Bristol City verdict: George Tanner's a gem, Robins display their intangibles and a golden end

Nahki Wells had held up his index finger and then circled his thumb against that digit to signify he had reached 100 Championship goals at the end of the 5-0 thrashing of Blackburn Rovers. The Bermudian’s 101st in the 101th minute against the team for which he had scored his first ever in this division also carried a certain sense of symbolism.

The sickening kind for Huddersfield Town, perhaps, who didn’t have time to feel any heartbreak as the man who had helped them into the Premier League almost seven years ago prevented three points that would have taken them out of the relegation zone. They were too consumed with shock, leading to fury and ending with tears in the dressing room, as depicted by manager Andre Breitenreiter.

Wells buried his penalty in front of the South Stand after Ollie Turton’s handball to keep City unbeaten over the post-Easter period in the “mini-season” which Liam Manning has demanded his team attack to enter the summer on an upward trend.

They had not played well. Far from it. But it was a “solid point” secured at the latest possible moment as almost immediately after the kick-off was taken following Wells’ spot-kick, Rebecca Welch sounded the final whistle.

These paragraphs, and the dramatic nature of how the game finished, may hint at a memorable contest, but it was anything but. However, here are the talking points from Ashton Gate…

That’ll be the Championship

The Championship is a mad league, no doubt, as Blackburn Rovers’ 1-0 win at Leeds United was evidence of, so soon after their embarrassment in BS3. But it’s probably driven by two key factors: the parity of resources across the majority of the division (the non-parachute payment clubs, that is) and chronic inconsistencies of teams in quality from game to game.

You try and take things at face value but it was hard to argue against the obvious narrative that, for the most part, this was a match between a limited side desperately scrapping for survival towards the bottom of the Championship, with a sense of injustice after their 4-1 defeat to Preston North End in midweek, and one who’s likely going to finish somewhere between 9th and 14th and with the cushion of a 5-0 win just four days earlier.

Except, when further considered, the latter part of that doesn’t quite hold up - and forgive us the strawman but we’ve read such criticisms - given the timing of the Robins equaliser. A team supposedly “on the beach”, whether at home or elsewhere, doesn’t show the same degree of intent to score, however frustratingly late it may have been.

As substandard a performance it may have been, and Manning used adjectives such as “sloppy” and “scrappy”, City shoulders didn’t slump after conceding as if to say, "oh well". If anything Josh Koroma’s goal was the necessary spark they needed. Yes, that in itself is worthy of criticism but there is additional context.

Ideally, Manning probably would have selected an unchanged line-up - it’s hard to argue otherwise after a 5-0 win, even in light of the impressions off the bench made by Anis Mehmeti and Wells’ - but the absence of Zak Vyner meant a late reshuffle, which affected the structure and flow of the side in a disproportionate way given it is only one player.

But an individual in the very middle of the team who has been ever-present since November 4, comprising 32 games, taken out of the side, coupled with three other specialists in his position being unable to play is going to do that.

Manning could have gone like-for-like and handed Jamie Knight-Lebel a full debut or revisited Andy King in defence, but instead he elected to switch to something else. Ross McCrorie and George Tanner each shifted inside a place, Mark Sykes retreated to right wing-back and subsequently there was a spot as one of the No10s alongside Scott Twine.

Mehmeti would have fancied his chances in a starting berth after scoring against Blackburn but with Joe Williams making a similar impact on Wednesday, Matty James having moved to the bench to set him up for this encounter and Jason Knight in good form, he evidently didn’t want to leave out any of those central midfielders (an interesting discussion point given Williams and James are out of contract and may not be around next season so why not lean towards individuals who definitely are? Well, unless of course… but that’s just us idly speculating).

Three into two doesn’t go, so Knight returned to the playmaker spot which has yielded mixed results all season, but it enabled Manning to have some of the key the individuals he wanted on the field.

The James-Williams axis wasn’t the reason for City’s slow-paced possession in the first-half, but it certainly didn’t provide much of a counter argument to the fact that when they do play in the engine room together, the Robins lack a bit of zip in the way they move the ball.

As Manning said, City were just too passive in that opening 45 minutes. They had the majority of the ball 55.6 per cent possession to 44.4 during that period but it was a little back to the slow and laborious play that was worrying apparent during that bleak run of three defeats to QPR, Sheffield Wednesday and Cardiff City (and their final number of 72.3 is the first time in seven matches they’ve had more than 50 per cent going back to, ahem, the Cardiff loss).

Incident-wise, there really was very little to speak of beyond Huddersfield flying into tackles, City’s three centre-backs seeing an awful lot of the ball, very little fashioned at either end beyond Brodie Spencer catching Mark Sykes napping at the far post and heading wide and Koroma running at the Robins defence only to be crowded for space and his eventual shot was deflected wide.

