"...this is the most articulate and accurate piece written about the club for years!" - Tales from the Front, http://www.otib.co.uk/

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Inside Line: Brentford (28/01/2014)

Lewis Hancock introduces the latest ‘Inside Line’:
City’s five-match unbeaten run came to a halt on Saturday and sees us remain a languishing ‘sleeping giant’ in League One’s relegation zone.  The defeat to Wolves was unsavoury but regrettably anticipated by many in BS3 considering City haven’t won at Molineux since 1931!

But what better way for Steve Cotterill to refocus the squad with a match just three days later, you might say?  Unfortunately, it doesn’t come much tougher than a team unbeaten in 16 league matches – including an amazing 14 wins – league leaders, Brentford.

Since the last encounter between the sides, the Bees’ are under new management in Mark Warburton following Uwe Rosler’s departure to Wigan, and their rich vein of form has seen them climb to the League One summit.

If last season’s near-miss is anything to go by, it comes as little surprise to supporters of League One clubs to see the West London club challenging for promotion.  There’s no doubt City will have to produce an excellent display to take all three points from Griffin Park and I spoke to Bristol Post’s City correspondent – and lifelong Bees fan – Andy Stockhausen, to hear his views on how the match may pan out.

Brentford have been on a very healthy unbeaten run in the league since October, skyrocketing into the automatic promotion places. How has Mark Warburton kept the side in such a rich vein of form since Uwe Rosler’s departure?
Continuity is the name of the game. Promoted from within following Uwe Rosler’s defection to Wigan, Mark Warburton has not changed a thing in terms of tactics, selection and overall approach. An intelligent man, he has made a seamless transition from director of football to first team manager. His mantra is “if it is not broken, don’t mend it.

Warburton won League One manager of the December in his debut month in charge. What does he bring to Griffin Park as a manager? How tactical is he?
Untried as a manager previously, it is difficult to say what Mark Warburton stands for at this early stage. So far, he has maintained a steady ship, declining to make changes and deviate from the path set by his predecessor. I have been told he is a good man manager and motivator, while his clever use of substitutes in recent games suggests an astute football mind.

It’s common for a team to hit good form towards the end of the campaign and look to sneak into the play-offs. Do you think Brentford have peaked too early or is there more to come from them?
I thought even before the start of the season that this Brentford squad ought to be up there challenging for automatic promotion. After missing out in such dramatic and heart-breaking fashion last season, nobody connected with the club is prepared to contemplate another spin of the play-off roulette wheel.

So, after narrowly missing out on promotion (need I say what happened!) last season, have the Bees got what it takes to go one further?
The disappointment of last season is driving the entire club forward, from the directors, staff and players, through to the fans and right down to the tea lady! There is a fierce determination to make amends and take a place in the Championship that should have been theirs’ last May. In my opinion, this is the strongest Bees squad since the one assembled by Steve Coppell in the 1990s and automatic promotion is a realistic goal. The team continues to improve and definitely has the ability to sustain its challenge until the end of the season.

Who has stood out so far this season and could cause City some problems?
Clayton Donaldson is an obvious danger. Top scorer in each of the last three seasons, he is once again proving deadly in front of goal. George Saville is another who could cause City problems with his pace and movement, but Adam Forshaw is the heartbeat of this team. If fit, he will dictate terms from the middle of the park. City will also have to stop Brentford’s full-backs from advancing if they are to disrupt the supply lines to in-form forwards Marcello Trotta, Will Grigg and Donaldson.

Talking of top scorer Donaldson, he was the key man for Brentford in the reverse fixture but now City have strengthened at the back by signing Karleigh Osborne and Adam El-Abd and have changed their formation, do you think Donaldson will be less of a threat?
City have definitely improved, but continue to concede sloppy goals and Donaldson is sure to fancy his chances, having scored against better teams previously this season. An elusive runner, his pace and ability to come inside from wide positions renders him difficult to mark. But he is nothing without good service and the key for City will be to close down in midfield and deny Brentford room.

City also have a different man at the helm since the 2-1 loss to Brentford at Ashton Gate in October. How do you think the game will pan out because of the changes and can I please have a score prediction?
Taken at face value, most punters will back a home win. But we all know football seldom goes to plan and I anticipate City giving Brentford a difficult game.

Steve Cotterill has identified City’s strengths and come up with a system (first adopted by Sean O’Driscoll) that suits the players at his disposal. As a result, City keep the ball for longer, move it more effectively and create more goal-scoring chances. But their failure to take a higher percentage of those chances has cost them and they will need to be clinical against a Bees defence that prides itself on keeping clean sheets. I anticipate a hard-fought encounter, but feel Brentford have the attacking quality required to nick a result.

