Two new and exciting signings in the door, injured players returning to full training and sun tans all over the shop, Bristol City are looking positively radiant as they sweat it out in the heat of Portugal, while the rest of us experience a month’s worth of rainfall inside a few gloomy July days.

Pre-season feels like it’s only begun, with so many unanswered questions, but the Championship season starts exactly in a month’s time with a trip to the MKM Stadium and the unfamiliarity of a universal 12:30pm kick-off.

The Tigers, incidentally, are also on a training camp, having flown to Turkey for their training camp, without star names Jacob Greaves and Jaden Philogene ahead of their expected transfers to the Premier League.

But before we all know it the teams will be face-to-face on the pitch in Humberside and the work conducted over the coming weeks will be crucial to determining the outcome of that encounter and the 45 others to follow.

City have release the latest Robins Uncut, with footage from training and off the pitch in Portugal and here are some of our observations and what’s stood out so far…

Hirakawa touches down

From being genuinely touched, and surprised, at receiving the No7 shirt – and, as a side point, that indicates a distinct lack of ego as some new signings may feel entitled to such a number – to the polite manner in his behind the scenes signing video and the constant smiles throughout, Yu Hirakawa seems to have made a pretty big impact in just over 24 hours of being a City player.

Any new addition will always be afforded positive sentiment from supporters, excited by the concept of what they could be, but something about Hirakawa seems to have gone beyond that. Yes, that could be partly motivated by the fact he is unique in being the club’s first Japanese signing and because he’s been signed from a league with precious coverage in England so there is an air of mystery, enhanced by the reputation of his countrymen in recent seasons and some pretty eye-catching compilations on YouTube (some of which is relevant, some of which is not).

But based on the early response, and just from a nerdy observation the engagement on social media has been through the roof given his popularity back in Japan and the intrigue from that part of the world, all the ingredients are there for him to be a fans favourite, akin, in a way, to the start of Han-Noah Massengo’s journey four years ago, which sadly ended on flat terms.

Hirakawa is now with the squad in Portugal having joined for Tuesday’s afternoon’s session and is seen being greeted as he gets on the bus by Sam Bell and Adam Murphy, before engaging in a game of futnet (football tennis) first with George Tanner and Taylor Gardner-Hickman and then alongside Mark Sykes, Elijah Morrison, Tommy Backwell and Stefan Bajic. These are but small, and you may consider them trivial, moments but watch how Sykes is constantly making the new man feel welcome with his verbal recognition of his part in the exercise. Just saying someone’s name when addressing them goes a long way.

There’s a also touching greeting led by Manning with Harry Cornick clearly enjoying the moment in enthusiastically bowing twice, and Hirakawa’s smile is evident throughout. Sorry, to get whipped up in all the euphoria but he just exudes charm.

Later on, the winger is put through his paces alongside Morrison with head of sports science Andy Kavanagh, as we get to witness him dribbling in City gear for the full time. Granted, it’s at half-speed and, of course, unopposed but he appears to be two-footed, favouring neither right or left in how he leads his dribble. Given part of the attraction for signing Fally Mayulu was thought to be his ambidexterity, if both prove to be equally comfortable on each side, you start to wonder if this becomes a trend in bringing new recruits in.

Stokes shows his defensive side

Mystery doesn’t just surround Hirakawa and Mayulu because, in a way, another of City’s new arrivals has originated from an “unfashionable” league. For all the love of “the pyramid” and an appreciation of non-league football, we’d reason a straw poll of City fans would reveal a very low percentage of those who consistently watch the game below the EFL, let alone those who have viewed Aldershot Town or AFC Sudbury matches regularly.

Again, clips have been viewed, assessments listened to and read, and nods of recognition delivered towards his numbers in 2023/24, but most of us don’t quite know what sort of player Josh Stokes will end up being for City.

Broadly-speaking he was a No10 for the Shots, but also operated as a secondary forward and sometimes in wide positions. How he fits into Manning’s 3-4-2-1 is probably in the attacking line of the midfield, rather than being in the debate as to who forms the central pairing.

Stokes is “an attacker” if we’re distilling it down to basic classifications, and his goal and assists in the National League indicate as such, and that is what he’s been signed to add over time.

But in order to excel both in this team and at a higher level, he’s going to need to bring much more on the field. Anis Mehmeti spent many hours working on his defensive side last season, to the point he was often more proud of the strides he made on that side of the ball, than he was of his goals. There’s also the argument that one feeds the other and you can be richly rewarded for the sweat you put in trying to stop the opposition.

Again, these are but small examples on the training ground – we don’t have the full picture and how much of can be transposed into a match environment is still to be proven – but already we’ve seen some evidence Stokes can put a shift in.