The best City could muster came towards the end of the half when Roberts rolled Scott Twine down the side and the playmaker, for a split second, looked to have scope to shift the ball onto his right and shoot but his touch took him to the byline and when he tried to find Tommy Conway a defender stepped across. And that was it, really.

City were better in the second period, no doubt, albeit with a low bar having been set. More of the game was played in the Huddersfield half and while the visitors had shown glimpses of attacking intent through the muscular Delano Burgzorg and the pace and trickery of Sorba Thomas, Koroma and Jack Rudoni it was now largely absent.

Conway and Sykes were a little greedy as they bore down on the penalty area with separate runs, neither choosing to pass to the other, which may have led to the next man then following suit in frustration a few moments later. City also won five corners in the opening 20 minutes of the half while Matty James sort of forced a save out of Nicholls as he shot into the middle of the goal after an encouraging move.

But as Wells and Mehmeti were introduced to try and turn the screw, and a 2vs1 break was squandered when Twine set the Bermudian away, he held onto it for a fraction too long and the space was closed, it was Huddersfield who took the lead.

Rudoni had his moments previously and burst into space down the Huddersfield right, cutting onto his left and his shot was deflected off Pring but only as far as Koroma who could barely believe the opportunity, smashing it into the net from close range.

Given the circumstances and what was at stake, that probably should have been it, but here’s when we’re back to our old friend emotion; the Robins didn’t panic, I guess they didn’t need to in a way, but patiently tried to play their way to an equaliser.

Mehmeti exchanged passes with Twine and nearly set-up Wells, while a sustained period of pressure then saw the striker overhit a cross towards Sykes at the back post. These weren’t gold standard efforts but they kept the Terriers guessing and on the back foot.

As did Pring’s overlapping run in the eighth minute of injury time as he played a pass into Roberts and looped around the back, his cross striking Turton and Wells’ encouraging goalscoring end to the season continued with a third inside a week in front of the South Stand.

It proved a dramatic ending to a game that had shown no indication of producing such for any of the preceding 97 minutes. That’ll be the Championship, then.

A new experience

The result was far more important/potentially cataclysmic for one team than the other, even if City have extended their unbeaten run to five games or one defeat in seven, depending on your preference.

This was disastrous for Huddersfield. Potentially much, much worse, hence the focus on Welch’s decision which caused Breitenreiter to seek her out at the final whistle for an explanation. Although the German reserved his ire towards the official in private rather than raging publicly in his post-match press conference, which is of credit to him as it would have been easier (and potentially more expensive) to do the opposite.

But for all the “so much at stake” merchants when talking about one incident that could cost a team, Huddersfield are in the bottom three for reasons far beyond one contentious call as Pring’s cross clipped Turton’s elbow, which was ever-so slightly raised but probably just about stayed in a natural position and it was at fairly close range.

They had been gradually pinned back in injury time (check how deep they are as Roberts receives possession for Pring, who made the pass to then accelerate around the back with nobody following him), while various acts of timewasting, including introducing Turton - who had been out for the last 14 months with an ACL injury - in the 95th minute to eat up more of the clock, also proved their downfall.

In 43 Championship fixtures this season, City have gained points on just two occasions in the 90th minute or injury time: at Millwall and Rotherham, with winners from James and Conway; both games on the watch of Nigel Pearson. The Robins have scored just nine times from the 81st minute onwards, only five teams have a worse record while, funnily enough, Huddersfield have shipped 15 goals in that time period - 24th overall in the division.

There are more than a few areas for improvement but scoring late goals should be one of them because it keeps you in games and earns you points like on Saturday. Finding the solution is over to Manning at the coaching staff because, of course, there are bigger issues around chance creation and goals scored over the entire 90 minutes, not just the end part, but one should feed into the other.

However, and granted it’s one of those things that is much easier to illuminate after the event, the Robins are starting to develop a knack of gaining points when they’re not at their best. That’s aided by their continual ability to stay in games and never let a deficit get away from them.

It’s also helped by intangible qualities that are hard to quantify or see but tend to bear out in the end product, which is what we witnessed in BS3. This was a 0-0 game, and was headed for that inevitable conclusion until Koroma scored, although before Rudoni’s run it did kind of look likely that if there was going to be one winner, it would be City.

But having gone a goal down, as much as the thousands present at Ashton Gate left - which raises one or two questions about the faith in this team and their lack of stimulation but can also probably be attributed to the time of year and the lack of jeopardy in the game for the hosts - the team didn’t give up. They didn’t want to lose this game, and that apparent difference in importance between what a win or a point was worth for Huddersfield and City wasn’t there, not in the eyes of the players.

