‘I’ll never forget’ - Ex-Bristol City boss Steve Cotterill on long Covid battle, Aaron Wilbraham and more

Exclusive: A catch-up with the former Robins boss on life at Shrewsbury, love for Bristol BRI, ‘Alby’ and much more.

Bristol City’s 2014/15 season will never be forgotten by Robins supporters, from success at Wembley in the JPT to Aden Flint’s volleyed Rabona in the final league game against Walsall at Ashton Gate, to the open-top bus celebrations and many more magical moments.

So it was fantastic to see then manager Steve Cotterill return to the Shrewsbury Town dugout last July, after a tough battle with Covid-19, and get back to work at the New Meadow.

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The 57-year-old was appointed as the Salop manager in November 2020 but was admitted to hospital twice in his fight against Covid.

The Shrews had a slow start to the season just finished but ‘Cotts’ has led the League One side back up the table, and is working hard to pilot the Shropshire club to greater heights, following a campaign that included a trip to Anfield and good wins over Morecambe, Sheffield Wednesday, MK Dons and others.

Steve Cotterill reacts during the FA Cup third round match between Liverpool and Shrewsbury Town.

We asked the former Robins boss about his health, hospitalisation back in Bristol last year and the great staff that helped him there, former City youngster George Nurse, loanee Saikou Janneh, assistant manager Aaron Wilbraham and more.

Here’s the full interview with a man who will never be forgotten by City supporters, and who still regards Bristol as home.

How do you reflect back on the season just gone, Steve, and where do things stand for Shrewsbury Town?

First and foremost, the people at the club are brilliant, the chairman and CEO are incredibly supportive. They obviously know that in League One, especially with League One being how it is, it’s a tough old league.

We certainly aren’t one of the bigger ones in there, but we’re very well run. The chairman, Roland Wycherley, is brilliant and the CEO, Brian Caldwell, is brilliant. They trust me with everything. I very rarely need to go and ask them for money or anything like that, we know where we are with things.

I think that what they’ve seen is that it’s been a transitional period. When I went into the football club, there were 29 players, which is now only two outfield survivors and a No. 2 goalkeeper left. So there’s been a big transitional period at the club over the last two seasons.

Last season, I was chasing my tail a little bit. It would’ve been nice to have had the six months previously but obviously with Covid, I ended up not being at work for a huge chunk of the season before last.

So I think the club’s probably in a bit of a transitional period at this moment in time. But the chairman and the CEO understand that.

I went to a supporters’ evening the other week that was fantastic and I think they understand it a bit more when you get to speak to them as well.

But I think that there’s lots of good things going on at the football club, lots of improvements to lots of things on and off the field. We’re building it, it’s going to take time but we’re building it.

Are you fully well now, Steve? You’ve spoken before about the long-term effects of Covid...

I still have got long Covid, whichever way you look at it, because you still have things that affect you. You may have where your joints are a bit achy some days, and you might have a slight cough, and there’s also the impairing of your lungs because that has to try and get better.

The good thing about the summer and the end of the season - I haven’t been able to go down to the David Lloyd gym I go to in Bristol - but when I went back to work, I’ve not had the energy to do the gym and work. So what I’ve got to do now is get myself back down the gym, which I will do, and then build myself up and get myself stronger for the season again.

Hopefully, then, when I go back, I’ll be a lot stronger than when I went back this season, because when I look back on it, going back into work as early as I did after coming back from hospital, it was probably a bit too early.

But I would only know that with hindsight. When I listen to a lot of people, some people are still off work, six to 12 months after they come out of hospital. But when I came out of hospital, I was back in within three months. I think that might have been a little bit too early but either way, I wanted to get back to work.

You’re still going to have the effects of Covid. I’m due to see my specialist next month, Katrina Curtis, at the Bristol Royal Infirmary (BRI) so hopefully she will have seen an improvement in me again.

From a Bristol perspective, it was the BRI where you were treated originally. How was your treatment there?

