An historic night for Bristol City

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Four years ago today, I watched my beloved Bristol City struggle to a 1-1 draw, playing away with Notts County. The result left us perilously languishing in the League One relegation zone, and I still recall leaving the ground mentioning something along the lines of “at least there are a lot of local derbies in League Two”. Yet, I write this article on the back of one of the most historic nights in the club’s 120-year history; Bristol City defeated Manchester United 2-1 in the Carabao Cup quarter-final.

The City line-up was as expected, the only change being Luke Steele for Frank Fielding in goal. And it was the former Manchester United man who had a memorable role in the match;  he made a crucial save from Marcus Rashford, and two from £75m signing Romelu Lukaku, the second of which was truly outstanding. Lee Johnson and his coaching staff deserve credit for the resilience shown in defence – Nathan Baker and Aden Flint were imperious at the heart of the defence – not even 6ft 5in Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic could outmuscle them and every successful challenge was met by a rousing cheer from the 24,000 City fans in attendance at a sold-out Ashton Gate. Bailey Wright and Hordur Magnusson also put in stellar performances; it is worth noting that both are naturally central defenders but, due to an injury crisis, have been deployed as full-backs this season.

The midfield area was certainly my concern going into the game, and United’s choice to field Paul Pogba only enhanced my nerves. However, Daley Blind and Scott McTominay were virtually anonymous for the visitors; the hard-working nature of Korey Smith ensured that they had little time on the ball. However, what astounded many in the ground was the performance of City’s Marlon Pack. Signed for £100,000 from Cheltenham Town in 2014, he has asserted a place at the heart of City’s midfield following a shaky start. Last night was undeniably his best performance for us. Paul Pogba, the man signed for £89m, was marshalled out of the game by Pack, in what is one of the greatest central midfield performances I’ve seen from a Bristol City player. Josh Brownhill was also his busy self, clearly eager to prove a point against the club he was released from as a boy. Nonetheless, it was a Bristolian who will grab all the headlines.

Joe Bryan’s 51st-minute goal sent Ashton Gate into pandemonium, however, his all-round performance was simply divine. Soon after, Bryan made a crucial tackle to prevent what seemed a certain goal and I fear that, if United had taken this opportunity, we would have struggled to come back from 2-1 down. Scouts from Everton and Newcastle were allegedly watching Bryan at the game, and his man of the match performance will only enhance his reputation as the best left-sided player outside the Premier League. The other academy product in the starting line-up must not be forgotten; Bobby Reid worked tirelessly up front to force pressure on United and whilst, on this occasion, it is Bryan who will grab the headlines, Reid also played a pivotal role in our victory.

After Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s equaliser, the game started to edge in United’s favour, but this Bristol City team doesn’t give up. Again, it was a tactical masterstroke from Lee Johnson which contributed to our win. Realising that Reid was tiring, Matty Taylor was substituted on, and fulfilled the high-press role which has become so crucial for a forward in Johnson’s system. United looked terribly shaky at the back throughout, but admittedly with ten minutes to go, I thought they’d go on to nick the game.

When just three minutes were shown for stoppage time, I began to prepare myself for the permutations of extra-time; the thoughts of who would be our five penalty takers even entered my mind! Clearly, I was getting ahead of myself; in the third and final minute of stoppage time, United failed to clear their lines. Taylor, a livewire up front, picked up the ball and delivered expertly for Korey Smith. Admittedly, when the ball drops to a central midfielder who has only scored 4 times in 141 games for your club, you fear the worst, but he slotted expertly through the legs of goalkeeper Sergio Romero to put City 2-1 up.

Ashton Gate erupted, there was pandemonium in the stands, Lee Johnson sprinted down the touchline, hugging anyone in sight, including a young ball boy! Jose Mourinho was frantic and instantly sent on 6ft 4in Chris Smalling in attempt to equalize from the long ball. But City held on. As the referee’s whistle blew to signal the end of the game, many opted to pitch invade, a sign of the euphoria felt around the stadium. Others took time to reflect, there were many tears shed amongst the City faithful, as the realisation sunk in of what our team had just achieved.

Three of our team failed to make the grade at United: Luke Steele, Josh Brownhill and Jamie Paterson can now officially claim that they proved their old employers wrong.

Four of the squad from the draw to Notts County played last night; Aden Flint was considered a scapegoat all those years ago, but now he is widely considered one of the best central defenders in the country. Marlon Pack was struggling to exert himself into one of League One’s worst sides, now he can say he had Paul Pogba in his back-pocket for 90 minutes. Our two Bristolians, Bobby Reid and Joe Bryan, were also involved against Notts County, now they can say that they played pivotal roles in helping their hometown club defeat the biggest side in the world!

I honestly don’t know what to think after that game, but Manchester City awaits in the semi-final of the Carabao Cup. Pep Guardiola’s men have won 17 and drawn one so far in the Premier League yet, with this crop of Bristol City players, who knows what could happen.