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Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Inside Line: Bristol City v Yeovil Town (Boxing Day, 2014)

Precisely one year after Bristol City went into Christmas bottom of the league, we enter the 2014 festive season the maximum number of places higher; top of the pile.

However, a once relatively substantial lead has been largely eliminated and for the nuetrals, if there are many that watch league one, an enthralling second half to the season lies ahead with the top four separated by just a single point.

In the absence of any real competition from the blue lot north of the river, and setting aside a more traditional ‘M4 derby’, the Yeovil fixture was one many City fans would have sought out when the fixtures were released in the summer, and for once the computer didn’t disappoint. The only disappointment is that if it were not for the reduced capacity, this local derby, with City flying high, would have almost certainly attracted a capacity bank holiday crowd, meaning a lesser atmosphere and circa £200,000 lost revenue.

Throw in the fact that it’s the return of Gary Johnson – our most successful manager since Alan Dicks – and the occasion rises even further in terms of emotional significance for many (some probably won’t care in amongst their festive fumes!).

On a personal note I still love Gary Johnson – for the job he did here, for the way he got the whole club behind him, for his cheekiness and quips – and no-one could deny they were disappointed in the way it ended, even if by that stage a significant number were backing his replacement.

I also used to go and watch Yeovil occasionally, being a Somerset boy, when they had a big cup match or league title deciders, providing City weren’t playing. I remember watching them play Enfield (I think) in front of nearly 8.000 at Huish Park, a quite remarkable feat for any non-league side and to have them as our main local rivals still seems strange and a bit surreal at times.

I was also looking forward to this game to welcome back Glovers fan, Ben Barrett, to the blog. Ben follows Yeovil avidly from his base in the cold North and writes for the visitor’s programme.

Stu Radnedge has got his work done ahead of the Christmas break and caught up with Ben, who provided these informative and insightful words.

“The Yeovil Town season in around 500 words, I reckon I could just about squeeze it into 500 books, it's been quite something!

We dropped out of the Championship without a care in the world, the experience would stand us in good stead, it would allow us to drop into League One a better side, a side the rest of the division would take seriously and we'd be challenging for promotion like we know we can.

Or at least that was the plan.

We're currently stuck in the bottom four of League One still trying to sort out what our best team is while trying to figure out what on earth went wrong... we beat Watford 3-0 on their own patch a year ago. Leicester needed a Kaspar Schmiechal header to rescue a point not long back... now we needed two attempts to get past Accrington Stanley.

Now, that's a very negative start and I'm not a negative person, not in the slightest. So, here's the positives.

Away from home, we've been pretty good - which makes for decent days out for those of us exiled up north. Wins at Walsall, Bradford and Notts County are all impressive, but Oldham started off like a house on fire yet we went and trounced them 4-0 in their own back yard.

So, why the difference?

Attendances have dropped and so some say the home atmosphere has suffered equally, the "big" teams and "big" games have been and gone. Instead of Nottingham Forest and Leeds it's Colchester and Fleetwood. Not to knock those sides, but they haven't got quite the same 'pull'. There's less pressure away from home - or at least that's the theory. Home fans turning on their side reverberate around the ground and can be felt, yet the away following is normally a very passionate and vocal bunch who are out to make sure their presence is felt. Normally for the better.

Of course, there has been one major issue. Recruitment. On paper, the likes of Chris Weale, Brendan Moloney and Aaron Martin brought experience and nous to the team, sadly they've all disappointed.
The first set of loans have been a bit of a flop too, Ben Nugent at the back is a bit of a long ball merchant and the likes of Jordy Hiwula have been and gone without really needing their kit washed. That said, in the last month the arrivals of Jed Steer, Stephen Arthurworrey and Jordan Clarke have been like a breath of fresh air. When Tom Eaves finds his feet he could be a real handful too.

The midfield four of Sam Foley, Joe Edwards, Simon Gillett with one of Kevin Dawson and Joel Grant (if they ever get fit) is still, in my opinion as good as any in the division. That shouldn't be overlooked. However, keeping a settled, injury free side seems to be as tough as anything.

Striker Kieffer Moore has probably been one of the stars this season, yet he's played so little it's hard to know what he's truly capable of. He came back from injury to book our place against Man Utd then takes a crack to the foot in training and turns up on crutches last Saturday - how's your luck?

The social networks (firstly, not a total overview of the total fan base) are awash with people either pinning themselves into #JohnsonOut or #JohnsonIn categories, I'm not in either - but I know I left the Accrington FA Cup tie as angry as I ever been, but still positive enough to make the 8 hour round trip from Leeds to see the replay ... because that's just what you do.

So, what I'm trying to say is... I haven't got a scooby do what this season is all about... I'm not sure any of the supporters do. We're easily good enough to stay up, that much I know. It might mean a bit of tinkering in January, hopefully the few quid the Man Utd game will generate will be enough to reinvest in some movement, but we'll be fine.