Sorry City fans, but home advantage, confidence and momentum all point to a Brentford win. I’m going for 1-0 to the Bees.

Many thanks to Lewis and also to Andy for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions. As football fans I’m sure we can understand if this is the one game in City’s season he’d rather we didn’t win, but equally all runs must come to an end and someone has to beat Brentford, at some point. Why not us?


The Exiled Robin

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Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Inside Line: Wolverhampton Wanderers (25/01/2014)

Whilst there is seemingly a new mood of optimism around BS3, in no small part down to the recent unbeaten run, that positive spirit faces some stiff tests in the next few games with trips to all of the top three inside 18 days. We should remember that getting anything out of those games will be an achievement and not bemoan/overly criticise a draw, or even a narrow defeat.  We’re in the bottom four and they’re the top three for a very good reason, even if it’s “only” Orient and Brentford.

We kick off that run with a trip a what has been a very unhappy hunting ground over recent years, Molineux, to face the ‘giants’ of League One, Wolverhampton Wanderers. Twenty years to the day on from our famous win at Anfield, is it time for another 'giant'-killing?

Stu Radnedge picks up the story…

With the teams facing each other at the ‘business end’ of the season, you couldn't have two more starkly contrasting tales of life after being relegated from the Championship last May. Wolves have largely lived up to the hype and look like fulfilling the bookies expectation of regaining Championship status at the first ask, whilst City continue to languish with yet another new manager trying to dig us out of the mire.

I asked Wolves blogger Nathan Lloyd for his take on the Black Country outfit’s season so far.

Despite currently sitting in third place, do you think you'll be able to catch Leyton Orient and Brentford?
Our double drop from the Premier League down to League One left us with a squad which, on paper, looked far too strong for League One, but the reality was that there was an unhealthy clique left over from the McCarthy era.  Players like O’Hara, Johnson, Ward, Henry and Doyle performed well under Mick’s tutelage, but showed a complete lack of fight for the cause when the big grumpy eagle was sacked.  That left the club with big earners who obviously didn’t have the stomach for a lower league battle. 

So, after 12 months of managerial turmoil (more of that later), we now seem to have a settled squad and with one or two tweaks, there should be no reason why we can’t catch the top two.

We’re in the final few days of the January transfer window and there could potentially be some comings and goings from both sides before Saturday’s game. In an ideal world, who would you like to keep from your squad and who would you preferably get rid of?
We have managed to ship a few of the big time Charlie’s out of the squad, such as Roger Johnson who has already demonstrated to West Ham fans how woeful he is with a string of defensively inept performances.  Karl Henry has left for QPR and Stephen Ward has gone on loan to Brighton. 

But that has still left us with Jamie O’Hara on the books rotting in the reserves.  And despite numerous pseudo Ebay campaigns, he continues to pick up a reported £35k a week.  Along with Jamie, I think it would be best for both parties if Kevin Doyle departed for pastures new. 

Kenny Jackett has made two shrewd signings on the flanks in Michael Jacobs and James Henry, both of whom have been brilliant in the last half a dozen games.  Therefore I wouldn't be too upset if somebody came in and finally snapped up Bakary Sako, a player who is typically an utter disaster for 95% of a game, but seems to keep his place in the side by demonstrating one flash of brilliance which can turn a match in our favour.

The contrasting league positions of teams are not replicated in recent form, especially over the crucial Christmas period.  City are now undefeated in five, whereas Wolves (around the New Year time) drew with Orient and Tranmere and lost to Gillingham. They also lost two on the bounce in the games before Christmas against Posh and the plastics (MK Dons). Could this be attributed to the lack of a clinical finisher at Molineux?
You couldn’t be more spot on!  Early in the season we got lucky in many games against the likes of Crawley and Swindon who dominated the play at Molineux but ultimately lost because we were the more clinical side. 

Four months later and there’s now a role reversal.  Against Orient at home we were incredible in the first half and played some of the best football I’d seen from us in years.  Roared on by a full house at Molineux, we created chance after chance but didn't convert and the inevitable happened in the 2nd half when the O’s equalised. 

Gillingham away, a game I watched in a bar in Malta with the Maltese Wolves fan club, was a similar story.  Probably the most dominant, one-sided display I’d seen us play in years, but without the goals we fell foul of a scrappy injury time goal and came away empty handed. 

