Bristol City & Reflections On Competitive Footall
When, with two and a half minutes of stoppage-time at the end of the match played at Ashton Gate on Wednesdasy night, Bristol City’s Korey Smith slammed the ball into Manchester United’s goal to secure an unlikely but throughly deserved win in the quarter-finals of the League Cup, the cheering across the country was louder than we might have expected for such a fixture. Sure enough, there was a heavy element of schadenfreude in the reaction to the goal and Jose Mourinho’s post-match comments. There always will be, when it comes to Manchester United.
This, however, felt a little different to usual. League Cup surprise results don’t often live long in the memory, but something about this win felt different. On the one hand, there was the nature of the home team’s performance and ultimate circumstances of their victory. Giant killings in cup matches frequently fulfil what can feel like a strictly scripted narrative: the bigger club knocks at the door of scoring from beginning to end, finding increasingly unlikely ways to fail to break the deadlock. The smaller team snatches a goal on the break and then spends the final – insert number of minutes here, according to circumstances – hanging on to their lead like an increasingly punch drunk boxer waiting for the bell at the end of a particularly gruelling fight.
Bristol City’s performance this week, however, didn’t fit this particular cliche. The home team scored two fine goals, with Smith’s crescendo adding a most unexpected coda when we might have expected them to hang on in hope of reaching “the lottery” of a penalty shoot-out. That Lee Johnson’s team had the confidence to press on into stoppage-time at the end of the match is a reflection of the confidence of a team that has turned out to be one of the unexpected success stories of the Football League season so far. At the time of writing, City sit in third place in the Championship, four points adrift of second-placed Cardiff City but still with just over half of the season left to play. Just three league defeats in twenty-two matches in a division this competitive tells its own story.
In a broader sense, though, last night’s result was a rare reminder of the fact that football doesn’t always have to follow its pre-written narratives. Surprise results, to see the biggest and most accomplished received a bloodied nose, are the life-blood of the game for many supporters, and this season has seen them being particularly thin on the ground. The Premier League has seen Manchester City streak fourteen points clear at the top of the table off the back of a run of results and performances which rank amongst the very best that the English game has ever seen. The Champions League has largely been entirely as predictable as ever. Even the FA Cup, a competition that lives for David firing with accuracy at Goliath, goes into its Third Round without any non-league representatives for the first time in living memory.
It’s easy to place the blame for all of this on the corrosive influence of money. Manchester City’s petro-dollars, the slew of familiar names all ambling through into the latter stages of what should be the biggest challenge in the entirety of European football, these are matters which might be readily tied into the ever-growing gap between rich and poor. Except. Two years ago, Leicester City came from nowhere to win the Premier League. Last season a non-league club reached the FA Cup quarter-finals, a performance not seen since before the start of the First World War. The truth of the matter is that surprises are by their very definition rare, and that statistically it was always likely that there will always be periods when the richest get entirely their own way. There has always been a gulf between the richest and the rest.
This season, however, has felt particularly fallow in this regard. At the top of the Premier League, it’s likely that the title race, such as it is, has already effectively ended as a competition. On the one hand, Manchester City have played some beautiful football this season, sweeping all before them as they’ve sailed to gap at the top of the table that has looked increasingly insurmountable as the last few weeks have proceeded. With that particular title seemingly wrapped up before Christmas, we seem to all have accepted the vast inequality of modern football, preferring a series of what can frequently feel like exhibition matches over anything that might be mistaken for a competition. There’s a debate to be had over the extent to which the clubs themselves are to blame for this state of affairs for having allowed it to happen in the first place or the extent to which those who govern the game should be regulating to try to prevent it from happening. It might even be that the notion of professional football as a sport is sliding from fashion.
There is little question, however, that Bristol City are on the up. This time four years ago, the club was sitting at the bottom of League One. Relegation, however, was avoided, promotion was won the following season as champions and the two seasons since then have seen the club finish in eighteenth and seventeenth place in the table respectively, last season with only a four point buffer from the relegation places. For a club that experienced successive relegations from the First Division to the Fourth Division between 1980 and 1982 – a spell which included a very close shave with ceasing to exist altogether – the feeling that it could find itself in any of the divisions of the Football League must be very real.
However, the building blocks have been put in place for the club to grow. Manager Lee Johnson, who made one hundred and seventy-four appearances for the club as a player between 2006 and 2012, arrived at the club from Barnsley in February 2016, whilst £45m has been on much-needed developments to the club’s Ashton Gate ground. Johnson’s close attention to detail, the renovated ground, and some highly astute business in the transfer market have proved solid groundwork for this season’s transformation. Unlike so many other clubs in the Championship, who frequently give the impression of pedalling furiously just to remain static, Bristol City feel like a club with a sense of direction and purpose at the moment.
In the League Cup at least, Bristol City’s next destination is two-legged semi-final against Manchester City. The current superlative form of their opponents coupled with the fact that this isn’t a tie that will be decided over just the one match means that few will give them much hope of reaching their first major trophy final in living memory to play the winners of the other semi-final between Arsenal and Chelsea, but Christmas and the new year is a time for dreaming of a happy future, so why shouldn’t supporters allow themselves the dream of pulling off a shock even greater than that which they managed last week? Come what may in the League Cup, though, promotion to the Premier League will remain the club’s most significant aim for the remainder of this season. Bristol City have sent out a message to the rest of their division with their form over the first half of this season. Last week, the Premier League got the message in full for the first time and there remains a chance that Jose Mourinho hasn’t seen the last of Korey Smith or Lee Johnson just yet.