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Gary Johnson, the Bristol City manager, strolls into the press room looking, and sounding, like a small-time Thames estuary builder. Maybe 15 minutes have slipped by since the doomed Micky Adams’s last press conference as Coventry City manager and only half a dozen or so diehards are left.
“I feel like a bad film that just a few old blokes are watching,” Johnson says. A sign on the wall announces preposterously: “Ricoh welcomes the world press”.
If his team can follow its victory at Coventry’s spanking new stadium 11 days ago by extending its unbeaten run to 18 matches in today’s fourth-round FA Cup tie at Ashton Gate against Premiership Middlesbrough, then Johnson may start to feel like a box-office blockbuster.
In what is shaping, after a slow start, into a landmark season for the West Country underachievers, the Robins lie second in League One and on Tuesday booked their place in the illustrious Johnstone’s Paint Trophy southern area final, where they may face local rivals Bristol Rovers in the competition for the Football League’s two lower divisions.
“I cannot tell this group of players which games we want to lose,” he retorts when asked if he really wanted a Cup run at a time when promotion to the Championship is in the balance.
But, impressive as they have been in recent weeks, City will need to raise their game even more if they are to progress to the FA Cup’s last 16 against opponents who, with four wins and 16 goals in their last five matches, have themselves started to purr.
Having been bundled out of the Carling Cup after picking a weakened team against Notts County, there is little chance of novice Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate helping Johnson’s men out by fielding a below-strength line-up – particularly as Boro’s recent good form has carried them 10 points clear of the Premiership drop zone.
One of the keys will be whether a Bristol defence that has suddenly discovered the art of the clean sheet can keep revitalised Boro winger Stewart Downing quiet.
Bradley Orr, the City right-back, who should be at the forefront of the home team’s efforts to tame the England international, is solid as you like but no Ferrari. If Downing can turn him and provide the sort of crosses that destroyed Bolton last Saturday, then not even Louis Carey’s experience will save Bristol, especially with Jamie McCombe, the 6ft 5in centre-back, due to miss the match after accumulating five yellow cards.
But the Teessiders, who shipped three against Championship side Hull City in their third-round replay, have yet to secure a clean sheet in 2007 and City, who will be further encouraged by the absence through suspension of Boro captain George Boateng, have attacking options of their own. This is in spite of the injuries that look set to deprive them of joint top-scorer Phil Jevons and possibly the hard-working Steve Brooker.
Chief among these is Enoch “The Showman” Showunmi, a strapping Nigerian striker, who is on a hot streak of five goals in five games. One of these came in his man-of-the-match display at Coventry with a textbook far-post header. “We have been working on him coming over the top of people at the far post,” Johnson says. “At 6ft 5in, he is going to be dangerous. He is a great learner.”
Wide man Scott Murray too remains a class act at 32 in his second stint at the club.
If City do not have the giant-killing reputation of Yeovil, one of Johnson’s former clubs, springing Cup shocks is nonetheless a regular part of their repertoire. Leeds United, Chelsea and Liverpool have all fallen victim over the past 33 years. The Robins were also unlucky to lose a two-legged League Cup semi-final in 1989 to Nottingham Forest.
Johnson and his men would no doubt settle for the same outcome on Saturday as in a celebrated First Division clash between the two teams in November 1977. Then City won 4-1, with former Everton striker Joe Royle scoring all four on his Bristol debut. For history to repeat itself, though, the home side will have to shackle that man Downing.