Last season was a write off – it was a transition season. It was all so new to us to have a non-British-Irish manager at the helm and who on earth were these German players?
It was unfortunate given the fact that everyone in the back of their minds knew it would be our last season with Wes Hoolahan, James Maddison, Angus Gunn, Harrison Reed, Josh Murphy and (at the time) Mo Leitner departing come the end of the season, while Alex Pritchard chose to make the leap up to the Premier League ahead of schedule (with a swift return back to the Championship now looking likely).
And on paper, this season was another write off – we didn’t have the money to spend, we made some questionable signings (at the time), and we had players who would need a season to gel and still wouldn’t be at the levels of those we’d predicted to be heading the Championship table.
We’d lost our best chance, right?
On that basis, this season really has been a fluke.
No-one apart from those at Colney could have predicted this during pre-season and that’s what makes what Daniel Farke and his team are doing truly impressive.
After Blackburn, we will have officially made it to the midway point of the season, round one is complete, and the reverse fixtures begin in perhaps the most exciting part of the year.
After all, three of City’s four losses came almost consecutively against teams City are challenging against – Leeds, West Brom and Sheffield United – and while things have changed drastically since our 3-0 home defeat at Leeds, there’s always going to be curiosity and whilst it may have killed the cat, it asks the question of what we might see at their next meeting.
How City’s fixtures line up are unkind with little respite – it’s a fixture list which will see us play six of the top ten in the next eight games, complimented with hosting the ‘lot-down-the-road’ which will undoubtedly check the 26,000 hearts in Carrow Road are just about functioning.
But the fact of the matter is nothing to do with how Farke will fair against big spending promotion contenders, it’s the bizarre fact we’re looking at these games and rather than waving the white flag and forfeiting the game before it has even kicked off, we’re actually realistically optimistic for points and we’ve rediscovered ambition within our team – one that we lost a while back.
We see ourselves against the best and know we shouldn’t surrender because of this special team we have.
Perhaps among all the other indicators this season, Bristol City was another gamechanger.
At the beginning of the season, a draw at Ashton Gate would be a reasonable and decent result. But the City faithful wanted more.
We admitted we weren’t at our best, we didn’t quite know why, things weren’t connecting, Mr no-yellow-card-for-me-anymore Alex Tettey made a couple hundred of us make a pray to the heavens (and Farke) to get him off or be more careful and when the home side took the lead. It was a very weird atmosphere.
And then Farke did the thing he’s getting the hang of – he threw on substitutes who made an instant impact and then the atmosphere in the away end did a couple of somersaults. We pushed for a winner, a sense of urgency magically appeared with Onel Hernandez and Jordan Rhodes, and the unbeaten run continued to ten.
And then we found out several of the squad had been down with the flu and Christoph Zimmermann had been operating on next-to-nothing and whilst frustration of not dominating Bristol City might have reigned early on, soon it turned into a well-earned point and applause for Farke’s substitutions. There was also a realisation that Tettey was indeed putting everything on the line, however questionable, and a wonder of “if this is them ill, what could have happened if they were fully functioning?”.
Who was this team? They were impressive.
And having played 22 games, we’ve won more games than we’ve done previously at this stage of the season for at least the past five seasons in the season, we’ve lost the least, we’ve scored the most goals up to this stage and we’ve conceded 26 goals – equal to the 2014/15 season.
Perhaps it’s the points comparison which really exaggerates how out of the ordinary this season’s story has become – at 44 points, we’re eight points better off than the 2010/11 season and 10 points better than our Playoff winning season in 2014/15.
But it’s the 17 points difference on last season that stands out for me.
Without a shadow of doubt, Farke deserves praise and despite the curse, he deserved the Championship Manager of the Month for November – yet as expected, he didn’t smile, nor did he look chuffed, he didn’t do an Eddie Howe and gather the entire backing staff for the picture. More likely than not, he wanted to put the trophy in a safe place, get away from the cameras and get back to work.
