Head coach Sean O'Driscoll has penned the following in the aftermath of the Easter weekend.
Two games, two different approaches, two different performances.
That word again...performances.
I am acutely aware it’s results that will determine our fate this season, and I’m also acutely aware there are people who still don’t grasp what I mean when I say I have to concentrate on performances, not results, because surely at this stage of the season results are the only thing that will make a difference to our league position?
Of course results dictate everything, and of course I understand supporters’ concerns are only with the results with games running out.
But how do you just suddenly click your fingers and make results happen if the players don’t understand what they need to do to try and win every game they play?
That understanding is reflected in the performance so when I talk about performances, regardless of the final score, I’m asking ‘Have the players done everything required to give themselves the best opportunity to win that game?’ If yes, it’s been a good performance. If no, it hasn’t been. We could have been superb and lost, or poor and won.
The outcome cannot determine how good a performance has been - you won’t play consistently poorly and win lots of football matches. Producing a one-off dazzling display and victory – if you don’t understand how you did it – won’t help you progress.
In many people’s minds, the word ‘performance’ conjures up images of free-flowing, attacking football based on solid organisational foundations that stops opponents scoring.
That’s where everyone would like to be. But when myself and Richard O’Kelly walked through the door, we found a team that was decent in possession but conceded goals and lost football matches. That leads to lack of confidence and belief, which you can’t just click your fingers and restore.
Restoring confidence and belief only comes from giving players things they can do well – small goals to achieve in a game and a way to contribute positively to the whole team effort.
We were never suddenly going to become a gung-ho slick football machine. While keeping clean sheet after clean sheet, we had to try to find another way to win games.
That way, for us, has been to play for position, not possession, to win second balls, be bright off broken play but be difficult to break down as a defensive unit. Our best results have come off very limited possession. What we’ve done consistently well is force opponents to concede possession in their half, and then squeeze in and be organised from throw-ins and goalkeeper distributions to win the ball back and give us the chance to play. Working hard for each other and supporting each other defensively has enabled us to win games.
That is what we are at this minute in time. That is our strength. That is a good performance.
At Derby we took a different approach to the game. Wanting to be positive, and to see how far the team has moved on, we brought an additional element of possession and passing to our game. As a collective, overall we were a poorer team for it. The organisational things that had stood us in good stead from our best performances to that point got lost a little. We had more possession in that game than any other since we’ve been here, yet lost 3-0.
The most disappointing thing about the Derby performance wasn’t the way we played, but for the first time in two-and-a-half months the players let the disappointment and scoreline affect them. When you watch the DVD, and analyse it dispassionately, there were actually things we did ok in the game but some of the body language and demeanour was defeatist.
Whatever the outcome this season, we cannot have the players perpetuating negativity. You want players to hurt and be disappointed when things don’t go their way. But reactions are everything; that is a massive area we’ve concentrated on.
Players will make mistakes, the right things to do may not always get the desired outcome and they will experience numerous individual and collective disappointments throughout 90 minutes. But the only choice they have is to react positively to those. Sulk or moan and the whole spiral of negativity that breeds amongst the group, and inevitably the supporters, means no one ends up winning from the situation. At Derby, we had that for the first time.
For Sheffield Wednesday we revisited what had helped us achieve positive home results and sacrificed flair for functional, which sounds negative in black and white but unquestionably has been our most successful recipe for success in all of our home games so far.
No one can surely argue we hadn’t been on top before and after the Wednesday opener? And no one can surely argue we didn’t deserve at least a point, if not more, from the game? The starting 11 did the job that was asked of them; the fact Wednesday changed their system to cope with our approach was testament to that. Meanwhile, the substitutes came into the game at a point when they could do well and provide a spark, which they all did.
The most pleasing thing for me, off the back of the Derby game, was that we handled the disappointment, and reacted positively to going a goal behind. We remained a team that worked hard for each other, supported each other and understood what it was trying to do.
Thank you for the part you played in this too. It would have been easy for the supporters to have become disheartened and turn on the players but I hope you could see they were giving it everything, they wanted to do well and you took encouragement from that.
When I get asked about not looking at the league table, I don’t answer the way I do to try to be clever or difficult. Of course I understand supporters want to know my thoughts on where we are and how we’re doing, but I cannot judge the progress we have made on our league position, just as I cannot judge a performance on the result.
If I don’t go into every game believing we can win it then why are any of us bothering?
If I agonised over our position and points tally compared to the teams around us, would it make any game we play more important than another? Would it change the way we are doing things? If it did then the question you should be asking is why aren’t we doing those things in the first place?
We try to win every single game we play. You win more than you lose and the points tally takes care of itself, but the league position may not because what the other teams do is completely out of my control. We can’t get consumed by where we are and risk being dragged into the negativity of the situation when we have to be positive. We have to be.
The club enjoyed a sustained period of success under Gary Johnson and came within a hair’s breadth of playing in the top flight. But in an understandable and genuine attempt to cross over that line, did the very essence of what made that team so effective get lost? The things that made that squad so effective were talented individual players playing as a team. Those are the traits we need to get back to and reinvent, whatever our status next season.
This club has to find a solid foundation from which to move forward long term regardless of which division we’re in next season. There have to be traits of a Bristol City team that underpin everything we do. They are the ‘basics’, the touchstone that, when things aren’t going our way, we can fall back on and keep trying to do well to maintain belief.
Can we always display the right attitude, show enthusiasm and be energetic even in the face of adversity? People may think those things should be a given, but trust me, when things are going against you they can be unbelievably difficult to do.
Those things have started to be put in place and the improvements in players’ understanding have been massive. That may not have always manifested itself in three points, but we have to be consistent with what we’re saying to the players, to gain and maintain their trust and give them something to believe in and build on to make them better individual players and stronger team components.
To give this club a whole identity, and developing a way of doing things people can identify as being the ‘Bristol City way’, is an ongoing process.
It’s going to require everyone – staff, players, supporters, the Board and the local media - to recognise and understand the big picture when the natural instinct is to get bogged down game by game in the result and league position.
We have to make sure this club, regardless of the playing staff or management personnel, has a way of doing things from top to bottom that is outwardly recognised as being the ‘Bristol City way’, and that supporters and the city can feel part of and be proud of.
The short term is, of course, important, and we are doing everything we can to try to look after that. But the behaviours and attitudes that will give us the best chance of short-term success will be the building blocks on which everything else around this club can grow.
Please keep supporting your local team; you can’t begin to appreciate what a difference it makes.