Darren Byfield’s much-travelled boots were only at Ashton Gate for one season and he played just 33 games. However he came close to being immortalised as a City legend of the ilk of Paul Cheesley and Tom Ritchie, top-scoring (albeit with only eight goals) as a part of City’s most successful team in 40 years, a team that came within a whisker of reaching the Premier League in 2008.
On Sunday, Steve Cotterill takes control of Bristol City for the first time as they travel to Byfield’s Tamworth for the second round F.A.Cup tie – being shown live on ITV – with the whole country hoping for an upset.
Ahead of that tie, Stu Radnedge interviewed the ex-City striker who revealed plenty about Sunday’s opponents and his eventful season in BS3, especially what it was like working under Gary Johnson.
Byfield joined City in August 2007 for an undisclosed fee at a time when the club had just gained promotion to the Championship and reveals that the great atmosphere at the club played a major role in his decision to join. “I was at Millwall at the time and we did well that season. But my mates were telling me how much of a good time they were having playing for Bristol City. Marv (Marvin Elliott) had left for City and I just wanted to get more time playing football. (Kevin) Betsy is a very close friend of mine and I know (Scott) Murray from my time at Villa and I just wanted to be that little bit closer to Birmingham. I'd heard so much about the club being a good one to be at and I will say that upon joining, apart from my time at Villa, the time I spent at Ashton Gate was the greatest I'd ever had in my footballing career.”
It clearly seemed a good move at the time and Byfield’s City career started well, as he still remembers fondly, “My debut was against Coventry away and it sticks out because I scored, as does my home debut. I think it was Burnley visiting Ashton Gate and I came on and got two late goals.”
It was, of course, a time when Gary Johnson reigned supreme in South Bristol and the affable cockney was responsible for bringing Byfield to City and he gave an insight into the success achieved by Johnson. “Gary got everyone to give 100% and motivated the team and wouldn't expect anything less than you giving your all when on the pitch”.
However Byfield also revealed a behind-the-scenes tale which perhaps starts to tell the story of why Johnson’s City adventure unravelled so quickly. “Before signing me, we sat down and spoke about a few things. But, unfortunately, he went back on his word to me. He said I would play a certain amount of games on the contract I was on, and then I'd go back to the money I was on at Millwall. I’d taken a pay cut to come to Ashton Gate which I thought was fine as it had all been promised by Johnson. But then (after the defeat at Wembley versus Hull) my contract wasn't renewed and I was out.”
Byfield could perhaps be forgiven for feeling bitter, but when questioned on how and why that team achieved so much – over-achieved so much in fact – he was still able to offer praise to Johnson. “Regardless of how he was with me at the end, you have to give Gary credit as he was in charge and motivated the team. But the players bonding in the way that we did was also key. Everyone got on with each other. If you weren't in the team one week you would just hope your mate who was picked over you had an awesome game and played well. It was the best team ethic I'd ever seen.
“I think I was the leading goal scorer at the end of that season with eight goals - which kind of says it all. Everyone just played well together and leaving that season made me so sad. I just wanted to be with the boys, the fans, everyone at the club. It was just a joy to play there.”
With City flying high, the January transfer-window saw City sign Dele Adebola, a move which was intended to give City the added impetus to push on for promotion. The man in possession of one of the striking shirts at the time reveals a relaxed attitude to the big man’s arrival. “I've always had this belief in my ability as a footballer so I wasn't worried. If Thierry Henry had joined that I would have worried about losing my place”, Byfield laughed, “But when Dele signed I just thought ‘this is competition’. You either jump into a box and worry or you think, 'OK, pal, let's see what you can bring'. We all just wanted to get to the Premiership so much“.
If that transfer somewhat passed Byfield by, unsurprisingly he does question the approach taken the following summer. “It's one of those situations where the managers let a few players go and bring in a few fresh faces - in the hope of changing things for the better. But I ask, did tweaking need to be done? He (Johnson) had to motivate the players after that loss in the final and get them going again - but was it needed? As for me, I wanted to try really hard when I got back to the club - but, of course, that wasn't meant to be”.
Moving onto Sunday’s big F.A. Cup tie, Byfield was typically chipper about the opposition, “It (the draw) was superb – although there was every chance I'd end up playing one of my old clubs as I've played for over 9,000”, Byfield laughed.
With his career nearing an end Byfield has taken up a player/coach role at ‘The Lambs’ and seems happy enough with his lot, currently. “I've been doing my UEFA B badge at St George's and will start on my A very soon. I know it (getting to managerial level) can be a long drawn out course but at the moment I just enjoy helping the boys out here. I'll work with them to strengthen their weaker points but try to keep the things that they are good at also strong.”
When questioned on Tamworth’s strengths, Byfield gave an insight to reveal City should certainly not be taking the non-leaguers lightly on Sunday. “We're physically a strong side and have a lot of strength all over the pitch. Our two centre mids, Morgan and Hildreth, are key as are (Darren then began reciting every player in the squad!). Oh, and then there's Chadwick as well. All of the ones I've mentioned. These lads have, mostly, never appeared on the TV before so there's a lot of excitement at the club at the moment.”
Byfield continued, “In the league we're not doing as well as we should. The results haven't matched our performances - let's put it that way. We just need to put a show on for Sunday! It's a little club and all the staff here want, is for us to give 100% on the day. We deserved to win the Round One match and get through to Round Two.”
Byfield is typically positive when it came to predicting a result for Sunday, revealing that he’s had dreams of the commentator at the end of the match saying Tamworth 2, Bristol City 1. And if that were the case, there’s not a doubt whatsoever about the tie Byfield would want as a reward. “Arsenal”, he replied without a moment’s hesitation, “at the Emirates” he laughed. “I'm a Gooner and I've scored at Highbury. I'd like a repeat at the Emirates”
Whatever the result on Sunday, it’s unlikely to be as emotional for Byfield as the Premier League near-miss. A shock cup win is always great to be involved in, but winning that Championship play-off final is life-changing for all involved. Byfield still reflects on that day ruefully. “We genuinely believed we would win it. That's the hardest thing. We had good results against Hull in the league and we were really ready for the match. Losing was heart breaking. The ones that had to go back had another chance at it all again, but I was leaving. That was the final game I played in that red shirt. Truly heart breaking”.
A huge amount of thanks to both Darren for taking time out of his preparation for the cup tie to speak to us, and – beyond Sunday – I’m sure every City fan would wish him the best of luck with Tamworth in the future.
The Exiled Robin