Taylor Gardner-Hickman might provide something fresh in the center of the park if Nigel Pearson decides to break up his established midfield trio.
Curtis Fleming feels Bristol City have only scratched the surface with Taylor Gardner-Hickman, who is fighting for a start against Stoke City in his preferred position of midfield.
Garner-Hickman was the Robins’ fifth and final summer signing, arriving as an emergency owing to Ross McCrorie’s terrible and unforeseen viral infection, which will keep the Scot out until 2024, after he underwent surgery on the issue last week.
Gardner-Hickman has made four appearances for City after joining on loan from West Brom with the possibility of becoming a permanent £1.3m deal at the conclusion of the season: one as a starter and three as a substitute. Two of those four games have been at right-back and two have been in midfield.
Gardner-Hickman’s return to the team and upturn in form since starting at Swansea in place of George Tanner on the right side of defense has meant Gardner-Hickman’s last two appearances have provided relief in the final portions of games for central midfielders Jason Knight and Joe Williams.
Gardner-Hickman also played just over 60 minutes for the Under-21s against Ipswich Town on Monday, where he lined up in midfield as a type of central-left holding player, with Tommy Backwell to the right. The game provided an opportunity to reassess him in that position while also increasing his match fitness.
Nigel Pearson may select an unchanged starting XI against Stoke City on Saturday, but if there is one change to contemplate, it would be Gardner-Hickman competing with Joe Williams for the No8 slot.
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For all energy and defensive combativeness in the middle of the park, Williams was a little wasteful and hurried in possession against Leicester and Gardner-Hickman would potentially bring an added later of poise and composure on the ball, should Pearson desire such qualities.
Williams, Matty James and Knight have been Pearson’s established starting trio so far this season, and have developed an impressive chemistry but Gardner-Hickman is increasingly coming into the picture.
At the very least, given City are preparing for three matches inside eight days, with trips to Rotherham United and Leeds United next week, if he isn’t named in the starting line-up on Saturday, he should be at the New York Stadium or Elland Road.
“I don’t think he’s the finished article,” Fleming said. “We’ve brought someone in, as a young player, he’s still growing.
“When he came in, and we spoke about it, he can play a couple of positions which is important to the way we work because we don’t have a huge squad. We have players who can play in numerous positions and are quite happy and comfortable to do that.
“I think probably his preferred position is midfield, and I think you’ve seen why: he can handle the ball very well, his passing range is very, very good. But we haven’t seen him fit yet, have we? We haven’t seen the guy who’s played six, seven league games, who’s had the bangs and the Saturday-Tuesday, and that will come. He just needs to get into a team that’s performing well.
“We’re happy with what we see but he shouldn’t rest on his laurels, and we won’t, he needs to get better and he will get better. Let’s see how he is in a year or two.
“But he’s come in, he’s great around the place which is, again, something important to us. The character of the people is very important, when Nige is signing them.
“That’s probably one of the main questions. The ability may be fantastic but you’ve got to have that mentality to come in and want to work, and get along with the guys; we’ve got a really good dressing room and Nige is happy with that, he took a while to get exactly where he wants to be and we’ve got there.
“So we’re really happy with him and then we’ll just see how he progresses.”
Gardner-Hickman was one of four first-team players in that Under-21 line-up as they beat Ipswich at Ashton Gate, alongside Haydon Roberts, Anis Mehmeti and Ephraim Yeboah who is, admittedly, only just 17 but has very much been a consistent part of the senior set-up this season.
Fleming insists all four were itching to get out there, to maintain and build a level of match fitness, while ensuring they remain in peak condition for this weekend’s visit of the Potters.
“They want to play,” Fleming added. “Taylor hasn’t had loads of game time when he was at West Brom, he’s come to us and had a couple of games, which is fine, but it just keeps the lads ticking over. Training is fantastic but then you go into the uncontrolled environment; a tough game against Ipswich at Ashton Gate.
“But it’s a great pitch, isn’t it? That’s why we get paid, you’ve got to go and play.
“So, for us, it was an opportunity to get some minutes into them and they were happy to do that. For us, they’re young lads. Everyone’s thinking they’re signings, but they’re young guys – they’re 21 – they’re still learning their trade, they’re not 400-game veterans at 32 who you’re thinking, ‘okay, do you want to play? Do you need a game? Let’s have a discussion about it’. They’re still young boys learning a trade. They all wanted to play and get out there.
“There’s nothing better as a footballer, you all want to play matches. Some of these lads would play in the park with their mates if you gave them the opportunity, so for them it was good to get 60 minutes in.
“But we gave them 60 minutes so they’d be involved in our training for the rest of the week in preparation for the Stoke game and for next week.”
Stoke travel to Ashton Gate in a dismal run of form having won just one of their last seven matches, in all competitions, with Wednesday night’s 2-0 Carabao Cup defeat to Premier League Bournemouth the latest defeat for Alex Neil.
There is growing unrest within the fanbase towards the manager, but the Scot presided over a summer of considerable change with 18 players signed, and a number of individuals suffering injuries at the start of this season which hasn’t helped with building cohesion and creating chemistry within the squad.
Having beaten Plymouth 4-1 the last time they played in BS3, there will be an expectation on City to take the game to the Potters, and the Robins should be considered “favourites” for the contest, but Fleming used the example of Argyle as one very obvious reason why Stoke will have to be handled with a degree of care, even if they are on a bad run.
Four days after they were thrashed at Ashton Gate, Plymouth then fired six past Norwich City – who knocked the Robins out of the Carabao Cup last month – emphasising not just the inconsistencies of the Championship, but the strength throughout the division and the level of challenge that always is on the horizon.
“I love the Championship because we had a great result against Plymouth, and that’s something we have to go and replicate, but then Plymouth go and beat Norwich 6-2 on the Saturday. And that’s the Championship,” Fleming said.
“They’ve brought in 18 players, Stoke, some really good players and a lot of proven Championship ones, and they’re a decent team. Sometimes you just need that luck to get on a run, you need to just believe that every game you play you get better.
“They changed formation against Bournemouth and looked solid, so that’s something we have to consider, but we also have to consider ourselves.” Every single game. It doesn’t matter who we play, whether it’s Leicester, Plymouth, Stoke, or Middlesbrough; we have to think about who we are and how hard we have to work on our shape. And when we go into those games like that, I believe we can compete with the majority of the league’s teams.”