Saturday, 13 February 2016

Revenge of the Noobs

6 February 2016 - Charlton Athletic 0 Bristol City 1

One of the debates that’s been taking place since the appointment of Lee Johnson, which took place an hour or so before kick-off, is the experienced vs inexperienced manager question; do we want a big-name who has a better chance of getting us promoted, or do we want an up-and-coming manager as a gamble which might pay off?

What’s interesting about that debate isn’t so much the question itself, which has been done to death now, as the very basis of the discussion. Whichever camp a person is in, they tend to accept the basic premise – that a name manager would have a greater chance of taking the club on in the short term, potentially as far as the top six or even the Premier League. The division seems to be between those who think that’s something to aim for in and of itself, and those who think we should be cannier and strategic, even if it carries the risk of missing an opportunity to progress. Even the club’s official channels have been complicit in this thinking, with Johnson asked in his first interview whether the club had taken a ‘risk’ bringing him in – not a question you’d expect Nigel Pearson, say, to have been posed.

But I’d not seen any quantification of this received wisdom; any demonstration that a manager with 200 Premier League games under his belt is automatically a better short-term choice than a man with 200 games in League One. Sure, there’s an apparent logic in the idea that someone who’s worked with higher-calibre players can teach ours more, that someone who’s achieved success knows how to do so and can import that knowledge. And there are the examples of a safe pair of hands taking an underachieving club into the top flight – Neil Warnock at QPR, say, or Steve Bruce at Hull. But how much of that is a sign of a genuine trend, and how much is confirmation bias? I wanted to find out.
So I’ve looked at the data. Specifically, I looked at every managerial change made in the Championship between the 2005-06 season and the 20014-15 one, inclusive – 144 managerial changes made by 42 clubs, from Barnsley to Wolves. That’s a pretty clear set of data.

Then, the slightly trickier bit. Defining precisely who is a ‘Name’ manager and who is ‘up-and-coming’ is difficult. Defining success or failure is tough, too, particularly given that most managerial appointments end up in failure. Nevertheless, I had a good go. I worked on the principle that a Name manager had managed in a major top flight and/or internationally, while an Up-and-coming manager hadn’t managed at an equivalent level to the Championship before. This left a middle category, the Experienced manager, someone who’d had at least one job in the Championship or at a comparable European league before being hired. Inevitably this led to judgement calls – is the Scottish Premiership comparable to the Championship? You could argue that it is, but having managed St Johnstone meant that Derek McInnes felt like an Up-and-coming rather than Experienced manager. But the three categories broadly seemed to work. The majority of appointments – 60 – were unsurprisingly of Experienced managers, with Up-and-coming coaches receiving 49 jobs and Name managers being tempted into the remaining 35.

(Sometimes the same manager can be considered in multiple ways, of course, as their career progresses – Phil Brown is an Experienced manager when he takes the Hull job, but that job makes him a Name as he moves into the Premier League, so he is in that category when Preston bring him in. And Lee Clark’s tenure at Birmingham gives him the Championship experience to move him from Up-and-coming to counting as Experienced by the time Blackpool come in.)

Quantifying success and failure was even harder, and I realised very early that there had to be a middle category here – Neither. How many managers took over a club around 18th in the middle of the season, took them to 8th the following year, but then got sacked with the club 19th in season three? It would be arbitrary to describe either of these as success or failure, so I didn’t. Broadly, promotion, a top-six finish in the final season, or improvement on improvement before departure counted as Success – relegation, being in the bottom three when sacked, or never achieving good quality results throughout a tenure counted as Failure.

There are more Failures than anything, perhaps unsurprisingly – 60 out of those 144 appointments ended badly. Nearly as many ended in a great big 'meh' – 56 of 144. Only 28 appointments, less than 20% of the total, ended in what feels to me like a real Success.

A lot of this, of course, is attempting to quantify opinions, so in order to show my working I've created a Google Doc you can check and use as a basis to argue with me.

(A side note on our team. You’ll notice that every Bristol City manager appointed at this level, from Coppell onward, qualifies as a Failure under my system, and that spans a Name in Coppell, two Up-and-coming managers in Millen and McInnes, and the Experienced O’Driscoll. Indeed, Bristol City are the only team in the entire list to have hired as many as four managers, all of whom have to be judged as failures. It's fairly clear that the common link in their performance is the club, rather than the ability or otherwise of a set who've collectively won promotions, managed and coached in the Premier League, and threatened to break the Celtic stranglehold on the SPL. More than anything, the fact that no other Championship club however poorly run have been so hard to succeed with speaks to the state the club had got itself into toward the end of the Gary Johnson era, and the amount of work most of those managers were obliged to do to try to change things around.)

Anyway. With the facts, such as they were, at my disposal, the analysis was the easy bit. Let's look first at those 28 successes.

42% of managers were Experienced, and 43% of Successes were achieved by Experienced managers – all things being equal, exactly what you'd expect. Tony Pulis gets Stoke to the Premier League. Nigel Pearson does the same for Leicester. Paul Hart, of all people, takes a short-term contract to save Crystal Palace, and does so. Hiring an experienced manager can clearly work.

More interesting results came from looking at the other two. 34% of hires were Up-and-coming, yet they accounted for 39% of successes – really overperforming, thanks to, say, Owen Coyle at Burnley, Brian McDermott at Leicester, or (right now) Gary Rowett at Birmingham. And those 24% of managers with Names? They accounted for just 19% of successes, making the likes of Bruce and Warnock much more like the exceptions than the rules.

