They know a thing or two about precipitous falls at Ashton Gate. In the years between 1976 and 1980, Bristol City lived the high life in the First Division of the Football League, but cost of staying there for that amount of time proved to be ruinous. Between 1980 and 1982 the club set a most unwanted record, becoming the first club to drop from the First to the Second to the Third to the Fourth Division in consecutive seasons before topping it all by – in the days before companies could be rescued by the get-out clause of a Company Voluntary Arrangement – going bust in the summer of 1982. Finishing last season fourteen points from safety at the foot of the Championship and continuing to struggle into this season isn’t anywhere near that level, at least.
Last night, though,the club returned to the foot of League One after Notts County hauled themselves up a spot with a win against Oldham Athletic at Meadow Lane. No-one would think for a second that the club’s recent difficulties on the pitch are anything like the existence-threatening state in which it found itself three decades ago, but unease could be forgiven for growing at Ashton Gate at the team’s apparent inability to shake off a losing habit, especially after finally recording a first league win of the season at Brunton Park against Carlisle United last weekend might have settled a few early season nerves.
One win from thirteen matches in the league so far this season would usually tell its own story about the way that things have been going on the pitch, but criticism of manager Sean O’Driscoll doesn’t seem to have quite reached the fever pitch that we might have expected it to by now. O’Driscoll’s arrival at Ashton Gate in January of this year saw the manager placed immediately into the role of being the captain of a sinking ship. Yet relegation, for all the pain that accompanies it, has its own effects on the psychology of a fan base. One of the few consolations of enduring an entire season in the bottom three is the anticipation that at least next season can’t be as bad as the purgatory that one is currently being put through. ‘At least we’ll win a few games next season’ is one of the few crumbs of comfort that can be taken from such a position.
But in spite of that not quite having happened so far this season, a lengthy read of the Bristol City forum OTIB hints at a support that is positively sanguine about how the rest of the season may play out. There are obvious concerns about the team’s position at the very bottom of the table, but there seems to be a marked absence of the hysteria tha we might have expected in an era during which football supporters often seem, in general, to have become shrill to the point of being incomprehensible when things are going wrong on the pitch, with a sense that these things have a tendency to haappen and that matters will right themselves in the fullness of time.
Why, though, should this be? Perhaps City’s two-one win over fierce local rivals Bristol Rovers in the Johnstones Paint Trophy in September had a palliative effect upon the club’s supporters. Alternatively, we might suggest that a combination of six draws from those first twelve winless league matches and the fact that the team has only lost one league match so far this season – a home match against promotion-chasing Peterborough United six weeks ago – by a margin of greater than one goal has led to a sense that all it will start taking is for the tide to turn might be a change of luck and the cancellation of any individual errors of judgement that a manager can often do little to actually control. It also rather feels that there is a sense amongst Bristol City’s supporters that, after years of short-termism in terms of managerial appointments at the club, the appointment of O’Driscoll was a move in the direction of something more co-ordinated, a plan that was about more than merely where the next three points might be coming from. Finally, there is the small matter of the fact that the club is still in touch with those above it. At the time of writing, even though they sit at the bottom of the table, Bristol City are three points behind sixth from bottom Gilingham and have a better goal difference than them as well.
None of this is to say that Sean O’Driscoll’s position is anything like safe. No manager of a club in the position in which Bristol City finds itself today could ever consider their position to be secure. In this context, the club’s next six matches will most likely make or break the manager. Five of them are at home, in the FA Cup against Dagenham & Redbridge, and in the league against Oldham Athletic, Crawley Town, Sheffield United and Leyton Orient, as well as a trip to Tranmere Rovers in the league. Of those matches, only the distinctly in form Orient could be described as being an extremely difficult match. Oldham Athletic, Sheffield United and Tranmere Rovers all sit in or just above the relegation places, whilst Crawley Town are in mid-table. The extent to which Bristol City’s current league position may or may not be an indication of a situation which requires urgent change will be likely to be found out over the coming weeks.
If this club’s position at the bottom of the table does demonstrate anything, then perhaps this is that the margins between success and failure across much of the landscape of professional football remain, no matter how definitely many may sermonise on the subject, remarkably narrow. Even though the clocks went back last weekend, Bristol City are three or four straight wins away from the comforting anonymity of a mid-table position, with one eye on a place in the play-offs. Regardless of events last night at Meadow Lane, the club’s season is anything but over just yet. The next few weeks, however, will be crucial and a failure to capitalise on a short run of winnable home fixtures will likely see the attitudes of many change. For now, though, there are few signs of panic just yet at Ashton Gate. From the outside, it’s a little bit surprising and it’s certainly somewhat refreshing. But for how long might it last if results don’t improve? We’ll find out over the next three or four weeks.
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