I guess looking slightly longer term we should be looking to find that formula again that will propel us to being a top half side, a side who looks at the Championship with a gaze that says "We haven't finished with you yet" rather than "aaaah, those were the days".

I suppose this is point that we realise that Bristol City already have one foot in the second tier - don't give me that look, you're going up, end of. Well done. It's even more impressive considering you're doing it with our reserve side... there's no envy or anything in that line... honest. *Removes tongue from cheek*.

We're chuffed for Luke Ayling - he's far too good for League One, always was, I just hope that he doesn't remember his newly found scoring boots on Boxing Day... he scored twice in the league in something like a million games for us... he does that in about 10 minutes for you. Typical.

As for Kieran Agard and Luke Freeman... when did they become so good? When we had the them they were learning the game, the "Twansfer" Agard was quick but reckless, he would run but forget the ball. I guess that progression has reached it's peak now at the benefit of the Robins. The same applies to Freeman, he just wasn't ready with us, had all the effort in the world, just a year or two behind where we wanted him to be. By the same theory, you'll sign Jordy Hiwula from Man City in a couple years and he'll be a world beater.

Onto Boxing Day then. Your guess is as good as mine. You should wallop us, six or seven if you want them...

But the word I'm looking at in there is 'should'. We don't do things how they 'should' be done.

If your lads aren't 100% up for it, ours will be. We spent the whole of last season proclaiming to be the "Best team in the west"... I just hope our team give us reason to back that up.

Don't ask me for a prediction, I wouldn't even know where to begin. Geographically it may matter a lot, but there's bigger fish that need frying in both camps. You'll want to take as much of the season off as possible with Championship status confirmed sooner rather than later. Our lads will be auditioning for Man United squad places and getting us those points we need to stay up. Both teams will know a lot about each other - don't rule out a red card either as tackles will surely fly in.

This is one I looked for when the fixtures came out, but sadly there's no local rivalry to my thoughts any more, just a need to sort out this roller coaster season. 

In many ways, December and January will define a season - may well define Johnson's time at Yeovil too - and Bristol City are right in the firing line.

Strap yourselves in. This could be a good one.”

Huge thanks to both Stu and Ben for their time during this busy period. May I take this opportunity to wish everyone who read the blog and follows me on Facebook or Twitter, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


The Exiled Robin

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Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Inside Line: Crewe Alexandra v Bristol City (20/12/2014)

One down, three to go. 

A late show from Luke Ayling gave Bristol City all three points in the first of their four ‘winnable’ games last time out and the final match before Christmas sees the Robins travel to Cheshire to face bottom side Crewe Alexandra.

Stu Radnedge caught up with Alex fan Nathaniel Holland, a journalism student who has kindly written a few words.  My thanks to Stu & Nat

“This season has, for obvious reasons, been one to forget for any Crewe fan. A continuation from the poor results last season has spilled over into this campaign and it is still difficult for anyone to put their finger on the main problems.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect Crewe to be setting the league on fire this year but I did think with the squad we had put together that we would be sitting comfortably around the 14th/15th position.

There is not one factor to the reason behind the run of poor results, a combination of individual errors at the back, mixed in with a seemingly long list of misfiring strikers has put Crewe in real danger of slipping back into League Two after three seasons in the third tier.

I can’t even say it is the fault of manager Steve Davis. He has guided the club from League Two and won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy on the way to us being where we are now. A lot of fans in recent months have called for managerial change but it begs the vital question; who would we bring in?

A new manager probably wouldn’t be the answer at this stage of a season, if anyone new were to come in then they would have a difficult task of motivating an under performing squad, not to mention the pressures to play the ‘Crewe way’, something that any manager has to abide by if they are going to last at Gresty Road, a system that clearly isn’t working.

So for now, with Davis in charge, it is definitely up to the players to step up. The impending return of captain Matt Tootle should be a boost for everyone but the likes of Uche Ikpeazu, Nicky Ajose and Marcus Haber need to quickly form a lethal goal-scoring bond if we are to ever climb out of the bottom four.

There was a sense of quiet optimism in pre-season, after our Under 21 side won the league in May, it has seen some more young prospects join the long list of Crewe academy graduates. George Cooper has excelled in a struggling team this season and Crewe fans are yet to see the best of Callum Saunders but the biggest surprise for me this season is James Baillie at right back. The teenager has deputised for the illness-hit Tootle and done as good a job as any.

For me the problems don’t lie in one particular area, we are conceding too many and not scoring enough and this is proven by our minus 23-goal difference. Davis has done well to re-sign Ikpeazu on loan from Watford after a successful spell last season but the youngster needs to boost his tally if he is to help the South Cheshire side perform the great escape again.

It seems to be all about the loan players this year, not a bad plan in the short term and if that keeps us in the division then Davis deserves a pat on the back. Stoke City loanee Jamie Ness has come into his own in recent weeks and his link up play and range of passing could be the missing piece of the puzzle for a late surge out of the relegation zone.

