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Friday, 27 February 2015

The Inside Line: Bristol City v Rochdale (28/02/2015)

Ahead of Saturday’s clash with Rochdale at Ashton Gate, Stu Radnedge picks up the pen once more and gives his views on the run-in and our chances of ending the season with silverware.


Not that provided by a mirror but a time for “serious thought or consideration” according to the old Oxford English Dictionary. Reflecting on Monday, I secured my seats for Wembley and then wrote the blog – which, on reflection, wasn’t my greatest idea for the simple reason of it being a bit wishy-washy. So enamoured  with the potential for silverware I wrote something that said not a lot. And what was there to say? Honestly?

Not a lot – you see those days, when a loss meant the wheels had fallen off the zider bus to the Championship, have long gone. As I predicted in last week’s post, the players would regroup, and mount a charge again to right Saturday’s wrong.

The delight at booking my seats for Wembley will only be surpassed by us winning the league – IF that happens.

As followers/fans/supporters of City, or whatever the term is in the golden age of social media, we all know what is always – potentially – around the corner. We’ve seen it before – the demise, decline, lady luck wronging us, the bouncing ball that just doesn’t fall in our favour. It's infuriating.

But this year (2014 and the 2014/15 season as a whole) has been different.

Cast your minds back to City away at Sheffield United last season (2013) – when we lost by an own goal (one of many during that year) and our back line of defence wasn’t confident. Or the first home game of the season when Frankie Fielding ran to a ball outside the box only to lose it and gift Bradford their first of two equalisers that day.

Those days are gone fellow zider heads – as I’m sure you’re all aware! Our goalie commands and back five/three are dynamic. But there's talent elsewhere as well.

Take the captain’s ‘roomie’, for example. Pushing for first team football, (and getting told he’s the best by Aden Flint http://www.bcfc.co.uk/news/article/flint-makes-a-splash-with-goal-celebration-2280874.aspx) Pack executes one of the best executed long ball volleys I have ever seen from one of our players – which lead to our third goal. As far as I’m concerned, on that basis, Flint knows what he’s talking about.

So Saturday sees us welcome Rochdale to BS3. An early lead wasn’t enough in the reverse fixture to earn a win away – but the season was only a few games in at that stage.

There are 14 games left this year and one final at Wembley. By the time that game comes round, there will be only nine league games left. We could be on 82 points by the time the final arrives.
Being honest now, anything less than 12 points won’t be good enough – as having that points advantage before a crunch period in April will be important. 

During this time we have Swindon, then Preston. Swindon have MK Dons then us. TCFKAW (The club formerly known as Wimbledon – if it’s good for Prince it’s good for me!) have Swindon then Scunthorpe. This will be the period where we will win or lose a league we have spent the most time leading this season…

Surely it’s ours for the taking?”

My thanks to Stu. It sure is getting to the crunch-time of the season. If we can take our midweek form into the weekend games, then I think Stu might just be right. It’s ours for the taking.


The Exiled Robin

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Monday, 23 February 2015

The Inside Line: Doncaster Rovers v Bristol City (24/02/2015)

Surely the worst moments of our season? Was it the first time we've been truly poor, truly outplayed by anyone? 

Defeats previously have been narrow (we still haven't lost by more than a single goal), not without reason (see Wade Elliott's early red card at Swindon) or a tad unlucky. Saturday's first half was a horrible flashback to the dark days of last season (and the season before that) with a slightly flapping goalkeeper behind a static, tentative defence who were giving far too much time to their opposition.

Ahead of this week's midweek tie against Doncaster, Stu Radnedge put himself the other side of the metaphorical microphone and takes a view on where the defeat leaves City's promotion hopes.

"A victim of our own success? Maybe – or at least that was my opinion after Saturday’s result against Colchester.

I, like many other fans, was somewhat surprised at the level of our demise in less than 30 minutes against the U’s. As we have experienced all season, we are there to be shot at. We’re the team that everyone wants to beat. No more so than those in the bottom four who are trying to stave off the threat of the drop (much like we were last year).

