I was walking out of Wembley in 2008 after the play-off final when a somewhat salty Bristol City supporter engaged me in conversation. Over the years my memory fades of this experience and to be frank I had my mind on a couple of swift beers with the old man around Wembley rather than consoling the feelings of a disappointed opposition fan so I may have embelished this somewhat, but...bear with me.. It'll make sense shortly.
"You think you'll stay up?" was his opening gambit as he saw my colours.
It caught me on the hop a bit.I'd just witnessed the greatest achievement in the history of the club so I was a little giddy to say the least. I also slightly cursed myself for wearing colours for the first time since I was about 12 for this very reason.
"Erm.... dunno.... guess we'll have fun trying..."
The slightly salty Bristol City fan (abbreviated to SSBCF for the rest of this story) then continued.
"Your players aren't good enough are they?"
At this point his bitter take on our finest hour had woken me up a little from perhaps the best mood I've ever been in.
"I think some probably are... but we'll need some more help" was roughly my answer.
"Oh yeh? Who's good enough then? Dean Windass?" countered the SSBCF with somewhat of an obnoxious smirk.
Obviously Deano was no Thierry Henry and he must have been 38 years old, but I wasn't going to rain on his parade as this point either.
"I'd say a few of ours can cut it mate.."
"Like who?" he returned...(at this point I was struggling not to just tell my new mate where to go, but let's not spoil a nice day eh?)
I'm pretty sure I went for Michael Turner, Bo Myhill and Nick Barmby and the SSBCF scoffed at the latter as he was "too old too" and off he trotted towards the train station, as I headed for the pub.
We'd enjoy an incredible season the next year as you all know, where several players did indeed prove they were good enough, and my not very pleased pal from Avon went back to watching 45 consecutive years of coming 10th in the championship.
This story came to mind as I thought about writing on our current situation, because truth be told, playing the next league up and predicting who can do well is a very inexact science. Some players just hit their ceiling and can't do it (see Wayne Brown in that 2008 team) some seem to defy logic and and just adjust to whatever level you put them at (see Andy Dawson or Ian Ashbee).
Which takes us back to now. The all conquering and highly successful squad of 2020-21 are going to have a big step up next year and some will, and some won't bridge that gap. So... who is up to it?
I think most CIty fans including myself would say the list of players who look at least a serviceable talent in the championship is reasonable. Feel free to correct me on Twitter, but I'd be surprised if anyone would suggest that Coyle, Greaves, Alfie Jones, Honeyman, Docherty, Lewis Potter and probably Malik Wilks can't cut it. That's not a bad starting point.
Similarly I think that there's also a fair list of players we all think should be ok, and deserve the chance to show they can do it. Ingram, Elder, Magennis, Emmanuel, Fleming, and (should he stay) Burke probably fit in here.
Then there's the question marks/players where the fans are split. Smallwood, Eaves, Long (should he also stay) Scott, Flores, McLoughlin and Mayer.
It seems a little harsh to put the club captain in that slot, but Blackburn moved on from him as they got to the second level and at times his injury did seem to actually coincide with a higher level of team performance with both Slater and Alfie Jones filling in ably. Many would also have Elder in the top category and there's no denying he had a strong season, especially coming forward, but he's one who struggled badly during the 2020 collapse and defensively can get isolated by the opposition at times.
Anyway, there's always shades of grey and opinions, we're all just fans and no experts, but this takes me back to my original point and story, you never really know until players get the chance...a point we've been shown several times in our history...
Be honest... if we were having this conversation 15 years ago we'd all have the flying Ulsterman in the first category. Yet that was probably his peak, he'd never return to those heights (although medically an asthma condition was certainly a factor) so the truth is we really don't know, just like our mildly irratable Bristolian didn't rightly recognise the collusus that was Sir Michael Turner, the only real way to find out is by giving them the chance. You'd have to say most of, if not all of the current squad have earned that right.
When we last went up from the third tier to the second our outstanding performer was Stuart Elliott, his insane goal tally from midfield coupled with the canny coaching and scouting team put together by Peter Taylor he was one of the primary reasons we completed an unlikely back to back promotion in the first place...
Let's hope the players and manangement can keep bucking the trend and continue a resurrection that pretty much nobody saw coming.
The other person who's earned the right is the manager. There's still some fans who aren't having him and each to their own. He has certainly got the players on board and bounced back from utter calamity the season before. He's maybe not silenced the doubters (who are usually about one defeat from popping up on social media) but instead he's almost trolled them by putting out a team and set of performances that defied the odds and made what was a grim year outside of football actually slightly palatable. It's always interesting to hear players talk about managers in interviews or other forums and even the former players seem to really like him, he's no cup thrower or tantrum chucker and to me he's learned a lot from the horror show last season. Semi-unpopluar opinion. He's earned the right too.