Survival is looking like a distant dream for many connected with the club at the moment but anything can happen in football and who knows, A win against top of the league Bristol City could be all it takes to kick start our campaign.”

You know sometimes you lose games you just don’t expect to? Well I don’t think many expect us to lose this weekend, so let’s hope this isn’t one of those unanticipated banana-skins and we can head into Christmas top of the pile.


The Exiled Robin

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Friday, 12 December 2014

The Inside Line: Bristol City v Crawley Town (13/12/2014)

After another successful escape from league action and two further advances in domestic cup competitions (what is happening to our club?!), Bristol City return to the main objective just ahead of the busy Christmas period with the first in a series of games many fans have highlighted as ‘very winnable’.

Now, being top and only having lost twice all season, you could say that’s a case of stating the bleedin’ obvious, but when you look at the games; home to Crawley (17th) and Yeovil (23rd), and away to Crewe (bottom) and Gillingham (20th), you understand the sentiment fully.

The fact that only Swindon and Preston – both fully entrenched in the battle for the top and playing good football – have come away from match-ups with City with three points thus far this season suggests City should have a profitable run of things by the time we face promotion rivals Notts County ten days into 2015.

However, football is loved by so many millions for precisely the reason that nothing’s that easy, and to “expect 10 or 12 points” is disrespectful to the teams, managers and clubs involved.  Slip-ups are possible, especially if City’s players view this run as light relief following a tough November which finally saw the unbeaten start to the season end before that quite scintillating victory at London Road last time out in front of the Sky cameras.

Saying that, it does represent a great opportunity to put daylight between ourselves and the chasing pack in a traditionally critical period of games, given the frequency and intesntity of fixtures.

So will City ease up and come a cropper? Well not on the evidence of what I saw on Wednesday night. City had little to concern themselves in a game which the first team could easily have looked at and decided it was a chance to rest their legs, but they simply don’t do that, this team.  The most telling moments of Wednesday for me, aside from again witnessing the brilliant poise and class of Luke Freeman, came in the final few minutes.

Firstly there was Aaron Wilbraham, who as one of the senior pro’s might have expected to be halued off for a rest after the second goal all but secured the game, but as the game approached full-time he was still haranguing the centre-halves of Coventry on the edge of their own area, not giving them a seconds respite and looking as fit as he did in the first minute of August.  Cotterill is clearly either blind to the potential later season impact of playing his main front man so much, or sees enough in his stats and training to have zero concerns about his fitness and stamina. You suspect it’s the latter.

Mark Little then followed a pass all the way to the opposition keeper, forcing him into a pass out to his let-back just shy of the half way line before he was shut down and forced to retreat by…you guessed it, Mark Little.

Throw into the mix the ferocity in which Cotterill himself was bawling at his players even in the final minute of injury time and you start to get a real feeling of why his side are top of the league.

Anyway, onto Saturday and for this week’s Inside Line, Stu Radnedge caught up with The Argus’ Steve Hollis, who covers Crawley for the Sussex-based newspaper.

“If stability is the foundation for a successful team it is no wonder that Crawley are in the wrong half of the League One table. The past 12 months or so have been tumultuous both on and off the field for a club which had known nothing but success for the previous three seasons.

The truth is that Crawley have risen too fast from non-league football to League One and do not have the fan-base or infrastructure to support it. Back-to-back promotions were bankrolled by an anonymous owner in Hong Kong – only known as Paul – and it appears he is unwilling to continue to pour unlimited amounts of money into the club. His waning enthusiasm became apparent when Crawley were put up for sale in March 2013 and belts have steadily been tightened since with no potential buyers coming forward.

The club’s academy was scrapped at the end of last season and all but two of the squad was either released or sold during the summer because Crawley could not afford to keep paying the wages they were on. Manager John Gregory had to bring in virtually a whole new squad and considering most are downgrades on their predecessors it is perhaps a surprise Reds are as high as 17th in the table.

The problem is Gregory has been forced to adopt cautious tactics to grind out the points to keep Crawley out of danger and that has led – only with other factors – to a 30% drop in attendances. That has had a knock-on effect on Gregory’s budget and forced Hong Kong Paul to reluctantly put inject another significant sum just to balance the books.

It is all a bit of a come down for Gregory who made a name for himself by leading Aston Villa to top eight finishes in the Premier League for three seasons in a row between 1998 and 2002. His reputation and enthusiasm made him an instant hit with supporters when he was appointed in place of the dour Richie Barker last December but that has begun to wane in recent months.

You would not believe from the feelings of some fans that Crawley will arrive at Ashton Gate on the back of a six game unbeaten run in League One. The problem is that the last five of those games have all been draws and they were also knocked out of the FA Cup and JP Trophy in that time.