Leigh Griffiths started the season really well following his successful Scottish spell last term, but his form has really tailed off in the last couple of months.  So Jackett has tried various combinations up front, including Jake Cassidy, who despite banging in a load of goals whilst on loan at Tranmere, has failed to hit the net in a Wolves shirt.  Kenny has now recruited Nouha Dicko from Wigan, a player who had a brief spell at Wolves on loan last season.  Dicko scored five goals in five games whilst on loan at Rotherham, so expect him to start on Saturday.

Gaffer Kenny Jackett has received many plaudits for the fortunes at your club. Is he worthy of it - or do you think with the talent in the squad that it would have taken an imbecile to not have Wolves in contention for promotion?
I'm firmly in the camp who believes that Jackett is the right man to lead Wolves.  Mick McCarthy had a similar task when he took over the reins in 2006; inheriting a terrible squad and having to quickly turn things around.  Kenny was left with a really disjointed team and has gone about trying to dismantle the squad and dispose of the expensive misfits he was left with.  He has finally given the youth a chance, something his predecessors Solbakken and  Saunders neglected to do.  And as a result he has been rewarded with some players who are really proving their worth, especially in the likes of local lad Danny Batth, who has been a rock at the back.  If Kenny can just solve the striker conundrum, then he will probably find more plaudits coming his way when promotion is secured.

What strengths should City fans be wary of when we visit on Saturday?
I’ve already mentioned the pacey wingers, Henry and Jacobs, where Robins’ fans will probably see a lot of our creative play instigated on Saturday.  But a lot of our best passing in the final third has come this season from Kevin McDonald, our big central midfielder.  I’d hope that Dicko makes his debut and hits the road running and it’ll be interesting to see, if Griffiths is still at the club come Saturday, whether Kenny is bold enough to play the two up top.

What do you believe will be City's strengths in the match?
Sam Baldock and Emmanuel-Thomas are the obvious threats, but I also think Steve Cotterill is an excellent tactician and will steer the Robins out of danger.

Can I get a score prediction?
I would like to think we can turn some of our recent good performances into a positive scoreline and come away from the game with a 2-0.  However, if Bristol City start the game like they did against the Dons, then who knows what could happen!  Here's to a cracking match!

The Exiled Robin

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Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Inside Line: Bradford City (11/01/2014)

Over to Lewis Hancock again for this week’s 'Inside Line’ on the Bantams, Bradford City

It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions since the opening day of the season and now halfway through the campaign, it’s about time things started going City’s way!

Steve Cotterill’s appointment divided fans’ opinion, but after only one loss in all competitions since he took over and two wins on the bounce, Cotterill is certainly turning heads.  Securing Karleigh Osborne on a permanent basis and Tyrone Barnett on loan until the end of the season won't have done him any harm either.

However, let’s not jump the gun. The same was being said about Sean O’Driscoll prior to his sacking and, on paper, January is set to be a very tricky month in League One, starting with Bradford City away.

Having flirted with the play-off places for most of the season, the Bantams seem to have tailed off of late and now find themselves in mid-table.

City haven’t won against Bradford for 18 years and the task to gain points at Valley Parade will prove a tough task considering 1989 was the last time City collected all three points there.

Your expectations for the start of the season were a mid-table finish.  Being 12th in the table at present, are you happy with your position or annoyed the side have slipped out of the play-off positions?
I am personally quite happy with our place at the moment. We started the season superbly but have tailed off as of late due to a lack of form and injuries to key players. That has been a bit of worry but I think it's to be expected from a newly promoted club to go through a bad spell. As mentioned in my first ‘Inside Line’, I am quite happy to consolidate this season, understand what we need to further improve the squad and aim to be more competitive in this league. 

Is everyone at Bradford still pleased with the work Phil Parkinson is doing? Are you surprised that managerless Championship clubs haven’t asked to speak to him?
There is a very small undercurrent of discontentment at present. With one win in sixteen, some are starting to get frustrated however I think these fans are short sighted. Admittedly we haven't played well lately but he's the best manager the club have had in a decade and I believe he should be given the time and funds to get us out of this current rut. On the whole I think the majority of fans are still very much behind him.

I'm not surprised he's not been linked with other jobs to be honest. Parkinson and his key back room staff signed three year deals in the summer and the club have invested, both in him and behind the scenes (new training equipment for example). I think (hope) a plan has been put in place by the club’s hierarchy and I think Phil is a person who wants to steer that ship.

It’s been seven games since Bradford last registered a win in the league, why the recent dip in form?
There's a few contributing factors to why we've dipped. We lost the heartbeat of our team in Andrew Davies. He's been out since October and we've missed his commanding presence and character at the back.

