Bristol have got into the festive spirit with childrens’ charities this ChristmasHARRY HUBBARD
Published 20/12/17, The Times
It is 9.15am at Bristol City’s Failand training base, a few miles west of the city. The low sun pierces the still winter’s sky and a crisp frost on the grass is glistening. In the warmth of the players’ canteen, brouhaha breaks the hum of chatter; Ben and Jen sizzle breakfast omelettes in the kitchen, whiz up smoothies, and prepare trays of Brussels sprouts and roast potatoes for Christmas lunch later in the day.
Before training, the players move next door for a meeting with Lee Johnson, the head coach. Analysis of the recent 2-1 win over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane, courtesy of an injury-time winner from Aden Flint, ends with a slow-motion replay of the touchline celebrations of Dean Holden, the assistant head coach, with accompanying soundtrack from the movie Titanic. “Sprinting 40 yards up the touchline, punching the air to himself,” Johnson smiles. “Packy [Marlon Pack] had to pay a fine for cuddling the gaffer too.”
Bristol City are a club in fine fettle. They have won seven of their past nine league games, lost only three all season, sit third in the Championship table and welcome Manchester United to Ashton gate in a Carabao Cup quarter-final this evening. Evidently, they are enjoying themselves in the process.
It is a remarkable change of fortunes from this time last year, when City were in the thick of an eight-game Championship losing streak. As they plummeted towards the relegation zone, the pressure on Johnson intensified. But Steve Lansdown, the owner, stood firm. A recovery in March and April kept them safe, and this season that patience has been richly rewarded.
Lansdown, a Bristolian who is worth an estimated £1.7 billion from financial services, has been investing prudently in City since 2011 and his dream of a sustainable Premier League club is edging closer to reality. Plans were recently submitted for a new training complex, which follows the £45 million redevelopment of Ashton Gate, while Johnson, 36, has been backed with investment in young players of rich promise and an environment ripe for their development.
“The owner’s an investor, by nature,” Johnson says, “and that’s what gives him that buzz. He loves seeing young players develop, nurtured — players like Joe Bryan [and] Bobby Reid coming through the academy — and I bought into it. It was a high-risk strategy because everybody who we sign is effectively unproven at this level, whether from abroad or from the lower leagues. We’ve come through the bad patch [last season] and we’ve come through it together, and all the work that we’re doing is bearing fruit now.”
Sitting in his modest office, next to a room full of analysts crunching data on opponents and potential signings before next month’s transfer window, Johnson — whose father, Gary, the Cheltenham Town manager, was in charge of City for five years until 2010 — demonstrates why, he says, if “you’ve got a good attitude, at this club, you can’t not get better”.
Here, there are no grey areas, no excuses. The group have a private, specially designed app that maps out a six-week training schedule, contains footage of every meeting, match analysis or training session (filmed by drone), with audio from Johnson where tactical sessions are concerned. In team meetings, on a giant touchscreen, players can be dragged around as much as “[Jamie] Carragher and [Gary] Neville do on Sky Sports”. “Believe it or not I’ve got one in my house as well,” Johnson says. “So I’ll sit there, preparing the game plan, while my missus is sat there watching Corrie.”
Engaging the modern footballer is key, Johnson says. “Back in the day, you just got shouted at and you did as you were told. Your sole purpose was to impress the manager to stay in the team. To be honest, [players are] their own enterprises nowadays; almost their own businesses. Everything’s about getting them, in the modern era, to buy in: statistics, a philosophy, a style of play, making sure you give them that clarity in their job roles. The modern tools give you a better picture as a player.”
City’s line-up tonight will, as usual, have an average age of about 25, and Johnson has crafted a high-energy, attack-minded outfit. They have dispatched the Premier League trio of Watford, Stoke City and Crystal Palace en route to this evening’s game and hold no fear of their vaunted opponents.
“It’s been a nice buzz around, not just for us, but for the club and the fans around the city,” says Bailey Wright, the club captain — a tough-tackling Australian with the World Cup in Russia also on his horizon. “Everyone wants to play against the best, and we’ll back ourselves and believe we can beat them.”
