Leaving his Mark

I remember Mark Bower’s debut for City.

Down at Carrow Road in April 1998, City had climbed into a seemingly unassailable 3-0 advantage thanks to quick-fire goals either side of half time. The first of those scorers, Wayne Jacobs, had to go off injured, so off the bench stepped an 18-year old to take the City skipper’s spot. Norwich, trying to avoid relegation from then-Division One, came back to 3-2, and we were too busy willing the referee to blow for full time to be pre-occupied with how the debut boy was getting on. He must have quietly got through it, never giving cause for a fuss.

And that’s what is both great and not so great about the long-serving defender, who today it was officially announced has been released. Bower’s City career has rarely featured controversial headlines or given managers cause for headaches, but it hasn’t included too many good times either. During his 11 years he’s generally looked solid and dependable, but when his understated presence was taken away, for manager Stuart McCall, it wasn’t missed enough.

That said there is great sadness in thinking of the Bradford-born defender out of work and facing an uncertain future right now. His presence at Valley Parade, for the past decade, was something we took for granted.

The next time I saw Bower was when we were beaten at home to Portsmouth at the end of a season his team mates had long since given up on. The following two campaigns were unforgettable, with promotion and then that exciting first season in the Premiership, but what Bower saw of it was from the sidelines or from afar while on loan at York City, near the bottom of the Football League.

He did at least get to play for City in Europe the following season, but was back at York for half a season as City sank miserably from the Premier League. A fleeting appearance here and there, including another game at Carrow Road during which he scored his first City goal, was all he had to show as City laboured to get going back in Division One. Eventually Nicky Law, already Bower’s fourth different manager, gave him a run in the side and he played a significant role in ensuring a second successive relegation was avoided, even scoring the winning goal at Wimbledon to confirm mathematical survival.

Typical of Bower’s luck, he became more part of the scene just as the bad times really begun. As the club fell into administration, Bower was one of only five players it did not attempt to sack. At times that summer City staying in existence was touch and go and, while the immediate concern for Bower the City fan would have been for the future of his club, it would equally have been on his own given he was the verge of making it. In the end City survived and Bower prospered in a reduced squad with reduced expectations the following season, playing 39 times.

The centenary that City celebrated during the 2003/04 season was marked by relegation and administration, with Bower not for the first time watching others underperform in his place. Jason Gavin was brought in and played ahead of Bower by first Nicky Law then Bryan Robson, and if there was one early thing to trumpet Colin Todd for after he took over that summer it was his decision to pick Bower ahead of the hapless Irishman.

And under the tutelage of the former England defender it seemed Bower had finally arrived. City, now in League One, bobbled about in mid table for two seasons with David Wetherall and Bower mainstays at the back. Bower picked up the 2004/05 Player of the Season award ahead of an undoubtedly aghast 28-goal Dean Windass. Yet a year later came further clues that Bower was not the kingpin to build a defence around, with Todd shifting him to left back for a time so the impressive Damion Stewart could partner Wetherall. Todd’s now-huge army of critics saw it as an opportunity to slam the City boss, while ignoring the fact Bower looked excellent charging forward down the left flank.

With the club seemingly on irreversible decline, it seemed to finally catch up with Bower a year later. Todd was sacked in February and Wetherall asked to assume a caretaker role, and the opportunity was there for Bower, newly appointed as skipper, to emerge from Wetherall’s shadow and become a rock to depend upon. He was hardly the only player to fail to reach the heights expected as the club crashed to a seemingly avoidable relegation, but the player who had never let anyone down failed to convincingly prove he could step things up and be a hero.

With two years of a four-year deal still to run, Bower stayed on for life in League Two but it has been far from kind. If asked to name regrets, Bower might just list his willingness to play in goal away at Grimsby, when an injury to keeper Evans left manager Stuart McCall without a specialist to take the role. Bower let no one down in goal, but his replacement at the back, Matt Clarke, impressed instantly alongside Wetherall and suddenly a worrying dip in form meant Bower was dropped two weeks later. There has been the occasional appearance since, but no one should be surprised that, with the club now needing to release high earners, the highest earner of the lot has being shown the door.

Much of this season has included a soundtrack of fans whining about Bower’s exclusion and Clarke’s inclusion, which is a testament to short memories and of absence making hearts grow fonder. Back in the autumn of 2007, Bower was crucified by some supporters but it’s almost been airbrushed from history as some openly questioned “what he ever did wrong?” and screamed abuse at Clarke. Bower did little to deserve the abuse he was getting back then, but he’s equally done nothing to prompt some fans to elevate him to to the status of saviour and, belatedly, chant his name at games.

Bower will be no fan of Stuart and no one can blame him. But Stuart is the manager of this club and is entitled to make what he believes to be the best decision. One can only speculate that, for how much Bower’s weekly wage was, Zesh Rehman’s contract at QPR would be comparable. Rehman has been offered a deal and I for one am delighted. Clarke has also received another contract offer and, though he’s never going to be able to win over a section of support, has largely looked strong this season.