A relegation battle rather than a play-off push looks the most likely prospect in the New Year especially if Crawley are unable to hold on to their two most saleable assets when the transfer window reopens in January. Joe Walsh and Gwion Edwards were both called up by Wales back in October and it would be surprising if a bigger League One club or Championship outfit did not swoop for them next month. Edwards has been Crawley’s most exciting player this season and is second top scorer behind Izale McLeod but unfortunately will be missing for the game at Ashton Gate after undergoing a hernia operation. Walsh has taken over the captain’s armband from previous skipper Josh Simpson who was unceremoniously slapped on the transfer list by Gregory along with four other players three weeks ago.

Apart from those two and McLeod’s goals there has been little for Crawley fans to get excited about this season. Lanre Oyebanjo has shown the fight and determination supporters love when the going gets tough while Dean Leacock has been a steady influence at the heart of the defence. 

One face the Bristol City fans will be looking forward to seeing again is midfielder Marvin Elliott who left Ashton Gate after seven years in the summer. The Jamaica international joined Crawley on a short-term deal in September which runs out after the weekend. Injury has blighted his time in West Sussex but it would be fitting if he signed off with a goal against his former club.”

My thanks to Stu and Steve for this insight, and let’s hope we keep a close eye on ol’ 50p head Marvin Elliott, Elliott, Marvin Elliott tomorrow – sometimes it hits the right angle!


The Exiled Robin

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Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Steve Cotterill: What a difference a year makes

I was wrong.  

I generally like to feel I have a good, well-balanced and reasonable handle on football matters, usually resulting in a non-emotional and fairly rational opinion which doesn’t waver far from the truth, but on this occasion I was very, very wrong.

One year ago today, Steve Cotterill became the Bristol City manager to a somewhat underwhelming murmur of excitement.  I was particularly disappointed for a number of reasons, including the fact I hadn’t wanted Sean O’Driscoll sacked and had hoped we would cast our net wider in our search for a new manager – having been promised a comprehensive review by Jon Lansdown, only to go for the first – and only man – we considered.

I didn’t think Cotterill was the right man for the job.  I had seen and read too many horror stories and embarrassing tales from his time at Forest, whilst his main success seemed to be entrenched almost a decade earlier.  I felt there were better options out there.  I was concerned about his style and tactical approach being too direct for us as a club, his potentially dismissive approach to youth, a desire to spend big to get instant success and his general persona.

I wrote this preview of his first league match, so won’t repeat myself but this was my position on the new gaffer.

"Steve Cotterill about to take charge of his first home match and facing probably the most underwhelmed set of fans for an external appointment since Tony Pulis’ ill-thought out period in charge more than a decade ago.  That’s not to say people aren’t going to be supportive of him – the majority of those feeling a little short-changed, myself included – have already taken to forums and social media to pledge support as we all, of course, want the same thing.”

I still stand by much of what I said about the process and the way events happened at the time, http://exiledrobin.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/the-bristol-city-board-who-is.html , and just because we’re on a good run it doesn’t mean many of the underlying issues have gone away, they just don’t matter quite so much to the majority of the fan-base when success on the pitch is dominating opinion and the new, fabulous looking stand is rising on the horizon. 

But those issues and failings at different levels are for another time, because this article is to admit that the right decision was made, the right man was appointed.

I was wrong.

What Steve Cotterill has done in twelve months is quite remarkable. 

We were a club in freefall. We had struggled for two or three seasons in the Championship before eventually succumbing amidst claims of dressing-room splits, a lack of commitment and plenty of players on huge wages for League One.  O’Driscoll took an approach to try to change this methodically, slowly and with youngsters.  That was the strategy and this was the view everyone backed that summer. 

But the malaise was far deeper than that and clearly needed more of a jolt, more of a shock to the system and Cotterill has clearly provided that.  It’s not as simple as just signing a few players and telling the players to get up for it, or get into them. Players are people, even if some fans seem to think their inflated wage packets make them impervious to the same feelings and emotional reactions us mere mortals suffer from, and we were fast resembling a sinking ship.  Cotterill has not only bailed out all the water last season in keeping us afloat, but in the matter of a few months turned a creaking, poor quality vessel and slipshod crew into a top-of-the-range super yacht manned by professionals.

The word ‘passion’ is often bandied around to whack those more thoughtful managers who don’t shout and scream at officials, or players who are cultured and don’t fly into tackles at 100mph. I don’t put a lot of store by it personally as I think it’s a bit of an armchair fan’s answer to under-performance, but Cotterill has clearly done something with the players and the club that O’Driscoll couldn’t manage, for one reason or another. He’s injected an excitement, a belief and a team-bonding that is evident at almost every turn. 

It always seemed a bit of a burden for Sean O’Driscoll to acknowledge the fans, sometimes almost a dismissive wave to the point where for the first time in my time supporting City, fans just didn’t bother applauding him on his walk out of the tunnel and to the bench.  Cotterill has picked up on this and delivered fan engagement in spades, ensuring the support for him but most importantly his team, remains strong and helps Ashton Gate become a formidable place to come for opponents.

