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

Friday, 23 January 2015

The Inside Line: Bristol City v West Ham United (25/01/2015)

So here it is. All our efforts, strains and tribulations in the cup competitions over the past two months boils down to two big televised matches in the next five days.

Amazingly five of our last 11 games have been non-league encounters (that will be seven in 13 after Thursday) and our reward is a never-better chance to reach Wembley on Thursday which follows a very rare national TV showing on the BBC as they sniff an F.A.Cup upset.

Ultimately, given the start we made in going unbeaten until November and in the top two for the whole season to date, promotion, perhaps only the title in fact will measure the success of this season, and is rightly the main focus. But if we can add some cream on top of that by winning a trophy and knocking Big Sam’s Happy Hammers out of the cup in front of eight million viewers on Sunday afternoon, then that will do very nicely indeed!

Bearing in mind this is a club whose stock in the last few years has fallen so dramatically that we all get excited when we’re trending on Twitter, one thing you can guarantee is that for a couple of hours at least, our club, our part-demolished stadium and the players who have provided us with such joy and excitement so far this season will be the most-talked about topic on many people’s favourite social media site.

So, can we win? Of course we can. Anyone can beat anyone on their day and given the season we’re having and the confidence flowing through the squad, we stand a real chance. However this is not the East London side that got demolished in Nottingham 12 months ago. As alluded to below, West Ham are probably one of the few teams who can point to a raft of summer signings that have made the same sort of impact as City’s Special Seven, all of whom have made significant contributions to our success.

And because of that, despite all the positivity, the Premier League side remain rightful favourites, but if anyone is thinking along the same lines of Phil Neville and assuming West Ham are already in round five, then hopefully they’re sadly mistaken.

Of all the games we’ll play this season, this is perhaps the one to relax a bit and try to enjoy, although having seen enough of Cotterill’s approach to games this year, I can’t see him sending his XI out with that attitude.

Let’s put on a show, let’s give them a game and maybe, 21 years to the day of our most famous F.A.Cup win, we might just pull off a result to impress the nation.

To give you an insight into West Ham’s season, Stu Radnedge caught up with Tom Victor, a Hammers fan who has contributed to these pages before with these thoughts on then-new signing Sam Baldock.

Tom is editor of www.bettinginstinct.com, and has written for a variety of sites including The False Nine, Just Football and Football's A Country. Follow him on Twitter @tomvictor and read his personal blog at http://peleconfidential.net/

“I probably speak for most West Ham fans when I say this season has exceeded expectations. An all claret-and-blue relegation trio looked very possible back in August, and to be effectively safe from the drop already was unthinkable.

It's even more surprising considering the turnaround of players over the summer. Most clubs might have had teething problems after bringing in nine players in one window and losing almost as many (although no first team regulars left East London), but we've looked significantly stronger in all departments.

The new signings have settled in well, especially forwards Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia and loanees Alex Song and Carl Jenkinson, who will ideally join permanently in the summer. But the best new addition has arguably been attacking coach Teddy Sheringham (whose appointment the manager appeared to agree to under duress).

With Sheringham at the club, there's been a much greater attacking impetus and a flair we haven't really seen since Gianfranco Zola's first season as manager. It helped that Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan were out for the early part of the season, forcing Sam Allardyce's hand somewhat, and we've reverted to type a bit since their return. Still, the midfield diamond has worked well this year with Stewart Downing in a freer role and full-backs Jenkinson and Aaron Cresswell bombing forward in a manner which last year's incumbents Guy Demel and George McCartney were physically incapable of.

Downing was quietly impressive last season, but this year he's really stood out and his run and finish to clinch victory last weekend shows the damage he can do in his more central role. In the early part of the season, with Downing, Sakho and Valencia starting in a front three, there was a real fluidity that was lacking last season when the likes of Carlton Cole and Modibo Maïga found themselves leading the line.

It's because of our league position that I expect a relatively strong XI to start at Ashton Gate. Well, that and the repercussions of Allardyce's efforts to blood a few youngsters against Nottingham Forest in last year's FA Cup - that 5-0 defeat would have been a low point of most seasons, though somehow we managed worse last year.

We were pretty much at full-strength for the Third Round replay against Everton, though James Collins and James Tomkins both limped off in the last league game against Hull and it looks like at least one of the two will be missing on Sunday. Canada international Doneil Henry could make his debut, and I also wouldn't be surprised if Morgan Amalfitano gets a start after his goal last weekend.

Sakho is also out with a back problem that's been troubling him since the autumn, and Cheikh Kouyaté is away with Senegal at the Africa Cup of Nations, meaning Nolan's suspect fitness could be put to the test again - his tendency to drift forward is definitely something for City to exploit. Alternatively, this could be an opportunity to see Diego Poyet start for the first time in 2015 - he's still young but has looked assured whenever he's been on the pitch.

I was surprised by Bristol City's struggles in 2013-14 and it seems like you're back where you ought to be given the talent and squad depth. I've seen them play a few times in the last couple of years, but not since Matt Smith came in, and it seems like he's made a real difference after a tricky spell at the tail end of last year.

West Ham don't exactly have the defensive solidity with which Allardyce has been associated in the past, so there could well be goals in this one. Saying that, I remember our last league meetings in the Championship in 2011-12 and I think both sides will hope to see more of a spectacle this time around.”

My huge thanks to Tom and to Stu.

Here we go – COYR!

The Exiled Robin

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Friday, 9 January 2015

The Inside Line: Bristol City v Notts County (10/01/2015)

Betterer and betterer! We’re starting to run out of superlatives to measure the success (thus far) of Bristol City’s season, so I’ll make up some words instead. In this season of highs, it’s arguable that a dark night in Gillingham, in front of around 250 hardy supporters, represented the peak thus far as four goals – at least two of them stunning efforts – from on-loan striker Matt Smith all but secured City’s place at Wembley in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. The only thing that will stop us achieving that now, is complacency.

