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Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Inside Line: Notts County (21/12/2013)

I usually start these ‘Inside Line’ profiles with a bit of an introduction to the match and a view on City’s current form but this is such a comprehensive view of our opponents on Saturday, Notts County, that I’m just going to leave you to enjoy!

Many thanks to Stu Radnedge for catching up with his namesake from Black & White Zine who writes The Notts Blog.

The story of Notts County in 2013 has been one City fans will sadly recognise, with a managerial merry-go-round providing little by way of stability.  Of particular interest to the Ashton Gate faithful will be the shortlived tenure of a City Wembley-winner in Keith Curle.  What went wrong for Keith at Meadow Lane? 
“It’s a strange one if I’m going to be honest. I mean first and foremost, the football was awful, yet we continued to grind out results away from home at least which kept us in touch marginally with the play-off places. On the surface however it appeared the players had stopped playing for him – unless of course his gameplan of ball retention along the back line (found out many months before by opposing sides) before breaking ineffectively was the idea all along.

Quite incredibly though, we were such a good side when Curle came in, bolstered admittedly by a number of loan signings but some of the results under him (such as a 4-2 win at The Valley over Champions-elect Charlton Athletic) were beyond belief. Some look back at Curle as one of our worst ever managers, in truth this just baffles me.

Curle played in the 1986 Freight Rover Trophy victory over Bolton Wanderers, 
City's first ever match at Wembley

He was sacked the day after defeat at Hartlepool (as was our way the season before with Martin Allen). You expect when it appears a squad have stopped playing for a manager that a new man coming in will bring an up-turn in performances. His sacking had the complete opposite of the desired effect though – players took to the local press and social media sulking, performances got even worse. All for a manager who it appeared for so long had lost the dressing room. A quite bizarre turn of events!”

Next in the hot-seat was Chris Kiwomya , who left after a short reign at the end of October. Was he the main reason your start to the season has been so poor?
“Chris sadly has to take a massive slice of the responsibility for where we find ourselves, but at the same time I kind of hope the players he had at his disposal have the odd sleepless night every now and again for how they sold him down the river.  In spite of the players woeful effort levels under him last season, a defeat, two draws and a handsome 4-1 win in front of the Sky cameras was enough to see him given the job on a full time basis. Whilst he only lost five of his 17 games in charge by the end of that season, there was no indication that things were going to get as bad under him as they did.

I witnessed first-hand in a cup game the disrespect players had for the guy, scowling at him when given instructions, bombing away down the other side of the field – just an awful moment to see play out in front of me. That particular offending player will be nowhere near our matchday squad on Saturday thankfully, having clearly been found out by new manager Shaun Derry.

To give Kiwomya his dues though, it’s not as if this season was a complete and utter failure from start to finish. Fantastic away days in the cups at Liverpool and Wolves will live long in the memory, and for a brief moment it appeared we’d be climbing up the table after impressive home wins over Tranmere Rovers and Crewe. Then our run of form was disrupted by an international break and sadly, under Kiwomya, we were never the same side again.”

With back to back wins under the belt right before the start of Christmas fixture list madness. The timing couldn't be better. What's changed at Meadow Lane?
“Shaun Derry, he’s one of our own.  But a lot of credit must also go to Greg Abbott who came in at the time he was appointed. We have an immensely talented side with some very promising young players on the books – but as I’ve already highlighted, respect was an issue. We needed someone who would crack the whip for us on any player not pulling their weight for us and we’ve seen the results of that in these last two games.

Players who by their own admission acknowledge their poor starts to the campaign look different players now – skipper Dean Leacock for instance is back to his best following a suspension.  Last season’s player of the season Gary Liddle has finally become the midfielder we hoped he would be, having been so immense in the centre of defence this year. Meanwhile Andre Boucaud grows in stature with every game and is such an intelligent user of a football.

Last week at Colchester was a great experience; we’ve not played that well since the early days of Keith Curle if I’m honest. Liddle’s goal in the last minute was the kind you’d never associate with a side like us in a division like this. It was definitely a result and a performance to give us confidence going into some tricky games this festive period.”