As for Bower, he should have little trouble finding another club, maybe even one in League One. He will go onto to enjoy a decent career elsewhere because, like the last home-grown City defender to ‘make it’, Andy O’Brien, he has plenty of talent and a good attitude.

He will be missed back at Valley Parade, but perhaps not quite enough. A player who will always be guaranteed a good reception on his return, a player who may one day be welcomed back with open arms, but sadly also a player for whom it’s difficult to associate with too many happy times.

It’s time that both he and City enjoyed a turn of luck.

McCall’s next City squad starts to take shape

Pakistan skipper Zesh Rehman has been offered a deal by the Bantams but longest serving player Mark Bower has been freed as Stuart McCall starts building his squad for 2009/2010.

McCall’s side’s failure to make the play offs has led to budget cuts – that is the short and not especially representative version of long story – and as a result four senior players have been freed with Bower joining out on loan Barry Conlon, oft injured Paul Heckingbottom, bit player Keith Gillespie and – surprisingly – Rhys Evans out of Valley Parade with the goalkeeper being rumoured to be interesting League One clubs including Leeds United.

The City boss has also prompted Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee and Michael Boulding to try find other clubs – something they can do owing to oddly one sided clauses in their contracts – but worries that should they not do the wage budget will be restricted. With times tough for many, if not most, clubs at the moment it is hard to see who will take the players on. Michael Boulding was not short of offers this time twelve months ago but traded from a position of being the leading scorer in League Two, likewise Paul McLaren negotiated with City as the most creative man in League One. Now these players go to a depressed market with a line on the CV that is read as a failure to make the top seven in League Two.

Do not be surprised if we have not seen the last of this trio.

Another trio who McCall would like us to see more of are Nicky Law Jnr, Dean Furman and Steve Jones whom the manager is trying to recapture on loan. Matthew Clarke, Lee Bullock, Luke O’Brien, Joe Colbeck, Leon Osborne Jon McLaughlin, Luke Sharry and Matthew Convey have been offered contracts while Kyle Nix is welcome back to preseason one assumes to await news of an exit for Lee, Boulding or McLaren. McCall will talk with Peter Thorne tomorrow.

All of which leave City with a weakened version of this season’s team should these machinations come off. McLaughlin seems to be fancied to be the new keeper having kept a clean sheet in the final game of last term. At 21 he is young but League Two is – increasingly for City – a learner’s league.

Paul Arnison has a two year deal and one assumes will stick at right back although his unwillingness to relocate from the North East is rumoured to have caused problems for McCall. Zesh Rehman and Matthew Clarke in the central defensive roles with Luke O’Brien at left back is an inch worse than Graeme Lee partnering either one – Lee came out of the season with more credit than most in this writer’s opinion – but Rehman is a cultured player and one who one could have confidence in. Clarke will continue to have his critics for both not being able to spray a Glenn Hoddle pass – which defender can? – and for his defensive lapses but since he replaced Bower in the side City have stopped being bullied by the usual big men forward lines we face.

Without wanting to delve into the stats of how many six foot two plus players have won headers in City game against Clarke vs Bower anecdotally one would suggest it is obvious that Clarke has plugged that gap. That he has other failings is a problem but in a League where physical prowess – bigness, if you will – is often the route to goal it is that no being bullied which is important rather than Bower’s more intelligent style of defending.

As with Andrew O’Brien before him Bower’s style suits the club less the further down the leagues we are. O’Brien’s man marking is superb on Thierry Henry but wasted in the Championship and Bower’s foot in play could – and would – do a lot at a Barnsley but does not at Valley Parade. One would have confidence that Bower could nick the ball from big men frequently but McCall obviously worries that the long serving defender would spend the rest of his time on his backside having been flattened and getting little sympathy from Referees.

Hearts are heavy though when a player with a service record like Bower’s leaves a club. He has given the lion’s share of his career to Bradford City having signed up on the 13th of May, 1999 four days after promotion and broken into the side a few years later with honest displays. He did his bit in administration and beyond and few City fans would not hope that he can establish himself somewhere else for the five or six years he could have in the game.

Uniting Dean Furman and Lee Bullock would seem to be the key to McCall’s midfield for next season with the City manager keen to see the Rangers midfielder back in the position he dominated last term – he played few games than Paul McLaren but made a more significant impact and was certainly more memorable – but Ibrox boss Walter Smith may have different ideas. Bullock is a useful player who has only shown his effectiveness in short spells while at Valley Parade. Next season McCall seems set to offer the former Hartlepool United midfielder the chance to make the position his own.