Given the existence of the 'Neither' category, it wasn't a sure thing that the failures would follow the same rule. But while those 24% of Names had only been 19% of the successes, they made up a full 30% of the failures, thanks to the likes of Ian Holloway at Millwall, Malky Mackay at Wigan, and Steve McClaren at Forest. The Up-and-coming managers weren't terrific at avoiding failure – 34% of hires, 32% of failures (thanks Andy Thorn, Uwe Rosler and Jim Gannon) – but it's still a little less than the law of averages would predict, and a far better performance than the Names. Experienced hires were just about the safest bets, at 38% failure to 42% of hires, but that's not a notably more significant over-performance than the Up-and-comers.

There we have it, then. The idea that hiring a big-name manager is a guaranteed route to the land of ambrosia and nectar is a nonsensical one, not borne out by statistics at all. And while a wily head at this level has the slightest of slight chances of doing better than a bright young thing, there's very little in it, and certainly not enough to justify a preference on general principle for one over the other.
Because this is about general principles. None of this means that Lee Johnson is guaranteed to outperform his relegation rival at Rotherham, Neil Warnock. But what it does mean is that Warnock having managed in the Premier League compared to Johnson's third tier experience is not a reason to prefer one to the other. Indeed, based on experience alone you'd predict that Johnson has a better chance than Warnock. He may not do as well, the same way that in 2006 an up-and-coming crop of Parkinson, Wise, Grant, Simpson and Waddock were outperformed by Mick McCarthy. But then, who won the league that season? Tyro boss Roy Keane's Sunderland, that's who.

And if bringing in an up-and-coming manager isn't a risk (and it clearly, now, isn't), it might just have a higher level of reward attached. Look at the nine Premier League clubs we've played as equals over the last decade or so, now achieving far more than us: Leicester, Southampton, Watford, Stoke, Crystal Palace, West Brom, Bournemouth, Swansea and Norwich. Only one, Palace, were taken up by a Name manager, Ian Holloway, who built on the good work done by the up-and-coming Dougie Freedman and was then sacked to make way for someone better suited to the Premier League. Sacking the manager who got you up is pretty much the way of things, and only three of the clubs haven't done it – the last three. Those managers? Eddie Howe, Brendan Rodgers and Alex Neil.

I had to stick to my system when classifying Howe and Rodgers, whose spells at other Championship clubs made them both technically Experienced, but neither had the sort of CV on their initial appointment at Bournemouth and Swansea that City fans would have been excited about. In terms of a club going from the bottom division to being a sustainable challenger at the top, these two clubs are the big stories, and they've both achieved the final stage under the guidance of a manager who is, at best, a pretty inexperienced Experienced higher.

Both are run in an intelligent, far-sighted way; both are cited as models for a club like City to attend to; and both had the gumption to believe that a manager with no record of doing anything like it could take them into the Premier League.

If we want to be anything like those clubs, we be excited about doing what they did – giving a chance to someone with everything to prove, and then allowing them the best possible shot at doing so.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Failings of the Chief

Saturday 2 January - Reading 1 Bristol City 0

Let's start by putting our cards on the table, shall we?

Even after this game, when yet again we played “well” without looking that likely to score and always looking as though we could concede, I am not particularly strongly bothered about whether Cotterill stays or goes. However, I must confess that if the board were to move him on, I wouldn't shed a tear. Given a binary choice, I'm very vaguely on the 'sack' side. My concern, principally, is that I don't see a great deal of evidence that he'll turn around our form and start winning more than a game a month. His diagnosis of why we're in the bottom three is light on areas for improvement and heavy on bad luck. After half a season, that's frankly a bit thin. If I get something wrong at work, I want to be able to say to my boss “this is what's wrong and this is how I'll fix it”, or I'd expect to lose his faith. I'm not hearing anything like that from Cotterill and that's why I've lost my faith. He – and, indeed, his captain – have been using the language of “keeping on doing what we're doing”, despite the fact that “what we're doing” has us in the bottom three. It's like watching the residents of Springfield trying to dig their way out of the deep hole they've dug themselves into.

But it wouldn't be in character for Cotterill suddenly to decide that everything's broke and needs fixing. Changing isn't what he does. Last season, I identified my two chief concerns about the manager: his tactical flexibility and his ability to change a game. These weaknesses have been ruthlessly exposed this season, but they are core to Cotterill's management style. He likes a small squad so he can keep his players motivated, something he's clearly exceptionally good at, but this leaves him with little leeway to make changes when necessary. He stumbled upon the 3-5-2 at the end of a difficult spell in his first season, and he's barely dared to change it since. This was fine when we had the League One cheat code of Steve Lansdown's backing, but it's not the same in the Championship.

Our poor form has also exposed a bit more of Cotterill's character, without the glare of good results to blind us. And it's, frankly, a bit rum. He doesn't seem to be too good at taking blame for defeats, whilst being happy to bask in the credit for good decisions. The 1-1 draw from behind with QPR was down to him being cunning enough to rest our strikers, apparently, while the 1-1 draw from in front with Charlton had nothing to do with him failing to respond after Pack missed his penalty and the team was gripped by anxiety. He can be pretty disingenuous about the quality of the team's performance, the number of games we play in a week (Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday is not three games in a week, Steve) and indeed his own managerial career, moaning in December that he'd “never had a golden ticket” unlike certain managers, rather ignoring the cash advantage he had over most of the division last season. His interviews after defeats are painful to watch, full of awkward silences, cliched footballese, and astonishingly frequent references to a game which might have happened, were it not for the opposition's bad manners in scoring against us.

