Written by James Cox
Late on a mild December evening at Ashton Gate, former Oldham Athletic midfielder Korey Smith slid the ball through World Cup finalist Sergio Romero’s legs in the most historic moment in Bristol City history. A pitch invasion followed, a 2-leg semi-final was penned against the English champions-elect Manchester City and a league win on boxing day saw the reds into the Championship automatic promotion spots, 9 points clear of 7th place. However, not even the most despicable of the 23,000 City fans that night could have predicted the decline that the club took into the new year, which now leaves them 10th with a game to spare, 5 points off the playoff spots. The #JohnsonOut brigade are back again, but this time maybe they do have a point.
The poor run of form, which has included only 4 wins from 21 games, was kickstarted by a heart-breaking loss to leaders Wolves in the back end of 2017, before Villa put 5 past the reds on New Year’s Day. This was set to become a trend for 2018, and the first issue that arose was a leaky defence. Before the Wolves match, the reds had a good record in front of their own goal. In the league, only 24 goals were conceded in as many games, with Aden Flint winning Championship Player of the Month in September (as well as Lee Johnson winning the managers equivalent in the same month). However, 31 goals have been conceded in the 21 matches since then, at an average of almost 1.5 goals per game (1.47. Frank Fielding has often been targeted for abuse – I am personally not one to blame him solely for our demise, and I stand by the fact he is one of the best shot-stoppers in this country. However, there are certainly better keepers out there – and I’m sure my 7-year old cousin could pick out a pass better than the 30-year old.
Lee Johnson and his coaching staff have naturally received plenty of criticism too. Granted, some questionable tactical decisions have been made during 2018. But a horrifically long list of injuries certainly hasn’t helped either; record signing Famara Diedhiou, new right back Eros Pisano, youngster Callum O’Dowda, Jens Hegeler, Milan Djuric and Matty Taylor have all missed months of action due to long term injuries, meaning rotating a weary side became more difficult. This lack of rotation was highlighted at the away loss to Villa on New Years Day, but Johnson struggled in the January window to address City’s issues – and this was the nail in the already closing coffin.
Bobby Reid was scoring goals for fun at the time, but Taylor, Diedhiou and Djuric were all injured. The summer loan acquisition of Cauley Woodrow was often the only striker option on the bench – commonly an unused option. Two Championship-proven names were frequently linked to City in January; the experienced Lewis Grabban (Bournemouth) and inform Jordan Hugill (Preston NE) were both linked to moves to the south west, whilst Rafa Benitez was offering the Toon’s Aleksandar Mitrovic on loan. City may not be able to compete financially with Aston Villa, West Ham or Fulham but the effort of LJ and the recruitment staff to acquire such proven goal scoring talent has been questioned – goal scoring talent which may have altered the season’s outcome. Liam Walsh may be the only winter buy with a future at Bristol City – the young scouse midfielder has, when given a chance, looked composed at the second-tier level. However, fellow northerner Ryan Kent (loan, Liverpool) and French striker Lois Diony (loan, AS Saint-Étienne) look set to join back with their respective clubs in the summer, as even Johnson stated it just “hasn’t worked out”.
The poor second half of the season has many City fans worried for the 2018/19 campaign. Star players Bobby Reid, Aden Flint and Joe Bryan all look set to leave Ashton Gate for pastures new in the Premier League. Steve Lansdown’s investment into Bristol Rugby could also see a limit into the amount of focus on Bristol City’s top flight hopes. However, in my opinion anyway, there is hope. The sales of Reid, Bryan and Flint could raise game-changing funds; furthermore, City have a good recent record of replacing “irreplaceable” talent. Lloyd Kelly has come through the academy to look like a more-than capable backup to Joe Bryan. Likewise, 19-goal Jonathon Kodjia was replaced with 23-goal Tammy Abraham, whilst he was then replaced this season by 19-goal (and counting) Bobby Reid.
Based on this trend, Famara Diedhiou looks set to be next season’s “replacement”. The Senegalese 6ft 3in striker has been perhaps the only positive of the dire back end of this season; he has hit near-scintillating form, with 13 goals – a return that sees him as the 11th top scorer in the league, despite 2 months out injured. Additionally, his average of a goal every 173 minutes is the best of all players with 600 minutes and over at Bristol City, and the 3rd best out of the top 15 scorers in the Championship.
In general, I am excited for next season as a Bristol City fan. There are concerns but there are for any club, and I believe the future looks bright.
Bristol City fans, what do you make of these thoughts? Let us know in the comments below!