We can rest in the knowledge with the gap established between us and the Dons of Milton Keynes – but we must win tomorrow to re-open a lead with a buffer of more than one match, rather than be in the dreaded situation where our fate rests in the under-performance of another team to help us out.

Doncaster will be tough. We all know that. Maybe that will assist the preparation for the match as it’s clear we were shell-shocked from 30 minutes on Saturday. Manager Steve Cotterill blamed the pitch. That doesn’t wash with me. It’s not like Sunday league football where you get changed in a shed and walk out onto a pitch that has cows on!!! There’s surely time to draw up a game plan suitable for the playing conditions?

Rovers, chasing the playoffs, won’t be underestimated (if that was to blame for Saturday) and the players will likely want to put right Saturday’s defeat and get the promotion bus back on track. They also won’t want to see the Gaffer in that mood again!

When they visited BS3, their away form was better than home and the same still applies now – but with a finer margin between the wins and losses. City will need to be clinical and make this game in hand count.

A loss wouldn’t be the end of the world. Again, we were lucky that when it happened on Saturday, Swindon also lost. The winning mentality that we’ve all grown accustomed to this year makes it an even more bitter pill to swallow on the rare occasion we do leave without any points.

For me, it was the manner we lost in. 1-0 can be a fluke – 2-0 and you make sure it doesn’t happen again… but it did. And that’s hard to rectify with 45 minutes left to play.

With four more weeks of matches each Tuesday and Saturday, the pressure is really on now to gather some momentum, maintain the status quo at the top and be sure to re-establish the distance between us and the chasing pack."

The Exiled Robin

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Friday, 20 February 2015

The Inside Line: Colchester United v Bristol City (21/02/2015)

A sometimes tired-looking defeat, followed by a determined, highly professional bounce back three days later.

Whether this last week’s activities are to be replicated over the coming weeks remain to be seen, but the warning issued in last week’s blog about the number of games making it the most likely time our winning spell might end proved fateful against a well-organised and good quality Sheffield United side.

By all accounts (I was unfortunately unable to make the game), Marlon Pack came in and did what you’d hope by a hungry young player on the fringes, and those who watch home and away are starting to come to the conclusion that we perhaps look a better all-round side with Pack, rather than skipper Wade Elliott, in the side.

The base he provides alongside Korey Smith being potentially stronger allows the wing backs and Freeman to play with a touch more freedom than even they usually manage, and Tuesday night’s high quality team performance comes following the reverse fixture at London Road (where Elliott was suspended) and two encounters at Gillingham in particular which stand out as great all-round team performances.

Coincidence? Maybe. But it will be interesting to see how much Pack is used during this tough run of games which will surely test the captain’s aging legs more than any others.

Looking at the way the fixtures pan out, we have a number of teams in the bottom half still to come at home, and with a working assumption that we’ll do pretty well out of those, as we have all season, it perhaps eases the pressure slightly in this run of five away games in the next six. Notwithstanding the fact no-one will want to give up top spot again, a clutch of draws might not be the disaster some might envisage.

Ahead of the first game in that run, Matty Hudson https://twitter.com/mattyhudson from the Colchester United official media team spoke to Stu Radnedge to give us this insight into the U’s. A big thank you to them both for these words.

“It's now becoming a crunch time of the season for teams at both ends of the table as the games are beginning to run out.

Despite our position in the bottom four - where we've been since mid-November - the team have got off a decent enough start to 2015. Wins against Peterborough, Leyton Orient and Oldham have ensured that they've kept in touch with the teams above them and the match against the Robins brings the U's towards the end of a particularly tough set of fixtures.

The quest for survival will be based on the ability to turn around the home form that has hamstrung them so far in 2014/15. In their 15 home matches prior to the match against Bristol, they've lost 10. That said, there have been several games within those where they could rightly feel aggrieved not to have taken more.

