It would be an understatement to suggest that Bristol City chief executive Mark Ashton was met with a lukewarm response when announcing the new head coach to replace the departing Lee Johnson. The search resulted in the appointment of Johnson’s erstwhile assistant Dean Holden. Fans were underwhelmed.
The addition of Paul Simpson and Keith Downing to form part of the backroom staff did little to placate supporters either. Particularly when Ashton appeared to be reaching in claiming that Downing had “two promotions from the Championship under his belt” – seemingly including successes while with the reserves at Wolves and working behind the scenes at West Brom.
But the mood at Bristol City has changed somewhat since they won their first four league matches of the season to lift themselves to the top of the Championship table.
Defeat to Middlesbrough on Tuesday night after a last-minute equaliser at Barnsley last weekend, has dampened some of the excitement but the club are still second in the table after the opening six games. Suddenly, there is renewed hope that the club could finally – finally – return to the top tier for the first time in 40 years.
Fascinatingly, there are signs too that the influence of Simpson and Downing’s presence is being felt in ways that extend far beyond their skills as coaches. Taylor Moore and Jay Dasilva were among those already known to the pair from their time at St George’s Park with England but their knowledge of the next generation of talent appears to be shaping recruitment too.
Joe Williams, the young midfielder brought in from Wigan, played under Downing for the England U20 team, while Fulham’s Steven Sessegnon has since joined the club on loan.
“Steven is a highly thought of, exceptional young talent, who has had a glowing reference by Paul Simpson and Keith Downing, and we are pleased to have secured him,” said Ashton.
An awareness of the talent that is out there helps. But more intriguing is the possibility that tapping into these relationships could now give teams an edge in the recruitment process.
That is exactly what is happening elsewhere in the Championship at Swansea City, Bristol City’s rivals for promotion this season and the visitors to Ashton Gate on Saturday.
Just four months after Simpson guided England’s U20 team to World Cup glory in South Korea, Steve Cooper matched that accomplishment with the U17 group in India.
He has since built on the relationships forged with the national team to provide a platform for young talent at Swansea – significantly improving his own side’s fortunes in the process.
Last season, three members of Cooper’s World Cup winning squad made loan moves to Swansea with Rhian Brewster and Marc Guehi the first two to sign up for the season.
“The gaffer is one of the big parts of me coming here, obviously, having worked with him before,” said Guehi of his move from Chelsea. “That was a big factor in me coming here.”
Brewster, who has known Guehi since they were seven, also cited “the link with Coops” as a factor, while pointing out that he knew the coach was committed to the passing game he was accustomed to with Liverpool and England, one that would bring out the best in him.
By the time that Conor Gallagher joined in January, it was an easy decision.
“He is very good with his players, individually and as a team,” said the midfielder of working with Cooper. “Marc and Rhian are two of my good mates which makes it a lot nicer for me.”
Even though promotion proved beyond them last season and Brewster, scorer of 11 goals during his spell, has since moved on to Sheffield United, the benefits continue for Swansea. Morgan Gibbs-White, another of Cooper’s World Cup squad, has now arrived from Wolves.
“He knows me as a player and I know him as a manager,” explained Gibbs-White. “I feel like he can help me progress and develop as a player. I think it is just his character and how he is able to deal with man-management. I feel like I thrived on that at the World Cup.
“I spoke to Rhian and he said he loved every minute of it here. When I got that feedback, and seeing how he progressed here, scoring so many goals, I looked at it and thought that maybe it could be the kickstart to my career.”
The early signs were promising. Gibbs-White marked his league debut for the club with the winner at Preston and provided an assist in another fine display in the win over Millwall earlier this month. Sadly, an injury late in that game means he is out for the foreseeable future and was sorely missed in the subsequent home defeat to Huddersfield.
Even so, with Guehi back for a second loan spell at the club, Swansea sit fifth in the table, and the overriding sense is that these clubs really could be onto something.
A special generation of English talent is emerging to find their pathways clogged. In need of an outlet, some are looking to Germany. But others are finding coaches who trust them – and, importantly, that they trust – waiting for them in the Championship.
It benefits players and clubs, but it should be noted too that it benefits the coaches as well. The lifespan of a Championship boss can be perilously short. Time to make an impact is limited. Accessing these relationships might be the difference between success and failure.
So while it would be understandable if there are those in boardrooms wondering which coach is best placed to utilise their relationships with the best young talent in England, it also makes sense if the coaches themselves are out to build their own networks.
Jason Euell, a coach at Charlton and a UEFA Pro Licence holder, is among those on the look out for an opportunity in management. As well as his club duties, he has taken on a coaching role with England’s age-group sides and has found it a rewarding experience.
He saw Downing’s work up close on the training ground with the England U20 team and is full of praise for the Bristol City coach’s ability on the grass.
“He is one of the best at out-of-possession stuff,” Euell tells Sky Sports. “I watched how he broke it down and the detail that he went into with every individual. He incorporates the units and the whole out-of-possession thing differently. He nails it.”
Euell’s own role was to work on the individual learning plans of the players and handle one-to-one sessions with them. These are some of the best youngsters in England – Liverpool’s Curtis Jones among them – and he hopes it will serve him well in his own career.
“Just having that attachment will benefit me in the short to long term,” he explains. “Being with England gives you access to these players. They are on your database, players that other coaches might not be aware of. From a recruitment perspective, it is brilliant.”
In an environment where so much is at stake, and marginal gains can make the difference, perhaps finding coaches who can get the top English talent on board is now the way to go.