He didn’t take the plaudits, he told the press “I am not a big believer in individual awards – I take it in the name of my players and my staff and in the name of the whole club” and it’s predictable in the sense that since being appointed manager at City, he has only cared about the job in hand and never wanted the praise.
In fact, he may have adjusted too well to life in England by being too polite to accept a compliment but maybe it’s more the fact that his job isn’t over yet.
So he’d hate where this piece is leading but it needs to be said – whatever happens next.
After City had beaten Swansea away, Farke summed up this season so far perfectly.
‘Listen, I said before the game, this is not a pressure for us. The pressure is on [the] sides who have spent a lot of money and expect promotion. We are just enjoying it.’
And that’s the thing – we are.
City rank around 13th in terms of expenditures during the summer, spending around £4m on transfers, whilst Teemu Pukki and Tim Krul joined on free transfers and Jordan Rhodes on loan – it’s almost shameful when you think Stuart Webber thought it was acceptable to spend just £1.5 million on Emi Buendia but maybe he’s one for a bargain.
We don’t have that pressure and for every goal and every win, it’s a shock that it’s happening because no-one was prepared for this (apart from those inside Colney) but that’s what makes the journey an amazing one to be on.
And while second half goals in the fourth quarter of the game are nothing out of the ordinary, it’s the ‘never-say-die’ attitude and a new meaning to last-minute goals that Farke has reinstalled in his team.
City have scored 12 goals after the 80th minute mark this season – of those six was decisive, three extended the goal margin. Where late goals occurred, so did nine wins, while they drew their first game of the season in dramatic fashion and have only lost the one game against West Brom where they couldn’t quite get a 4-4 result. Only last-minute goals from Sheffield United and Derby County were decisive in City ending in defeat and a draw.
In comparison to last season, goals after the 80th minute resulted in just one win (which only extended the lead to 2-0), five draws and two defeats, whilst every single game where an opponent scored a goal in final ten minutes, the lead was extended.
Even when you look back to the 2016/17 season when Norwich finished eighth – whilst late goals equalled in nine wins, only one was decisive and it was in a 2-2 draw against Blackburn; the rest extended leads. As for the opposition, last minute goals extended the lead on six occasions and were decisive twice in two separate draws.
It proves City have become more clinical and an attacking presence, and perhaps less panicked in the closing stages while also suggesting they will no longer settle for a consolation goal as they’ve done in the past, neither will a draw be enough – they will play to the final whistle.
When I think about last-minute goals in very recent years – Nelson Oliveira’s goals against Fulham and Hull spring to mind, so does Timm Klose’s equaliser against Ipswich but they were draws.
Now, we’re after blood.
And the difference in just a year yells praise for how Farke has managed this season
Of course, the support staff deserve praise too and we’ve seen several times that those in the dugout are, in fact, more vital than the head coach himself but everything indicates that the German is indeed hands-on.
In an interview conducted by Justin Allen with Jordan Rhodes at the weekend, the loanee calls Farke a “terrific man-manager”, saying he has a “really close” relationship with every player and forces every nationality to mix and encourages them to speak English.
In fact he says: “If he sees that people aren’t [mixing], he’ll call it out. It’s the first time in my career I’ve seen that. It helps because it gives you a social aspect off the field and [you] get to fully understand your teammates”.
Whilst Rhodes says the success so far comes down to how Farke’s insistence on togetherness – almost identically, Farke has done something incredible.
From losing the backing of a good proportion of fans by August, he’s turned it around completely – not just by giving fans the results but by saying the right things (not the scripted nonsense Paul Lambert currently speaks to keep fans onside), by drilling it into players the meaning of playing for the club and giving a literal definition of wearing your heart on your sleeve.
He says his heart is yellow after all.
In such way, he’s rediscovered a lost bond between manager, players and fans and has produced a united team – not just some image for the rest of the league to see but one that has embodied everyone.
Everyone is part of this story.
Whatever happens next during round two – we, as fans, have been gifted something special over the past couple of months.
For that, I raise my glass to the man at the helm.