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Friday, 31 October 2014

The Inside Line: Bristol City v Oldham Athletic (01/11/2014)

Comparisons with Chelsea and Jose Mourinho, articles on his lucky pants and an obsessive search for magpies and brief links to jobs at a higher level.  It’s been an interesting week for Bristol City manager, Steve Cotterill.

And that’s all because it’s November and City are STILL unbeaten. Being nearly one-third of the way through the season and still to register a ‘L’ in the results column is a remarkable achievement.  Yet in the last couple of weeks – as Preston North End maintain their own outstanding winning run and close the gap – more and more questions have been raised about the conceding of soft goals, the carelessness of protecting leads, and dropped points in recent games.

Is this unfair criticism of a team who are taking all before them and remain, for now, in the highest possible position they can attain? Or is it justifiable concern of what might lie ahead, should these shortcoming not be addressed? 

Probably a bit of both. I have seen some people say this week it might be good to lose, to rid ourselves of this unbeaten tag and be able to concentrate on winning games, rather than not losing them again.  Poppycock. Absolute, pure, poppycock!  Apologies for my drift into 19th century old-English language there, but it felt appropriate. 

Losing can become a mind-set.  That feeling of defeat adding nervousness at the end of games as you know how deflating it can be – look at us this time last year when, despite a number of performances that deserved more, we couldn’t buy a win, and threw away many even positions late on due to the tension and apprehension.  Yes, this is a different set of players in the main, but that’s exactly why we shouldn’t want to lose.  To borrow a phrase from our gaffer, this is a team of winners right now, a team with such fighting spirit that they won’t lie down and won’t accept defeat.  We have no way of knowing how that first defeat might affect them, so let’s not wish it along any time soon.  I bet Arsenal fans weren’t hoping for a defeat at this stage of their unbeaten season…

Saying that, Lee Johnson’s Oldham Athletic arrive at Ashton Gate in fine form themselves, unbeaten in 13 and storming into the play-off picture – probably to the surprise of many, given their budgetary constraints. This is the first of a number of very tough challenges for Cotterill’s Robins in November, ahead of match ups with Swindon, Preston & Peterborough. It’s important we don’t dismiss Oldham in our anticipation for those perceived, ‘bigger’ matches.

Stu Radnedge caught up with Latics fan Joshua Bowker ahead of Saturday’s game to find out what’s going so right for ‘LJ’ and his band of merry men.

“After years and years of floating around the doldrums of the bottom third of League One, perennially flirting with the relegation zone, Oldham have finally had a positive start to the season. Headed by ex-Bristol City player, Lee Johnson (and his numerous comrades who have links to Ashton Gate) there is a real air of positivity around the club at this early stage of the season. Looking up the table, rather than down the table is an unusual situation to be in at this time of the season.

The Latics and City meet as arguably two of the most inform sides in the division, and both have certainly made themselves hard to beat, with Athletic having not lost in 11 league games. Expect goals though! Latics haven’t drawn a blank or kept a clean sheet in 6 games, and City’s run stretches to 7 games.

Johnson has brought in several players who he played alongside during his career, and some who have spent time at Bristol City, including James and Brian Wilson, George Elokobi and Liam Kelly. Kelly was brought in as a straight swap for Korey Smith in midfield, and was handed the armband on the way into Boundary Park. Kelly has been outstanding in the last month or so, after initially struggling, most likely due to a lack of match fitness. Johnson’s decision to change from a flat four in midfield to a diamond has brought out the best in the squad, with Kelly excelling at the base of the diamond.

The new formation has also allowed Jonathan Forte and loanee Jabo Ibehre to spearhead the attack. Forte has had a blistering start to his Oldham career, scoring 11 goals in just 12 starts. Put into context, he managed a mere 9 in 99 games for Scunthorpe, and Latics’ top league scorer last year finished with just 6! Johnson has truly found the best in him, and Ibehre has certainly proved to be the perfect foil for Forte. Despite being Colchester’s player of the season for the past two years, he fell out of favour this season and joined up with Latics. His strength and ability to bring others into play is a trait that Latics haven’t had since Matt Smith departed. Forte and Ibehre’s partnership, although in the extremely early days is already blossoming. The combination of Ibehre’s strength and Forte’s pace has yielded 4 goals in the last two games they’ve started together.

At the other end of the pitch, James Wilson has relished the opportunity of game time. Despite being in Bristol for 8 years, he only managed 21 starts. Despite joining in January, he’s surpassed that total, and been a virtual ever present, and just keeps getting better and better. He’s strong, athletic and a calm head at the back, he’s already been through 3 different centre-back partners this season, and hasn’t looked phased at all. His partner this weekend is likely to be Timothee Dieng – it has been for the previous 4 games, and has admirably held his own against difficult opponents such as Eoin Doyle and James Hanson in his first season in English football.

Johnson has always championed possession-based, attack-minded football. During the struggles last year, that philosophy went a little to the wayside. However it is back this season, with ‘keeper Paul Rachubka always looking to play out to his defenders – although the addition of Ibehre allows for a more direct option. Kelly anchors the midfield, and looks to start attacks from his own half by dropping in between the defence. Either side of the diamond in midfield are Carl Winchester and Mike Jones, who have been two of the most impressive performers this season. Their drive and energy from midfield was a factor missing from last season, and expect them to provide the attacking impetus from deep. Danny Philliskirk operates behind the front two, and Smith will almost certainly be tasked with nullifying his creative talents.

This feels like the strongest Oldham squad in a long time, and dreams of the playoffs which seemed distant back in August, feel more possible. After navigating difficult games such as Chesterfield, Peterborough and Bradford in recent weeks and remaining unbeaten, a successful result this weekend would really build hope. Latics’ away form this season reads one win, one loss and five draws. Backed on by a sold out Latics’ end, this should be a fantastic game between two confident teams, both hoping to maintain their unbeaten records.”

My thanks to Stu (who organised this from India!) and Joshua for this piece. It seems set to be an enthralling encounter between two good footballing sides fighting to preserve long unbeaten records.  I can see yet another 2-2 draw in the offing, but then I regularly waste money with the bookies so who knows!


The Exiled Robin

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