Struggling to find more

How do you get more out of 100%? As Bradford City manager Stuart McCall observed his players running themselves into the ground while attempting to get the better of League Two early-pace setters Bournemouth this afternoon, that’s the conundrum which must have occupied his thoughts.

Injury-ravaged to the point a central defender had to play in midfield and a central midfielder was deployed up front, it was difficult to find fault with the level of effort his last men standing devoted to the pursuit of earning three points. Coaxing out a greater level of application and smartness already looks key for effort to be rewarded by success.

For as extreme as the injury list seems at the moment, such circumstances appear more likely to be later repeated than addressed by sizeable team strengthening in January. As the second half began to drift into a pattern of stalemate, a look behind his shoulder at the substitute options offered Stuart few solutions.

The danger of a reduced investment in the playing squad was always going to be a lack of strength in depth. Stuart is left with no choice but to fill his bench with youngsters who may not yet  be ready for first team responsibility and are even less likely to be ready to be trusted to deliver a desired level of influence on matches. The worry is those senior players giving 100% will be allowed to get away with dropping a few percentage points, while still keeping their place. Not only does Stuart face the challenge of getting more from 100%, he must ensure 100% remains the minimum.

For the opening 45 minutes at least, City got about the Cherries in a crafty manner which might well have brought greater rewards than Gareth Evans’ cancelling out Brett Pitman’s opener. The visitors were far removed from then-manager Jimmy Quinn’s defensive stranglehold tactics which had paved the way for a 3-1 success at Valley Parade last season, commendably passing the ball around in a confident manner which ran throughout the team. Eddie Howe’s side were comfortably the best team City have entertained this season, but their attempts to play a high defensive line encouraged the Bantams to find success from playing low through balls in behind it, which might have been punished more often but for some tight offside calls.

Michael Flynn – the midfielder deployed up front – was effective in holding up the ball and working space to thread passes in the path of forward runners, while Chris Brandon and Scott Neilson – playing more as orthodox wingers in the first half – showed a willingness to make runs from deep. Evans wasted the best opportunity when a through ball had been timed exactly right and he charged clear with plenty of time to weigh up his options. His attempt to shift the ball to his preferred left foot saw the angle closed down by Cherries’ keeper Shwan Jalal and the eventual shot was screwed well wide of the far post.

Four minutes later Zesh Rehman – the central defender playing in midfield – helped to gift Bournemouth the lead after his hesitancy in clearing a loose ball allowed Anton Robinson to be played through into space between Steve Williams and the recalled Matt Clarke. With just Eastwood to beat, the former non-league player laid the ball into Pitman’s path for an easy tap in.

There were angry complaints from home supporters, who claimed Pitman had been ahead of Robinson and the ball played forwards, thus making Pitman offside. Both referee and linesman missed any such infringement, and Pitman curiously ran off to gloat at City supporters in the Main Stand.

But if heads dropped, the 100% remained and Evans atoned for his earlier miss three minutes before half time after Lee Bullock’s perfect pass enabled him the time and space to round Jalal and run the ball into an empty net. It remains a troubling statistic that only once this season have City come from behind to win – Rochdale away in the JPT; but since Lincoln triumphed 2-0 at Valley Parade last August, only one side – Crewe – has managed to score first against the Bantams and maintain a lead for the full remainder of the game.

Though City dominated the half’s final minutes they were to enjoy less territorial advantage after the break as Howe re-organised his defence so they held a deeper backline. It was at that point the effects of so many injuries were starkly visible as City struggled to execute a game plan that would lead to meaningful control of the match. James Hanson’s injury had been kept quiet – one suspects the local media are starting to become frustrated by Stuart’s economical sharing of team news this season – and City’s top scorer was especially missed once the space for Evans, Brandon and Neilson to run onto through balls was no longer afforded.

City needed someone who could hold up the ball so other players could get forward and provide options, but despite best efforts this is less Evans’ game and certainly not Flynn’s. Neilson and Brandon were able to pick up the ball out wide, but were too isolated with attempts to dribble forward ineffective. Rehman – the defender playing in midfield – largely stayed deep alongside Bullock and Flynn – the midfielder deployed up front – was too high up the park to make his trademark surging forward runs.

City went narrower in midfield with Neilson pushed further forwards and Brandon encouraged to roam, but by then Bournemouth had reverted to playing on the break and the pace in their locker compromised how far full backs Luke O’Brien and Jonathan Bateson could support the attack. It meant the best efforts to play through or or over the Cherries defence went largely without reward.

Which is where more than 100% is needed. The craftiness to try different things, switch play more often and attack with more fluency was compromised by tiring minds and legs, and the options to freshen things up were limited. Other than James O’Brien’s curious non-involvement and the welcome sight of a recovering Simon Ramsden, Stuart had three youngsters with five career Football League starts between them as his subs bench.