Incredible, incredible. It won’t sound right but you have to experience it to know just how good the people are that treat you and look after you, not just on a day-to-day basis but 24 hours a day on a day-to-day basis, a week-to-week basis and a month-to-month basis. That’s how long I was in there for.

I owe an incredible amount to those nurses, Katrina Curtis my specialist - I owe so much to those people for how they were with me. Even the nurses that are obviously there to treat you and look after you medically, but they also have to run up and down corridors all day.

When we talk about doing exercise now, we talk about “we’ve got to do our 10,000 steps a day”. They’re probably on 30,000, just for a working day, with the amount of walking and everything they do, up and down the corridors.

They’ve got to come in and make sure your oxygen is right and injections are right and all of that. But the amount of running backwards and forwards they do to just to make you a cup of tea throughout the day and night as well.

They’re incredible and I will never, ever forget them for how they were with me.

Am I right in thinking that there was a Bristol City connection when you were originally diagnosed: was it your former Bristol City doctor who advised you to get checked out?

Yes, Jonathan Williams, the ex-Bristol City doctor. He was the doctor when I was manager at Bristol City. When I was poorly up in Shrewsbury, I had gone into Shrewsbury Hospital and they did a chest X-ray and an ECG and they then said I was okay to go home, as in back to the hotel in Shrewsbury.

So when I got back to the hotel, I ended up going downhill a little bit. But then when I came home to Bristol, I was worse. I remember having an incredible coughing fit one day and I ended up ringing Jonathan. He said “I’ll think I’ll call you an ambulance” and within an hour, he’d sorted out an ambulance picking me up and I was taken in then.

Steve Cotterill led Bristol City to glory in 2014-15, as the Robins won League One and the Football League Trophy.

So I owe Jonathan a lot. Jonathan is a great guy, incredibly helpful to me, not only in my time at Bristol City but since, and wherever he is at the moment - I think he’s with the England hockey team in India at this moment in time - he WhatsApp’ed me the other day.

It’ll be one of those relationships that I won’t ever forget and he doesn’t with me, either. I think he probably thinks that I treated him well when he was the doctor at Bristol City so therefore, whenever I need him, he’s there.

A couple of questions on this season: firstly, on Aaron Wilbraham, as both of you are so fondly remembered by Bristol City fans. What have you made of him as a coach and your assistant manager?

He’s great. He missed the last week of the season because he had to go in and have a foot operation so he’s got his foot up, all bandaged, and he’s probably got to rest it for around about another week before he can start putting a boot on and weight-bearing.

So he had to have that operation last week which put him out of action.

Nothing changes with my thoughts regarding Aaron Wilbraham. When I first met him in Dubai and spoke to him for the first time, I liked him. When he signed for us and I got to know him as a person, I liked him even more.

As I stayed in touch with him over the years, even where he’s been playing at Rochdale when I left, whether it was at the back-end of his Bristol City career, I’ve got to know him, Debs his wife, Ashlee his lovely daughter.

Now, I probably love him, if you know what I mean. He’s a great guy and he’s obviously started his coaching career with me, and I was really pleased to offer him that. I look back and I think that was a good decision making him my assistant.

So I’m really, really pleased that he’s with me and I think he’ll go on to have a good coaching career. He’s just a great guy and a good coach.

He always seems to have been a key dressing room presence. Do you think it’s that kind of attribute that makes him stand in good stead as a coach going forward?

100%. What he is, he’s one of life’s givers. Not only when he was a player did he give to the dressing room, he gives to the dressing room as a coach. If you’re one of life’s givers, I think it’s very difficult not to be successful in life because I think you get it back.

You might not always get it back when you want it but you will get it back. I know we’re talking about Aaron here but my god, when I needed stuff to be given back to me when I was poorly in hospital, I got it back and I got it back by the lorryload.

Sometimes, you think to yourself when you help people or whatever throughout your life, you think “why doesn’t anything drop for me when I want it to?” Yet you don’t actually know when it’s going to drop for you but it does.

