If it is no surprise that Manchester City once sped Gareth Barry by taxi from Dubai to Abu Dhabi to tie up his move from Aston Villa, it may raise eyebrows to learn that the footballer-friendly emirate has become a backdrop to Bristol City’s transfer business.
In the case of Aaron Wilbraham’s switch to the League One club, though, it was simply a happy coincidence that he should have bumped into Steve Cotterill, now his manager, at Dubai’s Jumeirah Palace hotel this summer. “On the first day I went in for breakfast and I just saw him there,” Wilbraham tells The Independent. “I shook his hand and said hello and he approached me a couple of days later around the pool and was asking if I’d signed anywhere yet as he knew I was out of contract.”
Cotterill had already enquired about taking the striker on loan in January while he was still at Crystal Palace and, though the pair agreed to meet on their return home, Wilbraham did not appreciate until later the extent to which his future manager had profited from their chance encounter. “He was watching me a lot on holiday with my family, seeing what type of character I was,” explains Wilbraham.
Cotterill’s homework has paid off, Wilbraham having already scored four goals in five league starts for an unbeaten City side. Indeed, within 20 minutes of his debut he had found the net in the opening-day win at Sheffield United, celebrating with a dance move he had pulled during the club’s X Factor night on their pre-season tour. While he promises that was a “one-off”, he believes the steps his new club are taking can have a lasting effect.
“It is plain to see from the stadium development and the training ground that the club and chairman are really ambitious,” he says, citing owner Steve Lansdown’s £45m stadium redevelopment project, now under way to remodel three sides of Ashton Gate, raise capacity to 27,000 and provide 30-plus executive boxes where there are currently none. A “brand-new 4G pitch”, costing a reported £1.2m, is already in place and on it, Wilbraham is optimistic of achieving a fifth career promotion after previous successes with Hull, MK Dons, Norwich and Palace. “I’ve been promoted from all the divisions and scored in all four,” says the 34-year-old, who made four top-flight appearances for Palace last term.
City sit third in League One and are succeeding where Manchester United are currently failing by making the 3-5-2 system work. Cotterill did his summer business early, making six signings by the start of July who, as Wilbraham notes, were “pinpointed to play” this way. It is new to him but he is enjoying it. “We’ve got a good balance and our wide players are good and get a lot of crosses in. We play with two quite attacking midfielders [Wade Elliott and Luke Freeman] behind the two strikers, which allows us to get plenty of players into the box.”
The only disappointment for Wilbraham is that his best friend Sam Baldock – City’s top scorer last year and his old MK Dons team-mate – moved on to Brighton in a £1.5m transfer, though this was offset by the arrival of Kieran Agard, who hit 26 goals for Rotherham in 2013-14. “He’s a good replacement as he’s a similar type of player who plays off the last shoulder of the defender and looks to get in behind teams,” says Wilbraham, the target man.
When Cotterill replaced Sean O’Driscoll last December – as City’s sixth manager this decade – they were in the relegation zone. They have not lost since March and for Wilbraham, Cotterill’s attention to detail is key on the field – “we’ve identified everyone’s jobs and everyone knows what they are doing on every corner, every time the ball breaks down” – and off it where the manager’s recruiting of players with “a good character” reminds him of Paul Lambert at Norwich. Wilbraham can hardly be surprised, though, given the scrutiny of his own holiday habits.