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.


  1. Very eloquently put - I completely agree with the sentiments expressed. This season has been fun, but 2007 was "bigger" because it represented completion of a goal that we had been striving for (and failing to reach) for the best part of a decade. And indeed, any joy at this season's success is tempered by the memory of just how awful we were to end up in the position to be able to have a crack at the League One title in the first place.

    One could probably write many tomes on the futility of football-fandom: everything is cyclical and in all probability we will be back in League One within a decade. Our level, statistically, if floating between the second and third tiers, and our experience of football is almost certainly going to be restricted to the lows of relegation battles and the highs of striving to go back up again (and then hoping, against all previous experience, that this time will be different).

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