However, without wanting to sound like an O’Driscoll apologist, you shouldn’t underestimate the part he played. He did have to get rid of more than a dozen players, and start again with a far reduced open budget than we had at the start of this season.  Young players such as Fielding, Williams, Flint, Pack, and Joe Bryan were all brought into the squad by him and remain important components. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas – for all his frustrating moments – provided most of our rare moments of excitement and happiness for the first few months of last season and remains a potent threat from the bench.

But that is not intended to devalue Cotterill’s role in the slightest.

He spent his six months of last season in charge not only drawing enough results from the team through shrewd loan signings to survive, but clearly spent that time accurately identifying the positions he needed to fill, the types of characters he wanted and ultimately the names to fit the bill.

The way we went about our summer business was clinical, executed with precision and six players, including Wade Elliott, were recruited with the minimum of fuss, as soon as they could be, whilst Agard was added as soon as it became clear to those inside the club top scorer and captain Sam Baldock was leaving for pastures new.  This again presented the slick nature of the job at hand, signing a week before we received funds for Baldock, meaning we weren’t held to ransom for fees or wages as we might have been a few days later.

To bring in seven players in the summer, all of whom have fitted in immediately and played almost every game, is quite remarkable and potentially unprecedented. It’s an amazing achievement and owes much to Cotterill’s persuasion and man-management skills, as well as the players themselves who have clearly bought into the ethos being distilled.

We’ve had a remarkable run with injuries too, but sometimes that happens with successful sides because players shake off those niggles that on other occasions can seem so problematic, especially when their manager is so positive.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s not perfect and there are still moments where you wonder about Cotterill and his approach.  Some of the comments and reaction to the defeat at Swindon seemed good to many (passionate, indeed!) but if we were struggling those same responses could have drawn criticism along the lines of “he’s clueless”, “always blaming others”, “he’s got no tactical brain, just passion”, couldn’t they?

His substitutions appear to be very safe and sometimes overly cautiously late, a trait which is particularly frustrating in games we’re drawing at home where fresh legs – or a burst of JET’s maverick style – might have turned draws into wins, but with the record we’ve got he’s not got it wrong very often.

He’s just signed a 6ft 6in tall striker which begs some questions about his preferred style, as suggested earlier, but in Freeman, Smith, Elliott, Little, Bryan and others there are enough footballers with pace, ingenuity and no lack of skill around to work effectively off a target man, as they have Wilbraham with great success thus far, even if the first ball up can be a little quicker then we’re used to.

One of the club ‘pillars’, which are talked about less and less these days, was the commitment to youth, and whilst Cotterill will rightly point to Joe Bryan’s presence in the first team as his commitment “if they’re good enough”, the loaning out of Bobby Reid and Wes Burns raises concerns once again about the point of having an expensive academy if players aren’t going to come through, or be allowed to.

But to highlight these any further at this stage would be nit-picking of the highest order. These mild concerns are massively outweighed by the fantastic positives of the signings of Korey Smith and Luke Freeman, the incredible unbeaten start, the team-spirit, the transformation of Aden Flint and the hugely positive impact the new gaffer has made in his first 365 days.

Will we go up? Maybe.

Will Cotterill go down in City folklore alongside Alan Dicks, Joe Jordan and Gary Johnson? Who knows? Things can still go wrong and different tests lay ahead.

But one thing is for sure – he couldn’t possibly have done any more than he has done to date and for that he deserves every credit. 

And I have to admit, I was wrong.

The Exiled Robin

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Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Inside Line: Peterborough United v Bristol City (28/11/2014)

Two defeats in two, albeit both with excuses or reasons of sorts, have dented City’s lead at the top and you’ve got to think a win at London Road in front of the Sky TV cameras is necessary to keep us there with Swindon and Preston breathing down our necks.  It's the least they could do on my birthday, after all!!

That won’t be an easy task though. Peterborough remain one of the favourites for promotion, despite a patchy start that has led to some unrest amongst fans and the now much-anticipated post-match Twitter tirade from outspoken owner Darragh MacAnthony.

Stu Radnedge caught up with friend of the blog, Jamie Jones – one time host of Posh podcast ‘Standing on the Glebe’, which sadly hung up its headphones in the summer and for the music buffs amongst you now hosts an intriguing looking blog (and published book!) named I Blame Morrissey! http://iblamemorrissey.wordpress.com/

Big thanks to Jamie for this detailed overview of the situation.

"The Posh – They score goals for fun, right? They attack first and worry about defending later, right? Not anymore they don’t.

These are strange, unusual times at London Road. After the thrills and spills, goals, promotions and relegations that lit up the last MacAnthony/Fergie era, we have become boring, turgid even. Despite a cracking start to last season we relied on Britt Assombalonga’s goals to keep us in the play-off pack and without him we’ve looked utterly lost. For almost 12 months now we have been crying out for some creativity and invention in the middle of the park but all we get served is cloggers like Michael Bostwick. The Stevenage chairman must light a cigar and chuckle every time he recalls us paying £ for him.

