With the recruitment of Steve Coppell – a manager not only so respected as to be able to lure the likes of David James to the club, but one with a sound record of getting teams promoted to the top flight – Bristol City look well placed to seriously challenge for promotion this year. Unfortunately events have rather conspired against them and the start of the season now looks tricky.
Nine of last year’s squad have already left the club, with only six replacements signed thus far. There are currently ten players in the treatment room, including 20-goal striker Nicky Maynard, new midfield signing Kalifa Cisse, and captain Louis Carey, who cannot get his boots on after tripping over a barbecue last week. There is a sense of urgency around the club that new signings are urgently required. Indeed, Steve Coppell is unavailable to the media here, presumably busy on the phone.
Keith Millen, who had a spell as caretaker manager after Gary Johnson departed in March and is now Coppell’s assistant, speaks of City’s frustrations in the transfer market. “We’re working really hard,” he says. “Every day we’ve been on the phones, but it’s difficult to get in the players we want at the prices we want to pay. We’re short for Saturday and are hoping to get in one or two players before then.
“Normally loan deals are quicker but these days clubs are looking for fees, so it’s almost like a transfer anyway,” he continues. “Nothing seems to be easy at the moment.”
Maynard’s injury is the club’s principal concern at the moment, with knee trouble keeping him sidelined until September at the earliest. Forward Danny Haynes, too, is suffering from groin and thigh trouble. While City sweat, striker David Clarkson senses an opportunity to stake his claim for a regular starting place.
Signed from Motherwell for a reported £800,000 last summer, Clarkson lost his place through illness early in the season and was unable to force his way back into the team. City’s loss of Maynard and Haynes has been Clarkson’s gain, with five goals scored in a fine pre-season helping banish the memory of a disappointing first year in the South-West.
“I’m just looking forward now,” he explains. “With a new squad and a new manager it’s a fresh start for me. It was a big move for me, moving away to a new club and new players. It does take you a while to settle in and find your feet but I feel I’ve been here long enough now to know the game. I’m looking forward to it.”
One thing agreed by everyone A Different League spoke to at the club is that promotion is a realistic prospect. Dean Gerken sees a rare opportunity this season as the three teams relegated from the Premier League are not expected to go straight back up. Portsmouth are in freefall, Burnley a vastly different side since Owen Coyle’s departure, and Hull stricken with financial problems.
“Last year was an exception,” says Gerken. “Teams like Newcastle, Middlesbrough coming down. This year the teams that have come down are not really bigger than those that are already here. There are between 12 and 16 teams that are on an even keel and it comes down to luck and consistency.
“If you’re the most consistent team in the league you’re going to finish top. I think we will have enough.”
One of the principal reasons behind Portsmouth’s financial meltdown was a relative lack of match day revenue from a small stadium. City recently had their planning application for a new 30 000 seat stadium down the road in Long Ashton approved, but work cannot commence until the future of the existing Ashton Gate site is decided. Sainsburys’ application to relocate there was turned down amid complaints from local residents.
With James still sore from his Portsmouth experience, and bearing in mind that Steve Coppell quit Brighton & Hove Albion over their failure to start work on a promised new stadium, much of City’s important work this season will be done in the planning office as well as on the pitch.
But that is not an immediate concern, with all eyes focused on Saturday’s season opener at home to Millwall. If that seems to be a bit of a step down for a goalkeeper whose last action was a World Cup second round match against Germany, James is keen to set the record straight.
“In the Premier League I had an opportunity to extend a few records, some better than others, but so what? They’re all going to get broken. I could be a record holder for a brief time or be part of the squad that gained promotion to the Premier League for the first time.
“I’d rather do well here and get promotion in the Championship than live a mid-table Premier League existence,” he says, then adds with a wink: “I’ll save that for next year.” The red half of Bristol hopes he will be proven right.