Johnson reminds Bristol City fans to keep feet firmly on the ground

A throwaway line at the end of Lee Johnson’s midweek press conference provided a timely reminder to all Bristol City fans to keep feet firmly on the ground.

“Let’s hope I don’t sign a new contract and we lose 11 games on the spin,” said the head coach with a smile. “Football can be very fickle as we know only too well.”

Johnson was alluding back to last season when City reached the last 16 of the League Cup and were going so well in the Championship that he was soon offered an extension of the agreement he signed when appointed at Ashton Gate the previous February.

What happened next probably still gives him nightmares. A team showing nine changes lost narrowly to Hull City and, after drawing at Barnsley the following Saturday, Johnson’s men lost ten of their next 11 Championship games, including eight in succession.

From being on the brink of a major cup quarter-final and well placed to challenge for the play-offs, City nosedived. I was among many to question the wisdom of changing the team so much against a Hull side struggling badly in the Premier League at the time and, quite frankly, there for the taking.

Momentum was lost and the rest is history. Johnson stayed in a job by the skin of his teeth and those of us who stubbornly supported him were almost swept aside by the tide of criticism from disgruntled fans on social media.

I still believe resting players is an overused ploy. Ipswich Town started this season with five successive wins, four of them in the Championship, and then changed the entire starting line-up for a Carabao Cup second round tie at Crystal Palace.

A young side including four debutants lost 2-1 and when the rested first teamers were recalled, they were beaten in the next two League games as well, by Fulham and Queens Park Rangers.

However, when the players brought into a team are of the calibre Johnson was able to name against Stoke City last Tuesday night, it is much harder to argue against changes.

Thanks to shrewd transfer activity and a standard of coaching at the club, which is seeing so many players grow and develop their skills, City have their strongest squad in years.

In addition, there is a confidence and buzz about the place that makes even those short of match practice sharp and comfortable on the ball.

Against Stoke, Matt Taylor epitomised why Johnson is now able to switch personnel and still come away with a deserved victory over Premiership opponents.

So did Luke Steele, Jens Hegeler, Hordur Magnusson and Niclas Eliasson, none of whom have been playing regularly, while there was another great learning experience for Zak Vyner at right back.

Taylor was the stand-out. Back in January this column told City fans that the club had signed a clever footballer, as well as a top class finisher, when recruiting him from Bristol Rovers.

Last Tuesday night could have left no one in any doubt. Throughout the game Taylor found space to receive the ball by moving into areas between the Stoke back-line and midfield, setting up numerous attacks.

When his shot came back off a post to present Famara Diedhiou with a simple finish Matty could have been forgiven for thinking the bad luck of a pre-season groin injury, sustained while training alone before the players reported back, was about to continue.

Instead, he latched onto a Diedhiou flick-on ten minutes later and as he advanced towards goal I murmured to a press colleague sitting next to me “he won’t miss this one”.

Sure enough, the deadly marksmanship demonstrated so many times for Rovers resurfaced with a clinical left-footed finish and the man-of-the-match award, which followed, was richly deserved.

Somehow Bobby Reid has learned to move into the pockets Taylor seeks out, as well as running the channels, in an amazingly quick transformation from midfielder to striker.

But neither Reid nor Diedhiou will be able to rest on any laurels with Taylor and Cauley Woodrow breathing down their necks, not to mention a certain Milan Djuric, still on the injured list, but another front-man Johnson rates highly.

There is a sense of déjà vu about the campaign so far, particularly with City having been drawn against another struggling Premier League team Crystal Palace at Ashton Gate in the Carabao Cup fourth round.

But, while it is certainly too early to get carried away, there will surely be no repeat of last season’s dramatic transformation in fortunes. The competition for places that now exists won’t allow it.

When Roy Hodgson returns to Ashton Gate as Crystal Palace boss next month, 35 years after his short and traumatic spell in charge of City, his players will face opponents capable of beating them.

I would still expect Johnson to make sweeping changes for a match sandwiched between tough Championship games against Leeds United and Sunderland.

But the Stoke game offered clear evidence to suggest he now has the strength in depth to take City into the quarter-finals of the League Cup for the first time since 1989.

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.