Niggling injuries have demonstrated that our squad, whilst solid, is not strong enough in terms of depth. This has coincided with people losing form and we haven't had the same quality of player to replace them.  I'm sure confidence is a big thing. We haven't played horrendously badly (in the games I have seen) but when things don't go our way I think players are starting to second guess themselves.

Finally we keep going behind in games. It's hard enough to win games in this league without giving opponents a head start.

Since opening his account against City on the opening day of the season, Nahki Wells has scored a further 14 goals in all competitions. How influential is he and will Bradford struggle to hold onto him in the transfer window?
I think Nahki’s goals speak for themselves and demonstrate how influential he is to our team and club. We could have lost several games during our recent run, however he has been clinical in gaining us points we would traditionally lose.

I am fairly sure he will leave this transfer window. With eighteen months on his current contract (he has refused to look at the new one offered) and he has stated he wants to play in the Championship or above, the club will be looking to cash in. We can't risk keeping him and letting him go on a free. It's a shame but you can't begrudge his ambition or criticise the board.

Pretty much all the teams in the Championship have been linked with him, whilst Aston Villa and a few Premier League teams are apparently interested. It's going to be a matter of waiting for the best deal and cashing in.

Has any Bradford player surprised you so far this season?
Nahki has taken to this league very well and looks a class above. However, a lot of his success is down to the hard work of his strike partner James Hanson. I picked out Hanson at the start of the season and he has been brilliant so far.

The one that has really shone though has been our right back Stephen Darby. In a time where our defence has made mistakes and not performed to its best, Darby has consistently been fantastic. Slender in stature, he is a ferocious tackler and someone who reads the game wonderfully well. He won't ever get the plaudits like Wells or Hanson but I think every fan who has watched him this season has been impressed by his leadership and consistency.

Other than Wells, who has the potential to cause City some harm on Saturday?
I'm not sure if Wells will play yet. He picked up a hamstring strain before the New Year and with transfer talks ongoing he may sit out (although Parkinson says he won't).  Speaking to [The Exiled Robin] recently, he mentioned your defensive frailties, so with this in mind  James Hanson will severely test them and will be the person to look out for. Kyle Reid -our left winger- also has the potential to cause problems but he is hit and miss.

Where in the side should Parkinson look to strengthen this month? Who are realistic targets?
We are short in the midfield so I would hope for both a centre midfielder and a winger. Also with the impending departure of Nahki, we'll need another forward. 
We have an out/in policy, so everything depends on who we can shift off the wage bill. Parkinson has mentioned that he may look to bring in young Premiership loanees. He has been tight lipped at the moment but things should become a lot clearer once the Wells situation has been clarified and sorted.

After two Wembley appearances last year, do Bradford have what it takes to sneak into the play-offs this time around?
After last year, I believe anything can happen! It's important the confidence picks up soon because if we continue to play as we are, we could be dragged into a relegation battle. We proved last year with ten or so games to go that a season is not over, but it's important we start to pick up some wins. Also, a lot depends on how the team cope without Nahki. It really could go either way.

Finally, can I have a prediction for the match?
If Wells plays, he scores the winner in what could be his last game at Valley Parade. If not, a score draw.

A romantic prediction from Mesh if their golden boy makes it onto the pitch. For City's sake, let's hope he doesn't for one reason or another and we can keep the momentum up.


The Exiled Robin

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Saturday, 4 January 2014

The Inside Line: Watford (F.A.Cup Rd 3, 04/01/2014)

Apologies for the lateness of this, the new year still catching up with us all at The Exiled Robin, but there’s a really good Inside Line on today’s F.A.Cup third round opponents, Watford, to read here, including some great insight on the Italian ownership, the Udinese loans and Gianfranco Zola’s downfall. Well worth a read!

My thanks to Stu Radnedge and Matt Rowson who writes BHappy http://bhappy.wordpress.com/ - and is a regular contributor to The Two Unfortunates, for their time and words.

Last year was an interesting one for Watford. The ambition of Gianfranco Zola led many to tip you for promotion.  Alike City in 2008, you ultimately finished one place outside the automatic spots and went on to lose in the playoff final.  How did it feel as your season had appeared very strong?
Don't mention 2008.  We were twelve points clear in 1st at one stage and clung onto a playoff spot by virtue of that lead and nobody being good enough to deprive us of the top six finish our awfulness post-Christmas hadn't deserved...

