A humdinger of a game and one of those days that makes you envious of the Irish Republic and the Scandinavian countries who play their football season in the summer months. It was a triumph for a positive crowd carrying a team to victory and for a side that played with a strong team ethic. There seemed to be two distinct brands of football on display. Bristol City’s ball-playing tended to involve craning one’s neck to the heavens too much of the time, while Barnsley’s quick, smooth, passing and movement was a joy to behold and something that made me question the fact that they’re 14th in the Championship table.
There’s some validity to talk about team’s formations but when deploying a quick pass-and-move style such discourse seems to miss the point: such a side attacks in packs and defends in packs. The man on the ball, especially when attacking, had more than one option available. Indeed, the onus should always be on everyone except the man on the ball: work to offer the options and make decision making easy.
Barnsley got a well deserved goal after 37 minutes of being all over City like a rash. It came after Joe Bryan was (possibly) fouled and ended up on the floor and out of position. It also gave the side a chance to hide behind the skirts of the referee. Suddenly the narrative changed from City being steamrollered by an excellent side to it being “1-0 to the referee!”. Indeed, Aiden Flint seemed to seize the chance to exacerbate this by ostentatiously arguing with the players and the ref about that and other decisions. I just thought that we weren’t 1-0 because of the referee; it wasn’t the referee who’d been giving us a stern footballing lesson.
The goal also came because one could first hear the home crowd’s frustration; then see the players start to make more mistakes; then Barnsley sense that they should turn the screw ever tighter. I’m a strong advocate of fans being able to give full voice to their feelings; to stay quiet or to even boo if circumstances dictate but they should be aware that they can directly affect the game when their disgruntlement gets voiced.
An early second half reply from Tammy Abraham put City back level and from then onwards, the home crowd was firmly at City’s back. Even when a mistake ten minutes later gave Barnsley a breakaway goal, beautifully taken with crisp passing, moving and bullet-driven home by George Moncur, the City crowd still tried to lift the team. Other results suggested that all other relegation-threatened teams in action were picking up points; things were looking dicey, what with Brighton next – probably jonesing to break 100 points of the season with three wins – and a possible six-pointer with a newly “de-Zola-ed” Birmingham City.
Just as I said to my other half: “There’s more goals in this”, a bouncing through ball allowed City’s Jamie Patterson to gently lob the Barnsley goalie and it was back level at 2-2 with still twenty odd minutes to go. Earlier I’d been chatting about Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo and his astonishing over a goal a game average, over nearly 400 games. My favourite Ronaldo-style goal wasn’t a free kick or a dribble but when he’d somehow defeat physics, hang in the air and punch home a header. Well, centre-back, Aiden Flint gave a great rendition of this, five minutes later, nutting home a corner and it was 3-2. Although Barnsley still kept their heads and their shape, it felt like the winner and so it proved out to be the case. Unless Brighton run up a cricket score against us next week and we lose to Birmingham and all the teams below us start winning, City have now limped to safety: ‘Mathematically Safe‘, just about.
There’s a salutary lesson here, for Bristol City fans. All things being equal, I’d always lean towards keeping a manager in a relegation fight. That stability can prove valuable when push comes to shove. Since City started to implode from December onwards, the call for the boss, ex-Barnsley manager Lee Johnson, to get fired got louder and louder. Indeed, Barnsley got off some funny chants today about “He’s taking you down. He’s taking you down. Lee Johnson. He’s taking you down.” which, where I was sitting, was met with smiles, clapping and figurative hat-tipping towards the Barnsley contingent.
Realising that finishing 21st shakes out in the final analysis as the same as finishing 7th, I wasn’t for kicking him to the curb at least until a month ago, when I wanted him gone and the whole board fired too: with the caveat that it was now too late in the season anyway. Many City fans have been whining to radio stations about us definitely going down, even when Rotherham and Wigan have had a firm grip on two of the three relegation places for many weeks and during a couple of home games, the crowd has resorted to directly calling for Johnson’s head. Once that rubicon’s been crossed, you don’t really come back from that….yet I’ve seen many of the same faces cheering City (Johnson’s team) to the rafters. I wish that they weren’t so fickle because now, both the club’s board, who stuck by Johnson, and Johnson himself can feel smugly self-satisfied and essentially go: “See? See?”. As Diamond Joe Quimby remarked of the electorate in The Simpsons: “Toss them all a fish and watch them slap their fins together.”. Here, toss them a few wins….and see them shut their mouths.
One might argue that the fans are just responding to what’s been delivered to them but I’d argue that there’s no reverse gear when calling for the boss to be fired so think twice before you go there. A friend of mine was once stuck on some deadbeat bloke. He actually asked her one day: “So, she we call it quits?” and she said: “No!”. Once a certain line’s been reached, there’s no comeback.
People on the radio had been saying that Johnson was the worst manager in their 30 or 40 years of watching the side. Just rubbish. I remember the Sean O’Driscoll era of not so long ago, when going to football really made you think that you were coming down with a fatal disease. O’Driscoll, humourless, leaden O’Driscoll, took City from having a fighting chance of staying in the Championship to having one foot in League Two in just over a year. Johnson, meanwhile, has just offered dull, disjointed, at times utterly clueless football. And it’s been good enough to see him survive, I’m sure, but that resentment won’t take too long to resurface if City don’t start well next year. In a few months, the club could well be back in the latrine and Johnson will be harder to shift having proved good enough this time and the fans will have lost their leverage, having been bought off so easily this time.
Maybe the answer is to refuse to see football while looking through an infantile, Donald Trumpian-style prism? As with that Godless, short-fingered, orange bandit, everything’s either “fantastic” or “tremendous” or else “a catastrophe” or “a mess”. Maybe strive for some nuance and don’t cross the line in calling for the manager’s head unless you’ve thought twice, thought thrice, and will follow through? We’ll see how it all plays out. I’ll be there. I’ve already renewed my season ticket. Rashly.