Monday, 23 December 2013

A downward spiral at Ashton Gate

In May 2008, Bristol City were just one match away from a place in the Premier League. Almost 40,000 Robins fans made the journey to London to see their side play at Wembley, and attempt to reach the top flight for the first time in thirty years. A 1-0 defeat to Hull meant it was to be a disappointing finale to their season. And yet, once the emotion of that match had subsided, fans could reflect on another successful season with much satisfaction.

The club had only just been promoted from League One the season before. Under the long-term management of Gary Johnson, they had a very closely knit squad, and were working with the second lowest wage bill in the Championship. To reach the play-off final was, in itself, a remarkable achievement.

The club looked to be moving in the right direction, yet it was summer 2008 where one or two mistakes were made. Player ego was inflated by the success of the previous season, therefore the vast majority of the squad demanded – and were handed – much bigger and longer-term contracts. Not only this, chairman Steve Lansdown smashed the club’s transfer record to sign Nicky Maynard from Crewe, for over £2 million as a statement of intent.

Gary Johnson
But with more investment came more pressure, and the same players could not repeat their successes in the 2007-08 season. Not only did a drop in results end Bristol City’s promotion hopes, it also lead to a decrease in attendances, making this new wage bill more challenging. Gary Johnson made a rare nudge of the proverbial panic button, and brought in a few expensive loan signings to try to activate a promotion push. They did not work out. Most notably striker Alvaro Saborio, a Costa Rican international, only scored twice in twenty appearances for the Robins.

After a couple of midtable finishes, Gary Johnson departed as manager. The club paid out the remainder of his contract, due to run out in 2013. This was another expensive procedure which further hindered the club’s finances. Arguably, reaching the play-off final in 2008 worked against Bristol City, because it lead to bigger investments and riskier financial dealings to try to catapult a move into the Premier League. They might have been better off not reaching the play-offs, and ensuring a few years of sustainability.

Steve Coppell
To replace Johnson, Lansdown made a quick appointment of Steve Coppell. By the time he arrived, key defenders were already out of the door, which lead to the expensive buys of Nicky Hunt and Damion Stewart. However, the most irrational signing given the club’s circumstances, was of goalkeeper David James. James, forty years of age at the time, was reportedly given an astonishing £20,000 per week. A lack of dialogue regarding transfer resources between Lansdown and Coppell led to Coppell’s resignation, just two games into the season.

After Coppell left, Bristol City found themselves in a difficult situation, with a number of high-earning, aging players in the squad. This was the very opposite of the philosophy which earned the club a place in the Championship under Gary Johnson. Though Keith Millen did a good job in keeping them up initially, a bad start to the 2011-12 season led to his sacking. He too, he walked away with a big pay-off.

That same year, the club announced an annual net loss of £14 million. The wage bill was nearly £19 million, more than double what it was in the club’s first season in the Championship, yet much less had been achieved. Derek McInnes did a similar job to Keith Millen, in that he kept them up after taking over, but was sacked the following season.

It was only at this point that the club began to operate more prudently. The financial state, combined with more and more fans staying away, meant the board finally learnt that cut backs needed to be made. Cost cutting measures were introduced and the club began to build through the academy, which had been left neglected over the last few years.
Relegation to League One

Even with this new approach, they could not avoid the drop. With a 1-0 home defeat to Birmingham in April, inevitable relegation to League One was confirmed.  as Birmingham fans responded warmly with "you're going down 'cause you're f*cking sh*t".

It had certainly been a horrendous season for the Robins, in which they conceded eighty-four goals. Despite scoring more than most teams in the bottom half, they finished bottom of the table by some distance, due to an inability to defend. No team in the football league let in more than them that season.

Due to a turnover of thirty players this summer, many expected this to be a transitional period for the Robins, under Sean O’Driscoll. Key attacking players, such as Albert Adomah and Steve Davies, left the club to stay in the Championship. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas has gone some way to recover the firepower, having netted thirteen times in twenty-two games to date. However, the defensive woes remained. Bristol City were in the relegation zone once again, this time in the division below, with just fifteen points from their first eighteen games. After that, O’Driscoll became the fifth managerial dismissal in three years at Ashton Gate.

Sean O'Driscoll
On paper, you would say that Sean O’Driscoll deserved his sacking. However, it perhaps points more faults to the boardroom than O’Driscoll. You can argue that had the club been more financially organised, the club would not have experienced this decline. The timing of his departure was bizarre, as Bristol City had only lost one match in their last seven in all competitions at the time, having just held leaders Leyton Orient to a draw. The defence, although disappointing, consisted of completely different players to those who started for much of the previous season, and arguably needed time to settle under the man who brought them in.
Steve Cotterill

Bristol City were never more than a few points from safety, and it would have shown respectable loyalty from the club to stand by O’Dricoll. They had talked the talk about carrying out a long-term plan for stability, but the board were panicked into a sacking which came about at the wrong time. He has been replaced by Steve Cotterill who is reasonably good at working under financial constraints, as he did at Burnley, Portsmouth and Nottingham Forest. However, Cotterill seems to take a more old-fashioned approach, often favouring a long ball game. At Forest, he was seen to be berating his players for passing the ball short, rather than getting it up to the front men quickly.

As it is, Cotterill faces a sizeable challenge to keep the Robins up. They are now five points from safety, having taken just one point from the first three league games under the new manager, which is not the ‘honeymoon’ period he would have hoped for. Suffice to say, there are difficult times ahead for Bristol City Football Club.

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