Pat Lam, Bristol Bears’ director of rugby, somewhat surprisingly released his grand vision for success at BS3 on Friday. For whoever replaces Lee Johnson as head coach at Bristol City, the other sporting entity owned by the Lansdown family and based at Ashton Gate, the timing couldn’t have been any worse, writes Gareth Davies.
The ambition of Lam and the Bears is plain for all to see, with recent high-profile signings including England prop Kyle Sinckler and Semi Radradra, arguably the best winger in either rugby code currently, being testament to that. However, perhaps a bigger indication of the direction in which Bristol’s oval ball side is heading was laid bare by Lam. They were titled ambition, passion and programme. The latter two key words would come as no surprise as they were related to developing home-grown England internationals. It would be foolish to think that a Premiership club would want anything different and a cursory glance down the M5 to what the Exeter Chiefs have achieved is possibly the benchmark that Bristol and the rest are aspiring towards.
The ambition section is certainly the part which caught the eye. It will get tongues wagging at a rate of knots and nobody can accuse Lam of not aiming high. His objective is that the Bears will win the Champions Cup, the pinnacle of European club rugby and a competition that his side are yet to enter under his stewardship, although that will almost certainly change next season.
With plans of such grandeur for the Bears, which aren’t wholly unrealistic at all, have they overtaken their round-ball neighbours as the most likely sporting entity in Bristol to achieve greatness? Possibly, and despite success in rugby and the Premiership not being attainable overnight, the Bears are building the foundations to become a dominate force. The same, sadly, can’t be said for Bristol City, although perhaps if the Lansdown family and chief executive Mark Ashton set out their aspirations, it would be foolhardy to predict European dominance and the like. This probably means that comparing the journey of both City and the Bears is a little foolhardy, but if one is successful, then you can bet your bottom dollar that the Ashton Gate suits won’t be content with the football club plodding on for Championship mediocrity.
Back to the events of last week and it’s very probable that Johnson’s exit from his role in charge of City, due to what the top brass have obviously viewed as underachievement, has only been exasperated by the success that Lam has garnered.
It is no secret that Lansdown and co feel that, given the investment in Ashton Gate’s facilities and a huge Robins fan base, City are a Premier League club currently in everything but name. Therefore, whoever replaces Johnson will have an enormous task on his hands from the get go. It doesn’t matter who takes the Ashton Gate hot seat next, but they will know that the previous incumbent was dismissed for failing to come close to getting in the Premier League. The remit, even before any interview process, is abundantly clear. With this in mind, it’s perhaps telling that Chris Hughton has emerged as the early front-runner.
There is a two-fold reason for this and let’s not forget, that although he is out of work currently, the former Tottenham Hotspur defender is a damn fine manager.
More importantly, he has a proven track record of getting clubs to the promised land of riches that come with sitting at English football’s top table. His success in getting Newcastle United back in the Premier League a decade ago was rubbished by some quarters who felt that anyone with an ounce of credibility could have emulated that feat, such was the players and finances at Hughton’s disposal when on Tyneside.
This was something that couldn’t be levied towards the 61-year-old at Brighton as he took the unfancied Seagulls up on what couldn’t have been considered a shoe-string budget, but one that was still substantially less than some other Championship clubs who continually fail to gain promotion.
Not only did Hughton get Brighton into the Premier League, he kept them there too. Although curiously, survival alone wasn’t deemed to be good enough and he left the Amex Stadium in May 2019. His style of play may not pull up any trees, but history has always demonstrated that winning football doesn’t always have to be fancy football. Plenty of sides that are easy on the eye haven’t been able to deliver what they should have.
If Hughton gets the job then Bristol City will certainly become hard to beat with a soft under-belly being something that beset Johnson during his four-year tenure. Consistency will have to improve too as it was too much famine or feast for City. When they were good, they were very good and looked every bit a side capable of promotion. On the flip side, when the wheels came off, the cart took an age to repair and in the short spell back after lockdown, this was very much the case again. You also feel that someone like Hughton will be able to adapt to City’s transfer policy better than Johnson ever did.
Although he always knew that players would move on, only a fortnight ago, talking to this very newspaper, Johnson felt at times City ‘had cut off their legs’ by selling the likes of Josh Brownhill, Bobby Reid and Lloyd Kelly.
Hughton demonstrated that at Brighton he could operate under restriction and until the Premier League is reached, City will always be a selling club and one that is falling behind the Bears. Although, by appointing a manager with a proven track record for Championship promotion, it would nevertheless be a huge step in the right direction.