Josh Brownhill is an unsung hero behind Bristol City’s emergence as genuine Sky Bet Championship promotion contenders this season.
And for that a lot of the credit has to go to Lee Johnson and his coaching staff, not only for helping the former Preston North End and Barnsley player improve his game, but also to excel in a role I thought might prove beyond him.
With Johnson committed to playing with wingers, I expected Brownhill to spend the season battling with Jamie Paterson, Callum O’Dowda, Niclas Eliasson and Jonathan Leko for a place on the flank, where he spent much of last season.
It seemed to me that if two of those attack-minded players regularly filled the wide roles, City would need the extra security of two specialist ball-winners in central midfield.
In the absence of Gary O’Neil through injury, Korey Smith and Marlon Pack appeared to provide the best blend. When Brownhill was switched to the middle of the park, the position he filled regularly prior to signing at Ashton Gate, I feared he might prove too lightweight.
How wrong can you be? Without seeming to upset City defensively, the move has sparked some brilliant attacking play thanks to the 21-year-old’s exceptional ability on the ball and eye for a pass.
While much was rightly made of City’s finishing in the 4-1 Carabao Cup win over Crystal Palace, Joe Bryan’s superbly struck goal finished off a move that saw O’Dowda feed Brownhill, whose first time ball to Matt Taylor provided the thrust to put the visitors in trouble before the final pass to Bryan.
Then at Fulham last Tuesday night Brownhill latched onto a diagonal ball into the box by Smith and had the vision to pick out Bobby Reid’s run with a wonderful cushioned volley into his path when most players would have shot.
The outcome was Reid’s tenth goal of the season. If he ranks as the most improved player at Ashton Gate, also courtesy of a change of position, then Brownhill is not far behind.
I watched Josh closely against Palace and at times felt he took risks by attempting first time passes and trickery on the ball in a crowded area of the pitch.
The fact was that, against quality players, most of what Brownhill tried worked. Even so I was moved to ask Johnson after the game if he really encouraged such flair from a central midfielder.
“Absolutely,” said the head coach. “In fact I have worked on it with Josh. We encourage him to trust in his ability.”
Can City win promotion playing so positively? Successive wins on the road at Sunderland and Fulham suggest an affirmative answer.
My only concern is whether such an approach will work when the weather worsens. But these days pitches are so much better and that suits the more skilful players.
Whatever lies ahead, City fans are clearly warming to the style of football their team are producing as well as the results.
My eye was caught by the figure for travelling support at Sunderland. More than 1,500 supporters made the long trek to the North East, a fantastic following rewarded by Milan Djuric’s winning goal.
Conditions were blustery and, by Johnson’s own admission, the hosts were the better side in the first-half. That only made a victory earned the hard way, without playing particularly well, all the more cause for optimism.
With Djuric fit again, City have the option to go more direct when their passing football is not flowing. In the long-term absence of Famara Diedhiou, the big Bosnian striker becomes a key figure.
Having said that, Johnson opted to start with only Reid up front at Fulham, supported by the attacking midfielders. Again I feared he was wrong and that City would miss a more physical force up front – and again I was wrong.
When you think of how Fulham tore the Robins apart at Ashton Gate last season, overrunning them in midfield and winning comfortably, it was another indication of City’s improvement as a team.
When Nathan Baker suffered a recurrence of a knee injury at Sunderland, Bailey Wright moved back alongside Aden Flint, allowing Eros Pisano to slot seamlessly in at right-back.
And when Pisano himself was hurt early in the Fulham game, Johnson was again able to introduce a quality substitute in Hordur Magnusson, with the versatile Wright reverting to full-back.
It is one of football’s truer clichés that a team can be judged on the strength of the personnel on the bench.
Alongside Magnusson at Fulham, where City were backed by nearly 2,000 fans, were Luke Steele, Taylor, Eliasson, Zak Vyner, Leko and Djuric, the last two making appearances in the final 20 minutes.
That is an impressive line-up of substitutes, even with Diedhiou, Jens Hegeler, O’Neil and Baker on the injured list.
With every prospect of funds being available for further team strengthening in January, there is no reason to foresee anything other than a sustained bid for Premier League football over the six months.