If you’re going to lose your tenth game in thirteen matches, don’t do it when the weather’s terrible. Blustery wind, against a dark backdrop, while rain was illuminated against the floodlights and people were again asked to choke down another gutless, toothless display: of course they were going to rebel. Losing 2-0 to Fulham wasn’t beyond the realm of what could be foreseen but one was left with a real sense of fatality, a sense of ‘rock bottom’ from that performance. The crowd – after one previous outburst of “You don’t know what you’re doing!” against Rotherham United – went into “We Want Johnson out!” mode, even in the home end, the Atyeo stand, where the true believers normally reside. Other swathes of the fans didn’t indulge but two or three sections were on board with it. It won’t be long before a full-throated, Welsh choir-style rendition of “What a load of rubbish!” will occur and the club might pull the chute on Lee Johnson’s time as manager, or ‘head coach’ in irritating-speak.
While on a bus, battling through the evening’s traffic to the game, I picked up a copy of the ‘Bristol Evening Post’ from a nearby seat. I’ve been surprised at the lack of serious talk within official channels, about Lee Johnson’s position and here again there was nothing questioning that within the text while a smug-looking Johnson in a photograph looked out from the back page. One sensed the unseen hand of a Bristol Rovers fan picking that particular picture to try to shit-stir and to get under people’s skin. One photograph only attests to that fraction of a second and tells you nothing, on its own, about that person’s day. Like that famous one of The Beatles working on ‘Let It Be’, supposedly showing the tension that was going to rip the band apart, but maybe they look serious because they’re trying to concentrate on some playback? They could have been laughing and chatting a couple of seconds later. Here, with Bristol City’s situation, the photograph of Lee Johnson didn’t convey the correct tone. Lee didn’t pick the photograph but it went towards painting him as an unsympathetic figure.
Creative, if overly beefy and immobile, Lee Tomlin started again on the substitute’s bench and Tammy Abraham – the 19 year old loan from Chelsea, on whom the whole season has been carried – was back at Chelsea, getting an injury seen to. The paper called Abraham City’s ‘key man’ but he’s not even City’s player. If you’re hanging everything around the shoulders of a 19 year old loan singing then something is surely amiss.
City didn’t start too badly but once they fell behind to a Lucas Piazon goal, as Fulham essentially walked-it-in, Arsenal-ed-it-in, to the net, you felt some of the crowd rearing back as they then told the players that this wasn’t good enough, with some restlessness and disgruntlement. Prior to the game, my partner-in-crime met someone who was driving up to Newcastle on Saturday but hoped City would lose tonight. This is what can happen when a manager loses the crowd: fans feel that any win just prolongs the inevitable and allows the manager more time in the job when that fan already wants them gone. Johnson lost the crowd in about December time, or at least some of the crowd.
The crowd’s deep-seated unhappiness directly transmuted to the players, en masse. No one wanted the ball because no one wanted to take responsibility, with its attendant fear of then making a mistake. Players just disappeared: they ‘self-hologrammed’, they were there but not there. Goalkeeper Fabian Giefer would have the ball in his hands and no one would be looking in his direction; no one wanting it and signalling to ‘give it to me!’. It was like the bill for a meal had arrived and everyone decided to go to the toilet, hoping that someone else would pay.
It was a vicious circle. The crowd’s annoyance affected the players, which made the team worse, which got the crowd angrier, which affected the players…..It’s easy to point to the crowd for nullifying their own side’s chances with its behaviour; that they should try to lift the team. And that’s true but 10 defeats from 13 games or 13 defeats from 17 games tells its own story. People are fed up with the gutlessness and the feeling of all-devouring malaise.
The second goal was just ineptitude. David Cotterill sold the keeper Giefer a bit short, which then led to Gidfer selling Adam Matthews short, who, in turn, couldn’t find the other defender. Fulham took the present from that plate on which it was delivered and Tom Cairney placed the second in the left corner of the net.
Some massive, rumbling boos greeted that farce. There was still over half an hour to go but it never looked like City were going to score even once. The crowd reaction did galvanise things to an extent. Lee Johnson brought Lee Tomlin on – to huge cheers – but Tomlin was in ‘off the pace, running into brick wall’ mode. The passing got slightly snappier but wasn’t on the beat enough to cause any sweat to the Fulham brow.
Any crappy side who’s 2-0 at home with 35 minutes to go would grab a game by the scruff of the neck and make the other side defend against the home side’s pressure but it was pretty even for the rest of the game: with City never going to score and Fulham never going to concede.