City, with a new gaffer in charge, will be hoping for better form under former County boss Steve Cotterill than we’ve had over the past few years.  As we’re only two games into his leadership, what good and/or bad things can we look forward to under ‘Cotts’?
“Cotts is an opinion-splitter when you ask Notts County fans their thoughts on him. There’s no getting away from the fact that his squad (built with fictional Arabian money, the Sven-era many of you will remember) was comfortably the best that the fourth tier of English football might ever see. People look at this fact and make the point that any manager could have got us promoted with it, despite three managers pre-Cotterill not coming even remotely close to putting together promotion form.

On reflection, I couldn’t argue for a second that any manager worth their salt couldn’t have got that squad promoted – but what Cotterill did went well beyond a mere divisional step up. Trailing league leaders Rochdale by 14 points at the time of his appointment, we’d lose only one of his 18 games in charge, playing Saturday/Tuesday fixtures for much of that time, with a crippled squad of fewer than 20 players. When you look at it in those terms it was a gargantuan effort on his and the player’s part and not one I like to see rubbished quite so easily.

He was only brought in on a short term contract until the end of that season, which is when he eventually left.  I won’t lie, I was disappointed because his record always suggested to me he was a manager better suited to the lower divisions – little of what he achieved across the river at Forest or at Portsmouth has convinced me otherwise. If you were to ask what to expect of him now, given he’s been out of management for as long as he has, then I wouldn’t be so sure.

But I’ll tell you right now if anyone is giving what he perceives to be less than their best he won’t stand for it. Discipline is a huge part of what he brings to a side and that’s what I think will be key to Bristol City staying in the division – if it’s anything like his time at Notts you’ll have a tightly-knit unit prepared to run through walls for each other every game.

That’s just one of the reasons I harboured hopes that he would find his way back to Meadow Lane when we sacked Chris Kiwomya.”

Your huge victory on Saturday (a 4-0 win at Colchester) surprised even your new boss! Was the result fortuitous or is the change in fortune well deserved?
“You’ll scarcely see a result more deserved. Ever since Derry and Abbott got down to league business after starting their reign with two cup exits, this has been coming. The improvement in performances has been there for all to see, even in defeat. Victory a week or so ago at home to Gillingham was a huge relief and  you hoped we’d kick on from there a week later.  I think everyone in the division will have taken notice of the nature of the victory, given that no one has lost more games than us in the top four levels of English football!”

With City's instability and rocky start to life in League One, what areas of weakness do you think you can exploit to obtain the victory and make it three wins from three?
“Admittedly having seen very little of City this year I can only concentrate on what I’d like to see us do as opposed to any weaknesses you might have. Confidence is a big thing in football, but especially so at this level. If you’d hit the ground running with the new gaffer in the league last week I’d be a bit concerned, but I’m hoping we can capitalise on another defeat. An early goal would be enormous in so many ways. We’ve reduced ticket prices to £12 (for home fans only though, I think? Apologies if so!) and hopefully we’ll have a fair few through the door – getting them on-side as early as possible can only be a good thing.”

Which player will be key to achieving this?
“Shared responsibility in this respect for the loanees we have in Jack Grealish of Aston Villa and Celtic’s Callum McGregor. Jack picked up his first goal as a professional footballer in the Gillingham game and was rampant last Saturday at Colchester. Plus after a lean spell, our top scorer Callum Mac has hit three goals in two games now. Both can be such explosive players when in form, either of them capable of winning us games.”

And which City player will you have to stop?
“Would it be too easy for me to plump for Jay Emmanuel-Thomas? I can’t help but feel he’s a player playing at a level below what he’s naturally capable of. It’s obvious to say he’s bound to be a danger, but elsewhere you’ve got Sam Baldock who I would have liked us to have signed before his West Ham experience.

When you look at your squad (like I do with our own) there’s no question you should not be where you find yourselves, struggling in the lower reaches of such an average division. Both clubs should be looking up at the table picturing a good nine or ten sides who need to be looking over their shoulders at the relegation zone. I’d feel confident in saying both sides will be safe by the end of the campaign.”

And finally, can I get a score prediction for this last game before Christmas?
“We appear to be playing you at a good time, whilst you're playing us at a bad time as we begin to find form for the first time in a long time. So you'll win 3-0 I imagine!

On a serious note, I'm feeling a rare sense confidence, so I'll go with a 2-0 Notts win taking us out of the relegation zone - a Christmas miracle of sorts given the rancid situation we were in at the beginning of the month!

The Exiled Robin

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