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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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