Robins Fans Should Not Worry

After over half a year unbeaten in the league the boys in red have been bought back down to earth with a bang. Two defeats in a row to our nearest rivals for promotion have blown the league one title race wide open. Where we were once eight points in front of second place we now stand just two points clear of Preston in third.

Crucially though, we are still top. Though results haven’t been impressive the performances have not been bad. Wade Elliott was very unlucky to be sent off in the first minute against Swindon and despite playing 89 minutes with ten men, City only went down 1-0. There were chances in that game for both Kieran Agard and Aaron Wilbraham, yet they were fluffed. It was the exact same at home to Preston, where four gilt edged chances were missed. City’s profligacy in front of goal allowed the game to slip from their grasp.

With Agard and Wilbraham failing to find the net, now is the time to give Jay Emanuel-Thomas a good run out. In the first half of last season he was the single shining light for the reds, scoring goals almost single handedly. Sadly for JET, it appears Steve Cotterill is not his biggest fan.

It would appear the time to sign a like for like replacement for Sam Baldock has arrived. Wilbraham and Agard should not be blamed for the current lack of goals, having been relied upon all season. It would almost be churlish not to sign another striker to take some of the weight off their shoulders.

Judging from his summer signings Cotterill likes a tried and tested British player. Why not then, go for someone like Jonathan Forte or Eion Doyle in January? Both are scoring goals at league one level and their respective clubs are not in the best financial state. I’m sure a six figure bid would be sufficient to tempt one of the two away.

There has already been some transfer business, conducted on the quiet last week. Chelsea full back Todd Kane was signed on loan and made his first appearance at right back on saturday, when coming on as a substitute for Mark Little. Kane can play in several defensive positions, which will be vital during the Christmas run of games when injuries and suspension will take their toll.

Despite the two losses in a row faith in Cotterill should be retained. In the space of one year he’s took us from the bottom four to top of the table. By signing Kane forethought in the transfer market is being shown. I’m sure there’s more to follow. As it stands, the squad needs just one or two top class league one players. Secure them and I’m sure we’ll be celebrating promotion come May.

City Strikers Leading Title Charge

Wilbraham & Agard
Wilbraham & Agard

Previous Bristol City manager Gary Johnson once said the season is split up into blocks of ten games. Well, were ten games into this season and sitting pretty atop the league, with seven wins and three draws. This is all the more impressive considering we have beaten pre-season favourites Sheffield United and giant killers MK Dons along the way. Key to our lightning start has been Aaron Wilbraham, who has already scored eight goals in nine appearances – his best ever start to a season.

Wilbraham’s splendid start to the season has meant last seasons top scorer Sam Baldock has not been missed in the slightest. When first looking at the striker he appears to be your standard big target man, but upon closer inspection he offers so much more. Adept with the ball at his feet and even better at holding the ball up and bringing others into play Wilbraham has been one of the reasons we have such a good scoring record this season.

However, when Wilbraham is having an off day or failing to score, we now have another striker we can turn to. Kieran Agard, a £750,000 signing from Rotherham, has began to hit form in the last few games, and is the perfect little man to Wilbraham’s big. I was very surprised the ex-Everton man was willing to drop back down a division after winning promotion to the Championship last year, but it just goes to show how big a draw our club, and in particular our manager are. In the game against Fleetwood the two scored all three goals between them, with Agard setting Wilbraham up for the second with a neat header.

Following up his brace against Fleetwood Agard scored another double on saturday against MK Dons, taking his tally to five in six games. For the first time in a long while City now have a striking partnership that is up there with the best, if not the best, in the league.

While Baldock has not been missed since his departure that is down to the duo’s good form, as well as the lack of injuries the squad has had this year. Last season’s outstanding player Jay Emmanuel-Thomas has yet to really take to the field, but is a more than adequate back up to the two currently holding the starting berth. Of course, he is a completely different type of forward to Agard and Wilbraham and it remains to be seen how he would play with the duo.