The U's have put great faith in their homegrown products this season, with nearly 100 first team appearances having gone to players that have come through the ranks in north Essex. These players are supplemented by the experience of David Fox and Chris Porter, whilst even some of the younger players in the team have had plenty of League One football - Sam Walker, Gavin Massey and Tom Eastman are now in excess of 100 senior games for the club.

Tuesday night's game saw the U's run MK Dons close. A closely matched first half saw Dele Alli's goal separate the two teams and the Dons were then happy to protect what they had, with the U's bossing possession but not being able to find that crucial equaliser.

Historically, Colchester teams thrive on being the underdog and they will likely be considered as such by the bookies, with the two teams twenty places apart in the League One table.

The first goal will be crucial and the likes of Sammie Szmodics and Chris Porter have been finding the back of the net in recent weeks. Szmodics has been in fine fettle during the early games in 2015 and he'll be one player that City's scouts will have picked up on recent matches.

An interesting comment on Szmodics, especially given the manner City recruited last summer. It would be no surprise for Cotterill to follow a similar principle and again look at the best opposition players we have faced this time around, before assessing if they are good enough to make the (hoped-for!) step up.

The next six games could go an awful long way to deciding our ultimate finishing position. Doncaster in particular next Tuesday looks a tough proposition at the moment, but if we were to come out of this run with, say, a conservative-looking ten points, we’ll be especially well-placed to take advantage back at Ashton Gate and become the winners Cotterill has talked so much about this week.


The Exiled Robin

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Friday, 13 February 2015

The Inside Line: Bristol City v Sheffield United (14/02/2015)

“Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
We are going up*,
And might just win at Wembley too!”

* - hopefully!

Three months to go. Three months in which to seal the glory the first six months of the season would deserve. Of course, it won’t be that easy, but at the moment City are winning games comfortably despite not being at their absolute best, and are in one of those lovely grooves that come along all too rarely when you go to matches not just hoping, but actively expecting to win.

Of course, usually with City it’s when you get this comfortable that things start going wrong, and if it’s going to, slap bang in the middle of a six week run of Tuesday – Saturday fixtures is both the possible time, and the worst possible time for it to happen.

The squad will be put through a truly tough test, and whilst there are already signs of some rotation – Tavernier/Little now seem interchangeable whilst Greg Cunningham has given Joe Bryan occasional breaks – I was a touch surprised Wade Elliott’s aging legs weren’t given time off on Tuesday when loanee Saville and Marlon Pack were sitting on the bench. Korey Smith seems impregnable but Luke Freeman too could probably do with some feet up time to ensure he remains as critical in the run-in.

Defensively there seems to be little sign of tiredness, with Port Vale’s late goal on Tuesday being the first we’ve conceded in the league this calendar year, whilst up-front no-one has played too many games due to either injury or non-selection, but with Matt Smith due to return to West London soon and our two who started the season so well still recovering from injuries, I can’t believe Cotterill won’t enter the loan market for at least one additional element of firepower to help see us over the line.

What is certain, is that the support, which has been strong for so much of the season, really needs to get behind the team. Tuesday felt a bit like after the Lord Mayor’s show both on and off the pitch at times and the fans have a job to do if the players are a little off. They’ve given us enough reason to cheer so far this season, we might just be called upon to help raise them over the next few weeks and we must be there to be counted.

Of course, this most magnificent of seasons began with a rare and somewhat surprising victory at Bramall Lane, but that shouldn’t mask the fact that the Blades will give us a tough test. Their squad is as strong as almost any other in this division and they are fighting for one of the two final play-off spots seemingly available with around twelve other teams.

Stu Radnedge caught up with an old friend of the blog, Ian Rands of the always-excellent ‘A United View’, to see what lies in wait for City this Valentine’s Day:

“The Blades entered the season full of confidence. The squad felt stronger and a couple of striking additions filled the fans with hope that we were better placed with strength in depth for the season ahead.

Then we faced the Robins on the opening day of the season. A 2-1 defeat disappointed, although it could be argued a draw was a fair result. The problems posed by Wilbraham, Baldock, Freeman et al were cause for concern and so was Nigel Clough's team selection. Players played out of position, others - some mainstays of last season's success - seemingly frozen out on the basis of pre-season form. It didn't bode well for what was ahead.