Obviously the defeat to Palace at Wembley was choking; the defeat to Leeds on the last day of the season more so.  We needed to better Hull's result against Cardiff, then managed by our old manager Malky Mackay who, to his credit, threw on strikers to get a point from a game he didn't need anything from. We blew it, but lost two keepers - one before the game, one during it meaning that we were forced to give a debut to a young keeper who had already been told he was being released.  That was a very difficult afternoon.

But the desolation didn't last long.  You say our season had been strong... but the takeover the previous summer had been drawn out, the new players had taken time to settle and once we'd got going in October/November we cut through the division like a dose of salts.  Naturally we expected to continue in the same vein...

Last season Watford's team, dubbed by many as Udinese b-team, caused a lot of confusion as to if any league rules on loan players had been broken. Was it something about nothing or were the rules being pushed?
We didn't break any rules;  I think it's fair to say that we found a loophole and exploited it.  Specifically, international loans aren't technically loans;  they are permanent transfers with an agreement to transfer back. As such, the restriction concerning number of loans that could be fielded at a time didn't cover our large number of loans from Udinese and Granada.

Udinese B is slightly misleading too.  The Pozzo model is based around the approach that most sub-Prem clubs pursue... buy/develop rough diamonds, polish them, sell them on for a profit.  It's just on a whole different scale... and built on the back of a vast scouting network.  Udinese is home base, effectively, from where a lot of these players were loaned out (inc to non-Pozzo clubs) but there are obviously benefits to having clubs in different leagues that might suit different styles of player.  We were picked to be the English Pozzo team by virtue of being low-hanging fruit, but have fallen on our feet...  the Pozzos have owned Udinese for 25 years, have converted them from a Serie B to a Champions League team, and the list of players that have passed through is extraordinary.  So...  the Pozzos bought us, and rather than building up the traditional bank of debt by investing in the team simply lent us players that they'd already bought and developed.

The rules have since changed in that loans from anywhere apply, which is fair enough.  Most of the loans that came in last year and worked have become long-term permanent deals - the exceptions are Matej Vydra, now at West Brom, and Nathaniel Chalobah who Chelsea gave a £35/k a week contract that we didn't want to pick up.  He's been at Forest.

The embargo that we were placed under which you may have read about is unrelated, and due to the actions of the bandit who owned the club before the Pozzos.

Zola left his post in December. Was it a shock and why did he leave?
In the end, no.  Hugely disappointing, but not a shock.  Last year was fabulous, we started reasonably well this season;  however the loss of Vydra meant we had lost the pace up front, and an injury to player of the season Almen Abdi meant that we had little answer to teams who came to the Vic, sat back, kept it tight and waited for us to cock up.  We were always shipping goals last season so that hadn't changed, but we'd lost the variety to score them  - at least unless teams made the mistake of playing an open game against us.

We lost five home games on the hop and looked increasingly unlikely to profit from them.  Zola sounded increasingly defeated and hapless...  if he'd come out fighting he had plenty of brownie points in the locker, nobody was calling for his head.  He blatantly just didn't know what to do.

The new gaffer – is he just a friend of the Italian owners, or is he worthy of being at the club?
He's very experienced, albeit exclusively in Italy.  He's not worked for the Pozzos before, but his approach is much more to do with industry, organisation and a solid defence - very much the model the Pozzos have tended to favour at Udinese.  We'll see.  We've conceded one goal - an iffy penalty - in three games since his arrival, so so far so good.

You've just signed two new players from, of course, Udinese. Do you know much about them?
They've both been linked for a while, there was talk of them coming in the summer.

Merkel is a Kazakh-born German attacking midfielder;  quite a high profile having played for Milan  (and Udinese) despite being only 21.  He's on loan for the season, and is ostensibly long-term cover for the still-missing Abdi, who we miss badly.

Mathias RanĂ©gie is a 6ft5 Swedish international striker - he played alongside Zlatan when he murdered England 18 months ago.  He's signed permanently, but neither will feature in the cup tie. 

Are you confident that there will be no early cup exit for Watford at the hands of Bristol City? 
No...  it's a one-off game, you've had a good few games and have nothing to lose here.  I do think we'll win - but "confident" would be overstating it.

Who do you fear the most in our squad?
Jay Emmanuel-Thomas has ripped us to bits in the past.  The trajectory of career - from Arsenal to the Championship to League One - suggests that he doesn't do that to teams every week, but in a one off cup tie he doesn't have to. 

And finally, can I have a score prediction please?

No, I'm not very good at those.   

So rain permitting - even at this late stage - we're all set for one of the biggest days in the football calendar. Who knows what may be just around the corner if we can pick up from where we left off against Watford's near-neighbours, Stevenage, in the final game of last year.


The Exiled Robin

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