Analysing the factors behind Bristol City's poor league form
Penning this article, or rather typing it, on a cold, wet and windy Saturday night in late November. It is nearly six o clock and dark outside, as it has been for some time. Bristol City have just been comprehensively beaten 0-3 away at Rotherham United, a game in which I was confident of a win, considering City’s recent form and the fact the Millers only just survived the drop last season. So, yes, I’m feeling raw, confused and angry – hence my perhaps overly negative article title.
But what has gone wrong at Bristol City? Last season the title was easily clinched with 99 points and there was no doubt as to who were the best side in the league, with 6-0 away wins at Bradford, 8-2 against Walsall and a JPT title prompting south Bristol into near biblical scenes.
Many point to this summer’s transfer dealings as the root of the problem. Only two permanent signings were made, and many individuals from the double winning side were released – Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Wade Elliott most notably whilst left back Greg Cunningham was sold to Championship rivals Preston North End. Jonathan Kodjia was City’s first signing, the French striker joining from Angers SCO for around £2 million, and is the club’s top scorer with eight, and in truth is the only positive from the summer. The other permanent signing Ryan Fredericks has already left – after 25 days, citing “personal reasons”. Rumours of a training ground bust-up with Mark Little are just that, rumours.
Cotterill did however bring in six loanees towards the end of the transfer window (although Ben Hamer has already returned to Leicester City) and Nathan Baker and Elliott Bennett look to be good signings. But, Liam Moore and more especially Simon Cox and Callum Robinson seem no more than bit part players – perhaps reflective of end of the window desperation after public transfer rebuffs for Mark Bunn, Harry Maguire, Andre Gray and Dwight Gayle. Bids were accepted for these players (£9 million in the cases of Gray and Gayle), but personal terms could not be reached. Either the players were never going to consider a move to the West Country, or the money offered wasn’t sufficient.
Are Bristol City not as an attractive prospect as the fans believe? This is hard to argue considering the impressive redevelopment of Ashton Gate is over the half-way point, and will see the Gate as the best stadium in the south west of England with 27,000 seats as well as an array of corporate hospitality and a sports bar with the largest indoor screen in the country. Not to mention owner Stephen Lansdown personally worth nearly £2 billion and having on record stated his Premier League intentions for the club, albeit within a financially sound framework. Perhaps it was simply a case of wages.
Is it the naivety of the squad personnel? By their own admission, much of the core of last year’s squad had not experienced life in the English second tier and were unsure of what to expect. Defenders Aden Flint and Derrick Williams had not played higher than League One, and Luke Ayling’s sole season in the Championship ended in Yeovil’s relegation. In midfield, Marlon Pack and Luke Freeman had not graced the Championship with their fashionable hair and beard combination, and young Joe Bryan had a degree of experience when City were last in the division and struggled. These young players may have been initially shell shocked by the step up in standard. In fact in the age of parachute payments, one could argue that the gap between League One and the Championship is in many aspects greater than that between the Championship and the Premier League, with seventeen of the current twenty four Championship sides having previously played in the Premier League. 70.8% – nearly three quarters of the division. Nearly three quarters of the division who have aspirations to return to the world’s most lucrative league as soon as possible, and likely have the money associated with top flight football to throw around to try and achieve this.
Perhaps the title is melodramatic. Do I think Steve Cotterill should be ousted? No, but any fan would be foolish to blindly put unwavering faith in the man, despite of his incredible success last season.
The club, or rather Stephen Lansdown, cannot justify an estimated £45 million redeveloped stadium with League One football to break the grass, metaphorically.
In flashes Bristol City have played attractive football this season and in doing so competed well with some of the big boys of the league – Cardiff, Hull, and even in defeat against Brighton and Hove Albion, not to mention convincingly beating a poor Nottingham Forest side, and getting three points away at Middlesbrough. But for every one of these performances there’s been a Fulham (1-4 home loss, utterly outclassed) and most recently the 0-3 against Rotherham; and for every one of those there are the six points dropped from winning positions against Preston, MK Dons and Ipswich. How crucial could six points prove at the end of the season?
January will have to be the month of reckoning. Serious strengthening is required throughout the squad, all with proven track record of success in the Championship. The question I pose to the Bristol City hierarchy is: what’s an extra few million pounds on proven, high quality players (including their wages) compared to the cost of the stadium, and the cost of relegation?
There are good foundations in the squad and around the club as a whole. Small improvements, not drastic changes are required. If I were a betting man, I would place a small amount of money on Bristol City to survive the drop. Note the amount. Before I put any more than £10 of my student loan on City’s survival, marquee signings need to be made.
Featured Image – All Rights Reserved by Paul Townsend.