Top 10 memorable Bristol City games: When Lee Johnson saw off Wolves to kickstart Championship survival
Here we reminisce about the most memorable games of the last five years and recall some of the great plotlines and stories from a wider viewpoint and with the benefit of hindsight - we begin at 10 with what may have been a season turning point and even a bedrock to Nigel Pearson’s Championship-seasoned side today
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In the dank gloom across the Deepdale pitch, head coach Lee Johnson was asked if he was the right man to keep the Robins in the Championship. The former Barnsley boss laughed before responding after a 5-0 midweek humbling to perennial bogey side Preston North End on 4 April 2017.
It was a 21st defeat of the 2016/17 season and the heaviest of the campaign for City. Johnson had already presided over a club record eight defeats in a row, and 11 losses in 12 games from November to January that year. The demolition job meant that Bristol City were now sat 21st in the league with only Blackburn, Wigan and Rotherham below them in the Championship table.
During the 0-2 loss to Fulham in February, the home supporters had turned on Johnson, wanting him sacked. After a cold winter, spring mildness had arrived, but the piercing, bitter threat of relegation still loomed. This felt a low point and BBC Radio Bristol was awash with callers demanding change at Ashton Gate.
There were politics at play however. Only a year earlier, fans favourite Steve Cotterill had been dismissed, just eight months after the club’s double-winning 2014/15 campaign. Johnson was the fresh face, appointed by then Chief Operating Officer Mark Ashton who had been officially announced as joining City two days after Cotterill’s departure, and had steered the club to safety in 2016.
Popular assistant coach John Pemberton had left in March, with Jamie McAllister promoted from the U23s, as the West Country club sought to find momentum and change the direction of travel: south, at that point.
But there had been no progress from the year before and now more alchemy was needed, despite the successful arrival of Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham to replace outgoing forward Jonathan Kodjia. Key player from the year before, Lee Tomlin, was struggling for consistency, though he had opened the scoring in the encouraging 4-0 win over Huddersfield in the previous home match.
Of course, this was the Johnson era and his City side had oscillated from six wins in the first 10 Championship matches to now being in freefall, with sporadic bursts of form inbetween. Things would soon get better, but this moment was knife edge.
“There’s an in-build determination to do the right thing for this club, myself and my family. At no point have I felt I’m not up for the fight. I’ve probably been more frustrated than anybody, but we have to look at the big picture and improve,” said Johnson at the pre-match press conference for Wolves. The in-house message? A ‘video nasty’ review of the 5-0 thrashing at Preston provided impetus to City’s playing squad.
Further motivation came as club owner Steve Lansdown had made a third public packing of the season of his 34-year-old head coach, revealing to local radio that he wanted Johnson to remain in charge of the team. There was a caveat though. “But we aren’t daft, we will see what happens here against Wolves and go from there.”
Make or break then.
Perhaps the best news of the week had been that the players had refunded the cost of the tickets for the 312 Robins fans who made the long trip north on Tuesday evening to witness that heavy Preston defeat. It may have helped as come Saturday, City were supported and started well. Lined up in a 4-4-2, January arrival Matty Taylor played off Abraham, with Korey Smith and Marlon Pack instrumental in central midfield.
Under blue skies in BS3, the hosts scored three times inside 49 minutes and continued their improving home form as Aden Flint hit the cross bar, and Jamie Patterson and two Abraham goals knocked back Paul Lambert’s mid-table but improving Wolverhampton Wanderers team.
The Scot had just been awarded the Manager of the Month award for April so we had an idea of what was coming next, for the West Midlands outfit who were now under the control of the Chinese investment group Fosun following a £45m deal in the previous July. (And they would be promoted the year after, following significant team investment.)
Abraham’s second was a 49th minute penalty, as now Tottenham Hotspur wing-back Matt Doherty fouled Mark Little in the box. The visitors grabbed a late consolation through Jón Daði Böðvarsson, with 17-year-old Morgan Gibbs-White making his first start for the team in gold, and key wingers Helder Costa injured with fellow forward Ivan Cavaleiro coming off the bench. Andi Weimann played for the opposition that day.
After this victory there was palpable relief by all connected to City, as the Robins moved four points clear of the drop, and subsequently won four games in five, eventually finishing the campaign in 17th position. “The job is far from done, but I have never doubted our ability to stay in the Championship,” said a jubilant Johnson after the Wolves win.
Safe then, but with work to do if it was not to be the same again the year after. Thankfully that happened and, perhaps reaping the reward for stability, Bristol City went on to enjoy a much better, and memorable, 2017/18 season.
Note: The chosen games are not from a fan point of view, and just great wins, but chosen from the press box with the accompanying access and behind-the-scenes knowledge that goes with that