(Seriously, this has gone beyond a joke now – how often does he say he'd “have been interested to see what would have happened if we'd got to half time 0-0”? I'd have been “interested to see what would have happened” if I'd been posted last week's lottery numbers, Steve, but sadly that's not the way it panned out.)

If that reads like a bit of a character assassination, it's because – fundamentally – Steve Cotterill isn't really my sort of football manager. And that's OK. I'd never demand that Bristol City appointed only the sorts of managers I personally get on with. But does it matter, for me personally, if the guy in charge isn't somebody whose Kool-Aid I'm comfortable drinking? If he turns the season around [now?], how does my personal antipathy to him affect my relationship with the club?

I think a lot of people would say that it's completely irrelevant. If a manager wins games, he wins games, and that's all there is to it. Managers aren't in the charm business, they're here to accrue points. That's a fair philosophy and a perfectly reasonable position to hold. But scratch the surface, and I'm not sure it's as widespread as you might think.

When a club needs a new manager, results might be the main criterion by which fans will draw up their personal shortlists, but they're unlikely to be the only one. Look at Manchester United right now, a club which could well be the next stop of a manager, Mourinho, with a nigh-unsurpassed record of success over the past decade. It's not, however, at all clear that United fans want him to right their listing ship. For all the badly-printed Mourinho scarves, he fails to embody the ethos that fans of the great old club desire. Partly this is because his reputation is that of a defensive, negative 1-0 merchant, but partly it's because of his focus on the short-term and inability or unwillingness to develop players, and partly because he comes across as an unpleasant sort, with his eye-gouging of Tito Vilanova only the most egregious of his misdemenanors. It's rumoured that it was this reputation which led Bobby Charlton to veto his shortlisting for the post after Alex Ferguson's depature. Most would expect Mourinho to give United a title, and few expect van Gaal to do so, but that doesn't mean that their fans are clamouring for the Portuguese.

Across the M62, Liverpool have a new manager who was welcomed not simply because of some immaculate record – indeed, like Mourinho, Jürgen Klopp's most recent season consisted of a surprising, prolonged battle against relegation – but because he was seen as a good fit for the club, both in terms of style and personality.

It's clear then that many, perhaps most, fans are looking for something more than guaranteed results. And as soon as you make that concession, you're just arguing about where you draw the line. How much do you want your side to be a paragon, and how much do you just want it to be a champion? Are you an idealist or a pragmatist?

I've never made a secret of my idealism. I want my club to model the right behaviours and to have a manager who I can respect. I was encouraged, around the time of our relegation, by the much mocked “five pillars”, and disillusioned when the strategy was either abandoned or just comprehensively played down. I've said before that over the course of your life, you'll probably see as many defeats as wins, have as many lows as highs. That taken into account, I want to come by those highs in something approaching the right way.

I don't think this makes me particularly special. Nor do I necessarily think it's the right way to follow football. And I'm conscious that, despite the amount of internal time I dedicate to City, my exiled status makes me a semi-detached fan, not part of the perpetual bragging rights battle in many a Bristol workplace, which I should imagine sharpens the pragmatic instincts somewhat. But, in my personal experience, Cotterill's Bristol City have been just that fraction harder to get behind than Johnson's, or, frankly, McInnes' or O'Driscoll's.

Is that heretical? Should every fan be 100% behind the club at all times? Well, possibly, but clearly they're not. Many of the best managers create something close to a personality cult, pulling fans in, making them feel part of a wider endeavour. Johnson did this. Klopp did, at Dortmund. Van Gaal isn't interested in it and that's part of his problem at United. But if fans can be pulled in, can give more, than it follows that they aren't giving 100% as a default setting. I think that right now I've lapsed to the bare minimum support. It's still a lot, enough to propel me to games, enough to have caused me immense pain when Nick Blackman scored yesterday, but it's not all-consuming. I feel like there's a sheet of glass between me and the club right now. Being regularly presented with 'Bristol Sport' branding doesn't help with that, frankly, and neither does the club's permanent figurehead being that vilest kind of hypocrite, the grammar-school educated tax exile.

It's the red that keeps me coming back, the red and the players who are very clearly trying their best. I applauded them off at Reading not because they'd played outstandingly, but because they'd done what they could, and it simply isn't their fault that as a group they aren't quite good enough.

Now. None of the above is a good reason for wanting Cotterill to go, although as I've said I wouldn't be disappointed if he did not. Nobody's job should depend upon capturing the heart of every member of a group as diffuse as fans of a football club. While Cotterill's in charge, I'll keep going, I'll keep supporting the team, I'll pay for matches and I'll hope for wins. I don't want to be in League One next season more than anybody else. But I can't help thinking that I might be more engaged in the next managerial cycle.

Unless we employ Steve Evans, or Harry Redknapp.

Monday, 2 November 2015

The myth of the good performance

31 October 2015 - Bristol City 1 Fulham 4

What does 'playing well' mean?

Because Steve Cotterill is convinced we did it in the first half-hour at Ashton Gate. He said as much to the club's media team after the match. We were the better team for the first 30 minutes, apparently, despite conceding two goals in that time. And the manager's right when he says that, in a way, the weekend's game sums up our season, because we keep hearing this. We played really well, we were probably the better team but then – oh no! - somehow the opposition have a chance, they take it, and we've got catching up to do. We lose, maybe we draw, we don't (yet) win once we've conceded. Afterwards, we console ourselves with the fact that we've played well and we have lots of positives that we can take into the next game. And on we go.