Now, that might sound like counting chickens, but we’ve got to accept we’re at the top of the league and generally winning games, so we shouldn’t be expecting to lose at home to Gillingham by two goals. Can it happen?? Of course it can, but the odds are stacked right against, even for our beloved Bristol City who seemingly make a habit out of cocking things up!

Sandwiched in between the multitude of cup ties against Doncaster and Gillingham is an all-important league match against play-off contenders Notts. County.  The Magpies may have fallen away slightly after an excellent late Autumn, but they’re very much in and around the picture and will represent a tough challenge if the City players allow their minds to drift towards a potential cup match on national TV or Wembley in March.

As a manager who clearly does look at the league tables, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Cotterill uses the fact that we’ve been knocked off our perch by Swindon as motivations, especially given the other West Country Robins aren’t in action until Monday night, meaning a victory would see us retain top spot.

Back in August, Stu Radnedge enticed one of my favourite Inside Line’s of the season so far out of 'Notts County Stu', who can be followed on Twitter and you can check out his Notts Blog website here.  Thankfully, he agreed to return and preview this latest match for us and has again come up trumps with a great insightful article. 

"Saturday’s game is one which is very difficult to call right now. I mean by rights, this will be a comfortable Bristol City victory and a fourth defeat in five for Notts. However such is our unpredictability – away from home particularly – that just maybe the more experienced legs in the squad might see the benefit of an extended break over the festive period.

Having only lost one game (our last one, as it happens) on our travels all season, performances have mostly come down to ruthless efficiency rather than football that the neutral could call pleasing on the eye. I say ruthless efficiency as I did at the back end of August in comparing Notts to Neanderthal man for The Exiled Robin. It wasn’t pretty, but we were getting the job done.

Fast forward more than four months and seemingly very little has changed. We went on a run of 13 unbeaten, but even then it never really felt like we were playing that well. Of course it’s results that matter most though so we were happy to go along with fighting for each and every point. When you suffer a side full of spineless morons like Dean Leacock or Mark Fotheringham running the show, you’re ecstatic to see a team of footballers prepared to run through brick walls for your club.

And that’s what they do. Clichéd as it may be, but what we lack in skill we make up for in effort and that’s already a far cry from the misery of last season.

The thing is though, you can’t but help crave just that little more – for us to go after a game from the off, or to finish a side off once we’ve taken the lead rather than sit back and invite pressure. Don’t get me wrong, 10th in the table is a fantastic accomplishment for debutant manager Shaun Derry and his assistant Greg Abbott – but of late we’re in danger of letting slip what could easily be a very real opportunity at success this season.

Promotion is obviously a huge ask given the sides fighting it out already, but having made it this far, it’s disappointing to be excusing recent failings by comparing to what happened last year. Of course it’s better than last year – but we mustn’t allow that to blinker us going forwards.

Admittedly our most likely avenue for success was the Johnstones Paint Trophy, yet we conspired to throw that one away with Wembley just a few games away. A disappointing 1-0 defeat at home Preston North End exposed the very real lack of cut and thrust of late. County were the better side, but merely in as much as you’d want to be the best looking person in the burns unit unfortunately.

Our failure to see of games will likely be no better by the time we kick off on Saturday. On loan from Nottingham Forest, Stephen McLaughlin was a player who split supporters down the middle during his loan spell. Anonymous as he may have been far too often, his ability to pop up and unlock a defence out of nothing served as well once. He is one of several loanees who we have lost already this month who played key roles in a great run of form. Michael Petrasso’s inconsistency has seen him head back to QPR, whilst injury curtailed the loan spell of Zeli Ismael from Wolves. And then there’s Jake Cassidy, a very much hit and miss League One striker who bagged a few goals early on, yet hadn’t really reached those heights in a while. Few will bat an eyelid at their departures, but you can’t escape the fact it will inevitably make us that little bit more blunt – not something we can afford as we slowly slip down League One.

Frustratingly though it doesn’t appear we’re a great distance off recapturing our better form, we’re just in dire need of bringing in players who will create an effective supply line for the strikers. As the season has progressed we’ve reverted to merely hoofing the ball out of defence giving those up front little chance to impress – this needs rectifying almost immediately also. We’ve been linked with strikers this week, but until we correct matters from the back first they’ll continue to be wasted on us.

So what will we offer you on Saturday? Defensively we’re mostly sound. Our centre-back pairing of Hayden Mullins and Haydn Hollis steered us to safety when all seemed lost last season, with Blair Adams and Mustapha Dumbuya either side of them. In the middle of the park you’ll certainly see the evergreen Gary Jones who has been an almost fossilised-revelation since joining late in the Summer. Alongside him should be Alan Smith who maybe has seen better days? His early season form was beyond all expectation, but we’ve not seen that same player since returning from injury.

Garry Thompson our top scorer will feature somewhere, either on the wing or up front. But quite where we go from there is a mystery, such is Derry’s ability to keep you guessing. Up front will likely be Ronan Murray, but youth team striker Colby Bishop has impressed in his last two appearances and will certainly push for a place in the starting XI.

Ultimately, does it really matter though? We all know what Bristol City are about and this will be about as big an ask as we’ll face all season. Not that whoever starts for Notts will be overawed by what’s in front of them – but I think we’re all aware it’s going to be a long day at the office.

My sincere thanks to both. 
Here's to a hugely successful 2015! COYR!

The Exiled Robin

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