Next up is seventeenth place Walsall away, never an easy place to visit. Though with Wilbraham and Agard leading the line i’m fully confident we can come away with another three points and extend our lead at the top of the table.

Summer Signings Lead the Way for Robins

After seven games of the season City are sitting pretty atop the League 1 table, unbeaten and with the best goal difference in the division. On Saturday recently relegated Doncaster were swept aside 3-0 in what was one of the better performances since Steve Cotterill has taken charge. Donnie were much fancied at the start of the season but could not cope with City’s play, and mustered just one shot on target the entire game.

Cotterill was well backed by owner Steve Lansdown in the summer and bought in eight players, the majority of whom have played a massive part in the club’s rise to the summit. City will be well aware of the risks of bedding in a large amount of players – as evidenced by Spur’s struggles last year and Liverpool to an extent this year. However, seven of the eight new signings started the victory over Doncaster, and the signs are that they are beginning to click.

City conceded 67 times last season, far too often for a team that is looking for promotion. That has been rectified this season, with just four goals let in. This can be attributed to two factors – the formation change and the new defensive signings. Cotterill has been playing 3-5-2 this year (as he did towards the tail end of last season), a system which suits the three centre backs currently playing. Derrick Williams and new signing Luke Ayling have slotted in alongside Aden Flint seamlessly, and the latter’s performances this season have been a far cry from the shambolic centre back we saw at times last year. Right wing back Mark Little was signed from Peterborough, and has been a revelation, providing both attacking flair and defensive nous.

Big summer signing Luke Freeman is yet to hit top form, but looks like he will be a great player. Korey Smith is the signing that has impressed me the most. He’s slipped under the radar but his assured performances in midfield have played a key part in The Robins good start to the season.

The signing who has had the biggest impact is Aaron Wilbraham – almost bought in by chance when Cotterill bumped into him on holiday. He’s scored several vital goals this season already and is well on the way to forming a successful big man/little man partnership up top with Kieran Agard, who scored his first goal for the club on Saturday.

Cotterill was clever in that two of his summer signings were here on loan last season, in Karleigh Osbourne and Wade Elliott. Osbourne has been sidelined with an injury since arriving, but Wade Elliott has been the beating heart of the team. Taking over the captaincy after Sam Baldock departed for Brighton, he has displayed a maturity and calmness that our midfield has not seen since the days of Paul Hartley.

What Cotterill has done is add experience and know-how to the squad. Elliott and Osbourne have been there and done it, whilst the rest of his signings have played at a higher level, or have the ability to do so. Proven performers at League 1 have been bought in, and it looks to be paying off.

Baldock’s Departure can be a Positive

The fans are understandably upset at Sam Baldock’s departure to Brighton last week, but is it all that bad? City made an almighty effort to keep hold of him – rejecting six bids before finally accepting a £2 million offer. That doesn’t strike me as a club treading water, and the fact he was in the last year of his contract means we’ve actually got a pretty decent fee for him.

Don’t get me wrong, Baldock was a key part of our squad having top scored last season, but we do have ready made replacements. New signing Aaron Wilbraham has impressed since joining in the summer, scoring three times already (including the opener in our victory against league favourites Sheffield United). Kieran Agard was also signed from Championship Rotherham for £750,000, in what was a massive coup for the club considering he only scored 3 less goals than Baldock last season. Then we still have fan favourite Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, one of the few shining lights of last season’s dreadful opening six months. He’s had a distinct lack of game time this year which will hopefully change now.

Summer arrival Luke Freeman also has the capability to play up front, and it is hoped that he will now be given the game time to make his mark at the club. Freeman’s a player you can’t help but get excited about. Having gone through the Arsenal academy he’s comfortable on the ball with a penchant for the spectacular. Steve Cotterill has said he wants to play him just off the front two, which should see him flourish.