At the back, we are worse than ever though that’s not been helped by the loss of the Jack Baldwin for what appears to be a long lay-off. We don’t have a stead central defensive partnership or system and if he goes with the two rookies, Santos and Burgess, I dread to think about the damage that Agard could do on his return to London Road. 

The one position we have recruited strongly to is right back where we lost Mark Little to you lot and snapped up Michael Smith from The Gas for £150,000. I was always a big fan of Little’s rampaging runs, where he didn’t seem to be in control of his own feet and no Posh fan will ever forget his comedy fall in the box which earned us a tie saving penalty in the play-off first leg at The Franchise in 2011. Smith is a solid and dependable alternative to Litts wanderings.

Marcus Maddison has come in from Gateshead and looked a star in the making before his injury robbed us of his creativity. He is unlikely to be fit for Friday night. Certainly missing due to injury will be our other flying winger, Jon Taylor who has become a firm fans favourite since his move from Shrewsbury in the summer. We simply don’t have the talent to replace them and Fergie may once again utilise the step over show pony that is Mendez-Laing against City.

The one real positive at the moment is the clubs young players but unfortunately they are being let down by the senior pro’s and the managements tactics. Joe Newell is starting to show the London Road crowd why Darragh and Fergie have always rated him so highly and Kgosi Nthle, Jermaine Anderson and Conor Washington have all get bright futures in the game. Jack Payne, our captain, is still only young and should be leading these starlets into the brave new world. Instead he looks like a player that has lost confidence in his own game let alone having the nous and experience to inspire those around him.

The club have done brilliantly in the Darragh MacAnthony era to find strikers that were in the non-league (Mackail-Smith), lower leagues (Gayle) or not playing for their club (Assombalonga) and turning them into superstars who could then be sold on for huge profits. It appears that for now, that recruitment gold-mine has delivered some fool’s gold and the big money that Darragh splurged on Luke James from Hartlepool currently looks like being as ill-conceived as the £1m we spent on Tyrone Barnett a couple of years ago. Aaron McLean coming back to the club where he made his name is designed to give everyone a lift and we have to hope that will be the case. The thing that you can always rely on with Aaron is that he won’t shirk a physical battle or give defenders an easy 90 minutes.

In terms of formation we have tried 3-5-2 and the diamond this year with variable results. Fergie now appears to have settled on the formation that all managers turn to in a time of crisis – the lumpy, cold gruel of a 4-4-2 with two holding midfielders in the centre of midfield.

Personally, I have always been a Fergie fan. Working with Darragh he has, over the course of his two spells, delivered us real success, the likes of which PUFC had only tasted a couple of times previously in our history. But, and you knew there was a but coming, right now, I wonder if he has the enthusiasm and ability to lift the team out of this current slide towards mid table. For the first time this week, after the limp home defeat to Swindon, we saw Darragh break ranks and make it very clear to all on twitter that he wasn’t happy with Fergie’s tactics. I don’t see a parting of the ways between the clubs two big characters (we don’t like to talk about our Director of Football in public) but this run of awful form and even worse performances can only go on for so long before something has to give.

So, what will the travelling City fans and the thousands watching on Sky get to see on Friday night? Well, our new stand behind the goal, that used to host the hordes of away fans enjoying the terracing, is now complete so we have a 4 sided ground back which is always nice. 

On the pitch, I can’t see Fergie finding any kind of alternatives to the dross that he has served up lately and, as long as City don’t start nervously after 2 defeats on the spin, I can’t see anything other than an away win.

Up The Posh!"

The Exiled Robin

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Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Inside Line: Bristol City v Preston North End (22/11/2014)

And there it is. A first league defeat in controversial circumstances at old rivals Swindon Town.  Now comes a true test of this team’s seemingly strong belief and character, moreso than during games where a defeat had looked on the cards as this team now needs to show how it reacts to a loss, especially one which angered and frustrated manager, players and fans alike.

Steve Cotterill’s temperament and approach will be critical this week.  If he has spent the week getting the players to channel their emotions productively, then Preston could feel the backlash.  If it’s been a week of feelings of injustice and despondency, the outcome could be somewhat different.  

Being 'up for it' seems to be most fans' desire after such a defeat, but without control, that can sometimes be an approach which loses you the sense of purpose and planning with which we have achieved so much this season.  When you throw in the loss of your captain and midfield lynchpin into that mix, due to the moment of most scrutiny, it all adds up to a huge afternoon for these promotion hopefuls.

Someone has to step up and fill Wade Elliott’s boots, be the man the others look to if tempers threaten to boil over and drive the determination for success, especially with Neil Kilkenny certain to be determined to show the fans at Ashton Gate what he occasionally demonstrated in his short time in BS3. 

Great teams are made on how they deal with adversity, if this side is to even approach that relative level, then the reaction in this game – and the one against Posh next week – is going to be key.

