OPINION: Bristol City – What’s next?
After any 6-0 drubbing followed up by two drab home defeats, questions will be asked. Whether they’re concerning a lack of desire, a deficiency of ideas, or wider contextual factors that could have led to such a condemning scoreline.
Indeed, the ghastly run that the club currently finds itself in proved to be the undoing of head coach Dean Holden, abruptly dismissed little over an hour after the final whistle blew against the Royals.
Owner Steve Lansdown was coy when speaking to BBC Radio Bristol on Monday evening, proclaiming the current situation as “painful.”
However, with Bristol City, issues seem to be spawning across all sectors of the club. Beyond the man in the dugout.
To many supporters, it’s a case of where do you look first? Do you head to the Failand medical room (which is the scene of arguably the worst injury crisis in the English Football League), do you focus on the underperforming players who have accumulated the fewest shots in the Championship this campaign, or do you glance higher up at the hierarchy, who have failed to adequately replace the marquee assets traded in the past few years?
The Robins find themselves at a crossroads and in danger of significant freefall. An unwelcome reminder, that after 30 games played, the club resides on 39 points. At this stage last season Hull City found themselves on the same figure and ended up cataclysmically plummeting down into League One. With six straight defeats, corresponding with seven consecutive away losses, parallels can, and will, be drawn between both of the 2008 Play-Off finalist’s situations.
Though of course, with a glass-half-full approach, you could quite rightly make the claim that despite the lamentable recent showings, the club still finds themselves comfortably in mid-table, perhaps where they should be considering their position in 13th matches their standings in the Championship wage bill list.
But gauging the mood of supporters on social media, that’s not where the problem lies. The message from the ownership and board in BS3 has always been abundantly clear. This club wants Premier League football. That currently looks as distant as Ismaila Sarr was to the Bristol City back-line on Saturday, as the Senegalese winger waltzed in unmarked to strike an elementary second in the Hornets’ drubbing of the Robins.
The next appointment is huge to steer the club back in the right direction.
With that in mind, here are three potential steps for the club to take in their current predicament, if they did decide to take further action, assessed.
Option One – Go bold with a new manager
No, this isn’t a dreadfully wheeled-out pun to suggest appointing Paul Cook as the club’s next head coach (though that wouldn’t be too much of a bad suggestion.)
Indeed, the term ‘bold’ has been worn out in BS3 over the past few years, particularly in the summer of 2019 when Lee Johnson threw the adjective into the air whilst suggesting the club needed to push the boat out in order to progress their recruitment strategy.
In this case, once again the club needs to get this appointment right. They’ve fallen on their sword dismissing Holden and chances to act like the present run seldom in football.
It’s not a question of the new man having to hit the ground running, or there being instant pressure on him, either.
With owner Lansdown almost admitting on Monday night that the play-offs are out of reach for this City side, and with a solid cushion of 11 points between themselves and the relegation zone, the remaining 16 games represent a tremendous opportunity for someone to come in and get to grips with his squad ahead of what’s bound to be a summer of overhaul across the Championship.
With Cook the current favourite for the job across multiple bookmakers, have City learned from another scathing internal appointment? Brian Tinnion and Keith Millen are other examples that spring to mind…
Whatever happens, Holden has left the squad in a better place than when he arrived in his slick suit last August, albeit half of them are currently out of action.
Youngsters such as Antoine Semenyo, Zak Vyner, Tyreeq Bakinson, and even Owura Edwards, have seen their stock meteorically rise, adding to the experience of pros such as Tomas Kalas and Dan Bentley, both of whom are enjoying stellar seasons.
The job is still as appealing as it was last summer, and the potential is huge if the hierarchy gets this appointment correct. Though for it to work, the prospective manager will have to work in tangent with those above him, in regards to recruitment particularly.
This leads us on to the next point.
Option Two – Recruit a Director of Football
This is an option that Bristol City should look into no matter the man in the hot-seat. Because simply put, recruitment in recent years has appeared lazy and without direction.
Adam Webster, Lloyd Kelly, Bobby Decordova-Reid, Joe Bryan, Aden Flint, Josh Brownhill. Taking a look at the current roster on the City books, how many of those would you say have been adequately replaced? Particularly given the circa-£80 million that the sextuple brought in between them in the space of two years.
The club seems to have strayed far and wide from the clear ethos that it possessed in regards to recruitment just a few years ago. Players were brought in before they hit their peak years, maintaining and raising both their economic value as well as their performance levels.
Five of the last seven permanent additions to BS3 have been aged 30 or over. Where is the long-term planning?
Rather than being priced out of a move for in-demand Ivan Toney, off the back of netting over 20 times in League One, why not look at spotting his talent a few years earlier, when he was starting out in the Premier League with Newcastle. The same goes for Adam Armstrong at the Magpies and Lucas Joao with Sheffield Wednesday.
Spot these players before their price sky-rockets.
This is why, in my book, the club needs to bring in a Director of Football. Mark Ashton and his merry-men have not used the funds yielded by such lucrative sales in an effective manner, which has seen the team stagnate, and lose any clear philosophy in regards to recruitment.
Someone employed purely to enhance on-field success rather than to balance the books. You can have both.
The excuse of parachute payments is often wheeled out, and whilst valid, it isn’t a defining factor.
Look at Brentford currently, look at Leeds United last year, Sheffield United before that. You don’t have to spend ludicrous money to bring in promotion-winning players.
You simply have to be shrewd.
Option Three – A club rebuild
The aforementioned options are both tweaks that could prove pivotal.
Yet, given the evident discontent many supporters have shown towards the hierarchy, particularly Jon Lansdown and Mark Ashton, is the situation dire enough for a complete shake-up at Ashton Gate?
It seems far-fetched that the Lansdown family, who continue to fund the running of the club in the most wretched of all financial times, would suddenly give up on their evident dream of taking Bristol City to the Premier League.
The accounts released last month on behalf of Bristol City Holdings declared a sizable loss of £10.07 million, a stark reminder of the fine lines that have to be tip-toed in football, even at the best of times.
Let’s not forget the positive intent that Steve Lansdown has shown in progressing the football club by first redeveloping a charming but ultimately dated Ashton Gate Stadium into a world-class arena, and more recently the cutting of the ribbon on a state-of-the-art training centre at Failand.
However, his son Jon has been earning fewer admirers since he was promoted to club chairman in 2019.
The redesign of the crest disgruntled some who felt the club was moving away from its proud roots, though certain other decisions have provoked several to question the running of the West Country’s sleeping giant.’
The regular teasing of supporters on social media is also becoming tiresome, particularly in the buildup to the underwhelming appointment of Dean Holden as head coach.
However, the bulk of the brunt has been aimed towards CEO Mark Ashton. Regularly contradictory, a recent example being his BBC Radio Bristol interview, in which he stated that Alfie Mawson had completed his rehab at the club, countering Holden’s claims.
If Steve Lansdown does decide to revamp the club, the structure could consist of a reduced role for Ashton, becoming a financial officer negotiating sales and incomings, which no doubt he excels at, alongside a Director of Football or Head of Recruitment to identify talent.
No doubt the Lansdown family have been one of the greatest things to happen to Bristol City, but perhaps more people with football thinking hats on are needed at the summit of the club for it to scale the heights it craves to explore.