For all the well wishes that I had and the warmth that I had, that comes back, perhaps, from years of me giving to people. I see the same traits in Aaron Wilbraham, which is probably why we get on so well. He wants to give to me and I want to give to him so it’s reciprocal, the relationship.

The relationship at Shrewsbury is fantastic, incredible - no different to what I would’ve expected or what I already knew but you never know until you’re actually put out there and you’ve got to do the work. He’s great.

I’m lucky, I’ve got an incredible set of staff at Shrewsbury - it’s not just Aaron but I know the Bristol City fans will obviously relate to him.

How’s ex-Bristol City defender George Nurse done for you this year and also Saikou Janneh, who you had on loan?

George Nurse has had an incredible season. He’s done very, very well for his first season here. I think he had to play 50 games in the end.

For being such a young man, I think he showed incredible mental toughness throughout the season because throughout, you don’t always have games where you’re at the top level.

So the amount of times I would say this season he’s produced 7/10 performances has been a credit to him. He’s a great lad and we’re really pleased to have him. Hopefully he goes on and has a better season next season and then develops into a seasoned professional over the next few years.

Saikou was an absolute diamond of a lad - incredibly tough last month for him because with his religion, he can’t eat or drink during daylight hours. So that was incredible.

There were a few times towards the end of the season where I was thinking I was going to use him or I’m going to start him or I’m going to put him on and get more time and I didn’t because that moment of time is incredibly tough for him.

If you think about going through the hours of daylight with no food or drink - no water, nothing - it’s incredibly difficult. I think that must take some strength from a young man.

But he was brilliant. I loved him, the lads loved him. He came in every day and had a smile on his face. I think in a period of time, even though he didn’t have a lot of game time, 100% he improved.

We worked on him, we coached him every day, every week and he was receptive to all of it. He was an absolute diamond. I just think it might have been a little bit early for Saikou to play League One football all the time and on a regular basis, just a little bit early.

People will look at him and see his age but don’t forget that he didn’t start until late. I don’t think he was kicking a football until... Funnily enough, he showed me a picture from 2015 where we won the two trophies and he had a picture of him and the young lads he was playing with, with both of the trophies. It was fantastic!

Even being the manager at the time who had won the league and who had won at Wembley, I didn’t know that picture would be taken with the young kids. So when I saw that picture, it just brought back great memories and it was great to see that the kids were sharing pictures with the trophy as well.

I just think it was a little bit early for him. I think he learnt a lot in the period of time. I came and watched him play against Watford U23s the other week when the season was still on. He scored a penalty that day and had a good game, I felt.

Saikou Janneh got to play against Liverpool at Anfield with his new club Shrewsbury Town. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

There was some of the things that we coached him on, day to day, week to week, and I think he’ll only benefit from the experience. I really, really hope that Saikou goes on to have a great career. He’s an absolute diamond. I loved him.

He came in with a smile on his face every day, no matter what. He got on famously with even the older lads. He wasn’t frightened. He had some great banter with Aaron Pierre - he ended up buddying up with him a bit.

I can remember one day on the training ground when they were having some banter with each other about doing some sprints and it was great to see one of the young ones who’d come in having banter with one of the older boys. It was perfect.

You’ve been up at the training ground yourself. There’s also Graham Bird who’s a scout for you there.

Yes, we needed someone in the south west and I said to Keith Burt to use Graham as he would get around games for us in that area. Graham has done a little bit of work for us since I’ve been there.

And you’ve been sat up there watching with Brian Tinnion. Do you have a good relationship going there and does that mean you might be interested in more Bristol City players down the line?

I’ve spoken to Jon Lansdown a few times, I spoke to Steve Lansdown during Covid, I speak to Brian Tinnion and he would’ve been on the scouting and recruitment for the younger players when I was there. So I have a good relationship with all of them.

I think that they know if a younger player is going to come to us on loan, they’re going to be looked after and they’re going to be coached and schooled in the proper way. I definitely think there’s an area there where we can exploit Bristol City and Bristol City can exploit us, if that makes sense.