I always hate that idea, which is propagated by many, of wanting managers or players who shout and wave their fists at each other, yelling: “Come on!”. That’s the kind of snake oil that looks good for television cameras and pleases the football tourists but isn’t awfully productive: any grown adult having another grown adult shout at him probably ‘turns off’ rather than engages more deeply. Yet, rather than the silly outer actions of people being assertive, Bristol City desperately needed someone who’d actively dictate the game last night but no one wanted to step up to that mark.
There were differing renditions of “Johnson must go!” as the game drew to a close. While it was clear, very clear, to anyone who could hear, other sections wouldn’t sing it while many left early, probably trying to get back onto normal time. Why the usual kick off time was put from 7.45 back to 8.00, I don’t know. That can make a big difference to people, perhaps with buses to catch or just the notion of being out in the cold, windy, dark instead of being at home. A mental barrier is broken with an 8.00 as the second half starts on or after 9.00 at night so they might have wanted to snap out of this nonsense and get off home.
Unlike many, I’ve never viewed relegation through that melodramatic, hyperbolic prism of ‘disaster’. Garbage. You might come straight back up, you might not, but that’s not a disaster. Wars are fought in the world, maniacs con enough people to get elected/win votes: those are disasters, not football teams playing at a lower level.
I used to be hardcore for keeping Lee Johnson no matter what as hardship can work wonders for experience and for fortitude. Indeed, in the final analysis, 21st in the Championship shakes out as the same as 7th and 21st is easily within reach but the Fulham game shook me from that perspective.
With Newcastle on Saturday, I’d thought that perhaps the club might have written that game off, expecting a caning no matter what, and fired Johnson for a new boss time to get ready for the six-pointer against Villa next Tuesday. Checking Google, I can see that typing in ‘Lee Johnson’ then brings up the guess of ‘Lee Johnson sacked’, suggesting that many have been using that formulation to search but it’s been fruitless as he’s still the boss, still in situ but I think that it might only be a matter of time.
The pendulum. Every time Bristol City fires a new, progressive, ‘exciting’ boss, the crowd howls for a man with a proven record……and every time that Bristol City lets go an experienced man with a proven record, the crowd bellows for a new, exciting manager. So, it’s due to swing the other way, I suppose, and an experienced manager will be next. My idea will often be: “Well, if he’s that good, why is he available now?”.
If the crowd does get Lee Johnson’s head on a platter, who should be the next manager? I would go for our ex-manager, a man who should never have been fired in the first place, Steve Cotterill. When Cotterill was being treated like Christ at the end of the 2014 – 2015 season, when – after playing some great attacking football all season – City won the League One championship, thrashing Walsall 8-2, having already won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, making it a lower league double, I said to my partner-in-crime: “Just wait. Those fans will be calling for his head in a few months.” and sure enough…..
Cotterill is still based in Bristol and, if I was the person in charge at City, I’d phone him up and offer him double what he was on last time plus a bonus if he keeps this wreck in the Championship. If he had taken City back down again in 2015 – 2016, he’d have been the best manager to have in trying to get back up. Right now, we could have been in the top two in League One but this time, with the experience of having been in the Championship.
Sometimes, you have to go backwards to go forwards again. Sean Dyche took Burnley into the Premier League but then took them back down straight away. Burnley didn’t panic and eject him for some journeyman boss on the managerial merry-go-round, in the vain hope of staying in a league. They took their medicine, went down, came back up again the following season and now look likely to survive this season. It was almost the same with Steve Bruce at Hull City, before the off-field shambles forced his hand close to this season’s opener. Rafa at Newcastle too.
To go into a higher division is sometimes spoken of in terms of ‘acclimatizing’, as if football teams are mountaineers scaling Everest. It can be a good analogy for my point as mountaineers used to (I don’t know if it’s still the case) go up…then go back to base camp and then go up again the next day, only then using that as their base. It was an up-down-up process of progress.
If things weren’t patently not working at City, I would keep Johnson even if City went down. With that notion seemingly off the table and more than the crowd could bear, I, therefore, would make Cotterill an offer that he can’t refuse on the idea that we probably will go down and we can then take up where we left off, with him being the best man to get us back up again. Too many football people swallow the spurious narrative of relegation being catastrophic. Let Cotterill try to keep us up but – in the worst case – let him do what he’s done before and win promotion from League One, only this time both he and the club will have a better sense of what awaits if we do return to the Championship.