August 26 was a dark day. The date may have little meaning for many of you reading. Indeed, many City fans may have been competing in a local cricket league, on a family holiday somewhere exotic, or instead merely enjoying the summer sun more domestically and perhaps listening to the eloquent Chris Goreham narrating City’s fortunes.
However, for the travelling contingent who were present at the Den, something far more unsavoury was unfolding in front of us.
It had started so brightly. Fresh from arising that morning after a friend’s 21st birthday party in Winchester, I negotiated a lift to Guildford train station where I boarded an early service to Waterloo to meet my brother.
Optimism was abundant. The sun was out. Yellow and green garments became visible as we arrived in London Bridge. A lowly Millwall side were City’s opponents, a game widely perceived as winnable despite the carnage that had been witnessed at a raucous Villa Park just seven days before. We believed.
Ninety minutes and four so avoidable goals later, fans had turned. This represented more than a defeat, instead a first-half characterised by an exhibition in complete defensive incompetence and a second that delineated no tangible signs of fight. Both on the pitch and in the terraces, it really was ugly.
The following day I wrote an article for this website, vehemently criticising the work of both Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke and arguing that on that Saturday’s evidence, they had let us down.
Perhaps it was premature. Indeed, it almost certainly was, but emotions were running high. However, at the time, foreseeing anything other than gloom and an impending campaign of mediocrity became virtually impossible.
But City responded. Four days later, the signing of Grant Hanley was announced from Newcastle United, a recruitment that was pervasively praised in yellow and green circles and one that clearly sought to amend our defensive shortcomings.
We were all aware of the type of player he is. As has been revealed to us over the past few months, he isn’t pretty. He doesn’t try to be. Regardless, the business served to vindicate Webber’s increasingly shrewd judgement, representing a critical turning point in this turbulent season.
Despite a relatively slow start, Hanley has been superb. His presence at the back has had such a significant stabilising influence, not only leading to the growing thwarting of opposition attacks but also catalysing the development of others around him.
It is no coincidence that Christoph Zimmerman’s progress has accelerated so considerably since the pair started playing together. Such a process looks set to continue.
Hanley is a leader. That thick Scottish accent was continually audible from my position in the South Stand over the Christmas period, while his ability to organise was further made conspicuous at both the Pirelli and at Ashton Gate.
Clean sheets were kept at both. That did not come as a surprise. He should surely be a key contender to succeed Ivo Pinto as our captain next season.
From the sixteen games Hanley has started in, we have conceded just sixteen goals. This record incorporates the statistics from a less impressive start, including defeats against Wolves, Cardiff and Brentford.
Since our stalemate in Staffordshire on December 30, his presence at the back has seen City concede just four goals in eight. He – and those around him – is constantly improving.
Of course, he is not alone in his importance to City. The blossoming Zimmerman has been magnificent in recent weeks, dominating aerial duals and winning tackles on a regular basis at both Griffin Park and during that pride-inducing televised game at Stamford Bridge.
The brilliance of both defenders has somewhat overshadowed the performances of Timm Klose, a player who remains vital but perhaps not to the extent to which Hanley and Zimmerman are. Few would have predicted such a narrative.
Farke also deserves considerable credit. The squad he inherited was one that leaked goals on such an alarming scale last season, appearing incapable of conceding less than two away from home and so frequently showing a complete lack of resilience and character. Although he may have somewhat stifled our attacking prowess owing to his insistence of patient, possession-based build up, he has commendably addressed the area that needed such urgent treatment.
With away trips to Derby and Wolves imminent, the following weeks look set to determine the fate of City’s season. A result at the iPro on Saturday would be colossal.
Although a late play-off push may not appear out of reach – and not necessarily in City’s interests given the thin nature of our squad and the inevitable departure of James Maddison in the summer – a continuation of our recent form may see us emerge as a contender from the growing mid-table Championship pack.
If such a development is to occur, Hanley’s presence in that growingly effective back three will almost certainly be critical. He may not be flashy. He may not possess the ability to pick out team mates with fifty-yard passes. But he doesn’t care.
This is the beauty of Hanley, a player who accepts his own limitations and plays the game with a pragmatic awareness of them. For as long as he remains a component of this City defence, it is difficult to see a repeat of August 26 reoccurring anytime soon.