Like a fine wine, sometimes three points really do get better with age. Sometimes, just sometimes, you do not come to realise the significance of a victory until you have sat back objectively and dwelled on it, relinquishing the emotion-fuelled and partisan antics undertaken the day before and instead dispassionately reflecting on it in isolation.
Indeed, as I sit here in Birmingham awaiting my train back up to Durham for another term, it is only now dawning on me on just how impressive events witnessed at Ashton Gate really were.
Saturday was less about the result than it was about what it represented. This was more than a victory, more than a mere three points and more than an intermittent spark of positivity in a season otherwise characterised by gloom, inconsistency and misery. Instead, this was a display of steadfast defiance, a performance saturated with notions of unity and resolve and one that showed a complete absence of any concern about the events that preceded it.
Daniel Farke’s press conference on Friday was not easy listening. The well-documented departure of City’s brilliant Alex Pritchard to Huddersfield Town had finally been completed. Tom Trybull, our midfield warrior who was so important in those away triumphs of September and a figure who was universally perceived to be critical in a fixture such as Saturday’s, was declared injured with a back injury. The nature of the Pritchard sale was subtly criticised by Farke, revealing small yet significant manifestations of tension between himself and Stuart Webber.
If our manager’s aim was to erode any degree of optimism the travelling 1,127 would arrive in Bristol with, he was doing a considerably good job in achieving it.
But it’s events on the pitch that matter. Events on the pitch that speak so much louder than what our ever-improving German coach has to say at Colney. Given the context, given the opposition and given the current state of affairs at Carrow Road, Saturday’s victory unambiguously renders it our most telling triumph of the season so far, a performance that demonstrated so much of what we had anticipated to see under Farke’s leadership since his appointment and one that – for many of us – has distorted our perceptions of what this side may be capable of achieving up until May.
It wasn’t always pretty. Indeed, it wasn’t always positive. Nelson Oliviera struggled once again, dragging his best opportunity of recent weeks wide of the post just before half-time. City had to repel periods of relentless pressure from the hosts, being saved by a West Country post on one occasion and relying on their magnificent goalkeeper on multiple others. For large parts of the second-half, we were under that thick, heavy stick or bar more popularly known in footballing terms as the ‘cosh’. We had to dig deep.
And we did so superbly. This felt like more than a victory, evoking memories of a Lambert-era result and revealing to all of us that there is a life after Pritchard. From those that loyally made the cross country journey behind that goal, there were no unsavoury signs of the ‘Delia Out’ brigade, no visible anti-board protests and no sense of palpable resentment towards the powers that be. Instead, this was a proper away following, a group of passionate fans who truly cared and were united by a common adoration of this magical football club. Personally, it was my favourite away trip of the last two seasons.
It had everything. From defensive resilience to a late wonder-strike to win the game in front of the away contingent, this maiden trip to Ashton Gate will live long in the memory. Those tackles by Grant Hanley and Christoph Zimmerman. Those majestic crossfield passes from Mario Vrancic, one of Saturday’s protagonists owing to not only his majestic distribution but also his willingness to be physical and make tackles. That goal from James Maddison. And of course, that utterly, utterly stunning late save from Angus Gunn.
When the ball fell to Josh Brownhill six yards out, I think most of us present merely accepted that our valiant efforts were not going to be. Despite City’s tenacity, bravery and defiance, we would have to accept a point. But then along came Gunn, propelling himself from out of nowhere like goalkeeping jack-in-the-box to thwart the midfielder’s goal bound shot. The reactions of Maddison, Timm Klose and Ivo Pinto said it all. This is a team who are together, willing to battle and fight for one another both home and away and through thick and thin.
Where do City go from here? Over half a month of speculation concerning the futures of Maddison, Oliviera and the out of favour Cameron Jerome appears inevitable until the clocks strike midnight on January 31, but you cannot argue with the fact that we sit six points off the play-offs with the chance to go even closer when the winless-in-ten Sheffield United visit the Fine City this weekend. Providing we keep the first name on that list and are capable of bringing in one or two adept new recruits to add to Farke’s ranks, it would not be getting carried away to suggest that this season isn’t a complete damp squib just yet.
Of course, the odds are stacked against us. We must not forget those days at the Macron, the Pirelli or when Brentford made the trip to NR1, days that provided us all with a sobering reminder of what this City side can sometimes be capable of. However, the advent of Grant Hanley at the heart of our defence combined with Farke’s pragmatic adoption of three-at-the-back appears to have provided us with that pervasively-desired sense of solidity, a notion intensified by the presence of the division’s best keeper protecting our goal. Conceding just a solitary goal in our last four away games is an imposing statistic.
Now is the time for unity. Regardless of the fate of Maddison and our strike force this month, City fans must come together and support our team for the remaining nineteen games of this Championship season, not continue to throw vehement and unnecessary abuse at the club’s top brass on social media. The players will need our loyalty. It won’t be easy. The road ahead is tough, with visits to Brentford, Derby and Wolves all imminent.
However, if we take that collective jubilance witnessed on the terraces at ten to five on Saturday evening with us into our remaining fixtures, who knows what may happen. In fact, there may well be a few more bottles of fine wine still yet to develop.