Issue The Warm Up

As told by Jason Mckeown

This week Bradford City released details of next season’s friendlies, though for the past month it’s felt as though pre-season for the 2008-09 campaign has already begun.

With little to play for but pride, recent games have lacked intensity and significance, tempo has slowed and goals haven’t been cheered quite as feverishly. The management’s focus is more on which areas of the team require strengthening and players are campaigning to be part of those plans. The ambition when we line up against Guiseley and Burnley in July will be similar to Saturday, it’s now all about the big kick off in August.

That the season petered into little more is down to the failings of the current crop of players, many of whom are still battling to convince manager Stuart McCall they shouldn’t be shown the door in two weeks time. Since the Mansfield debacle in March there’s been a notable improvement in effort and attitude, but it’s the consistency question mark which remains. Seven of the 14 players involved in Saturday’s come back win over Grimsby, the third home success in four, are still waiting to hear about their immediate future and a further five will feel they still have to convince that they should be regulars next year.

The first half performance will have done them few favours. A bright start soon turned into a poor one as the visitors, also lacking in promotion or relegation concerns, took an early lead. There was little on when the recalled Omar Daley knocked the ball back to Darren Williams, but the right back was quickly closed down by Nathan Jarman and lost possession. Ciran Toner was then able to charge towards the area and cross low for Peter Till to tap home.

In reaching the ball first, the Grimsby midfielder injured himself by colliding with Luke O’Brien and departed on a stretcher as Daley and Williams argued over who was to blame for conceding the soft goal. Daley’s pass hadn’t been the wisest choice, but Williams had time to clear and will be hoping Stuart doesn’t decide his future on this performance.

The goal knocked City’s confidence and Grimsby began passing the ball around confidently. Very little happened though, in truth, and City’s disjointed efforts were just as threatening as the more cohesive Mariners. Midfield was the area where City struggled with Tom Penford particularly disappointing. Penford is arguably the best passer at the club but was too often guilty of looking for the killer pass which would often be too optimistic and be cut out by blue shirts. This was typical of the whole team who seemed desperate to get a shot on goal after a few passes, when patiently playing simple passes and waiting for openings would have been more effective.

Eddie Johnson was back up front and showed some nice touches, but lacks the physical presence Peter Thorne needs in a strike partner. Daley and Joe Colbeck both had their moments while Kyle Nix was heavily involved in play, with things not always going right. The visible frustration the young midfielder displayed in front of the Kop after a Daley shot flew wide showed just how desperate to remain at City he appears to be.

There could and should have been more goals in the first half. A Grimsby defender handled the ball just inside the area from one attack, which triggered the linesman to raise his flag for a penalty then quickly change his mind. Nick Hegarty looked to have added a second when his low shot creeped towards the bottom corner, but Ryan Bennett’s decision to make sure it did meant the goal was ruled out for offside. Daley also charged through on goal, only for the flag to go up late. City improved in the final 10 minutes but couldn’t find the breakthrough, the half time boos felt a little harsh.

The second half saw progressive improvement as City laboured and finally drew level. Thorne had headed a chance just wide but soon grabbed his 15th goal of the season after latching onto a weak backpass and taking the ball round keeper Phil Barnes, before firing home the equaliser past the defender on the line. Stuart, who after the game praised Colbeck for pressurising the defender into making the poor backpass, should be keeping Thorne in bubble wrap during the close season so the 35-year-old is fit and firing from day one.

Stuart had been about to introduce Conlon for the struggling Penford, but delayed the change a few minutes as the initiative became firmly with City. Conlon made a big difference when he did come on, as did moving Johnson back into midfield. Stuart’s decision to try Johnson up front during the last few games has prompted much debate over his best position but he continues to look far more effective in the centre than battling up front. Meanwhile Conlon became much more involved than Johnson had been and his presence triggered more regular attacks.

The real star of the show was Nix though. It seemed everything good about the second half involved the Australian-born midfielder, who showed great energy levels. For every corner and free kick he was straight to the ball to get City going and also set up plenty of attacking moves that he would later get involved in again as the ball was knocked around. Nix has his faults, notably lack of pace, but has looked very impressive since switching to the centre. Whether he would be a regular next season is still uncertain but his fantastic dribble from deep and delicate chip attempt at Barnes, which the Grimsby keeper just tipped over, was a convincing case. He will surely be rewarded with a new deal.

Something which looks less likely for the two other subs Alex Rhodes and Luke Medley. The latter made a bigger impact after coming on for Thorne with seven minutes to go and played a part in the defining moment of the game. Half way through injury time, his pass into the area was chested down by Johnson and left for the on rushing Colbeck, who unleashed a superb powerful drive that flew past Barnes. The young winger has enjoyed a strong second half to the season which has featured a handful of goals; finally he’s now scored one at Valley Parade.

The half time boos were replaced by warm applause at the end, and while myself and the wife’s experience of a group of aggressive Grimsby supporters walking back to the car suggests they considered themselves unfortunate to have lost, the reality is that Scott Loach, rumoured to be staying at City on a season-long loan, had little to do in the second half.

If this run of one defeat from eight can be stretched a further two games it will have been an excellent end to the campaign. The Champions-elect, MK Dons, come to Valley Parade next Saturday and will offer a clear marker of how far the current squad are from the best at this level than the league table, distorted by that wretched autumn form, appears to show. In reality for City though, it’s just another warm up game for the next campaign.