Financial fair play now plays a huge part in any club’s transfer dealings, and manager Cotterill has said City were in no position to match the wages offered to Baldock by Brighton. Not a surprise when you consider they’re pushing for promotion to the Premier League. The fee received was double what we paid for him, plus Baldock was one of the higher earners at the club. This means more money saved, and we’ve actually made a profit this transfer window whilst at the same time massively improving the squad.

However, there is room for one more striker. Cotterill has said several times he wants four out and out forwards, so who is likely to come in? Ideally we would look to the youth team, but at the moment there’s not an outstanding candidate. It’s probably too late in the window to get a player in permanently, and Cotterill has shown to be astute when it comes to using the loan market (think Karleigh Osbourne and Wade Elliott last season). Our best bet would be to get a young hungry striker in temporarily until January. If he impresses, great, if not, we can then get someone in permanently.

So do not fear Robins fans, despite Baldock leaving we still have one of the most competitive teams in the league, and more importantly one of the better managers. I’m still backing us for promotion this year, as the experience in the squad should see us through.

Bristol Sport Heralds New Dawn for Sport in the West Country

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Stephen Lansdown is recognised throughout Bristol as a man who makes money – and plenty of it. He co-founded Hargreaves Lansdown in 1981, trading from a spare bedroom during the company’s early days. The company recently enjoyed record revenues, which pushed Lansdown into 974th place in Forbes Magazine’s list of richest people in the world. Having been Chairman of Bristol City for nine years, he stepped down in 2011 but still remains the club’s majority shareholder.

Shortly after leaving his post as Chairman of Bristol City, Lansdown promptly brought Bristol Rugby Club in early 2012. Six months later he formed Bristol Sport Limited to oversee the financial and business management of both clubs. Lansdown says that ‘I said at the time of the acquisition there was a great synergy between the two clubs and that I intended them to work closely together.’

It was recently revealed that Lansdown has actually been bankrolling Bristol Rugby since 2008, when the club was in real danger of going out of business. It’s clear to see that Lansdown is passionate about sport, but Bristol as a city has been underachieving in this area for years. The city’s two football clubs have spent just five years in the top two divisions in the last twenty years, whilst Bristol Rugby have been yo-yoing between the top flight and the second division for the best part of a decade.

As well as a lack of results, building new facilities for the region’s top teams has also proved a problem. Bristol Rovers have been attempting to build a new stadium since 2005, whilst Bristol City has only just been granted approval to renovate their stadium. They’ve been attempting to do this since 2007. This is where Bristol Sport come into the equation. Stu Rogers, Chairman of Bristol City Supporters Club, says that ‘their [Bristol Sports] value is in the stadium consultations, planning permissions and eventual build. They bring resource and expertise that isn’t available within the club.’ This value was made clear when Martin Griffiths, Chairman of Bristol Sport, spoke at the Council meeting which decided to grant Bristol City the right to expand and renovate their new stadium after several failed attempts. Key to the approval was Griffith’s highlighting of the economic reasons for the build, as well as the fact 450 extra jobs are to be created.

Not just Bristol City has benefited from the council’s decision. Bristol Rugby are moving into Ashton Gate as of September. The stadium will include several new features, such as rail seating, which allows fans the choice of standing or sitting, more public transport links and improved disabled facilities. As well as this, the total capacity will increase to 27,000. Surprisingly, there have been few grumblings from the fans about Bristol Rugby’s relocation, as the benefits are there for all to see.

Chris Booy, Chairman of Bristol Rugby and a director at Bristol Sport, believes moving into Ashton Gate will help improve the club’s chances of getting back into the Premiership, and in turn, attract better players to the club. He also highlighted the fact that Bristol Rugby will be partners rather than tenants in the new stadium. ‘With both clubs having a common majority shareholder in Steve (Lansdown) there are obvious economic benefits of playing in the same stadium.’

Bristol City fans are also for the move, and Rogers believes the club is ‘sweating an asset.’ However he does raise some fears: ‘the ownership of the stadium is still up for debate and a cause for concern.’ These concerns have now been addressed, with Bristol Sport Ltd confirmed as the owners, and Bristol City and Bristol Rugby confirmed as tenants. This could have been an issue – plenty of problems have emerged at clubs where ownership of the club and stadium is split, with different owners wanting different things. Lansdown owns both Bristol City and Bristol Rugby, making a scenario like this unlikely.