Under Manning, City have lost games in the last minute or into injury time, to Norwich, Millwall and Ipswich and they dropped two points with five to go at Coventry City. In three of those encounters they played considerably better then they did on Saturday.

They’ve also been unable to snatch results in this manner in tight and low-quality encounters against Birmingham City, QPR, Cardiff and, to some extent, at Sheffield Wednesday. But they seem to be learning and developing the sort of attributes that enable you to do so.

Nobody’s sugar-coating this display, least of all the head coach, but there will be off-days for every team - and City remain a hugely inconsistent side with a low floor and a high-ish ceiling. What helps stomach such a reality is if results can be obtained from any situation and you’re not having to deliver an 8+ performance to do so, although some opposition obviously require such.

We’re maybe talking up a forgettable 1-1 draw a little bit too much but both Manning and Tanner agreed after the game that maybe a month or so ago, City don’t go on to get anything from this game.

Again, it’s one of those situations which is hard to assess without a much wider sample size but it’s an important marker to be laid down, however unimpressive as it may seem in the context of the overall entertainment on offer.

There is a spirit to this squad, but also an ability to clear heads and react and not feel too sorry for themselves. Something that maybe wasn't apparent previously.

Tanner answers the call

He didn’t know until the morning of the game that he’d be playing there but Tanner had more than an inkling he’d be the man assigned to anchor the defence after Vyner was ruled out of this game late on Friday.

With Rob Atkinson and Kal Naismith out for the season, the game a little too soon for Rob Dickie, outside of King or perhaps moving Roberts inside and playing Pring as a third centre-back, who else was it going to be?

Tanner has been quietly enjoying a productive and progressive season in terms of his overall development. He’s been a steady presence at right-back, and increasingly right-sided centre-back, while he’s kept a number of high quality Championship wingers largely quiet.

Those matches playing to the right of Vyner have also helped shape his confidence and understanding of the central position as he was moved a place infield which, admittedly, carries greater responsibility and scrutiny and, of course, is the result of circumstance, but the fact Manning did so with Tanner is proof of his growing stature in the squad and the trust and faith the staff and his teammates have in him.

Whereas his work at full-back in silencing some of the division’s widemen has been conducted in 1vs1 situations which require a certain nous and reading of the game, coupled with the timing of when to tackle and when to block the space and general positional awareness, in the middle of the back three demand certain physical traits that’s it’s hard for a full-back to transfer.

That was initially witnessed in the ninth minute as Burgzorg broke down the inside right channel and had gained a yard on Tanner, the City defender having to grab a full fistful of the Dutchman's shirt but still couldn’t thwart his charge, with a subsequent ball into the box beyond Koroma lurking towards the far post.

It immediately looked a worrying mismatch - not necessarily in height, 185cm to 181cm, but in overall build and body strength - but instead of being deterred, Tanner then proceeded to very much shut the big striker down, picking his moments, maintaining a closeness (but not too close), and just keeping everything straightforward, just as it needed to be.

He was helped by his defensive colleagues, also by the lack of a decent ball into the box and even when Rudoni did find Koroma for the opening goal it was after his shot cannoned off Pring, rather than it being a deliberate assist.

Tanner doesn’t possess Vyner’s height, power or athleticism, but compensated for such with his understanding of the game and being in the right place each and every time, covering for some of Ross McCrorie’s often overly enthusiastic darts in midfield and when balls from wide areas were sent into the box.

His timing and awareness in spotting the trajectory and likely destination of passes also meant he was there on the spot to kill an attacking move stone dead.

It was, even taking into consideration Huddersfield’s lack of attacking punch, an accomplished performance from an individual steadily maturing and improving.

However, and this isn’t Tanner’s fault because he unquestionably did what was asked of him and performed probably better than anyone else clad in red and white, the reshuffled defence with him as the central point did ever-so slightly impact City’s build-up.

The Robins have not only lost two significant presences and performers in Dickie and Vyner, plus the height and aerial strength they bring to the team, but also their passing smarts from deep.

McCrorie is not that sort of player. He is, for want of a better term, a runner. Someone who wants to step forward with the ball and attack the man in front of them or try to go by them inside or out. That isn’t really permitted at centre-back because of the obvious risks in failure.

The Scot therefore had to curb some of his attacking instincts and play it safe to a degree, sitting a little deeper when he received possession with his options essentially Sykes on the outside, James or Williams in field or go back or across to Tanner or O’Leary.

No doubt there was a burning desire for him to do more but it’s hard to be too critical because that’s also his first appearance in such a position for City. He’d played there before for Aberdeen but would have been feeling his way into the role to an extent.

