Five Stars: Bristol City's best players in the 21st century
After recovering from an early-season slump to attain mid-table respectability, Bristol City will be playing Championship football again next year. It has been an interesting past decade for Robins fans, with promotion to celebrate. Paul Binning, the Exiled Robin, picks his Five Stars.
Rarely has pulling a list together given me cause to consider the title so much. I settled for selecting the five that have given City the most positive of impacts, and helped the club achieve the most success over the past 11 years. More than half of that period was spent in the third tier, and that has influenced the decision somewhat in the final selection.
I felt little choice but to focus primarily on players who had managed the promotion or had played at the higher level, meaning some popular and high quality players have missed out in this list. Steve Phillips, Matt Hill, Tommy Doherty, Steve Brooker and, possibly most controversially, Leroy Lita, have all missed out.
Purely using the word ‘best’ would have meant spots for David James, Paul Hartley, Marcus Stewart and Michael Bridges for what they’ve achieved elsewhere in the game. If it was ‘favourite’ players then Lee Trundle, David Noble and Tommy Doherty (again) would all have been in the reckoning.
In this era we’ve been lucky enough to have three true club legends who would surely be in any fan’s list. The additional two were instrumental in our highest finish in 30 years. In no particular order:
If Bryan Robson is the original Captain Courageous then Carey is very much worthy of the name also. Born within a short walk of Ashton Gate, he is a true club legend in every sense of the word, and with more than 540 club appearances he is now 2nd in the all-time list behind only the great John Atyeo and closing fast.
Carey’s nose has been broken six times on duty for the Robins, and when he recently fractured his skull in the first half of a match, he finished the match before heading to hospital! The recent admission that he will need a hearing-aid when his career is over as a result of that injury shows the level of commitment this magnificent captain has consistently shown for his home-town club and what he has put his body and mind through.
Carey has rarely been the best in the air, the quickest or had the most finesse of City’s back-line, but his all-round defensive skills, leadership ability and organisational prowess, as well as his sheer bloody-mindedness mean he has never been anything but the first name on the team- sheet. He played in a couple of failed play-off campaigns, lifted the Football League Trophy in 2003 and eventually captained the club to a glorious promotion and then to the play-off final defeat to Hull at Wembley, and the City defence never looks as solid when he’s not in it rallying the troops around him.
Another whose place in this list was never in doubt, the ‘Flying Scotsman’ is one of the most popular players ever to pull on a red shirt. Signed from Aston Villa in the late 90’s, the diminutive winger scored an amazing 26 goals in the 2002-03 season as he linked up effortlessly with Brian Tinnion, who provided many of the assists. His pace was unstoppable at that level, and he finished as well as any striker.
A big-money move to Reading was his reward, but a change of manager there meant he fell out of favour and came back soon after and another play-off campaign resulted, thanks in no small part to Murray’s attacking prowess. In eight seasons he only failed to score eight or more goals on one occasion.
Always the joker in the dressing-room, Murray achieved City-legend status and notoriety across the Severn bridge following a winning goal at Cardiff where he celebrated by running the full length of the pitch mimicking their “Ayotollah” head-patting celebration. His dedication to the club continues as he plays part-time with Bath City so that he can coach City’s youngsters and also works in the commercial team, using his unique charisma to encourage investment.
A fabulous Match of the Day-featured chipped goal in the FA Cup against Middlesbrough capped a wonderful City career of 426 games and 91 goals.
Although Tinman’s infamous moment in a red (or purple) shirt came at Anfield back in 1994, his incredible longevity and dedication to the club means he still completed four seasons in this century so rightly earns his place.
With a left foot as creative as any outside the top flight, Tinman was pivotal in the regular top 8 finishes in the Danny Wilson era and was voted as the player of the division in 2001. The vision burned on most fans memories is of him parading comfortably around the middle of the pitch, spraying inch-perfect cross-field passes behind the opposition’s back four for Murray to latch onto and score.
Tinnion controlled games from midfield in a way no other City midfielder had since the glory years of the late 70’s, and like no player since. Spreading the ball wide and threading neat, classy balls through the defence was his forte, but he was equally adept at keeping the ball and slowing things down when in front, not to mention the sliding tackles and the ability to win the ball back against the most bruising of opponents. Every left back City had for ten years seemed a great player, and that was in no small part to having this club stalwart in front of them.