Playing well presumably means playing in such a way as to maximise your chance of winning the match. It can't refer to a particular playing style, as such. All those victories for Mourinho over Wenger over the years have come as a result of Chelsea executing their game-plan – normally involving breaking up play, snapping the ball as soon as it crosses the halfway line, staying drilled in defence and maximising crosses and set-pieces – better than Arsenal execute theirs, which involves possession, fluid interchange, quick passing and committing midfielders forward. Most football fans will probably admit a preference for Arsenal's way of playing, but clearly the simple fact of playing in one particular style doesn't itself mean 'playing better'.

This applies to Bristol City because Steve Cotterill has embraced a creditably entertaining, direct form of football – not Arsenal, perhaps, but something closer to the Brendan Rodgers or Jürgen Klopp model. It's based on high pressing, aggressive, direct running, moving the ball forward from front to back and giving almost all the team's players license to join the attack. When it works it works brilliantly, and we stormed a weak League One last season largely by blowing other sides away with our speed and relentlessness. That basic principles haven't changed this season yet – as we've seen – the results to date have.

So if we've stuck with our successful system, and have been playing well in more games than not, why have the results not started to turn our way as – over 14 games – you'd expect them to?

A look at the statistics doesn't help us much. In our last five defeats – 1-4 this weekend, 1-2 against Brighton before that, then 0-2 against Reading, 2-4 against Birmingham and 1-2 against Burnley – we appear to have done quite well. In four of those five games we saw more of the ball than our opponents, averaging 53% possession. And we've created chances, taking 54 shots in the four games. So, yep, fine, we're playing well – we're dominating possession, as we try to do, and we're creating chances.

But of course these are all attacking metrics. They show that the plan is working in an offensive sense. They don't tell us too much about what's happening at the other end. And this looks a bit less rosy.

In those five games we've allowed our opponents 65 shots on goal. Cotterill argues that the main difference between the sides in these 'good performances' is the clinical nature of our opponents, but the stats don't bear this out. In fact, our opponents have a 38% shots/shots on target ratio compared to our own 37%. The other sides aren't more clinical than us. What they are is better at defending.

This is pretty clear if you watch the goals from this particular game. (I know, I didn't either, but go on.) Fulham do well, but certainly for the first two, they don't really need to. Look at the first. One of our centre-backs, Luke Ayling, starts the clip in effectively the right midfield position, losing the ball. Once he does so, our actual right wing-back (wing-back, not winger, despite his starting position) fails to track their runner. This causes the only one of our centre-backs to start the clip in the right position, Aden Flint, to be dragged out of said position in order to cover. The Fulham ball is good and Dembele, in the space left by Flint, finishes well, but it's an easy run, an easy pass, and a fairly routine finish in all honesty.

The second goal is worse. I've absolutely no idea where Luke Ayling is – the camera focuses for much of the clip on the area to Flint's right, where you'd expect to see our right-sided CB in a three, but he's not there – and Flint is forced to knock the ball a bit long to one of our midfielders, neither of whom appears to have considered coming short to receive it. The pass is sloppy, it's immediately 3v2, and we're picked off.

The third goal is a beautiful free-kick (although at a saveable height), but the clip misses out the build-up. In that instance, Luke Freeman lost possesion on the halway line, and their player was able to burst forward to the edge of our box unimpeded by right wing-back, defensive midfielder or right centre-back. Freeman himself had to track back to make the challenge. He's an attacker, he got it wrong, got booked and they scored from the free kick.

Then the final goal – yes, OK, a good finish, but once more. Ayling is nowhere to be seen, Flint is pulled into his position, which means that once again a simple ball completely opens us up. Neither Marlon Pack nor Korey Smith are helping out, and Tunnicliffe finishes the one on one rather nicely.

These aren't just any old chances. The third aside, these are a tap-in, a 3v2, and a one on one. They're the sort of chances you expect strikers to take. Not all chances are created equal. Fulham were well organised at the back, hard to get around, and ensured that the shots we got away were largely from distance or after long, patient passing. It's not acceptable to say that Fulham happened to be more clinical or that we made mistakes. You'll never cut every error out of the game, it's played by humans. Ronaldo's missed sitters. Messi's miscontrolled the ball. Pirlo's undercooked passes. Our problem is that we play in such a way that a single mistake can immediately open us up.

And yet those goals came in the first half an hour when we were 'playing well'. And this is what concerns me. We were playing in such a way that we were always going to be vulnerable – playing with our centre-backs out wide, our wing-backs in the attack at all times, none of our midfielders further back than the centre circle. You know what? Of course it's possible to force the issue when you've eight players in the opponents' area at all times. Of course you'll pin them back a bit. Of course you'll control possession. You've more options than the other lot, more people to receive the ball.

But the flip side of this strategy is that you are permanently five seconds from conceding. It's like committing every chess piece on the board forward. You will by definition pin a number of your adversary's pieces back, because you'll control a lot of the angles by which their king can be reached. But your own king can be completely exposed. If they get a rook down the side you're done for almost immediately.

City's “good performances” and their habit of conceding goals have regularly been expressed as a baffling correlation. The official match report for this game makes this exact mistake, saying that “Seven would become eight by the 18th minute despite the fact that much of the time between the goals was spent in Fulham territory.” It's not 'despite', it's 'partly owing to', particularly when just two paragraphs later the report approvingly describes a centre-back joining the attack. We have seven players who should play further forward than our centre-backs. They don't need to be that far forward on the quarter-hour!

Let's stop claiming we're playing wonderfully when we're turning Championship matches into wide-open turkey shoots. Let's stop pretending to be baffled when we keep using Luke Ayling and Derrick Williams as auxiliary midfielders, then let in goals.

