Lee Johnson’s players turned in one of the finest team performances in the history of Bristol City Football Club to beat Manchester United at Ashton Gate last Wednesday night.
Having watched the Robins for half a century and reported on them for 38 years, I can only think of one display to match the amazing effort against Jose Mourinho’s superstars in the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup.
That was back in August 1976 when Alan Dicks’ side, fresh from winning promotion to what is now the Premier League, went to Highbury and outplayed Arsenal to such an extent that the 1-0 scoreline in the visitors’ favour flattered the Gunners considerably.
Since then I have witnessed many memorable games at Ashton Gate, but none to match the atmosphere, quality of football and incredible drama that saw Korey Smith carve himself a place in City folklore with his injury-time winner.
Driving away from the match, I searched my memory for another home fixture that ended in such elation. It happened on April 20, 1976 when a similar sized crowd watched Clive Whitehead’s goal against Portsmouth clinch a place in the top flight of English football.
However, City did not play well on that occasion and the result was everything. This time it wasn’t so much that they beat a strong United side, who did not perform badly, but the manner in which they did it.
Much was made of the fact that Mourinho labelled Johnson’s men “lucky” after the game. In fact, while the Old Trafford boss used that word several times, he was gracious in defeat.
“Normally when a big club is beaten by one from a lower division it is because they did not play well,” he said. “That wasn’t the case tonight and I prefer to credit Bristol City than criticise my players.”
There were indeed moments of good fortune when United hit the woodwork twice in the first-half. But over the course of 93 pulsating minutes no one could argue that the outcome was anything but fair.
Luke Steele rewarded Johnson’s tough decision to select him ahead of first choice goalkeeper Frank Fielding with some vital saves. Joe Bryan added a couple of million to his transfer value with a ‘Man of the Match’ performance.
The Bristol-born player’s strike for the opening goal was stunning perfection, while Smith’s winner resulted from the hugely impressive fitness levels in this City team.
Having already covered every inch of the pitch with stoppage-time approaching, Korey somehow summoned up the desire and energy to burst into the box, knowing that if possession were lost, it would be a far tougher recovery run back. Matt Taylor, often championed in this column as much more than a finisher, had the vision and ability to pick out a deft pass. The rest, as they say, is now history.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that City were without seven players, either through injury or being cup-tied, the latter ruling out Cauley Woodrow and Jonathan Leko.
A substitutes’ bench that featured untried midfielder Connor Lemonheigh-Evans, fellow youngsters Zak Vyner and Lloyd Kelly, and striker Paul-Arnold Garita, who has spent much of his time with City on loan at Plymouth Argyle, revealed how stretched Johnson’s resources have become.
Yet there was no hint of a containment policy in the head coach’s tactics. His team were in the faces of United from the opening minute, pressed forward at every opportunity, and had the confidence to parade skills on the ball worthy of the Premier League.
There has to be a concern that the semi-final against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City will provide two more lung-bursting games for the players and that form in the Championship might suffer as a result of the Cup exploits.
But for now let’s wallow in the memories of December 20, 2017, many captured by the Sky tv cameras broadcasting the game live. Even before kick-off, the volume of noise inside the stadium was unlike any heard at Ashton Gate in its present form.
The second-half battle for possession between Aden Flint and Romelu Lukaku, which saw the inspirational City centre-back win a free-kick after matching his big-name opponent over an energy-sapping sprint, will stay in my mind.
So will the sight of Johnson racing down the touchline to lift up a ball-boy and swing him around several times in celebration of the winning goal.
Steve Lansdown pictured in the stands after the final whistle, flanked by wife Maggie and chairman Keith Dawe, while clearly struggling to hold back tears, was another lasting image of a night that will be talked about for years.
On the following day my wife and I had the pleasure of being guests at the Senior Reds Christmas Lunch, held at Ashton Gate.
One member approached me to say he had been watching City since 1949 and could not remember a game to match the excitement of the previous evening. That is some tribute to Johnson and his squad of talented and committed players. They deserved no less.