It was around this time last year that Nigel Pearson started referencing Tommy Conway’s name, when asked about the respective futures of Cam Pring and Zak Vyner, Bristol City players who then were entering the final 12 months of their contracts at Ashton Gate.

That was less than 12 months after the striker had signed his previous new deal so, to the casual listener, the significance was largely lost as the anxiety at that time was reserved around the will-they-won’t-they position of the two aforementioned defenders.

But evidently Pearson knew something was likely to be afoot around the corner, and the potential to reach the situation we now exist in was high, with City now in a position where they effectively have to sell the 21-year-old in the coming window.

There is only so long a club can wait and City have been patient with Conway for much of the season. Getting him to sign a new deal has been on and off the agenda throughout the 2023/24 campaign, both during Pearson’s time and since Liam Manning has taken charge.

At no stage has a breakthrough appeared likely, and Bristol Live understands the contract offer presented to the Taunton-born frontman puts him towards the top earners at the club, which theoretically would make him one of the best-paid Under-21 players in the Championship.

Hence we now arrive in June 2024 with the likelihood that the academy product has played his 91st and final game for the club and his 25th and last goal in red and white will have been the penalty he celebrated in front of the Lansdown Stand against Rotherham United in April.

From Conway’s perspective, as indicated, this decision isn’t necessarily about money – although should he secure a Premier League move he would no doubt be well rewarded for it, probably beyond what City are willing or able to pay – but about a desire to play at a higher level.

Fans will inevitably curse a lack of loyalty, of disrespecting the club, or getting too big for his boots (to use the kinder phrase) but Manning’s words towards the end of the season tell the ultimate tale. “I totally understand if someone’s journey is going miles quicker than the team’s then I understand the move,” he told the BBC. “At the minute he’s at the level where he’s still being challenged. I think he’s put in some good performances, I still think he’s got a huge amount to do and improve which I’m sure he’d agree with.”

Whether you, I, or anyone else you happen to talk about City with, think he’s good enough is kind of irrelevant. He feels he is ready to make the next step and challenge himself further which, and this could prove to be an uncomfortable reality, may not even be necessarily a Premier League club.

That can be viewed as a slight on City to an extent, but then again Conway’s two seasons as a first-team player have seen the Robins finish 14th and 11th, with the sales of Antoine Semenyo and Alex Scott perhaps more significant than first realised.

Tommy Conway celebrates with Alex Scott
Tommy Conway celebrates with Alex Scott (Image: Andy Watts/JMP)

Conway had a front-row seat last summer as his former flatmate Scott was at the centre of various transfer discussions. And while the teenager admitted the process wasn’t always a pleasurable one, from the outside – or at least the other side of the sofa – it must have been exciting to see it play out and, at the very least, has sown more than a few seeds.

As Scott and Semenyo have experienced their respective seasons in the Premier League, Conway has remained a friend – closer with the former then the latter – regaled with stories of life in the top-flight. From the other side of it, shortly after his brace against Rotherham in October, the first person Conway said he was ringing to talk about the goals was “Scotty”; and not the Murray variety, either.

But with those players wearing black and red rather than with a Robin on their chest, ultimately City have been unable to kick on at an appropriate rate. There has been progress of sorts, but evidently too slow for some.

There is also an uncomfortable truth underpinning a lot of this, which paradoxically strengthens City’s position in the transfer market when up against rivals but also weakens it in other ways: in pitching to prospective new signings, particularly ones within a certain age category, the club’s fabled pathway makes for an enticing prospect.

That is widely understood to represent the jump from academy into first-team, which is true, but it also means the leap from Championship to Premier League. City are a club that give younger players opportunities to play, display their talents, and then earn a spot in the Premier League.

Now, with the exception of a few – the parachute payment ones and the historic promotion heavyweights such as Norwich City and Middlesbrough – that is echoed on Zoom calls elsewhere but with Semenyo, Scott, Lloyd Kelly, Joe Bryan, Adam Webster, Bobby Reid and Josh Brownhill, City can present cold, hard evidence of such.

It’s partly how they win the race for talents such as Jason Knight, Haydon Roberts, Adam Murphy, Max Bird and Josh Stokes: “we provide the platform, you display the talent and the Premier League can be yours; just like x, y or z.”

That isn’t an isolated concept, exclusive of other factors – salary, facilities, the area, style of football etc – but is a significant pull and it’s a reputation the Robins have done well to enhance over the years. The downside, of course, is inevitably, sooner or later someone’s journey is going to move, or at least be perceived to be moving, “miles quicker” than the club’s. Unless you can make up the difference by becoming a promotion-challenging side.

