Mark Perrow reports from Ashton Gate
City cemented their place in the southern area final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy with a gritty victory over Sky Bet League One rivals Coventry City at Ashton Gate.
The spectacle failed to hit the heights of countless City performances in league action this season, but the hosts were rarely troubled as headed goals from Derrick Williams and Aaron Wilbraham secured a two-legged affair with Gillingham for a place at Wembley next March.
Steve Cotterill left nothing to chance by selecting a very strong side which included Matt Smith making his first start up front.
Otherwise the return of captain Wade Elliott following a three-match ban was the only alteration to the team victorious at Peterborough United last time out in the league, with a total of six changes from the FA Cup win over AFC Telford United.
Marlon Pack and Kieran Agard were the two to miss out from the starters at the ABAX Stadium, with both men named on the reduced five-man bench under competition rules.
City had left it late to scrape past non-league minnows Telford three days prior, and did not start much better against the out of form Sky Blues, languishing 17 places below them in the third tier.
The visitors were first to threaten, as left-back Reda Johnson cut the ball back for Gary Madine who had dropped back into a pocket of space only to side-foot the ball rather tamely into the grateful arms of Frank Fielding.
The City keeper had to be alert again to deal with Josh McQuoid’s 25-yard snapshot soon after, but Fielding would have been helpless to prevent John Fleck’s deflected effort from distance sneaking inside the post after it struck the oblivious Madine and bobbled inches wide.
In between times Cotterill’s team had slowly begun to exert themselves on the contest. Wilbraham registered the hosts’ first attempt on target with a clever flick from Joe Bryan’s cross but Coventry keeper Ryan Allsop hardly broke sweat in making the save.
It would take until the half-hour mark for City to find space in a wide area, ultimately resulting in the opening goal after Mark Little breezed past Johnson and was upended down by the byeline.
The booking that followed for the defender was only the start of Coventry’s woes, as Luke Freeman’s ensuing delivery was headed home by Williams from inside a crowded six-yard box for his second goal of the season.
It was the spark that City needed, having not looked themselves up to that point, and before long confidence was flowing through the veins of Cotterill’s players.
Bryan escaped down the left and produced a delicious low cross begging for a touch from Wilbraham who was only inches away from obliging on the stretch.
Williams and Korey Smith both tried their luck from long range before Aden Flint glanced a Freeman corner wide of the post from close range as he backpedalled to meet it.
But Coventry were still very much in the contest and after a Madine cross was charged down by the City wall, Danny Swanson delivered an excellent cross from deep that bounced inside the penalty area before Johnson met it at the back post but could only find the side-netting.
It had been a half in which the bulk of the chances had come from set-pieces, and City manufactured another when Freeman traded passes with Korey Smith from a short corner before crossing from the right towards the lanky figure of Matt Smith, who rose highest but could not find the target from a promising position.
The second half would resume in much the same vein, with City struggling to take full control of proceedings without looking under undue pressure defensively.
Swanson tried his luck from the edge of the area but shot wide, before Coventry began to threaten again from dead-ball situations.
Cotterill had highlighted the aerial prowess of the visitors before the game and wanted height on his side, with both strikers being asked to come back for corners and free kicks.
Fulham loanee Matt Smith had only enjoyed one sight of goal but showed his qualities at the other end to make a crucial intervention when a Swanson corner was flicked on by Matthew Pennington.
Midfielder Adam Barton was twice off target from headers as more chances came and went before Wilbraham finally killed off any lingering doubts of a penalty shoot-out with City’s second.
It was down to more good work from Freeman, by far the best player on the pitch, who created a golden opening without the need for a set play, getting to the byeline and standing the ball up to the back post for Wilbraham to head City’s second from six yards.
Freeman nearly completed a hat-trick of assists when Flint inexplicably headed high over the crossbar when unopposed from yet another free kick.
But City had done enough to win the battle of the dead ball in a tie short on quality from general play.
Not that Cotterill will care, with only relegation-threatened Gillingham standing between his team and Wembley.