Relegation Week: Will the Robins rise away from the relegation zone?
What were expectations at Ashton Gate at the start of the season? After a 15th place finish in 2010-11, were there fears of a relegation battle this time out or were fans predicting pushing higher up the table towards the play-offs?
Neither really. There had been little key activity in the summer — we must have been the quietest club in the land with regard to ins and outs — and most of the attention was focused on whether star striker Nicky Maynard would still be at Ashton Gate on September 1st.
Most fans seemed of the opinion that we were a little too good to be embroiled in a relegation struggle, but would need some almighty clumps of fortune to get anywhere near the top six.
Replacing Keith Millen with Derek McInnes saw a huge initial improvement. However, as form has since plummeted once again, do you feel McInnes is the man to keep Bristol City up? And is he then capable of leading the club forward on a more long-term basis?
Yes and yes. Bearing in mind what has happened since, it would be easy to put the initial run of victories down to ‘new manager syndrome’ and I’m sure there was an element of truth in that theory, but it was more than just that. The whole atmosphere and general feeling around the club changed the day Del walked in. Players were very quick to come out in support: praising the new training methods and even those not involved on the playing side talk about “what Derek expects”. It feels like it’s his club now and he’s the key man again. Under Millen there was a bit of a feeling that he was still the caretaker, guiding the ship whilst Captains Sexstone and Lansdown sat in the lounge entertaining the media. It feels more like a proper football club again, although there is still a lot of work to do.
While there seems to have been a general improvement in attitude, that progress has been worryingly absent during our recent run of three-goal defeats — but there seems to be a general feeling this is down to the all-too-comfortable players who have been at the club a while and are sitting on pretty decent contracts. There have been a few shipped out already and around 20 more are having their number called-in come June; so that will be McInnes’ biggest test to date — what can he do with a chance to completely refresh the squad?
At the time of writing, Nicky Maynard is still City’s top scorer this season. Although he may not have been at his best this term, how much of a blow was his sale to West Ham? Have any players shown themselves capable of stepping up and replacing him?
The time had come and the move was right for all parties. Maynard had struggled for form and motivation and right at the end was dropped, and — disappointingly — booed when he came on as a substitute. I for one will be applauding him when he returns with the Hammers in April, but I get the feeling I’ll be in a minority.
In terms of pure goalscoring then Brett Pitman is the obvious answer. He top-scored last season (when Maynard was absent until Spring through injury) and always looks likely — it’s just getting on the pitch that he struggles with! McInnes has largely favoured a 4-5-1 formation and it is abundantly clear he doesn’t fancy Pitman up-front on his own. He had, however, promised him a start when he switched to 4-4-2 and was true to his word during the recent home win over Leicester. This change resulted in another mini-revival with four points from three outings. The Jon Stead/Pitman partnership that looked promising for large parts of last season has again reignited some positivity.
Worryingly, McInnes reflected that the second half in the 0-0 draw at Fratton Park recently was “too open” and this seems a stock phrase for the gritty Scotsman, meaning an extra midfielder could be drafted in again.
It’s clear to see from your recent tactical profile of the team that there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed. Do you think enough of these problems can be rectified in the remaining games of the season to see you safe?
I genuinely believe we have enough good performances in the team to see us alright, but it’s certainly going to be a lot closer than it looked like it was going to be at one point. We’ve beaten both Southampton and Leicester home and away, so we can’t be all that bad, and I do feel that we’re broadly at the level I suggested in the opening question: lower mid-table. However, there have been too few good performances and too many lacklustre, confidence-sapping and frustrating shows and therefore we’re deep in the mire.
Injuries have played their part: we’ve probably had our worst run for years and it’s no surprise that recent improvement has coincided with Louis Carey, Jamie McAllister and Liam Fontaine being reunited at the back. Stephen McManus has added aerial power that was previously absent and although the combined age of the back five is creaking closer to 200 than a ton, that experience should stand us in good stead. Pacey, skilful and modern-day defenders they most certainly are not, but they know how to win tackles and lay their bodies on the line when required.
Let’s hope that’s enough to see us into the summer as a Championship side.