However McCall has struggled thus far in his management career to find a player to fill that number four shirt and role which he himself took at Valley Parade. Furman won the place from Paul McLaren whose season could be described as “middling”. McLaren did not take the mantel of senior professional with enough zeal and as a result on occasion looked a peripheral figure – especially when compared to Furman – just as Paul Evans the season before had failed to make the McCall slot his own.

Returning to Hoddle momentarily it is said that when England manager Glenn was frustrated with the players inability to match the magic feats of his own passing and one can only imagine the frustration that McCall – a player who lived by taking games by the scruff on the neck – has watching two players who have no shortage of talent in Evans and McLaren failing to control matches. Is Furman a better passer of a ball than McLaren or a better tackler than Evans? One could argue not but he has more cunning, more guile and it seems a stronger character that allows him to have more of a constant effect over a ninety minutes.

Defensive midfield – Furman’s nominal position and the one McCall had – is perhaps the most crucial role on the field and Furman represents a safe bet for City. We have seen that he will not shirk in the role unlike the previous two candidates who were on the face of it excellent choices for such a position and thus he is a tried and tested option for a job which I would argue the failure to fill correctly has cost us over the previous two season, and probably longer.

It should be noted that Luke Sharry has had a productive season and while not ready for the number four role should be expecting to feature in a dozen or more games next term.

The scenario on the flanks remains as it was this season: Joe Colbeck, perhaps Chris Brandon, Omar Daley when fit, Nicky Law should he return and Steve Jones if he is interested. Returning Colbeck from the jaws is poor form and the critics that wait for such to attack him is of paramount importance for McCall as establishing Omar Daley as a threat on the left was this term. McCall flits between preferring a pair of wide players such as Daley, Jones and Colbeck and wanting one wide and one more tucked in as Chris Brandon or Law offers and one can expect that method of trying to fill the middle of the midfield to continue.

Brandon has been unable to provide much of an indication as to his effectiveness this season and – based on last season – given a choice between him and Law one would take the younger man from Sheffield United. Should Brandon be edged out of Valley Parade – and indications are that the club would be able to keep him – then Kyle Nix would be an able replacement and I for one am surprised that the young Rotheraussie has not been offered a new deal offering the heart and ability the former of which was often lacking last season.

In August Stuart McCall would hope to line up with Joe Colbeck, Dean Furman, Lee Bullock and Chris Brandon across the middle and few would suggest that represents a major shift away from this term with improvement inferred from consistency with all four players having spent long periods injured. Allowing whoever is in the number four role to build up a relationship with the defenders to feed the ball in ending the long hoof of the end of last term and with the three midfielders around him who would take the ball is crucial and Furman can be trusted to do that. If he is not retained we re-enter the lucky dip of trying to bring in a cog to be the most important part of our machine. Like good goalscorers – they don’t get given away.

Peter Thorne will talk to Stuart McCall in a conversation about “legs” and if the striker still has them and McCall will hope to move Michael Boulding on to no great distress from I. For all his hard work Boulding failed to build a partnership either with the forward he was alongside or the players supplying him from midfield. Barry Conlon officially left the club and Willy Topp is long gone leaving the City boss looking for three or four strikers for next term.

In this respect McCall is in the hands of the trio of players who may leave. Should Lee, McLaren and Michael Boulding all exit then pressure on his budget would be loosened and the City manager could get to looking for a goal getter or two – one would suggest he tries to find a fast one, a skilful one, a big one and one who can finish again but that is how we entered this year – but should this not happen then the Bantams manager will be left looking at scraps to find a feast. The ramification of Barry Conlon and Matthew Clarke’s fall out with McCall obviously preclude Conlon’s return despite a half dozen goals for Grimsby Town and one wonders if allowing the fighting Irish to leave is not going to haunt the Gaffer as he starts looking for players with passion, strength and a good track record and finds that Barry’s name comes top of the searches.

In such a situation Rory Boulding becomes an option although reports on him are mixed on the little brother while Leon Osborne and Sean Taylforth are no one’s idea of the player to lead you out of League Two. All three could be world beaters but the fact that they are – should Thorne not be retained – all that is in the cupboard for next term shows the problem Stuart McCall will have in building a side for next term.

In the season John Hendrie talked about the need for another striker and McCall tried Chris O’Grady and Paul Mullin in that role but ultimately when cutting the cloth to keep the club in business the side suffers and the forward line would seem to be where City are to take the hit.

So McCall is charged with three summer tasks. He must get the players he has offered new deals to to sign – some are given reduced terms – and will use the carrot of a smaller squad and a guaranteed place in the starting eleven achieve that with the likes of Lee Bullock.

Secondly he must work on ensuring he has the right man for the number four role with Dean Furman being nominated as the prefer choice. Filling this position is or paramount importance.

Finally he must find a set of strikers who want to play for the club and who have the ability but for some reason – probably as with Thorne it would be age – are not at a higher level and do not expect massive wages. Rumour has it David Wetherall is being moved to youth team coach. Wetherall never really got on with Dean Windass…

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