JOSÉ MOURINHO might have felt Bristol City were lucky to have won their English Football League Cup quarter-final tie with Manchester United, but their 2-1 triumph was a much-needed and much-welcomed reminder that shocks can still happen in top level football. Everyone outside the United support base must have raised their hat to the Robins, it was an old fashioned victory for the little man against Goliath. They now have to face United’s rivals and the team of the moment, Manchester City in a two-legged semi-final. They will need more than a slice of good fortune to get past Guardiola’s team of all talents.
Bristol City may have had their moment – they’ve actually had quite a few on this cup run, beating no less than four Premier League teams on the way to the last four. Watford, Stoke and Crystal Palace were disposed of before that memorable win against United.
It’s a bit of good news for Bristol, a city that is trying to find its place in the 21st century. Only recently, it was reported that Bristol is losing out to other cities in the government’s industrial strategy, although it has demonstrated its innovative streak in implementing the largest alternative currency to sterling in the form of the Bristol Pound, which is aimed at keeping wealth in the city. Apparently, the “small city that feels like a big city” has plentiful “glamorous, creative, hi-tech and professional” jobs on offer. But while Bristol might also be a leading location for digital technologies, it has a shortage of lower-skilled jobs. It clearly has something going for it, for the city was ranked the best place to live in Britain by the Sunday Times early in 2017.
On the football field, the city has not had too much to crow about down the years, but there is clearly some rejuvenation at Ashton Gate, home of Bristol City. The club is owned by Stephen Lansdown, a billionaire who co-founded the Hargreaves-Lansdown financial group. He’s estimated at having a fortune in the region of £ 2bn and since he took over, the club has breathed new life into their stadium at the cost of £ 45m and has returned to the Championship. Hargreaves-Lansdown is based in Bristol and one of the largest companies in the city. Lansdown himself sold a 4.7% stake in 2009 for £ 47.2m to put towards the cost of refurbishing the ground.
At one point last season, they looked set to return to League One. This term, they are third in the Championship and have lost just three times. There’s genuine hope that they can get back to the very top flight, a status they have not enjoyed since a four-year period that began in 1976 when Alan Dicks’ team rubbed shoulders with Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal.
Reaching the last four of the EFL Cup has been achieved before, the first occasion was in 1970-71 when Tottenham beat them and then in 1988-89, they were knocked-out by Nottingham Forest. Both victors went on to win the competition.
As for this season, Bristol City might not last much longer in the EFL Cup, but they have shown the margin between success and failure is so very narrow. If they had been relegated in 2016-17, the great revival might never have taken place and their much talked-about manager might have been out of a job.
Too often we forget the west of England and that Bristol, often more associated with Rugby Union, has two Football League clubs. It does make you wonder if an integrated City-Rovers club might be more appropriate in this modern age, but fans of both would expectorate venom on the floor at the very thought of such a venture.
Bristol, with a population of more than 400,000 could support a Premier League outfit. Attendances at Ashton Gate are at their highest level since 1978-79, averaging more than 19,000 this season. Two years ago, they were at the 12,000 mark and if they do get to the Premier, the club’s long-time home might suddenly feel too small.
The team’s resurgence this season is all the more remarkable given there hasn’t been some sort of close season rebirth. The only close to big signing in the summer was Famara Diedhiou from Angers, who cost £ 5.3m, but the Senegal striker has been sidelined for weeks with a knee injury. Niclas Eliasson, a 22 year-old Swedish forward, was signed from Norrköpping for £ 1.8m. The team that beat Manchester United was not dramatically different from the line-up that ended the 2016-17 campaign, but after two years finding their way back in the Championship, confidence, familiarity and a dynamic young manager have all turned Bristol City into promotion contenders and EFL Cup giant-killers. If Lincoln City were last season’s most talked-about club outside the Premier, Bristol City may just have become the media-darlings of 2017-18.
Johnson is in his second season at Ashton Gate and he’s going to be forever remembered for his celebration when his team scored their vital second goal against Mourinho’s men, joyously spinning a ballboy around on the touchline. It was genuine, empotion-charged fun coming to the fore.
Johnson is one of the new breed of young managers that adopts a scientific and statistical approach to the trade, so much so that his father, Gary Johnson, calls him an “information sponge”. Let’s hope Bristol City keep faith with him, for today’s hero is often tomorrow’s fall-guy, as we’ve seen so many times in football. A few years ago, people were talking about Swansea as a “model club”, but a burst bubble or two later, and the Swans appears to be in turmoil.
Bristol City’s 2017-18 season
|10||Bolton Wands||W2-0||9||Norwich City||D0-0|
|12||Burton Albion||D0-0||11||Ipswich Town||W3-1|
It won’t be long before people start pouring over-expectation on Bristol City. “This is a club heading for the Premier,” said one commentator as Johnson and his players lapped up the occasion. It was a cup-tie, a one-off and Bristol City have clearly had their sights on glory. But they should not begin to run before they can walk. Yes, enjoy the moment and salivate at the prospect of two games with that other team called “City”, but then concentrate on being ready for the Premier, for small clubs going into the upper echelons have to be structured correctly off the field. That has to be the message for Bristol City after this remarkable cup run.