Training is short, sharp possession drills, then small-sided games. The ball fizzes between cones and fleeting feet; a nutmeg is met with roars of laughter. Reid, a midfielder-turned-striker who has scored 11 times this season, plunders goals at will. In the summer, the recruitment department’s search for a new forward kept highlighting, statistically, a player they already had. “The gaffer said, ‘Why not give it a go?’ ” Reid, 24, says. “I didn’t know how to take it at first, but then in pre-season I scored a few goals, and I haven’t looked back.”
Flint, the towering central defender, has six goals to his name and has scored a remarkable 35 since joining from Swindon Town in 2013. Johnson quipped recently that Flint might soon be deployed as a striker, adding that he is fast becoming an “icon”. His off-field performances in City’s now-famous Gifs are doing him no harm in that regard. Whenever Bristol City score, a short video of the goalscorer is released on the club’s social media platforms, and this season they have become something of an internet sensation. The idea stemmed from the Bristol Flyers basketball team, who come under the umbrella of Lansdown’s Bristol Sport group, along with the city’s rugby club.
In pre-season, after the obligatory headshot photos, the players were asked to celebrate to camera. “Some were a bit more outgoing than others,” says Adam Baker, the head of media and communications, with a smile. “But we scored eight goals in our first two games, seven different goalscorers, which meant seven different Gifs going out, and within a week it had become a bit of a craze — everyone was talking about it. The players were talking about it too. I think it has helped team spirit. They come in asking if they can do some more Gifs, trying to top one another. Aden Flint, this morning, was asking, ‘How many hits did I get?’ ”
“We filmed some for Halloween and there was a load of props there,” says Flint, whose Gifs have included throwing a suit jacket over his shoulder, theatrically, as he exited stage left, DJ-ing on some plates, and some extremely exuberant brushing of his teeth (and face). “Me, Marlon [Pack], Joe [Bryan] and Bobby [Reid] got a bit carried away with it,” he says. “Football’s a serious sport, but you can always have a bit of a laugh as well.”
Trivial? You may think so, but it adds to the picture of a vibrant club with a thriving team spirit. “Results help,” Johnson says, “but we’ve got good people here.” Or, as Holden succinctly puts it: “There’s no knob-heads.”
Back in the canteen, before Christmas lunch is served, 82-year-old Marina Dolman, the club president, stands to address the group. Her late husband, Harry Dolman, was a former chairman and president until his death in 1977. “I’ve never known a group of players work so hard,” she says. “My husband Harry used to say production in the factories went up on a Monday if City won. You have no idea how important you are to the people of Bristol.”
The club’s place in the community has been reaffirmed in tragic circumstances in recent weeks. Last month, Ben Pritchard, the eight-year-old grandson of Doug Harman, Bristol City’s executive director, died after a short battle with cancer. He spent his last eight days at Children’s Hospice South West — “a special place,” Harman says — and was visited by Johnson and several players. On Saturday, at an emotional Ashton Gate, there was a minute’s applause in his memory in the eighth minute of the 2-1 win against Nottingham Forest.
This evening, a sell-out crowd will be there to see Manchester United visit Bristol for the first time since 1980. “I wanted this draw, Man United at home, because it’s an iconic club and it could be a massive day,” Johnson says.
And, like his players, he is relishing the test. “We can wear teams down with our energy and our fitness. If I was Man United, that would be the fear playing our side. They’d have to pick a team that can cope with our energy and our spirit — on the day. One or two of the players could create iconic status for themselves, but we’ve got to play the moment. We’re playing 11 humans, not the history of Man United. Our boys will be on the front foot, and we’ll go for it.”
Gifs that keep giving – the viral celebration
Bristol City’s short celebration videos on social media have become a viral sensation this season, with Marlon Pack, Jamie Paterson, Aden Flint and Joe Bryan conjuring up some of the more memorable ones