentally and physically to achieve the desired outcome.  There you go, he's even got me talking in his language!

His comments after one of the pre-season friendlies said it all about his approach to things.  It wasn't about picking 4-4-2, or the best 11 players that the fans might want, it's about picking the right 11 players who work with each other, show leadership and play together as a team to achieve the performance.  This can be a novel approach still in British football but it's one the squad, and the fans, will have to get used to as long as SOD is in charge.

We'll also have to get used to the team trying to play football, which on the face of it may seem like it would lead to an obvious thumbs-up from most fans.  However it's not so easy to adhere to principles and plans if you're chasing a game and the perception is that nothing is being changed. Some won't like the fact that SOD doesn't jump up and down with excitement and throw his fedora to the floor in anger at every conceded goal.  Some won't like that fact he'll praise a performance even in defeat, but I'd personally rather have a thinking manager than a passionate one, someone who has a very clear direction and strategy which is planned meticulously rather than one who drifts from game to game floating on goodwill and charisma.

O'Driscoll has bought in whole-heartedly to the club's well-publicised 'pillars' strategy and that is important. Many a manager would be slightly begrudging at the player turnover, leaking complaints to the press or always on the look out for a job with more funding available.  This doesn't seem to be SOD's style.  From what we've heard since I now totally understand why he turned down Blackpool (still in the Championship) in favour of a move to the West-country.

So there we have it. We might go up, we might not.  We might still have Albert Adomah, but we might not. In all honesty none of us has any idea what lies ahead and nothing is guaranteed, except that the next nine months will undoubtedly leave us on the roller-coaster of emotions we all love and hate in equal measure.

Whatever happens let's make sure we get behind this new young team and give them the support they need, because it will not be perfect from day one, or indeed from day 100.  They're on a massive learning curve and are still in the early stages of adapting to the style O'Driscoll wants them to play in.  Many of the squad have played very little senior football and we'll lose games we should win and make mistakes in matches that shouldn't be made.  But with some confidence and a bit of luck, anything is possible and you CAN win things with kids!


The Exiled Robin

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  1. I am a big fan of your blog but I do find it hard to believe that we were paying Baldock between 15-20k in the Championship. That is unless you have inside info?

  2. Cheers, thanks for the compliment :-)
    He was...


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