Up against Joe Williams in a 1vs1, before trying to shoot into mini-goals, Stokes is initially beaten by the Scouser as he gets a tackle in but can’t quite recover as a shot is whipped around him and met by a frustrated “no”. But then in the second running, the midfielder again looks to have gotten the better of him as he springs onto the ball only for the 20-year-old to quickly scamper across and execute a sliding block to deny him. While in the third edition, Williams tries some stepovers, before Stokes gets across him, using his body strength and then taps it out with a knowing “get out” declared.

“Don’t you let him score, Stokesy” is later bellowed out during another drill as the ball breaks to Jason Knight, after Stokes’ shot had hit the crossbar, and he takes him on 1vs1, twisting one way and then the other to try and fashion some space, before trying to tap it to his left and run around, but he sticks to the task, and blocks the Irishman off.

Moments like this are as encouraging as any shareable clips of him sticking the ball in the top corner.

Bell and Benarous look in great nick

We’ve been here before and apologies for firing up the hype train as Benarous has been put through the ringer several times over during his injury recovery, but there’s no denying seeing him out there, sprinting at full tilt and whipping balls into the back of the net is enormously encouraging.

All of that has to be tempered by the reality that training and matches are two very different things and there were a number of moments last term when the 20-year-old looked close to a return, only to suffer various setbacks, and Newport County and Aldershot in just under a fortnight should hopefully provide a further, and more conclusive guide, of where he’s at.

But all the signs look positive based on what we’ve seen in pre-season so far. He’s been part of training since day one and in Portugal there don’t appear to be any restraints with how he’s taking to each session.

With his new fully-shorn haircut, Benarous is up against the considerably taller and more physically-imposing Mayulu who fires a left–footed shot at Lewis Thomas. The rebound falls to Benarous and in a shot he’s taking his man on, shifting it to his left with sharp movements, before calmly rolling it into the mini-goal.

The same could be said of Sam Bell who doesn’t have the same weight of injury baggage as Benarous but, at the same time, the hamstring injury he suffered in February which temporarily ended his season was serious and was significant in the context of his career as a professional, especially as he had just started to find his feet and form under Manning.

Getting over it encompasses a number of challenges but there is reason to believe he’s very much on track as he’s also been consistently involved throughout pre-season in preparing his body as best possible for the season ahead.

Mayulu and Hirakawa bring something new and potentially unique to the squad, as will the hopeful acquisitions of a playmaker and another striker, but there is cause for optimism that those individuals in the building can also make necessary strides next term to further City’s attacking ambitions.

Bell, Benarous and Mehmeti are all still young, whose ceilings are yet to be established or accurately conceived yet, and providing they stay fit and available, suddenly Manning is equipped with a number of enticing offensive options before we even learn the identities of the other two players who will hopefully be on the Ashton Gate roof at some stage before the end of August.

Vocal contributions

We’ll try and find different ways of framing this but there’s no getting away from the fact that no Andy King, Matty James or Andi Weimann in the City dressing room leaves a certain space that needs to be filled.

Outside of their respective first-team contributions, all three are vastly experienced individuals who brought so much behind the scenes in shaping the culture and aiding the transitions of a number of youngsters from academy to senior football.

Given so much of City’s recruitment continues to be on youth – caveated slightly by the fact that players like Max Bird are experienced in their own right, even in their early 20s – and the hope for further progress from the U21 set-up for the talented FA Youth Cup group of last season, other figures need to step into the shoes left by King, James and Weimann.

The obvious names are Wells, Harry Cornick, Kal Naismith and Joe Williams as the four most senior members of the squad, but also Mark Sykes, Zak Vyner, Max O’Leary and Cam Pring can now be called established professionals and he latter trio should be excellent sounding boards and sources of inspiration for those emerging through the academy.

Williams’ presence can be heard from Failand through the Avon Gorge, such is his consistent chat, and he himself admitted on signing his contract that he wants to be a leader in this group. Based on what we’ve been permitted to see in Portugal and the HPC so far, Cornick is also taking on some of that responsibility as his voice can constantly be heard in offering encouragement to various players while also acting, at times, as a bit of a court jester and general good vibes merchant. All of which is important.

There’s also a telling segment when Chris Hogg is discussing 1vs1 defending and for players not to be tempted into the natural movement of opening the gate when closing a shot down and giving a striker an opportunity to shoot under or through their legs, focusing instead on short sharp movements in closing off the space.

Wells interjects and makes the very pertinent point that when anticipating a shot, most of the time goalkeepers aren’t expecting a shot through the legs, as they have to work on percentages and the most likely outcome is for a strike to go around the outside. Therefore when it does come through a defender’s body, it’s into the area of uncertainty, raising the possibility of a goal being conceded.

It’s a small but smart observation that displays not only how Wells sees the game beyond his own responsibilities, but also his willingness to contribute and assist others in getting better. Much like how King, James and Weimann used to be.

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