Stu Radnedge flew in from his holidays in the Far East to secure an interview with Dave Seddon, @Sedds_LEP who is a lifelong Preston fan who covers his club for the Lancashire Evening Post. My sincere thanks to both for this great review:

“As Bristol City attempt to stomach last week's defeat at Swindon, Preston have been suffering some indigestion of their own recently.  The Lilywhites are suffering a November wobble, eight straight wins - seven of those in the league - giving way to three successive League One defeats.  It is not a complete leg-buckling job, North End having beaten Havant and Waterlooville very comfortably in the FA Cup.

However, their form in the bread and butter of the league has not made Deepdale the happiest of places of late. So some sections of Preston's travelling support will be heading to Ashton Gate this weekend with an air of trepidation, while others see the top three clash as an opportunity for PNE to shake off their dip in form and test themselves against a side who have been setting the pace at the summit.

This is the club's fourth campaign in League One since the relegation season of 2010/11 - overseen first by Darren Ferguson and then Phil Brown. Brown was left in charge to try and lead them back at the first time of asking and then came the Graham Westley era which lasted 13 months and won few friends.

Now the task has fallen on the shoulders of Simon Grayson, his track record at this level an attractive one after promotions with Blackpool, Leeds and Huddersfield. Grayson is 21 months into the job and this is seen as the season in which he can put a fourth promotion on his managerial CV. When he was appointed in February 2013, his first task was a rescue act to stave off the threat of relegation - something achieved with a degree of comfort.

Last season saw Grayson steadily stamp his mark on the squad although it was still a work in progress in moving on inherited players and bringing in his own targets. In spells they flirted with automatic promotion but never hit the top two, although were rarely out of the top six.

Ultimately North End's hopes of going up were ended by Rotherham in the play-offs, Kieran Agard scoring one of the Millers' goals in the semi-final second leg. Preston [like City! – ER] don't do the play-offs, with defeat to Rotherham their ninth failure in the end of season knock out, so all eyes are on clinching one of the two automatic promotion slots as they seek to return to the Championship and the increase in revenue that brings.

Talk to different Preston fans and you will get differing opinions of the suitability of the squad to sustain a promotion charge. In Joe Garner they have a striker who over the last 12 months has in lethal form in front of goal. Until November 2 last year, 10 months in the shirt of the club he supported as a boy had produced just a single goal. Now he has 36 goals to his name and in the summer North End had to bat off strong interest from Rotherham and Ipswich.  Many of the 12 goals Garner has scored this season have come with him playing in a lone centre-forward role.

Not that he is totally shy of company, Grayson's preferred formation of late having been the 4-2-3-1. The wingers are encouraged to get close to Garner rather than stay out on the touchline, while behind him, Paul Gallagher provides support in the No.10 role. Some supporters though, would love to see another striker playing alongside Garner in a 4-4-2 system which seems the favourite of many. Arguing against that, 4-4-2 can leave teams shy in the centre of midfield and there were games last season when that happened.

Callum Robinson is another goal threat for North End, the teenager having joined on loan from Aston Villa in September. He has tended to play on the left side of Garner and was the hat-trick hero in the 3-0 win over Havant.

Chris Humphrey has a good turn of pace down the right-wing and has found his feet after what many people saw as an inconsistent first season at Deepdale following a Bosman move from Motherwell. Right-back Scott Wiseman will be back in the frame after missing last week's defeat to Bradford. He was otherwise engaged on international duty, playing for minnows Gibraltar against Germany. So after a night chasing Thomas Muller around Nuremberg, his next stop is Ashton Gate.

A member of the Preston midfield familiar to Robins fans will be Neil Kilkenny. The Australian has become a key player in the engine room, given licence to pick the ball up deep and build play. Some fans get frustrated by his sideways passing but better ball retention and patience in possession has been preached by Grayson this season.

This weekend's game is part of a busy schedule on the road for North End. They had four successive midweek trips to Gillingham, Leyton Orient, Swindon and Havant. Last Saturday's home game against Bradford was a brief respite from the travelling, with the visit to Ashton Gate followed by a JPT visit to Oldham on Tuesday night and then next weekend's trip back down the M5 to Yeovil - we'll give you a wave on the way past!”

A great review of our opponent’s strengths and weaknesses from Dave.  My thanks to him again.


The Exiled Robin

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Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Inside Line: Swindon Town v Bristol City (15/11/2014)

After a brief hiatus from the league and an all-too-rare level of success in the two cup competitions, City return to league action this weekend in the first of a trio of mouth-watering clashes at the top of league one.  Preston North End and Peterborough United are on the horizon, but for now a classic local derby looks to be on the cards, as Steve Cotterill takes his unbeaten league leaders to the County Ground to face Swindon.

Stu Radnedge caught up with Dan Johnson www.twitter.com/danwjonson - a blogger for the Swindon Advertiser, to get the other Robins’ take on their own great start to the season.

“As the new campaign got underway in August it was hard to predict what sort of season was on the horizon. Due to a courtroom battle over the clubs ownership the club had only signed a handful of players in time for the big kick-off.