Some people have reservations about Lansdown, specifically about his dealings at Bristol City. For one of the richest men in the world, many are concerned about the fact that the majority of his ‘investment’ in the club is actually made up of loans. These loans are actually secured by the club’s assets – including Ashton Gate. Add the fact that Lansdown charges interest on these loans, with the interest again secured against the clubs assets, and City fans have a reason to worry. It is not that long ago that the club slid from the first to the fourth division in just four years, bankrupting itself in the process.

Rogers knows Lansdown personally, and had this to say on the matter: ‘He has the football club at heart and will be the first to admit that he has been poorly advised in the past.’ For the first five years of Lansdown’s term as Bristol City Chairman the club was financially stable with no debts in need of repayment. It was with promotion to the Championship that finances began to deteriorate, and advice became less sound. Net debt spiralled to £40 million over the course of five seasons and come relegation at the end of last season, it was clear something needed to be done.

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The club underwent a massive reshuffle at boardroom level, and the average age and size of the playing staff was reduced in an effort to reduce debts. Lansdown then agreed to remove £35 million worth of debt from the balance sheet. The remaining debt is interest-free, with no fixed repayment date. On Bristol City’s website, Chief Executive Doug Harman says that ‘after completing this transaction the football club has cut its total debts by nearly 65 percent and what remains is at no ongoing cost to the football club.’ Lansdown may well have made mistakes in the past, but has certainly done his best to clean up and correct them. Since relegation, Bristol City have been run more prudently, with the academy receiving heavy investment. It has now officially been upgraded to Category Two status – making it the South West’s premier academy, and putting it on a par with Premier League clubs Newcastle United and Crystal Palace.

Bristol Sport encompasses more than just Bristol City and Bristol Rugby, with the company funding several other teams and sporting personnel. Dino Zamparelli is a Bristolian racing driver in the GP3 series, and readily admits it would have been a struggle carrying on his career without the help of Bristol Sport. He told me about his financial hardship, his struggles to get the best equipment and the best team. Despite this, he was still winning races, and continuing to improve through sheer hard work. Zamparelli contacted Bristol Sport himself when attempting to find additional sponsorship in his quest to become a Formula 1 driver, and says that after just one meeting they were more than happy to help: ‘This year I will be racing with the most successful GP3 team ever; a massive opportunity and that is thanks to Bristol Sport.’

It’s not just racing that Bristol Sport has invested in, as Zamparelli tells me they have big plans for the city’s lesser known sports teams. ‘We will have a professional basketball team for the first time and the women’s super league team (Bristol Academy Women’s Football Club) aiming to win the WSL Final this time.’

The Bristol Flyers basketball team is a rare story of sporting success in the city, and they have established itself as one of the leading semi-professional teams in the country, having competed and won at the highest level in the English Basketball League. Bristol Sport has not only helped raise awareness of the club, but have invested heavily in it. So much so that the club are now professional and more importantly will be competing in the fully professional British Basketball League as of this year. Flyers coach Andreas Kapoulas tells the Flyers website the extra cash will help the club hugely: ‘We’re looking at a five year plan to build a successful BBL franchise. Bristol Sport can enhance our model and produce a franchise that spectators will want to come and watch.’

As well as investing in the Flyers, Bristol Sport now supplies the kit for Bristol Academy Women’s (with the team having a say in the strip design). They will play with the Bristol City Community Trust’s logo emblazoned upon the shirt. The Community Trust will be working closely with the women’s football team and Bristol Sport in an attempt to raise female participation in sport in the city.

