Mark Perrow reports from Ashton Gate
Kieran Agard struck two minutes into stoppage time to secure City’s place in the FA Cup third round at the expense of gutsy non-league visitors AFC Telford United.
The Sky Bet League One leaders were out of sorts against opponents a full 71 places below them on the English football pyramid, whose goalkeeper Jonathan Hedge was not kept as busy as you might expect.
Instead the hosts were indebted to Frank Fielding for ensuring their name will remain in the cup after the keeper twice saved smartly from Andy Todd in the final 15 minutes.
Steve Cotterill may have been tempted to make more than just the four changes to his side for the visit of the Vanarama Conference’s bottom club.
Only Todd Kane, making his first start, Greg Cunningham, Scott Wagstaff and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas were fresh faces following the impressive 3-0 away victory at Peterborough United nine days ago.
There seemed no shortage of attacking talent on display for the hosts, with Emmanuel-Thomas playing in behind the usual front pairing of Agard and Aaron Wilbraham, and City’s intent was evident from the very first attack inside three minutes.
Luke Ayling escaped the attentions of the Telford back four down the right-hand side and found a cross towards Wilbraham, who initially tried to head the ball towards goal before it dropped at his feet around the penalty spot, inviting an instinctive low shot well held by Hedge.
You sensed an early goal could make for a straightforward afternoon’s work, but instead the unfancied visitors grew in confidence.
There was an early scare when Ryan Higgins’ cross from the right was met by a stooping header by midfield runner Mike Grogan, who forced Fielding into a sharp reaction stop down by his near post.
City were looking strangely off-colour in the face of an opposing team who were giving the odds-on favourites no time in possession and rushing them into mistakes.
But the non-leaguers were opened up just shy of the half-hour mark when Kane displayed great persistence in midfield to win the ball and find Emmanuel-Thomas in his favourite pocket of space 30 yards from goal.
Carrying the ball towards the penalty area, the enigmatic forward resisted the urge to shoot and instead slipped a lovely pass in behind the defence for Agard, whose first-time shot with only Hedge to beat was well saved by the legs of the Telford goalkeeper.
It was quite an open game and all the action was certainly not just down one end. Josh Hancock had a glimpse of goal from 20 yards but blazed his shot over the top before Godfrey Poku threatened to latch on to a scuffed clearance from Aden Flint inside the City box.
Meanwhile, Cotterill’s side were finding more and more space in behind the Bucks rearguard. Agard, Emmanuel-Thomas and Cunningham all reached the byeline but could not pick out a red shirt, while Flint rose highest to meet an Emmanuel-Thomas corner but glanced his header a couple of yards wide.
City’s performance had improved no end with half-time approaching, perhaps fearing a few stern words from their manager at the interval, but Hedge in the Telford goal was proving a tough nut to crack.
Twice goalbound headers were kept at bay in first-half stoppage time, with Wilbraham and Marlon Pack denied by excellent diving saves as Telford escaped at the break on level terms.
When the action resumed at the start of the second period, City had lost the momentum they had behind them at the end of the first.
United were not shy in putting balls into the box and Fielding came under pressure from a couple of corners, not least when Adam Farrell’s delivery looked destined to creep in just underneath the crossbar only for the City keeper to help in on its way behind.
Home attacks were too few and far between. Wagstaff fizzed a low cross along the six-yard line which just had too much pace on it for Cunningham to convert.
Cotterill reacted by introducing Freeman for Emmanuel-Thomas 20 minutes into the second half and the midfielder’s impact was immediate.
Dispossessing defender Andrew Parry, who tried in vain to shepherd the ball out of play, Freeman elected to shoot from a tight angle with Wilbraham well positioned allowing Hedge to make yet another save at his near post.
Choosing the wrong option was to City’s cost again when Agard rifled a shot towards goal when put through in the inside right channel, sending the chance wide of the near post with both Wilbraham and an animated Cunningham frustrated to his left.
But City were still far from dominant and Fielding would be called upon to make two quick-fire saves to deny the same player.
Veteran midfielder Todd already had an FA Cup goal against Cotterill’s City to his name having struck for Tamworth at the same stage of the competition this time last year in the manager’s first game in charge.
Twice he threatened to add to that one with a goal of far greater significance as the tie entered its final 15 minutes.
First Fielding was forced to dive to his left and parry a left-footed shot after Todd was put through by Hancock. In doing so, he pushed the ball into the onrushing Flint who endured a heart in mouth moment as the ball looped over his own crossbar.
When the resulting corner was only half-cleared, Todd struck the dropping ball on the volley with a brilliant strike again repelled by Fielding, this time stooping to his right to claw the ball to safety.
Six added minutes provided City with a lifeline, and Agard pounced at the back post from a Freeman corner to bundle the ball into the net and break Telford hearts.
Still the drama was not over, as the outstanding visitors twice threatened to rescue a replay through substitute Sam Smith, who first dragged a low shot wide from 12 yards before heading straight at Fielding when left unmarked in the final attack of a pulsating cup tie.