An ill-fated spell as manager followed, but with more than 450 appearances and THAT goal at Anfield to remember him by, it is a mere blip on a glorious City career.
Ashton Gate was, at times, a slightly surreal place to be in the most successful two years of the decade. The promotion season of 2006/07 and the run to Wembley the following season featured Gary Johnson asking fans to light a candle for the team and saw thousands of fans pointing to the Big Man in the sky as a tribute to their ever-popular Brazilian number one.
A devout Christian, Basso’s belief was so strong that he even convinced Bradley Orr to convert to religion. Signed from Woking in 2005, most fans thought Basso was just another bench-warmer signed to keep Steve Phillips on his toes. How wrong we were. Given his opportunity, a series of spectacular acrobatic saves quickly established him as first choice, and he used that agility perfectly to counter his relative small size (6ft 1in) for a keeper.
Basso was the star in the promotion season, being named Westcountry Footballer of the Year and producing a number of match-winning saves. The following year Basso helped the side to Wembley with fifteen clean sheets — significant when you consider the team only scored 54 goals in their 46 games.
The confidence he spread across the team with his organisation and judgement was immeasurable and he was undoubtedly one of the key influences within the dressing-room. Rumours of Premier League interest abounded and unfortunately his time with the club ended in acrimony and a reported bust-up with manager Gary Johnson, with Basso seeking the move upwards he felt he deserved.
The final spot was a tough call, and one I’m sure will cause the most consternation. Four very different players in different situations were in contention. Steven Caulker has been immense this season and will almost certainly go on to play regularly at the highest level, but is ruled out by virtue of being a loanee and only being here for one season — although the value he’s added in helping us to safety should never be in doubt.
Leroy Lita had one unbelievable season with 29 goals plus one for England under-21’s, and had he not been inexplicably left on the bench by Danny Wilson for the play-off final defeat against Brighton in 2004, then Championship football might have arrived sooner.
Nicky Maynard may well be top of this list five years from now, and is looking every inch deserving of his record-signing status. 37 goals in 90 games — all in the Championship — mark him out as City’s best striker in a generation. A whole season with a fully-fit Maynard could produce spectacular results — if we can hold on to him.
But my final place goes to a man with more than 200 appearances over five years. Another member of the promotion-winning team, he then produced such consistently eye-catching form that he earned a place in the PFA player’s Championship team of the year.
Bradley Orr’s City career started with a stutter. Signed as a midfielder, he was unable to earn a regular place, but his conversion to right-back set the scene for a consistent, committed and driven City career. Orr’s win-at-all-costs attitude transmitted across the park, and if he wasn’t flying into tackles he was powering forward, utilising his midfield experience to great effect. Like Carey, not necessarily blessed with the highest levels of the traditional defensive abilities, he used every ounce of his ability to turn himself into one of the best full-backs outside the Premier League.
His fractured cheek-bone in the play-off final the following season seemed to unsettled the entire side as this ever-present suddenly needed replacing and the shape and tempo was never regained.
Even his two most unsavoury and immature moments in the West produced remarkable results. Sent off for an attempted head-butt on his own captain (Carey) in a televised match at Northampton early in the 2005/06 season, three days later Orr was jailed for his part in a late-night street assault. On his release, Orr’s return and determination to make amends sparked a run of results that took City from the lower reaches of league one to top of the table by January, and to the subsequent promotion.
His performances made him a target for others, and when that fine purveyor of Championship footballers Neil Warnock came calling with an invitation to join the oil-fuelled rich kids in West London, Orr grabbed the chance and looks set to be testing himself against the likes of Nani, Ashley Young and Gareth Bale next season.
So, there you have it. Four promotion winners, three play-off finalists, three players with more than 400 City appearances to their name and the list doesn’t even include the likes of Marvin Elliott, Jamie McAllister, Lee Johnson or Liam Fontaine — all of whom have played significantly more games in the second rung of English football than most other City players in the past 35 years.