It is not just professional sport Bristol Sport is looking to invest in, as the company takes a firm interest in education and community work in the Bristol area. Their goal is to raise the standard of physical education in primary schools, through working with various affiliates – often well-known members of local sporting teams – who are experts in delivering such programmes. As well as running initiatives in schools, the company has been working with Bristol City Council and British Cycling in order to bring a major cycling event to the city in the Autumn of 2014. Griffiths says that Bristol Sport is bringing the event to the city ‘to enable wide spread participation among the cyclists of Bristol, while also highlighting the health benefits.’

I mentioned previously Bristol Sport works closely with the Bristol City Community Trust, but their reach in the community extends far beyond that. The company works with three other affiliates – the Bristol Flyers Community, the Women’s Super League Community and the Bristol Rugby Community Foundation. All three enable Bristol Sport to work closely with the community in their attempt to promote good health and exercise. The company is still open to sponsoring local organisations, in so long as they offer the wider community a benefit.

Clearly, Bristol Sport Ltd are making great attempts to revitalize sport in Bristol – both professionally and at amateur level. The city has been starved of sporting success; however the amount of money invested by Lansdown and Bristol Sport is too large not to make a difference. Obviously, large investment won’t turn things around immediately on the pitch, but the company’s help in securing the Ashton Gate expansion and its work at grass roots level will lay a solid foundation for sport in the city.

With a man as popular and passionate about sport as Steve Lansdown at the helm, Bristol Sport looks to have a promising future. You just have to listen to what the people that know him think. Rogers tells me that his ‘tenacity will probably see Bristol Sport work out eventually,’ while Zamparelli describes him as ‘an amazing individual that loves sport. Without him, Bristol Sport certainly wouldn’t be where it is now.’ With hard work and sheer determination, Bristol Sport and the clubs it encompasses can finally change the perception of sport in the West Country.

 

O’Driscoll needs more time

The pressure is on Sean O’Driscoll as Bristol City slipped to another home defeat and back into the relegation zone this weekend.

The 1-0 loss at home to Sheffield United means that the Robins have won just two out of seventeen games this season, but vice chairman Jon Lansdown will seemingly not yield to fan requests to sack O’Driscoll.

Brought to the club in January in order to stabilise the club, O’Driscoll has been making the best of what he has. Denied the funds given to previous managers, O’Driscoll has been tasked with slashing the wage budget while still remaining competitive.

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Having finally rid the squad of the overpaid underachievers that were so dominant in the Championship years, O’Driscoll is attempting to mould a squad of young players into a team that plays the free-flowing football he is so renowned for in the lower leagues.

The stats don’t lie, either. O’Driscoll has significant experience of the league, gaining promotion twice before. During the first promotion with Bournemouth, O’Driscoll was forced to manage on limited financial resources – something he is being asked to do currently at Bristol City as costs are cut across the board.

At Doncaster, O’Driscoll was tasked with leading the team to promotion to the Championship after he had impressed the club’s hierarchy with his management of Bournemouth on a shoestring budget.

He achieved this in his second season – something City should take note of. His first season in charge saw a mediocre league finish, with the highlight being the Football League Trophy win at the Millennium Stadium. It was the second season where O’Driscoll impressed. Having been given the time to create his own team, Doncaster swept all aside as they won the division, with O’Driscoll gaining plaudits far and wide for his attractive, attacking football.

Though results are not good for the Robins at the moment, the performances have not been terrible. The defence have been respectable and conceding goals has not been the problem, rather the manner in which they are conceded.

There have been several instances of calamitous defending at Ashton Gate this season and this is something that can’t be blamed on O’Driscoll, rather the players’ inability to stay concentrated for the full 90 minutes.

City are now second bottom, and a minority of fans are calling for him to be sacked. However, sticking to the strategy would be the best thing to do for Lansdown. Aside from the huge pay-off that comes with sacking a manager, there aren’t many better options out there.

Though things don’t currently look too rosy for the Robins, O’Driscoll has a magnificent record of always leaving clubs in a better position than they were in before he arrived. Give O’Driscoll time and Bristol City will be back into the Championship in a style that the fans will adore.