Bristol – allegedly the UK’s fifth most populated city. It is home to the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Banksy and J. K. Rowling. However, on a sporting front, it has always fallen short, especially from a footballing perspective. The city in the South West has remarkably never produced a side that has graced the English Premier League. In fact, the last time Bristol had a football team in the top flight of English football was in 1980 when Bristol City had a slot in the old First Division. Since then, the Robins have endured periods of both success and failure whilst still falling some way short of the promised land.
Bristol City: A Side Haunted by Inconsistency
The Robins are without a doubt the South West’s premier club and are certainly the most likely to finally be the Bristol side that hosts Premier League football first. In 2016, current boss Lee Johnson even went on record saying he expected the club to be playing European football in five years. Yet, over the last 20 years, they’ve yo-yoed between League One and the Championship and only recorded one top-six finish in the English second tier. Although that season did yield an appearance in the Championship play-off final, City’s lack of progress since will worry their billionaire owner Steve Lansdown. Too often have their stints of success and progressive football been marred by extraordinary implosions.
In 2015, with Ashton Gate being redeveloped and a League One and Football League Trophy double in the bag under Steve Cotterill’s management, City looked like a side ready to challenge in the Championship. No such challenge materialised and Cotterill was relieved of his duties as former City player Johnson was instilled as City boss.
Johnson’s reign has similarly bared witness to mixed fortunes and he continues to divide supporters to an extent. Whilst he holds the unwanted record of eight straight league defeats at Bristol City, he did also mastermind what was a sensational first half of the 2017/18 season. On Boxing Day of 2017, Johnson’s City were second in the Championship and had just defeated Manchester United to reach the Carabao Cup semi-finals. What happened next stayed very true to City’s fluctuating form and style under Johnson. After amassing 47 points after the first 24 games, the next 22 fixtures only returned 20 points as City finished 11th, eight points outside the play-offs.
This term has followed the Johnson trend of inconsistency. A winless start to the season was followed by four straight victories, whilst four losses on the bounce in October and November has prompted an unbeaten run of nine games for Johnson and his City side. It would seem that Bristol City are more than capable of challenging in the Championship, but in order for them to take that giant leap towards the Premier League, Johnson must demand a level of consistency from his young side.
The Strongest Championship Ever?
Nevertheless, whilst Johnson’s inconsistency and occasional managerial naivety can be attributed to City’s lack of progression, there are other factors that are out of his hands. Typically during Lansdown’s reign, City’s transfer dealings have been shrewd but any bid for promotion has been hindered by the continued departures of key players. Bobby Reid, Aden Flint, Joe Bryan and Jonathan Kodjia have all departed Ashton Gate in the last three seasons, whilst City were also unable to maintain the services of Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham.
For City to push on, there is a sense that they have to do everything they can to keep their current stars at Ashton Gate and then invest heavily in their playing squad. Famara Diedhiou’s £5.4 million move from French outfit Angers remains City’s record transfer, and given Lansdown’s extensive financial resources, it really does pale into insignificance when compared to the combined £25 million Middlesbrough spent on Britt Assombalonga and Martin Braithwaite in the summer of 2017.
That is just one example of the finances available to some clubs in the Championship now. In fact, the spending power of Championship clubs is unrivalled across the second-tiers of any league system worldwide and thus, the challenge of reaching the Premier League for clubs like Bristol City is all the more difficult. Despite City’s enviable infrastructure and Lansdown’s financial muscle, it is difficult to envisage them challenging the likes of Leeds United, Aston Villa, Derby County, Middlesbrough, West Brom and Norwich City over the course of a 46 game season.
Premier League in Five Years?
It’s not impossible, though. The project at Bristol City does have an element of pulling power for players. The newly renovated Ashton Gate is essentially a Premier League standard ground, and with an average league attendance of 20,593, there’s a considerable, passionate but expectant fan-base already in place. Bristol as a city also isn’t exactly the least attractive proposition for young professional footballers either.
The manager does also come with some credibility, despite his critics. Johnson’s losing runs and loss of form in periods does tend to overshadow the expansive tactical game he tries to implement. After Johnson’s City deservedly beat Manchester United in the Carabao Cup, the Robins only narrowly lost to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the next round. Guardiola himself lauded Johnson’s City side after the tie, stating: “It’s a benefit to football and everyone when two teams take to the pitch and they want to play.” It was a testament to the way in which Johnson sets his sides up, and it does represent the considerable potential this side has. Consistency has to be found, however. The manager has displayed his ability, so perhaps the onus shifts towards the owners. Given the strength and standard of the Championship in 2019, there is a recognised heavy reliance on squad recruitment.
Whilst Europe by 2021 is probably a bridge too far for Johnson and his Bristol City side, the Premier League is certainly not. It just might require a transfer window or two of serious investment that provide City’s young but ambitious manager with the tools he needs to take them there.