And let's not blame the system – 3-5-2 is a perfectly valid way to set up. It's not the fault of those three numbers and two dashes that our centre-backs are instructed to take the halfway line as their default starting position, that our wing-backs play like wingers (understandable; one is a winger, the other is far more winger than full-back, and Mark Little's not a great deal more defensively-minded), that our holding midfielders play like number 8s more than number 4s (which of the two is the committed DM, and why can't I easily work that out)?

These are tactical instructions coming from the manager. And they need sorting out or else we'll be in a relegation battle for the entire season.

And if we go down, I've no interest in hearing that we did so 'despite playing great football all season', thanks very much.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Doing bad things

I’ve done a couple of things I’m not proud of this month. I’ve handed over money for service I won’t boast about. And the worst thing is that, I know, I’ll go back.

I’ve bought Forever Bristol membership, and I’ve bought a ticket to Hillsbrough for the opening game of the season. While neither of these are shameful, precisely, both of them have left me at the very edge of my moral comfort zone.

Second things first. The ticket for Sheffield Wednesday cost me £39. Which, undeniably, is a hell of a lot; enough for a lot of people, very reasonably, to decide that it’s not worth the candle. And the Supporters’ Club and Trust have gone further, and announced that they’re not going to attend. They’ve stopped short of calling a boycott because some people have already booked travel, but they’ve made it very clear that this is the next best thing.

They are, of course, absolutely right. Exploitative pricing is a major issue in football at the moment, especially in the revoltingly rich upper divisions of the English game. Fans prize loyalty above any other trait, but the clubs upon which they bestow this prized characteristic strip-mine it for money. It’s a bad, bad business, and City fans are right to stand up to it.

But. This was the game I looked for when the results came out. This is the game which my friend Dave the big Sheffield Wednesday fan were planning to organise a night out around. And there it was, first game of the season, barely a month after the fixtures came out. It was too perfect not to.

So I'm going up on Saturday; I've held my nose, not looked at the bank account, and bought a ticket. I'll send some money Sheffield FC's way, but I won't be able to pretend that's any better than giving a quid to one homeless guy in every twenty as an assuaging of the conscience. I'm looking forward to the first game of the season, looking forward more to the evening out in a lovely city – but don't get me wrong, if the SC&T had announced a full boycott I'd have fallen in line. I'd never break a boycott. I'm all too aware I'm using a semantic distinction as justification; but it has to be enough.

Before I even bought that ticket, though, I'd caved and bought Forever Bristol membership – and that really stuck in the craw. I dislike the concept of Forever Bristol immensely. It's the Speedy Boarding of the football world – an opportunity for the seller to monetise, rather than the provision of a service, the non-removal of an already existing service. If you don't offer Speedy Boarding, everyone gets the same chance to board the plane – as soon as you do, you take away that first chance from passengers who don't pay the premium. Forever Bristol is precisely the same. If it didn't exist, everyone would have the same chance to buy tickets. Introduce it, and suddenly you create a second tier of fans, which we all have to pay £20 to avoid joining. The club has to do nothing – literally nothing – extra, except stick out a virtual hand and extract a crispy purple note from fans who'll be buying tickets anyway.

The only way this can work, of course, is by frightening people into joining the upper tier. After all, if nobody bought Speedy Boarding, nobody else would feel they had to. There would no longer be a queue to jump. And all last season the club's website yelled at us that we had to become FB members if we wanted to see the games. This reached a particular nadir after the FA Cup draw pitting us against West Ham when a Forever Bristol membership ad, rather than news of the fixture itself, took pride of place on the website.

The West Ham game still didn't sell out to members, mind; I think only the last game of the season did. Which must have provoked sighs of relief from the accounts department. A Cup game hadn't, the game where we sealed the title hadn't; thank God that at the very last minute they showed the fans that without paying the premium you risked getting bupkis.

Hang on... now I think of it, it's odd that a match didn't sell out to members until the last possible opportunity for one to do so...

...and after some more attractive games had failed to. You don't think...?

Surely not...?

No. I'm sure it was all above board and honest.

Now I'm not an idiot and I understand that scarcity = demand = increased pricing. I get that. But we seem to have the worst of both here – increased prices this season and a membership fee if you actually want the opportunity to pay any of them.

And yet I know all this, and I complain about it, but once again I have the wallet out. Why? Why have I chosen willingly to be exploited, once by my own club, once by a bunch of Yorkshire blue-and-whites to whom I have no allegiance?

As ever, the answer at its most reductionist is: because football. But that won't quite do. The simple action of walloping a ball into a net can be exciting, sure, but it's hard to believe it's exciting enough to mesmerise us all into agreeing to this mechanised asset-stripping.

Football isn't just football for most of us. It's not the 'bunch of lads kicking a ball around' of repute. It's a weird bundle of connections in our mind, pre-season most of all – echoes of triumph ringing around the brain, the chemical memory of those endorphin rushes, those odd moments when everything aligns in a wonderful, natural high. It's the friendships it's connected with, the old friends I most often see at Ashton Gate now, the new friendships the game throws our way, the sharing of something mutually beloved. And more than that it's the primal sense of identity, of belonging; as humans we congregate, if not at football games then music festivals, airshows, comic book conventions, whatever you like. For everyone reading this, football provides something – several somethings – that I think drive us as animals. Great swathes of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs can be fulfilled at your local Championship ground, 3pm every other winter Saturday.

That's why advertisers are so desperate to stick Ray Winstone's stupid face into the Champion's League; why David Fishwick Minibus Sales hangs on to that prime location at Turf Moor; why Manchester United have an Official Office Equipment Partner. Everyone knows that – but it's indirect. “When football strips away their higher brain functions” runs the commercial logic, “we'll step in and shove our tat right down their pleasure centres”.