However, despite suffering a chaotic pre-season, Town began with a win, beating Scunthorpe 3-1 at the County Ground.  The opening month continued in the same vein with Mark Cooper’s side suffering just one defeat in League One.

Those impressive results continued into September, as Town went throughout the month unbeaten, including three away wins.  One of the best performances came against Sheffield United, where Town brushed aside the promotion contenders 5-2 at the County Ground.  All three of Town’s forward line got on the score sheet, with homegrown talent Louis Thompson adding a fifth in the final five minutes.  This result in particular highlighted the superb style of play on offer at the County Ground.

Despite many calls to change from fans, Mark Cooper has persisted with playing from the back, knocking the ball around in defence.  Using a sweeper in Nathan Thompson who dictates the play, with Yaser Kasim sitting in front of the back three, feeding the ball to either Massimo Luongo or Louis Thompson, who have both been superb this season, the system is all geared around retaining possession of the ball before using the pace on the flanks.

October was another good month for Town, but it was the clubs away form that was taking all the headlines with impressive away wins against Leyton Orient and Chesterfield.

So far this month, Swindon have managed to take a step forward in their home form, beating one of the favourites for promotion Preston North End 1-0, but has suffered two defeats, one away at Milton Keynes, and another in the FA Cup away to Cheltenham.

The 14/15 season is Mark Cooper’s first full campaign at Swindon, after being appointed full-time boss in late August 2013.  Dad Terry Cooper will be well known to Bristol City after playing and managing the club for six years in the 1980’s.

Last season, alongside coach Luke Williams, Cooper built a successful side, that went onto finish in a respectable 8th position in League One.  In this campaign, the former Tamworth and Peterborough boss has built on last season’s success, and stood firm on his style of play, which has paid off so far, with Swindon sitting 3rd in League One, two points outside the automatic promotion spots.

One of the reasons for Town’s new formation was losing key men Alex Pritchard and Nile Ranger in the summer.  Cooper had no choice but to change the teams formation, out went last season’s 4-1-4-1 to a 3-5-2 in this campaign.

Out of the eleven that started in the same fixture last September, five are still playing in the first team.  Goalkeeper Wes Foderingham and club captain Nathan Thompson are the only survivors in the back five, and are now joined by Southampton loanees Jordan Turnbull and Jack Stephens.  Wiltshire-born Turnbull is enjoying his first foray into first team football, but his defensive partner Stephens has enjoyed some experience, and played a key role in Town earning a point at Ashton Gate last season.

Out of all the areas on the pitch, it’s Swindon’s back three that are the most inexperienced, with this weekend’s game far by the biggest game of their young careers.

One of the key differences in the clubs formation this season has been the use of wing-backs. Right sided wing-back Nathan Byrne has been one of the clubs best players so far this season. After playing as a full back in the last campaign, he struggled to make an impression in the side, but since the introduction of a new system, he has flourished in his new position.  Both Amari’i Bell and Harry Toffolo are on loan deals and have been in direct competition to fill the left wing-back position.  Amari’i Bell enjoyed a good start to his loan deal, but in recent weeks has gone off the boil, which has made way for Harry Toffolo, who has grabbed his chance with both hands and put in some impressive displays in recent weeks.

Incredibly over the summer Town managed to keep the best area of the team in one piece, our midfield three of Yaser Kasim, Massimo Luongo and Louis Thompson are still at the club, and enjoying a superb season.  But that talent hasn’t gone unnoticed, with Kasim and Luongo both earning international recognition for Iraq and Australia respectively, meaning both players will be missing for this weekend’s big game at the County Ground.  This comes, as a huge blow for Swindon, with the heartbeat of the team being ripped out for one of the biggest contests of the season, Jake Reeves and Ben Gladwin are likely to take their place in the team.

The biggest change in the team this season has been the talent that Mark Cooper has had to pick from up front.  Last season our standout front man was Nile Ranger, despite what happened in his personal life, no one could doubt his ability on the pitch.  But this season the club has gone from one gifted front man to three talented strikers.  Michael Smith, Andy Williams and Jonathan Obika have racked up 21 goals between them in the league so far this season, nearly ¾ of all Town’s goals in League One.

Chairman Lee Power and manager Mark Cooper have done a great job in producing a competitive team in League One considering the cut backs that have had to be made in the first team, especially the wage bill.

In the last three meetings between the sides, Swindon have been fortunate enough to face a Bristol City side on a bad run of results, but this season they face an unbeaten team full of confidence.  We all know that local derbies never follow the script, with Swindon the home side and missing key players and City the visitors, riding high in the league, it promises to be a must-watch game in Wiltshire this Saturday.”

Huge thanks to Dan for his insight, let's hope his concern at the missing internationals proves a valid one.

It looks and feels like our toughest test of the season to date, at a venue where traditionally we haven’t had loads of success, from memory (stats may tell a different story). What is certain is we’ll have to be firing on all cylinders to get something from the game, but we all know we can do that this season.


The Exiled Robin

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