City left it late for the second weekend running as unlikely hero Luke Ayling struck a priceless winner three minutes from time to break the resistance of Sky Bet League One draw specialists Crawley Town at Ashton Gate.
City had started the game terrifically well but looked like paying the price for failing to convert their early dominance into an opening goal as the visitors became an increasingly tough nut to crack.
In truth Steve Cotterill’s side created relatively little after the interval, but their patience and perseverance was rewarded when Ayling thundered a low volley into the bottom corner to spark jubilant scenes and extend City’s stay at the third tier summit.
Cotterill made one change to his starting XI victorious over Coventry in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, with Aaron Wilbraham surprisingly dropped to the bench for the first time in league action this season.
The even taller figure of Matt Smith, who made his first start in midweek, was involved straight away as City charged out of the blocks.
Mark Little combined with Ayling down the right flank and produced a cross which just left the Fulham loanee stretching slightly and unable to divert his header on target.
Then Joe Bryan met one in a series of early Luke Freeman corners only to see his effort repelled by Lewis Price in the visiting goal.
By this point Price had already been extended, having to claw away Aden Flint’s downward header which may have been helped on by Kieran Agard from point-blank range before the keeper reacted just in time to keep City at bay.
It was a start reminiscent of the way Cotterill’s side began their last league outing at Peterborough United in which they struck twice inside the first 16 minutes.
This time the deadlock breaker was proving harder to come by. Bryan had started the game brightly and raced infield to pick up a loose ball and lash a right-footed shot goalwards which forced a fine save from Price, who tipped it over the crossbar for another City corner.
By the first half’s midpoint there was an increasing sense that Crawley may have weathered an early storm and could start to influence the game in City’s half for the first time.
Striker Shaun Miller embarked on a solo run into home territory and caught a long-range shot sweetly only to see it fizz a couple of yards wide, before Bobson Bawling attempted to pick his spot from the left corner of the penalty area but sent his curling effort high and wide.
City still carried the greater threat, but the all guns blazing approach evident in the opening exchanges had given way to a more patient probing of the visiting backline.
Meanwhile, Crawley were doing a decent job of restricting their hosts to set-piece openings and shots from distance, as Agard and Korey Smith both tried their luck from 25 yards with only the attacker calling Price into action.
City boss Cotterill is never shy in highlighting the influence of his team’s “outside centre-backs”, who were regularly stepping up into midfield areas in a bid to force the initiative in the face of stubborn Town resistance.
From one Ayling cross, Matt Smith was strong enough to get across his man and get his head to the ball but sent the chance wide from 12 yards. It was perhaps City’s most enterprising piece of play without the aid of a dead ball.
The pressure was increasing as the visitors eyed the sanctuary of half-time, as Agard charged to the byeline but saw his low cross evade Matt Smith and Little with the help of a Price fingertip with a far post tap-in seemingly a formality.
Matt Smith was first to threaten at the start of the second period, glancing a Bryan cross wide as a similar pattern of play resumed.
City’s best chance of the game to date fell the way of unlikely scorer Little on the hour, who met a right-footed Freeman cross with a header impressively clawed away by Price. Had the delivery come from Freeman’s left, perhaps the usual fizz on the ball would have aided the defender’s cause.
To their credit, Crawley offered attacking bursts in fits and starts, forcing a couple of corners and playing with intelligence on the break.
Bawling had the visitors’ most presentable opportunity only to see his shot blocked by Flint at the end of a counter-attack which could have been prevented had Wade Elliott committed a foul on the halfway line and stopped the yellow shirts in their tracks.
Cotterill made his first move 21 minutes from the end, introducing Wilbraham to rapturous applause and Pack, in midfield, for Matt Smith and the tiring Elliott respectively.
City were pushing for a winner without bombarding the Crawley goal. Wilbraham stabbed a half-chance over the bar when the ball fell his way unexpectedly in the box, while Bryan headed wide from a Korey Smith cross.
But the hosts finally got the goal they needed to preserve top spot, as one of countless Freeman corners dropped the way of Ayling, who dispatched an unerring finish just inside the far post from ten yards in a style more befitting a striker than a centre-back for his first Ashton Gate goal.
What a time to get it.