If there is one thing we’ve come to expect this season it’s the unexpected.
A week ago I certainly didn’t expect us to be kicking off at Ashton Gate minus one Alex Pritchard (and him simultaneously lining up in a Huddersfield shirt to play West Ham) and, equally, I really didn’t expect us to go on and beat the finest that Bristol has to offer.
The more astute among us may have foreseen the draining effect of the Robins’ heroic 2-1 defeat at the Etihad in Tuesday’s first-leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final but all muggins here saw was a side full of verve and energy whose impressive high press would almost certainly scupper the Canaries’ desire to work it through the thirds.
That Lee Johnson’s men did all of those things at times in the game yet City still emerged victorious therefore made the win all the more impressive. And in the most unlikely of circumstances City have now gone five unbeaten; a run that includes four clean sheets.
From somewhere Daniel Farke has harnessed that same resolve the travelling hoards witnessed at Bramall Lane, the Riverside, the Madjeski and Portman Road. It wasn’t especially pretty at times but it was resolute, determined and full of heart, and we now find ourselves two wins shy of the top six.
The six teams between City and said top six obviously present a small problem – probably an insurmountable one given our chronic inconsistency – but such is life in the Championship that a mini-run of three wins and a draw has been enough to propel us back within six points of the pack that matters.
To now be significantly closer to the fight for promotion than we are to the relegation scrum is quite the turnaround from where we were post-Brentford, and all played out amidst varying levels of turmoil off the pitch.
Yesterday was thankfully not about Alex Pritchard or Delia Smith. It was solely about Farke and the 14 bodies he chose to do a job for him. The head coach and his team had formulated a plan and it was duly delivered.
Heroes emerged, as they tend to in these circumstances, and for those that made the trek the sight of James Maddison’s fine strike nestling perfectly in the corner of Frank Fielding’s net was a fitting reward. For 98 minutes (where the hell did those eight minutes come from by the way?) there was no disconnect, only togetherness and it was one of the good days.
There were no weak links yesterday, no-one shirked, even our stroppy Portuguese striker put in a shift, but it was those three central defenders who, backed up by Angus’s brilliance, who were the bedrock of this win; Grant Hanley in particular emerging from the shadows of Duncan Forbes and Malky Mackay as a towering Norwich City centre-back in the Braveheart mould.
And to think we doubted if he would be quick enough when he made the switch from the North East.
One incident in the second-half – just after Maddison’s goal – summed it up for me. For once Bobby Reid looked to have found a yard on Timm Klose and Christoph Zimmermann, Angus was in his sights, and careering across from the right side of the back three came Hanley to thwart a potentially dangerous situation.
I suspect he’ll never be able to touch Josh over 100m but over five and ten he’s displayed a turn of pace that has surprised many, all helped by his starting position being invariably spot on. He was a colossus yesterday, ably assisted my Messrs Klose and Zimmermann.
Jamal Lewis, in the most trying of circumstances, learned more in those 98 minutes than he will have done in all of his other outings combined. On a yellow card and being singled out as potential source of Bristol City joy, the lad stood firm alongside his more experienced colleagues, un-rattled by either the yellow or the going over. He emerged a man.
Maddison’s brilliance was again there for all the watching scouts to see but it was telling that in his post-match chat with Norfolk’s Chris Goreham, the head coach, amidst praising the youngster, was keen to point out occasions where his decision-making let him down. A shot across the bows maybe for the circling vultures who already see the finished product and perhaps a reminder for the corridors of power, who saw fit to deprive him of the services of Pritchard, that he’d like to work with Madders for a bit longer.
Farke cut a dejected figure on Friday’s presser – the departure of Pritchard, possibly Wildschut too, clearly didn’t sit comfortably – but the smile had returned by the time Chris had started asking the questions yesterday. He’s an intelligent guy, he knows the financial constraints he is working within, but he’ll also know when those in power are taking the proverbial.
For Maddison to also depart in this window would cause ructions that Stuart Webber would do well to avoid.
Yesterday’s midfield wasn’t solely dominated by Maddison though. Instead it was one Mario Vrancic who stood tall with and without the ball and produced his best shift in a yellow shirt. In for the injured again Tom Trybull, the Bosnian no longer finds himself on the periphery as the hussle and bussle of the Championship goes on all around him. He’s starting to look at home and, finally, his quality is starting to shine through.
His cross-field diagonal to pick out Ivo Pinto ahead of the goal was a thing of beauty, even if the national media chose to ignore the aesthetically pleasing ten-pass move that preceded Vrancic’s moment of quality. It mattered not though, the only thing that did being where Maddison’s shot ended up.
There were of course some “spicy” late moments to survive, as you would expect when faced with a good side, but survive them they did; Angus and that save being the absolute highlight.
It’s a shame to think we’re entering the final throes of watching a team that includes a Gunn and a Maddison but hopefully there will be a few more good days to come before we wish them a fond farewell.
In fact, there’d better be.