(Photo: Action Images via Reuters)
By Alex Beard
As Bristol City’s players strolled off the Portman Road pitch at the full-time whistle on Saturday, Robins boss Lee Johnson could reflect on a job well done – and a hoodoo broken.
It had been 39 long years since they last one at Ipswich, but after this weekend’s 3-1 success Johnson could feel confident about his side taking down Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in their pomp.
Well, that might be a slight exaggeration. But the Robins ARE in fantastic form, with the win over the Tractor Boys stretching their unbeaten run to 11 games.
That sequence has seen them defeat the likes of Derby, Reading and, in the Carabao Cup, Premier League Watford and Stoke. Their success has seen them rise to fourth in the table, just four points behind Championship leaders Cardiff City.
Individual excellence from Aden Flint, Bobby Reid and Famara Diedhiou to name just a few have enabled Johnson’s solid 4-4-2 formation to prosper in a time when the system often appears outdated. At the back the likes of Nathan Baker and Bailey Wright have been consistent figures who have helped marshal a protective wall in front of talented ‘keeper Frankie Fielding.
The Robins are formidable going forward, putting three past Watford, three more against Wolves, four goals against Derby and three of course past Ipswich. That latest success is particularly impressive, as Mick McCarthy’s team are one of the hardest to beat in the division – particularly at home.
Credit, then, must go to their 36-year-old manager – who is building quite a name for himself at this level. He was the youngest manager (31) in the Football League when he was appointed by Oldham in 2013, and he soon got the Latics playing some of the best football in the division despite limited resources.
He joined Barnsley in February 2015 and spent a year with the Tykes before making the decision to swap Oakwell for Ashton Gate. Johnson kept City in the Championship that year, before enduring a frustrating season last time out – with his position precarious after his side finished just three points above the relegation zone.
With the 2016-17 season not going as Bristol City would have hoped, and with discontent among some fans, it was a somewhat brave decision for the Robins’ hierarchy to keep Johnson at the club. He was even trusted with a club-record £5.3 million purchase in Diedhiou – a signing that isn’t looking too shabby at the moment.
It’s wonderful to see Bristol City’s board place their faith in a talented young manager, and not having simply given him the boot when times were tough last year. They’re now getting their just rewards, as everything appears to be clicking at Ashton Gate.
In football stability breeds success, and as the City players are given more and more time to adapt to Johnson’s demanding style of play the better they are performing – teams can’t live with them at the moment.
I’ll say it again because it’s worth repeating, Saturday’s win at Ipswich was a real statement. McCarthy’s men seem to be the acid test for whether a team is genuinely top-of-the-table calibre, and Johnson’s side passed with flying colours.
The manager can now put his feet up for a few days while the international break allows a good amount of his squad to get some R&R. Lord knows Johnson himself has earned some.