What I've been paying for is the real thing. The direct hit. Liquid football. And like anyone who comes back for more when they know they shouldn't, who spends money they don't really have, who has an order of priority they probably won't admit to anybody, I'm far too tarnished to start pretending my hands aren't dirty.

And I can't wait for the season to start, so that my millions of fellow-sufferers and I can debase ourselves once again.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

A theory of relativity

I remember another sell-out home game against Coventry City. An equally vital one, potentially decisive in terms of the division we'd spend the following season in; League One or the Championship.

Three years and nine days earlier, we met Coventry in a massive relegation tussle at the bottom of the Championship. Tied at 1-1 after Jon Stead had scored at both ends (or rather, the same end in different halves), Derek McInnes brought on a raw young winger called Yannick Bolasie. You'll remember him – he's apparently now worth £20m, although in fact he probably isn't. His goal with his first or second touch has evidently “lived long in the memory”, since I can remember it now. I can remember calling “go on, Yannick, make yourself a hero” when he came on; well, didn't he just.

And I can also remember that goal taking the lid off the place. According to Google it was in the 82nd minute and put us four points clear of relegation with four to play. So you'd expect the fans to have been pretty damn chuffed.

But it's perhaps still odd that the atmosphere that day – at the end of a completely awful season – was so much better than the atmosphere against the same opposition this weekend, when we won League One at the end of a completely brilliant one.

We know the facts: we've just claimed our first league title of any kind for sixty years and we'll set our highest ever points total in doing so. Yet Ashton Gate was a little flat on Saturday afternoon, there's no question about it. The pitch invasion at the end felt a bit token, a bit forced, the product of obligation rather than effervescence. Having been at all three matches, I'm fairly sure much less of the pitch was covered than after the game in 2012 against Barnsley which kept us up, let alone after our last promotion, in 2007. And yet these games came at the end of seasons which were, in the first instance, pretty awful, and in the second, really good but still not title-winning.

I think there are a few contributing factors here but I think one is absolutely key.

First of all, of course, we've now got a smaller capacity as a result of having a three-sided ground. So not only were fewer people present, but the atmosphere wasn't locked in – it wasn't bouncing off every side, being sent back into the centre with interest by every group of City fans. But that's not all. It can't be, because not everyone went on the pitch anyway, and because there were large sections of the ground where not much singing was taking place at all – including around me, in the north end of the Williams.

Secondly, it was in the end a 0-0 draw. There's always been something slightly unsatisfying about 0-0 draws; the lack of a goal denies you the release of tension which elation in football is all about. After Tuesday's astonishing result at Valley Parade, I expect that most people (including me) were expecting the odd goal on Saturday. But that's not all either. It can't be, because we've all seen occasions in which a draw (or even a defeat – see Monaco v Arsenal earlier this season) has led to untrammelled joy.

Thirdly, let's be honest; we all knew we were going to win the league, didn't we? I'm not sure that anyone would have expected Preston to win every remaining match, not in this league that's wanted consistency throughout. And we've not lost three in a row all season – clearly it was unlikely we'd start now. But that's not all either. It can't be, because you can be damn well sure that Chelsea fans will celebrate when they win the league. And I assume Bayern fans will as well, although even that must be getting a little dull for them, now.

I think the fourth reason has a lot more to do with it. In the end, what we did this weekend was win a league we should never have been in to start with. Sure, after six promotions in which we don't win the division, finally breaking that statistically anomalous run was great. But if someone had said to you, five years ago, when Keith Millen was in caretaker charge of a team that had spent a couple of years starting to slip “don't worry, it gets better, you'll win the League One title soon” I'm not sure that would have been much comfort. You might in fact have been tempted to hit your imaginary comforter.

This is the problem with a lot of what we've been offered this season – all of this “once in 60 years we get something this good”, “best season ever” narrative. It just isn't true. It can't be. Because this season came with a ceiling, and that ceiling was “45th best club in Britain”. We've just had several years of beating that automatically, of being unable to finish below 44th. I think it's reasonable to be slightly nonplussed at finishing 45th.

Nothing says more about who we are as a club than our record for winning the Football League Trophy – whether you call it the Freight Rover, the LDV or the Johnstone's Paint – more than any other side. It means we're theoretically a bit too good for this level, but we keep finding ourselves here all the same. Lots was made about Mark Little “retaining” the JPT having won it with Peterborough last season, but again I wonder whether that's the accolade it sounds like. Is he, too, better than this division but not quite Championship level? We'll know in a year, I suppose; certainly I think you can only call someone a record-breaker if it's a record anyone ever mentioned or might conceivably have hoped to claim. I'm not sure any young player dreams of winning the thing once, let alone twice on the bounce.

None of this of course means that we shouldn't enjoy winning a competition or two, if because of systemic mismanagement we end up in them again. Of course we should. But there's always going to be an upper limit to the joy you can take from winning a division containing Crawley, Fleetwood and Rochdale. The game I enjoyed most this season was the away-day at Preston because, you know what, it felt like the Championship again. It felt like the sort of game we'll get a lot next season. Two good sides, in a proper stadium, in a proper city, going at it. It's worth a thousand 2-1 wins at “the stadium” and I'm looking forward to lots more of that. I'm also very pleased we got this done in what felt like, when we went down, the minimum time possible; we haven't got stuck like poor old Sheffield United, and that's a good thing.

But if we were to accept this as “one of the great Bristol City seasons”, we'd also have to accept that in finishing in the Conference's top two, Bristol Rovers are currently enjoying one of the greatest in their history; their first placing this high in a generation. And come on. Nobody's going to accept that, are they?