The fact that 6 months later the manager has admitted that he still doesn't know his best team is even more cause for concern. A 2-0 defeat against a poor Gillingham side left fans frustrated, angry and looking for a response.

On paper, the 4-1 victory on Tuesday night at home to Colchester appears to be just that, but it masks a performance that the manager himself admitted was far from where it needs to be. Four shots, four goals and one or two scares at the opposite end. Not least in the opening thirty seconds when stand-in goalkeeper Iain Turner pulled off a magnificent instinctive save at his near post. If that had gone in, it would have been interesting to see how the team and fans responded. Thankfully the save was made and we didn't have to find out.

United fans have been quick to get on the manager's back, when the League form has struggled to replicate the cup success. Although cup semi-finals are magnificent occasions and no have lifted performances on the pitch, another season at this level is unthinkable.

Most fans have written off the chances of automatic promotion, the gap too far to bridge and it's hard to imagine the team going on a run similar to the one started this time last season which saw them rise from 23rd to finish the season in 8th. Some fans, so down with what they are watching, are questioning the team's capability to remain in the play-off places, so tight is the race between so many clubs. After the Colchester victory, charismatic full back and bearded cult hero John Brayford tweeted "The Blades train is coming". To which a fellow Blade replied "It's running f*cking late".

What works tactically in the cup hasn't in the League.  As United rose through the League and progressed in the cup the focus was on stabilisation and then pushing on. Playing a possession game and countering on teams meant that we didn't win by significant margins.

United's league position belied the quality of the team, but it was the League position which gave opponents the belief and encouragement to attack United. We soaked it up and then pinched a goal ourselves. This also worked well against higher league opposition in the cup. United were not expected to win, but they did.

This season clubs know what to expect. United have played in the same margins of last season, but without the same defensive fortitude and the hoped for goal threat of Higdon and McNulty hasn't materialised. The promise of Higdon's debut goal against City, vanquished in a series of cumbersome performances. McNulty has scored a few, but looks lost in the team's formation and doesn't look comfortable as a lone front man.

Fans have felt frustrated as scoring appearances off the bench have led to McNulty remaining on the bench the next game, or receiving criticism in the manager's post-match interviews. Matt Done had a busy and ultimately effective debut on Tuesday, but would probably benefit from balls down the channels or playing off a second striker.

The manager has picked up a "Negative Nigel" tag from some supporters, frustrated by his 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 formation, which he argues is 4-5-1 when defending and 4-3-3 when attacking. Whichever argument you support, an undisputable fact is that United do not create enough goalscoring chances and do not get enough men and tracking the box. A view supported by our attacking stats and scoring record.

Our hope now? That our cup form can be taken into the Play-Offs and we can at last break the hoodoo that has seen United lose four play-off finals and fall at the semi-final stage a further three times. maybe just once we might see our team succeed on the big stage, in a vital match.

So to the match at Ashton Gate. I know of many hardy away Blades who are giving the trip a miss. A game too far after long hauls to Gillingham and a disappointing defeat at Port Vale on Boxing Day which saw 8 or 9 hour journeys home, gridlocked on snow covered roads. With another long haul trip to Crawley, along with easier away days at Notts County and Rochdale, coming up, many fans are prioritising their spend.

Many Blades are casting admiring glances towards the quality signings made by City and the clear impact they have had. Meanwhile, we added plenty of depth to the squad without the matchday eleven being greatly enhanced, or a first choice eleven known.

On the opening day there wasn't much between the sides, although over the course of the season a clear differential has appeared. The United players should have confidence from a 4-1 victory but, with the tinkering of the manager, how many of them will find themselves starting in Bristol?

An away point would be welcomed, but still leaves United focusing on winning their games in hand. Maybe we can nick all three points as we did last year? It will all depend on which United team turn up and how we manage City's attacking threat.”

My thanks to Ian, who you can follow on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/unitedite


The Exiled Robin

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