Conway hasn’t arrived from an external source, having been a City player since the age of seven, but he’s been firmly part of the progression of that culture and it’s impossible for it not to bleed into his consciousness in some way.

That’s not to say Conway isn’t his own man, of course, and clearly he’s made a very definite decision and backed himself to make something of a move into the unknown. The sensible and safe call would be to sign that contract and continue his development at City where he’s established as a starter and fans favourite; the local boy dun good.

Would another season in BS3 aid that progress further? Quite possibly. But clearly to enable another nine months, he needs to sign it. And for all the Mike Tyson impersonations you want to perform, inking the piece of paper perhaps isn’t the best business decision from a short-term perspective.

That’s because it instantly locks him in for another 3-4 years, which provides a huge amount of job security, admittedly, and is a tempting prospect for a 21-year-old but also likely reduces his chances of moving on in the immediate future, which returns us to Scott and the influence of that particular situation.

Tommy Conway battles for possession with Swansea’s Joe Allen (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

This time last year, there were a significant number of teams in the Premier League keen on signing the midfielder, but once they were quoted £25m for a teenager, untested in a top-flight capacity whose lack of “proper” academy upbringing led to a degree of scepticism, most with the exception of Wolves and Bournemouth, walked away.

As City played hardball in demanding the full fee for Scott, as they were entitled to, there were concerns from the Scott end that a deal wouldn’t be struck and he would remain a City player for at least another four months. It’s not the most enjoyable sentence to stomach, I know, but that wasn’t to his satisfaction.

The reason the Robins were in a position of strength was because the Channel Islander still had two years remaining on his contract, so City held a strong-ish hand, given the circumstances. In the case of Conway, once 12 months on his deal becomes 3-4, his value increases, the club suddenly discover a couple more aces in the sleeve and, similar to Scott, the list of potential suitors drop as a result. A contract can provide security but also be a handcuff to a player’s intended career path.

There’s every reason to suggest therefore, that for better and for worse, Scott was something of a test case for this summer and a reference point for interested parties, of which Conway clearly was one.

This isn’t to the compare players and their relative talents, which no doubt you’ve been screaming at your screen about, but more situations and the relevance of one to another and how they are linked, in a number of ways.

The stark difference will be the money received and the age-old theory that a player is only worth as much as a club is prepared to pay for them. Only Bournemouth shared the opinion that Scott was worth £25m, then again only Crystal Palace were on Blackburn Rovers’ level that Adam Wharton should cost £18m up front, and that’s proven a pretty smart position to hold.

Conway is a talent, there is no doubt about it, but isn’t quite at the position those two were in, in terms of his development arc at this present moment. Then again, how many 21-year-old strikers with back-to-back double-figures in goals in a second tier competition are there in Europe? Let alone, effectively available on the open market for a seven-figure fee.

That alone should make clubs stand up and take notice and while the obvious counter of five of his 12 goals from last season being penalties is a strong one, so is the fact he’s found the target 24 times in the Championship for a team ranked 21st and 17th, in terms of their shots per game over the last two seasons.

Tommy Conway salutes his family in the Lansdown Stand after his role as Bristol City’s match-winner against West Ham (David Davies/PA Wire)

Clubs at the level Conway wants to be playing at are also sophisticated enough to look far, far beyond goals per game; transposing his finishing rate against their own xG and what that might look like, should he one day play for them.

There’s also been a simmering conspiratorial theory that Conway’s decision has been prompted, in-part, by Manning’s insistence on playing him as a lone striker and not creating the same volume of chances for him as before under Pearson.

That is, to burst a particular bubble, simply untrue and there is awareness both from the player himself and externally, that he’s a far better all-round forward than he was 12 months ago, due to his tactical intelligence and work out of possession (as a side point, something which continually impressed Bournemouth scouts, as they tracked Semenyo, was his devastating pressing ability as much as his destruction when on the ball, and in full flight).

Goals are a striker’s main currency but simply scoring lots doesn’t guarantee you a move up the pyramid – Exhibits A and B: Jonson Clarke-Harris and Macauley Langstaff still playing in League One and League Two despite consistent ability at finding the back of the net over recent seasons.

This is not just why Conway believes he can test himself at a higher level, but also now forms City’s strategy in extracting maximum value from the striker, although the High Performance Centre Batphone hasn’t exactly been shining too bright a red just yet.

Euro 2024, and Conway’s likely involvement for Scotland could influence such, as should the opening of the transfer window on Friday and the natural increase in movement of the transfer tectonic plates. One Premier League club keen on Conway, for example, are said to have him a little further down their shortlist and should Plan A not materialise, then he becomes a straightforward option to pivot to.

How it all plays out – where he lands and how much they pay – is uncertain at this stage, which is perhaps the only non-inevitable aspect of this saga so far.

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