Vyner is always liable for a loose ball, but alongside Naismith and Dickie he’s been the best long passer in the team, and when he’s snapped those balls into midfield through the lines it’s opened up a world of possibilities. That didn’t happen against Huddersfield.

Nor did it from Tanner who, understandably, kept it nice and simple, which meant it was left to Roberts to be a creative distributor. Something he’s already been but previously he’s had Dickie and/or Vyner as auxiliary options. On this occasion it was largely all on him.

Thomas did an excellent job in cutting off the passing avenue into Pring in the first half. Whenever Roberts got on the ball, the first movement of the Welsh winger wasn't necessarily to engage but shuffle across two steps and the City defender then had to turn to his right for his midfielders with Pring frustrated by a lack of service.

There just wasn’t the same level of variation or angles from deeper passing positions and it contributed to the slightly stale and predictable build-up, plus O’Leary seemed more frequent with his long diagonals out to Pring and Sykes. The former being a little more effective in the air than the latter.

It’ll hopefully only be a one-game experiment, but at least we know what Tanner is capable of and the reliable qualities he can display at times of need, particularly in a defensive setting. But the knock-on effect when in possession which, again, isn’t on him at all, was also evident. That should be caveated by the consideration that the more McCrorie and Tanner play in such positions, the better and more comfortable they can get in fulfilling such requirements in possession.

The race is on

At this stage of the season, with three games to decide which degree of mid-table they finish, while that part is important of sorts, you’re also looking for additional sub-plots to keep the grey matter ticking over and the blood stirring.

Can City beat their points total of 59 from last term (you’d certainly hope so)? How will James and Williams finish the campaign and will it matter in terms of their respective contract situations? Can Scott Twine show enough to suggest he’s worth investing a significant transfer fee in? Will Knight-Lebel or anyone else from the U21 set-up, with Tommy Backwell in the squad on Saturday, earn any further minutes of substance before the end? What is the deal with Dire Mebude (although, for the record, Manning said after the game, when questioned, the winger may still feature between now and the end of the season providing he earns it as he delivered a 10th straight ‘appearance’ as an unused substitute)?

But also, seemingly from nowhere, a golden boot race has appeared, and it’s very much re-run of the contest towards the end of last season. On that occasion, Wells went into the final clutch of games after Easter on 11 goals and Conway on 10, having missed a large proportion of 2023 due to a hamstring injury.

Two goals from the Scotland Under-21 international in games against Burnley and Rotherham edged him ahead of the veteran frontman to secure him the prize; and it genuinely is a trophy, for those thinking I’m speaking metaphorically.

Conway has been City’s top scorer since three goals in December which took him to five for the season and he’s remained on top since, boosting his total to 11 in all competitions with nine in the Championship.

Wells, meanwhile, had a considerable fallow period between his third of the season at home to Stoke City on September 30 and his fourth on January 30 at Coventry, but has four goals in his last four games which have grown his total to eight, seven of which have been in the league.

The Bermudian will no doubt be targeting double figures, which he’s achieved in two of his last three seasons at Ashton Gate but also, as much as they get on as individuals and want to see the other do well, he'll be hunting Conway’s mark.

Three games doesn’t give him much flexibility to do so but he should now get the start at Norwich City which puts him in position to creep ever-nearer, albeit against a team who have lost one of their last seven games (sound familiar?) and are in the play-off places.

With Manning’s method of tending to swap one for the other at around the 60-65 minute mark, there’s pressure on all times for the man in possession of the shirt to do the business to keep that particular responsibility, or they lose it to the other man for the next game.

That puts further focus on Carrow Road because, with the greatest of respect to Rotherham who are already relegated from the Championship and have conceded 1.97 goals per game, whoever starts in that particular fixture will fancy their chances at extending their tally in front of goal.

Each man also has a certain degree to prove, to themselves and others. That’s maybe no different to any other player but from Wells’ perspective, at 33 he’s approaching the latter stages of his career but with one year remaining on his deal probably needs to display his worth and why he’s a player who it’d make sense to keep around the place, plus he needs tangible evidence himself to show he can still do it at this level, and on a consistent basis.

Conway is at the opposite end of his career arc and is dreaming big. We all know that. It’s cynical to a degree but also rooted in reality that the way he finishes this campaign could dictate what happens regarding his future which increasingly, as that contract offer remains unsigned, looks uncertain.

Finishing another season as the club’s top scorer, irrespective of how whether you think he's had a good, bad or indiffenrent season, is a notable accolade for any player, let alone a 21-year-old striker. That could then have all sorts of ramifications for the summer in terms of budget, sales, spend and subsequent squad needs.

It’s a superficial race to an extent, which you may consider is only of primary interest to the two men engaged in it, which is true to a point. But in the cases of Wells and Conway, it may also mean that little bit more.

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