City 1, Bristol City 1
The whack on the nose was a medal of honour for James Hanson.
City’s targetman had put his head in where it hurts all afternoon and reminded the Valley Parade faithful that while one half of their vaunted frontline had gone elsewhere, the other was very much still in the thick of it.
He was not the only one to finish with a bloodied nose – ask Bristol’s three battered and bruised centre halves.
“That’s back to how he can play,” said a delighted Phil Parkinson. “His hold-up play was great and he led the line really well.
“All strikers want to score but you’ve got to remember with Hans that he has contributed to the success of Nahki Wells over the last 18 months or so.
“As I always say, he is a very unselfish player and a great partner to have up there for any striker.
“It was a tough old day for him playing against three centre backs, and another player sat just in front, but he battles his heart out.
“Seven goals, all from open play, is not a bad return playing at this level for the first time.”
In the wake of losing their top scorer to the lot down the road, this threatened to be a “tough old” afternoon for all involved.
These remain testing times, not helped by a lengthy list of niggles and convoluted minor injuries. Two more were added to the list on Saturday.
Ricky Ravenhill twisted ankle ligaments after a barn-storming opening 20 minutes then Kyel Reid pulled up before the end with a tight calf. That cost City some late impetus after the winger had shown plenty of devil in his attacking play.
On the face of it, another draw and another home game without a win solves little. But scratch beneath the surface and there was plenty to be positive about.
This was a much improved performance on recent weeks – the ten-day break since New Year’s Day’s no show at Notts County had done everyone a favour.
As well as Hanson and Reid, others could be pleased with their afternoon’s efforts. Jason Kennedy used Ravenhill’s unexpected early exit as an opportunity to win some of his critics round. He almost scored within five minutes of coming on and played with growing confidence and conviction alongside his old oppo Gary Jones.
The skipper also looked sharper for last week’s breather. If only his second-half screamer had not crashed back into play off the inside of the post, just as everyone – Jones included – was already starting to celebrate.
At the back, Matthew Bates strengthened his claim for a renewed contract with a composed performance against Bristol’s lively frontline.
Carl McHugh, never a natural at left back, overcame some sticky early moments as the visitors targeted his flank to throw himself into the role of James Meredith’s understudy. “He’s got a heart the size of a dustbin,” remarked Parkinson later.
And Oliver McBurnie, given the unenviable task of playing the “Wells role”, gave it so much that he cramped up late on and was literally unable to carry on.
How the script-writers would have loved the fairy-tale ending of seeing the youngster snatch his first senior goal to win the first game after the Wells era.
There were chances in front of the Kop – none more so than the one squared to him ten yards out by Hanson. But the ball seemed to hold up on the surface and McBurnie could only scuff it against the sliding Aden Flint.
No doubt if that had been a Saturday morning for the youth team, the net would have rustled. But that should not take away from a young lad who gave more evidence that he has a bright future ahead.
So City may not have got the finale they wanted but the start had gone like a dream. Before anyone could say the words “Nahki who”, Valley Parade were on their feet to cheer the first goal.
Reid won a corner within 20 seconds and Jones delivered it deep for the head of Hanson. His nod back across goal was blocked back into his path, allowing the big man to stab home his first goal since October 22. A great weight had been lifted in more ways than one.
But Bristol City are undoubtedly League One’s biggest under-achievers this season. For a side who have been stuck in the relegation zone since September, they possess a squad bristling with talent.
None more so than Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, who gave City a torrid time at Ashton Gate on the opening day and was in the mood for more on Saturday. The former Arsenal trainee was involved in the build-up to their equaliser later in the first half.
In a move practised on the training ground, he pulled McHugh inside to compete for Derrick Williams’ cross-field ball and won the flick-on. Reid should have picked up Scott Wagstaff’s run in behind but didn’t, allowing the winger plenty of room for a lethal shot that was too hot for Jon McLaughlin.
City rode the blow and continued to push forward with purpose. Under orders to use the space out wide, both wings provided a steady flow of crosses for the towering front two.
Garry Thompson should have scored right on the break after a one-two with Hanson but jabbed wide.
But then Marvin Elliott was equally guilty within minutes of the restart, putting a free header wide of the same Bradford End goal.
Emmanuel-Thomas thumped the City woodwork with a fizzing drive that swerved away at the final second. Then time seemed to stand still as the ball left the right boot of Jones and pinged against the post with Robins keeper Elliott Parish well beaten.
City could not find a late goal to match the debutant at the John Smith’s Stadium – a goal that will prove a nice little earner for his former employers – but they had at least restored some faith.
By next week’s trip to Sheffield United they should have a new goal-scorer in the ranks, most likely to be Aaron McLean. But whoever it is should make a point of acknowledging the weight being shouldered by the guy alongside him.