Bond with Nigel Pearson offers hope that Bristol City can hold on to rising star Antoine Semenyo

Robins are likely to have a big decision to make in the next months; can they convince the promising striker that he can achieve his ambitions in BS3?

A moment early in the season summed up the difference between the brusque Nigel Pearson in front of the cameras and voice-recording devices, and the more malleable, fatherly figure seen at the training ground.

As we milled around the Robins High Performance Centre canteen last summer, captain Dan Bentley whispered into Antoine Semenyo’s ear.

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The young striker appeared to take on a ‘dare’ and waltzed up to manager Pearson who was sat having his lunch. The forward pinched Pearson hard on the shoulder blade, with the type of Chinese Burn manouevre designed to inflict instant pain and grab attention.

Pearson did not flinch. In fact the manager carried on chewing his lunch, only to stand up shortly after and have his arm around Semenyo in a warm embrace that shows there is a real affection netween the pair.

When we watched on from the stands at a recent U23s game, Pearson did likewise as he strolled around the showpitch in front of the 500-person stand.

A hug for young forward Sam Pearson watching on, an arm round the shoulder of Han-Noah Massengo and so on.

Antoine Semenyo and other key players are out of contract in the summer of 2023. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Relationships with the players have been built up over the last 16 months and Semenyo has become a real fan of his manager, who has trusted the forward to play down the centre of the pitch when others have waivered.

And that bond offers some hope that Bristol City can keep the blossoming striker beyond this summer.

Semenyo is one of the best young talents in the Championship, and the academy graduate looks to be ahead of where highly regarded fellow Bristol City academy starlet and livewire forward Bobby Decordova-Reid was when the Bristolian was of the same age.

In just 24 Championship starts in 2021/22, former Sunderland, Newport and Bath City loanee Semenyo has hit eight goals and grabbed 12 assists.

Decordova-Reid had a career high of three goals and three assists before he exploded at the later age of 24, hitting 19 goals and grabbing seven assists in 46 Championship appearances in 2017/18, making the PFA’s Championship team of the year.

Per 90 minutes, Semenyo, who turned 22 last January, ranks as the best player in the whole Championship (minimum 10 games played, or else it’s Tommy Conway from the smallest sample size) for assists: 0.5 per game. Better than Harry Wilson, Ryan Giles, Chris Willock or Jed Wallace. The number of goals scored is improving year on year.

Further, StatsBomb data released (see below) this week showed that only one other player in the league - Jeando Fuchs of Peterborough United - makes more pressures than Semenyo, who is a pressing monster. He excels with and without the ball, and those players are rare and highly sought after.

The Robins will soon trigger the one-year contract option in Semenyo’s contract that can be activated this month, stipulated for the third Saturday of May. It extends Semenyo’s deal by another year, effectively giving the club two years more of the player, at the least.

Bristol City want to keep the player for longer however, who has attracted interest in January and previously even from Chelsea a few years ago.

“We want to keep our best players for as long as possible and in truth we also want our players to be able to play at the highest possible level they can, that means playing in the Premier League,” Gould told BBC Radio Bristol recently.

“We very much want to get the Premier League and it’s very much a race, we want to get into the Premier League in a timeframe that very much suits our players.

“We are looking to keep hold of our best players this summer and for as long as we possibly can.”

Unfortunately there is significant interest in the powerful Bristol City attacker, who had Ghana FA technical advisor Chris Hughton watching him from the Lansdown Stand against Hull City.

Semenyo will be called up by his country qualifiers for their AFCON Qualifying games taking place on 1 and 5 June, and there is a World Cup on the horizon.

“The World Cup could be one of the biggest achievements in my career. Not many people get the chance to do that and I would be glad to say that I have,” he told Ghana media outlets last week.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Bournemouth are very keen on the player and have been watching intently, with their technical director Richard Hughes a big fan.

The Cherries are highly likely to return for the player this summer having held a minor interest last January, and augmented by the riches of reaching the Premier League they will be able to dangle some hefty carrots in front of Gould and Pearson to tempt a sale.

And then there is Celtic too, who have been keeping tabs and making background checks. West Ham and Crystal Palace are well aware of the player too.

As for Bristol City, CEO Gould’s emails keep arriving to ask if anything more can be done to extend the striker’s time in BS3. Currently, there is not a lot. A talent like this deserves to play at as high a level as possible and there is significant top tier interest.

Semenyo is originally from the Chelsea area of London and he idolised Didier Drogba when young. Why would a move to the top level of English football and especially the capital, where he grew up, not appeal?

The livewire forward has strong family behind him and good representation, while brother Jai - a right-back - is doing well at Cardiff City just down the road too.

But according to sources within Bristol City, putting pen to paper on fresh terms is highly unlikely as things stand. Two contract offers have been turned down so far and a renewal looks unlikely, but if there is to be a change of heart, and nothing in football is completely ruled out, that relationship with Pearson is strong and offers light.

“He’s got the profile of a top striker,” said Pearson of his highly regarded charge before City played Peterborough recently.

“He’s a very grounded young man, he’s a talented boy and he’s ambitious too. You’ve got to be ambitious. There’s no point having all the attributes and not being ambitious.

“If you’re not ambitious you may as well go and do a different job,” added Pearson.

Bristol City are set to be surely tested in the next months. In the past, the Robins sold their best players and did not replace them adequately, falling down the table or unable to attract good fees for players running down their contract.

(If that defence of Adam Webster and Tomas Kalas of 2018/19 had been kept together then surely Bristol City would have finished higher than 12th the following year. Although admittedly, some £20m would have been missing from the balance sheet.)

Here the West Country outfit must decide whether to cash in or perhaps take a chance that in a year’s time they may be able to make the big time themselves and satisfy the ambitions of their best and coveted players.

If City reject all offers this summer and keep the player for another year it will be a risk, as the club may not collect as big a fee if the striker later departs, but it may also come with reward.

Pearson’s words carry genuine weight, and if the Robins can show that they really can compete in 12 months time then there is a chance that club and player can continue their journey forwards together, following Brian Tinnion and his staff recruiting a young, raw but gifted striker from Dave Hockaday’s SGS College football programme in Filton.

Back to the horseplay: it’s not just the manager. The whole club is currently feeling the pinch due to the covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, which may influence those big decisions that Pearson, Gould and the Lansdowns will soon have to make.

The good news is that Bristol City believe they can keep the player for at least another year yet if not longer. But it remains to be seen if the money talks once again, or whether there is a new resolution, unlike before, to see where the talent takes the club first.