Context is important. That's why we can't go too mad at success in League One, but why we had damn well better enjoy next season more, whatever we do and wherever we finish.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Forced perspective

11 April 2015 - Preston North End 1 Bristol City 1

Over the last 18 months, Aden Flint has metamorphosed from lumbering, gaffe-prone lummox to the latest member of that part-lovable, part-tiresome gang, the “Cult Hero”. From Gary Caldwell to Robin Friday in 50 matches is quite the achievement, but this is a man with every qualification for the job. He used to be a tarmacker, he's hard to miss on the pitch at 6'6”, and he's inherently likeable, with a dry turn of phrase it's difficult not to warm to. Plus he's playing extremely well at the moment; the current League One Player of the Month, he's responsible for the unsual sense of calm amongst City fans when a high ball swigs into our box (a favourite stratagem at this level), as well as the sense of anticipation when we win a corner.

Oh, and when he was asked whether he wanted Swindon Town to go up, he used his mastery of repartee, of the easy bon mot, and came out with the timeless quip, “no”.

Maybe you had to be there.

I'm being a bit harsh, perhaps. City fans may have adopted this as one of the great footballing witticisms of the ages, up there with “we discuss it and agree I'm right” and all those times Lineker reminded Hansen that he'd been wrong about Manchester United's youth policy, but Flint wasn't trying to be funny. He was simply speaking his mind. His lack of diplomacy is a significant component of what we like about him; he's a bluff Northerner whose head is for heading balls rather than weighing words. But following the enjoyable victory over Swindon Town, the travelling contingent at Deepdale this weekend had made up a cheery little number set to that great Oasis B-side “Cum On Feel the Noize”. The main difference is that the lyrics aren't about a weekend on the razzle in the Black Country any more, but about how Swindon won't be promoted and serves them right too.

Now there is, obviously, nothing wrong with this. That needs saying now. In a division short on obvious rivals Swindon fit the bill well. They're from up the road (although if you have to specify why a derby is a derby, pace “the M4 derby”, it probably isn't a real derby) and they've been near us in the league for most of the season. So we can not like them at we can sing songs about them, fine. But, to borrow terminology from the election campaign, making Swindon's non-promotion a red line – saying “I'm not bothered who else goes up as long as it's not Swindon” - well, that just won't do, I'm afraid.

I think most of us would agree that there are levels of good and bad within football. Bad, especially. You've got the things people say are bad: swapping shirts at half-time, not returning the ball if your opponents have put it out of play, whatever. These mostly exist within the game itself. And then you've got the things that are actually bad: major tournaments consistently being awarded to oil-rich despots, say, or the pricing out of the working class, or Robbie Savage. These are things that exist outside the game – meta-football, if you like. What happens on the pitch matters, I'm not arguing that it doesn't; but it doesn't matter anything like as much as what happens beyond it, in the superstructure of football, where actual people's actual lives are affected. It doesn't matter one quintillionth as much.

And yeah, that brings me to MK Dons.

I've been fed up with MK Dons all season. Them beating Manchester United early on, that was amusing, of course, but when they kept hanging around the novelty wore off. The joke wasn't funny any more when City fans congratulated themselves for buying 5,000 seats at Stadium:MK, and it was positively tiresome when some cheered MK's victory at Swindon, of all people, the other weekend.

In terms of what they do on the pitch, MK Dons don't seem that bad; they play neat football with young players and they do it quite well. The manager's a bit difficult to swallow, but a lot of them are, including some a hell of a lot closer to home than Karl Robinson. They're a bit bland, because there's no half-century of animus with them as there is with most teams in this league, but not unpleasantly so. And they produced Sam Baldock, so cheers to them for that.

But off the pitch, in the realm of the important, they are quite obviously loathsome. They shouldn't exist, not only because they're objectionable but because they're dangerous. Their existence serves as a permanent threat to 91 other league clubs, or more precisely to their fans. MK Dons are a totem, sending the message that anyone could take your club away from you and there's nothing at all the football authorities can do about it.

Sure, we play this game about not liking teams. We don't like Crystal Palace because we used to play them a lot and we got grumpy with one another. We don't like Rovers because they're the other lot in Bristol and we want to be better than them. It spices up football, it creates a bit more narrative, a bit more fun. But it's a game; it has rules, and one of them is that we'll have a drink with a Rovers fan or a Palace fan later. I think we'd all believe that someone not prepared to do so would be taking the whole thing a bit too seriously.

MK Dons exist outside that. (Cardiff, of course, rather beautifully combine being game-rivals with an actually unpleasant football club beyond the pitch as well, and it's hard not to look forward to playing that lot next year.) Even if we don't have game-reasons for not liking them, the real reasons to despise them are clear, present and unignorable.

My local team, Dulwich Hamlet, have a slogan amongst the fans; “Ordinary Morality is for Ordinary Football Clubs”, they say. Now if I'm honest I'm not quite sure what that means. I think most football clubs are quite a few moral niches below ordinary; amoral at best, the 92 collectively are. But if a football club has any value, if those colours, that history, that dear old stadium has any meaning whatsoever, it must be morally right to resist the trend of devaluing, asset-stripping and preying upon those dear old associations for the sake of a quick, dirty buck. And as an ordinary football club, which is the most important thing in the the British sporting tradition, let's aspire to a bit of ordinary morality.

