The smiles return to the faces of everyone at Ashton Gate
THE manner in which Bristol City went about the business of dismantling Championship leaders Southampton epitomised what new manager Derek McInnes is all about.
Victorious in their last four outings, five points clear of West Ham United at the top of the table and backed by a travelling contingent of 2,500 vocal fans who sense a second-successive promotion, Nigel Adkins' Saints have established themselves as the yardstick by which all other teams currently measure themselves in the English second tier.
Three places off the foot of the table and still mired in a fight against relegation, City's players could have been excused had they approached this particular fixture with a degree of trepidation.
Yet such is the revolution in attitude instigated by McInnes, the home side refused even to consider the possibility of defeat at the hands of opponents who had scored in all 17 of their previous Championship outings this term.
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How else are we to explain the McInnes factor? Yes, he has tinkered with personnel, formation and tactics, and he has even fallen back on the transfer market to recruit Stephen Pearson on loan from Derby County. But these cosmetic changes account only in part for a revival in fortunes that has seen City claim 13 points from the last five games to escape the basement and raise expectation levels among supporters who are fast returning to the fold.
Any attempt to explain the reasons behind this startling resurgence must necessarily begin with the new manager's ability to motivate his charges and instil belief where before there was only doubt.
In short, the Scot has instilled a universally positive mindset, one which manifests itself in the form of a firm belief among the players that they are capable of winning every game they play, no matter who the opposition.
Of course, the canny McInnes has come up with a team shape and a way of playing which clearly suits the men at his disposal and he deserves a good deal of credit for assessing his squad and coming up with a winning formula so soon after arriving from north of the border.
Yet even the best-laid plans can go awry unless they are accompanied by utter conviction on the part of those who are asked to put the theory into practice on the pitch. Put simply, the players now believe wholeheartedly in what they are doing.
Of course, results help and there has been a steady improvement in performance since City ended a dismal 11-match sequence without a win by beating Barnsley at Oakwell at the end of October.
Winning and confidence go hand in hand and the latter grew visibly following a notable goalless draw at West Ham, since when the rejuvenated Robins have defeated Burnley, Millwall and Southampton in quick succession, results which suggest this recovery is no mere flash in the pan.
A determined individual who commands respect, McInnes is forging a team in his own image, and Southampton, accustomed to having things their own way, were taken aback by the boldness of City's approach. Playing utterly without fear, the Robins took the game to the league leaders, seeking to impose their will from the first whistle.
City's new-found swagger is epitomised by Albert Adomah, the Ghanaian international winger who terrorised the Saints defence with his pace and trickery at every opportunity.
More than anyone else on the pitch, Adomah gave expression to the spirit of freedom that is underpinning City's revival, scoring one goal and making the other for Nicky Maynard to earn the man of the match accolade for a second consecutive match.
But it would be unfair to single out individuals for praise in what amounted to a supreme team performance. While City enthusiasts in Ashton Gate's biggest attendance of the season will no doubt have thrilled to their team's vibrant attacking play, this latest victory was forged upon the cornerstone of sound defence.
Not only did City become the first side to keep a clean sheet against Southampton in the Championship this season, they restricted the division's highest scorers to only one goal-scoring opportunity of note, Adam Lallana forcing a smart save from David James in the 14th minute. Thereafter, the Saints were kept at arm's length, their 12-goal leading scorer Rickie Lambert rendered a peripheral figure by opponents who maintained total concentration and discipline, covered for one another magnificently and put their bodies on the line whenever called upon to do so. Although City remain in the relegation zone for now, they are within touching distance of five teams immediately above them and it is surely a matter of when they escape the bottom three rather than if.
So well are things going at present, complacency appears to pose the biggest threat to a recovery which will gather more meaningful momentum should fellow strugglers Watford be beaten at Vicarage Road tomorrow night.
City's players are heading in the right direction and must not be deflected from the task at hand.