“We were bullied... We didn’t get near him... It would be unfair to not recognise the quality of and the timing of his movement...”
That was Bristol City manager Nigel Pearson’s assessment of Aleksandar Mitrovic after Bristol City’s 6-2 loss to Fulham on Saturday, after the Serbian made it 27 goals in 24 league games, just five short of Ivan Toney’s Championship record of 32.
But the same accolades may well have been directed at Robins forward Antoine Semenyo, who put in a coming-of-age performance to really show what he can offer in the next years.
The West Country outfit may wish to turn off CEO Richard Gould’s phone over the last two weeks of January as interest is milling in the 22-year-old.
How can it not do after a display like that?
The first goal would have pleased no-one more than academy director Brian Tinnion, who was instrumental in recruiting Semenyo for the Robins from South Gloucestershire and Stroud (SGS) College.
Academy graduate Max O’Leary bowled the ball on to young starlet Alex Scott, before the attacking midfielder swept out to Semenyo.
City’s no. 22 danced past Tom Cairney with a lovely change of direction before slamming in at the near post.
And Semenyo’s second strike on 29 minutes was arguably even better, making it three goals in six Championship starts for the London-born versatile attacker.
Fulham defender Tim Ream was turned and defensive midfielder Harrison Reed kept at arm’s length as the City striker powered at goal and thundered in a strike off the far post.
“I think he was, in a game which was one-sided with the scoreline, a constant threat and I thought he was outstanding,” said Pearson of the striker after the game.
The City manager wants explosive and physical players recruited to play at Ashton Gate. If he did not know it before, he sure will do now that, in Semenyo, he has a player with all the attributes wished for.
The 17-year-old-signing-from-Filton is beginning to blossom. After two goals and four assists in 44 league appearances last year, it’s three goals and three assists from 12 in 2021/22.
Judging by this display of raw strength and vigour, there is more to come from a player who is continuing to develop year-on-year after first gaining attention while on loan at Newport County back in 2018.
After the Exiles ousted Leicester City from the FA Cup in January 2019, many seasoned football commentators singled out Semenyo then as a star of the future.
With then head coach Lee Johnson looking for attacking reinforcements that January transfer window, and Middlesbrough’s Britt Assombalonga tipped for a move, instead Mark Ashton, Steve and Jon Lansdown recalled Semenyo from loan in League Two, with Chelsea in the background having submitted a £2m bid for the player.
City failed to make the play-offs that year and the Robins tied up the futures of key young players Antoine Semenyo and Lloyd Kelly with new contracts in the summer, with Semenyo displaying his potential again with an exciting display to help City earn a point at Preston North End in the March of that year.
Johnson failed to make the most of Semenyo’s talent, but academy figures have always been convinced of the Bristol City man’s future.
An up-and-down campaign in 2020/21 saw slow progress, mostly from starting positions out wide, though there was heavy involvement: 24 Championship starts and another 20 from off the bench, including a match-turning display that saw City come from behind and win at Huddersfield Town.
“I didn’t expect to get my breakthrough this year,” Semenyo told this writer last March, after another standout game against Millwall in the FA Cup, with acrobatic backflip celebration.
“I just worked really hard getting my head down and when I got my chance, I started to play a few games backed up by a few performances.”
Unfortunately a knee injury and subsequent surgery, to fix a cartilage tear, set Semenyo back last summer, when Crystal Palace and other Premier League sides were aware of the young striker’s talents.
But now things are clicking again for the livewire (on the pitch), laidback (off it) Semenyo, who must build on this showing, string back-to-back top performances together and find the net more consistently, whether tap-ins or screamers. (Two bad misses against QPR recently from Callum O’Dowda crosses are the counter-point.)
Meanwhile, Pearson, Gould and the Lansdowns also need to find a net: to keep the young forward at Ashton Gate in, and away from the clutches of other sides, because this Chelsea lad is heading for the bright lights with or without the Robins.
“He has all the weapons to develop into a top player: he’s got pace and power, and that frightens defenders,” former Bristol City midfielder Gary Owers, who was at Fulham on Saturday, told BristolWorld.
“The Fulham game proves that he can be a threat as a central striker. Hopefully it’s given him the confidence to go on and add to his goal tally.
“A central striking role was always where I thought he’d be more effective eventually,” said Owers, who once helped Semenyo with his lodgings when the young player first came to City.
This two-goal turn at Fulham will draw attention but it may just be the making of Semenyo, and possibly City too - as they finally get that dynamic front-man Pearson wants to lead the line.