Let's keep Swindon as our rivals. But let's not forget what's really important. And if Swindon play MK Dons in the playoff final, let's be Robins together for a day.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Unmoved by success

24 February 2015 - Millwall 1 Sheffield Wednesday 3

My mate Dave is a big Sheffield Wednesday fan. That is to say he's a fan of the Owls who happens to be sodding enormous – clear of 6' 6” I'd guess. He follows the team a bit, and he'll go and watch them when he can work attendance at their game into his real hobby, which is getting drunk with pretty women and silly men.

Somehow he talked me into attending this one to fill the “silly men” quota. So I dragged myself out to South Bermondsey when I could have been watching Barcelona beat Man City, under the specious rationalisation that I was scouting the sort of mediocre opposition from which I expect City will need to take points next season.

(On which point, by the way, I have few concerns. Despite Wednesday's excellent performance in the second half, which owed a lot to the genuinely fine attacking play of Jacques Maghoma, I felt that on present form City would beat either team relatively comfortably. We'll have no problems adapting to the middle of that division, I suspect.)

I went in the spirit of companionship and bonhomie, and as someone who always enjoys live football, rather than because I was expecting the team third-bottom of the divion and the team whose previous seven-game form read D3 L4 to produce an encounter for the ages. And the first half lived down to my expectations, a scoreless heap of nothing in particular distinguished perhaps by the moment Wednesday left-back Claude Dielna took a touch of the ball, found himself with time to think, considered his options, and very calmly and deliberately lobbed it over the left-hand touchline and out of play.

After the break though things were different, and once the badly out of form Yorkshiremen had scored the goal that gee'd them up whilst demolishing the fragile confidence of Ian Holloway's men the game was almost entirely played in one direction – right down the pitch towards the voluble travelling support. We were up towards the back where, at the Den as everywhere, the loudest and least inhibited of the away support tend to congregate. I found myself almost entirely sucked in by the frisson Wednesday's performance generated, and celebrated the goals like I had swallowed Henderson's Relish from the teat. It was exhilarating.

It was also probably the most exhilarated I've been at any football match this season. Since my team is top of the league, and I've been to quite a lot of their games, that has to be a concern.

Part of the reason I think is that I was caught in a very particular mood felt by the Wednesday fans. Both behind me at the ground, and on the train back home, I kept catching variations on the same theme. “Two goals from open play!” a Wednesdayite would exclaim in great surprise. “An away win...” sighed another lad in reverent, mine-eyes-have-seen-the-glory tones.

You know what that's like, don't you? When you come away from a game thinking “we won. We actually went and bloody won!”

It's the best feeling in football. There's satisfaction in winning a game you ought to win by a nice, routine 2-0. There's great pleasure in seeing your team demonstrate clear superiority when running goal after goal past some hapless bunch of lower-league chancers. But coming into a game you may not win, entering an uncertain situation, scales balanced, nervous, turning up because it's what you do rather than because of your scintillating run of form, then scoring all the goals and claiming the points – that, my friends, is the good stuff.

And League One just doesn't offer that. Not when you've been there less than a couple of years it doesn't, anyway. Sure, last time around, when we'd had seven solid seasons before the glorious eighth, we'd become accustomed to playing at that level and really didn't expect to beat the better sides. So when we did it was terrific.

But this time is different, isn't it? It feels that way to me, certainly. We've not been in the doldrums long enough for victories to have the same meaning. We had two understandable wobbles in the first season, a just-relegated-building-a-team one and a new-manager-not-getting results one, overcome them, and been doing absolutely fine thankyouverymuch since then. We'll get promoted this season. We've been favourites, probably, since the opening day. The game we played that day, at Sheffield United, may in fact have been the most recent game we didn't expect to win, but did.

I've not once walked out of a game feeling utterly thrilled to the core, that wonderful pinch-myself thrumming through me like a plucked string. I've been happy quite a lot. I've thought “that's absolutely fine” a fair bit, I've thought “didn't we play well” from time to time. But overjoyed, no; not by winning a game comfortably in this dreary League One.

Because it plainly is dreary. What came down was so much worse than what went up that it was pretty clear this was a major opportunity to get out of the division. I'd guess we have a bigger budget than 21 other clubs. The two of a comparable size – Preston and Sheffield United – are underachieving, not because they're behind us but because they're scrapping with Bradford, Doncaster and Fleetwood. That won't do for famous sides like those two. And it's left the way open for us to run the division simply on account of hitting par for our budget whilst they fail to do so.

There's also the fact that even our close competitors are failing to give us a run for our money. The main reason we're seven points clear of third is that in both of the last two weekends, we've lost but so have Swindon. That's it. They could be a point behind us, but they're not. That's because they're a League One club on a small budget, so they'll be inconsistent and drop silly points. It's perfectly reasonable but it hardly adds to the tension of it all. And a break in tension is what creates real joy at football. It's why a late winner feels so much better than a fourth goal midway through the second half.

This time last year, our record – 67 points from 32 games, with a goal difference of 31 – would have put us third in the table. We'd have been level on points with Orient and Wolves above us, though – a three way tie! - having played a game more than Orient and a game fewer than Wanderers. Brentford would be a point behind us in fourth with a game in hand. It would have been completely brilliant. Imagine how vital every game would have felt. Imagine those clashes in Wolverhampton, in East and West London.

But there we are. Instead we're competently navigating a mediocre iteration of the division. We'll go up, great, but as far as I'm concerned the real thing will only start then. Getting back into the Championship and having to play well every week just to keep our heads above water. Real competition. Parachute payments. International players at the Gate. Difficult matches every week. And once again, that most underrated of footballing emotions – relief. The same relief, breeding the same delight, those Sheffield Wednesday fans felt last night.