For the first time since the T*** A**** era, we’ll do battle with Bristol’s biggest club in the league. Here’s an overview of the Robins.
Founded: 1894 (as Bristol South End)
Ground: Ashton Gate (since 1904, capacity 27,000)
Second tier seasons: 52 (+9 top flight)
Major honours: N/A
Last season: 12th in Championship
Things rather stagnated for Bristol City last season after only just missing out on the play-offs in 2018/19. Lee Johnson’s tenure in the Ashton Gate dugout came to end as the Robins wound up slap-bang in mid-table with their lowest Championship points total for three years. All in all, it was a backwards step in their steady push to bring top flight football back to the banks of the Avon after 40 years.
A run of nine games without a win – of which they lost seven – stretching from February to post-suspension was what ultimately cost City. They struggled for consistency throughout, though, only stringing together three or more wins twice all year. Pressure will be on to hit the ground running in 2020/21 and make progress towards realising their Premier League ambition.
The gaffer: Dean Holden
Appointed: August 2020
Previously managed: Bristol City (caretaker), Oldham
Played for: Walsall, Rochdale, Chesterfield, Rotherham, Shrewsbury, Falkirk, Peterborough, Oldham, Valur (Iceland), Bolton
The appointment of Lee Johnson’s assistant raised more than a few eyebrows when it was announced earlier this month. It certainly wasn’t the established, ‘big name’ new manager supporters were expecting. That may mean the former right-back – who oversaw the last five games of 2019/20 and whose only other managerial experience came with Oldham five years ago – finds himself feeling the heat right from the get-go. Internal appointments don’t tend to work out either (with the odd notable exception, of course…). Only time will tell with this one.
Paul Binning aka The Exiled Robin catches us up on a fairly eventful few months at Ashton Gate and looks ahead to the new campaign.
First, the big news: Dean Holden is the new Bristol City boss. I sense it’s not a popular appointment – especially after names like Chris Hughton and Steven Gerrard were bouncing around – but what are your feelings on it? It’s certainly been a turbulent summer on that front! Ultimately, if the club had said fairly quickly that money was going to be tight for a couple of years due to COVID, suggest something along the lines of not being able to afford a more experienced manager (without disrespecting Dean), and say, ‘We wanted to focus on bringing through the younger players, so, ta-da, here’s Dean Holden!’, I think there would have been grumbles and complaints but most would have grudgingly accepted a solid rationale.
However, the decision took five-six weeks. Near the start of that period, the owner Steve Lansdown went on talkSport saying we needed “a breath of fresh air and someone to take us up to the next level” -which has its obvious connotations – and then we were heavily linked with Hughton in particular. Understandably, expectations were significantly raised in terms of calibre of manager, only to then be told that, despite 100+ “world-class” applicants, we were appointing Lee Johnson’s number two who had no real experience anywhere and that apparently he was the best person for the job. We weren’t actually then told why he was the best person for the job either, other than having it fansplained to us that “he knows the club” (obviously!) and is “a good human being”.
I mean… WTF?! However, saying all of that, he’s a popular bloke (as a human!) and things appear to have mostly settled now. We obviously all want him to succeed and we wish him well and maybe, just maybe, he has got that magic touch and can get the best out of our stream of loanee players who have spent the last couple of years performing well in League One, at a significantly lower cost to the club than bringing in half a dozen new signings.
We can’t do anything about it now; we’ve just got to bet behind the team as ever and support them as much as possible.
After 11th, 8th and 12th place finishes in the last three seasons, are things stalling somewhat? What will be the key/s to pushing on into the play-offs and could you achieve that this season? Definitely last season a bit – hence the sacking of Lee Johnson – and it wasn’t just league position. Performances dwindled and got quite predictable, meaning a fairly stodgy approach to games and a lack of creativity. There are reasons everywhere you look, not least the selling of Adam Webster and Marlon Pack for a combined £24m in the last week of August – but equally, we spent all that on seven-eight new signings, at least half of whom you could argue have been slightly disappointing or worse, so expectations were still reasonably high at the start and we were third as recently as December – and won four in a row in January. After that, though, we just seemed to fall apart and, not for the first time, Lee Johnson didn’t seem able to dig us out of a rut soon enough.
The comeback after lockdown was especially disappointing. Having been 7th and with players back from injuries, we hoped to come out of the blocks firing, but there was no such reaction and we just fizzled out pretty limply in the main.
Is there an expectation among fans for City to become a Premier League club in the next few years? You came close back in 2008, of course, but it’s been a bit of a journey since then… Yes, definitely – and not just among the fans. Lansdown and the board have been consistent in saying that is the club’s goal and that, ultimately, was why Johnson got sacked. Play-offs was our minimum expectation last season and we fell short.
We’re a very different club to the one in 2008, though. That was more an underdog style, closely-bonded team who made Wembley. Now the stadium has been redeveloped, we’ve got a brand new state-of-the-art training ground being built, and we have a transfer policy where we – mainly – focus on under 24/25s who have potential resale value and can grow and improve with the club. We’re building more ‘sustainably’ than many other clubs are – albeit whilst spending £30m per annum on wages and losing more than £10m! The main people at the club seem committed to that model, though, perhaps giving more insight as to why Holden got the job as opposed to other, bigger names.
What are your thoughts on your transfer business so far and what do you still need to do? We’ve done nothing so far!* We had a few players on loan who have gone back, whilst we’ve released a couple of others at the end of their contracts, notably Korey Smith – the last of our 2015 [League One and EFL Trophy] double-winning team.
*Midfielder Joe Williams has since joined from Wigan
As I alluded to previously, we also had a number of players out on loan last season who your followers will probably know more about than us! Liam Walsh was the player of the season for Coventry; Joe Morrell played more for Wales than us and had a good season at Lincoln; Max O’Leary was seemingly solid between the sticks for Shrewsbury; and Sammie Szmodics was instrumental in some fine Peterborough performances pre-lockdown. Add in Taylor Moore, who spent a few months at Blackpool, and homegrown Zak Vyner, who spent the year at Aberdeen, and the expectation is that many of those six players will be in and around the squad challenging for places this season – Walsh & Morrell especially.
Saying that, I still think we need reinforcements, notably at right-back, centre-back, central midfield and up front. Most worrying is the feeling that top scorer and part-cult-hero Famara Diédhiou [the victim of Chris Kamara’s latest gaffe] may still leave with only a year left on his contract, so that would be another gap to plug.
Lastly, who would you expect to be your biggest stars on the pitch in 2020/21 and why? Jay Dasilva is a high quality attacking left-back who has represented England Under 21s and who, if he improves his distribution and final ball, could be a real star of the division.
Other than that, I think Walsh is the one we’re all looking out for. We know from five years ago how good a player you must be to be the best player in a League One title-winning team, so the hope is that he can step straight in and influence our game to become more free-flowing and creative.
When we last met
On-loan Tammy Abraham opened his City account in our 1-0 League Cup first round defeat at Adams Park in 2016. That was one of two cup meetings – the other a 2-1 home EFL Trophy win for Wanderers in 2013 – since 2004, the last year our paths crossed in the league – during our 2003/04 League One relegation season. Jermaine McSporran scored for Wycombe for the final time in a 1-1 draw at Ashton Gate – just Matt Bloomfield’s second start in the quarters – and 3-0 win at Adams Park – in which Gavin Holligan bagged his last two goals for the club.
Did you know…?
Bristol City are one of 15 English teams to have won the Welsh Cup (the most recent being Hednesford Town in 1992), defeating Tranmere in a replay of the 1934 final.