Having gone within a single game of promotion to the premier league at the first attempt back in 2008, Bristol City’s six year stay in the Championship was brought to an end last season, as they finished a comfortable 24th place, fourteen points adrift of safety.
Ahead of the new season however, there is cause for optimism under new manager Sean O’Driscoll. Appointed last January with the club already deep in relegation trouble, O’Driscoll has taken on the task of transforming the squad in terms of both attitude and personnel. So far, it has been a busy transfer window for the former Doncaster boss, with several senior players having been snapped up by Championship teams, including Albert Adomah (Middlesborough) Tom Heaton (Burnley), Lewin Nyatanga (Barnsley), Cole Skuse (Ipswich), Jon Stead (Huddersfield), and last season’s top scorer, Steven Davies (Blackpool). In recruiting replacements for these players, the onus has been on signing young, promising talent. Jordan Wynter and Derrick Williams turned down contracts at Arsenal and Aston Villa respectively in order to play first team football at Ashton Gate, whilst goalkeeper Frankie Fielding (Derby County), defender Aden Flint (Swindon Town), and midfielders Scott Wagstaff (Charlton Athletic) and Jay-Emmanuel Thomas (Ipswich) are all aged twenty-five or younger.
As for the players that have stayed on from last season’s Championship campaign, there should be more than enough quality to impress in League One. Full back Greg Cunningham and striker Sam Baldock both seemed set for exceptional debut seasons last year before their progress was hampered by injuries, whilst the likes of Stephen Pearson and Neil Kilkenny are experienced Championship campaigners who should have a point to prove. Meanwhile, Captain Liam Fontaine will be looking to re-establish himself as the rock at the heart of City’s defence, as one of the few survivors from the club’s last promotion to the Championship.
Certainly the third tier of English football does look rather different now to how it did when City were last there seven years ago, with big clubs like Wolves and Sheffield United to compete with. Nevertheless, O’Driscoll has insisted that the Robins will still have one of the biggest budgets in the league, and that they will be competitive. Moreover, in O’Driscoll they have a manager who has experience of winning promotion from the division (with Doncaster in 2008), as well as a history of playing attractive, passing football. With a young and talented squad being formed, City fans can expect excitement if not consistency, and certainly plenty of entertainment at Ashton Gate. Under O’Driscoll’s guidance, there is every chance that this team could mount a serious promotion challenge.
One to watch: Jay-Emmanuel Thomas
Thomas first caught the attention of Bristol City’s fans when on loan at Doncaster from Arsenal, having been signed by Sean O’Driscoll himself. After scoring twice in a 5-2 victory for Rovers, he received a standing ovation from large sections of the Ashton Gate crowd. Since then, he has played a handful of games for Arsenal, spent a season on loan at Cardiff, and completed a million pound transfer to Ipswich. He fell out of favour last year, but his ability is undeniable: Town manager Mick McCarthy described Thomas’ transfer to City as “scary” due to his untapped potential, whilst Arsene Wenger has asserted that “Jay will not only be a good player but a great player”. If O’Driscoll can get the best out of him, then Thomas could become one of the most exciting players outside the Premier League.
Weak Link: Louis Carey
The thirty-six year old centre half is a Bristol City legend, having made over 600 appearances for the club. Aside from a brief spell at Coventry in 2004, the Bristolian has spent his entire career at Ashton Gate, and has signed a new contract this summer. However, he has suffered a series of injury setbacks over the past few years, and missed large parts of last season as a result. Some of City’s more cynical supporters might suggest that his contract extension is less of a football decision, and more of a sentimental one, with Carey just three appearances short of the club’s all-time record. Certainly his recent fitness record suggests that he may no longer be up to the rigours of a season-long campaign. Even so, League One is at least a more forgiving environment for an aging centre back than the Championship, and Carey’s leadership and influence off the pitch will still be crucial for this young team.