One of them, Rory Boulding, replaced the injured Evans with five minutes to go and looked lively, but the inevitability of the stalemate had set in long before. Bournemouth had the better second half chances, although but for the occasional slip up both Williams and Clarke defended well. Bullock might have won the game for City in the closing stages after his header from a corner was superbly kept out by Jalal.

The result leaves City exactly where they were before kick off and exactly where they were five weeks ago – four points off the play offs. With another 30 league games to play it’s a reasonable position to be, particularly taking into account the woeful start. But that the last seven league games have returned just one win suggests more is needed in the tank to stay in touch with and ultimately climb amongst the front runners.

The returning injured players will add to what’s in that tank, but getting more than 100% from the players available is the puzzle which must be solved to avoid the busyness of the physio room determining the outcome of the season.

McCall vs Abbott recalls the biggest mistake

Stuart McCall will take his Bradford City team to old Bantams midfield team mate Greg Abbott’s Carlisle United as both club’s look towards a place in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy finals.

McCall and Abbott go further back than that though. When a young Abbott moved North from his Coventry home when he signed for City in the early 1980s he was housed by the club in the bedroom next to Stuart at the McCall house. Andy McCall – father of Stuart and a former footballer – can take credit for the good habits that both were brought up with and it is no surprise that both have made management.

Watching the pair in the midfield for Trevor Cherry’s Bantams in the mid-eighties was something of a cathartic experience for the City both before and after the fire of 1985. The pair battled, tackled, prompted and played in a way that demanded respect for the team in claret and amber who were moving up the football pyramid and for the City at as a whole. Bradford – in the hands of Abbott and McCall – was bouncing back.

Naturally McCall – who went on to the World Cup, six titles with Rangers and being cheated out of the European Cup – was impressive as the side moved through the leagues but Abbott struggled. A player of heart and tackle Abbott’s suspensions – and make no mistake Abbo could put it about – allowed others a chance to take a place in the side.

Trevor Cherry’s replacement – and even with the club floundering second bottom of the second tier playing nomadically around West Yorkshire and up to Odsal few demanded Cherry’s head – was Terry Dolan who as caretaker won eight of ten games and steered the club to tenth in the division being given the job full time as a result. It was perhaps as deserved at the end of those ten games as it was unexpected at the start.

Abbott’s absences – and his deficiencies – were filled as Dolan employed skilful young midfielder Leigh Palin in his place. Palin was an opposite to Abbott lacking the heart of Abbo but having skill which could surpass even McCall. One time City assistant boss Norman Hunter – who went to the World Cup in 1770 and won Championships – once called Palin the best footballer he had ever seen but qualified it with “but only for ten minutes in a game. For the rest of the match he is…”

Such was Palin’s problem. When he was not magic he vanished and while he is in Bradford City’s history for a headed goal against Everton in Stuart McCall’s return and 3-1 defeat the next season his level of ability – no matter how transient – should have seen him achieve more.

It seemed though that Dolan – who had his City team riding high in the second tier in the first third of the season but was watching them falter – thought on the one hand that Palin could provide an edge of quality which would rival fellow promotion runners Aston Villa’s attacking midfielder David Platt but on the other longed for Abbott’s ferocity. He veered between the two all season but identified a player he believed could give him both and went to the chairman – Jack Tordoff – to ask for the money to make the purchase.

Enter Mick Kennedy who at £250,000 was a record signing from Portsmouth. Ultimately he offered neither the skill of Palin nor the commitment of Abbot although he could match the latter for violence in play. City faltered, McCall left, Dolan was fired the next season and the top tier remained a distant dream for some eleven years.

Perhaps this moment was the biggest mistake. Some thought Palin a passenger and that Abbot should be in the side, some that were Palin given the time in the side to settle rather than being in and out of the side then he would be the player he promised to be, others – significantly in the boardroom – had ideas about the signing Dolan wanted.

Dolan had wanted to sign a young Andy Townsend – who was a better footballer than he is a pundit – an equally fresh faced Keith Curle and a striker called Jimmy Gilligan which would have set the club back around £1m but he got Kennedy and the word from the chairman that there was no point paying for a footballer who “might break his leg tomorrow.”

Perhaps it was a weakness on Dolan’s part – he has not been appointed by Tordoff who went on to give former assistant Terry Yorath the job prompting Jimmy Greaves to say on “On The Ball with Saint & Greavies” that it was “just the chairman giving his mate a job.” If it was a weakness on Dolan’s part then it might be noted that when he got the job as caretaker it was at the expense of the wannabe manager who had been successful in the application process: Martin O’Neill.

All of which said we have seen at the club since the effects of spending money that would only be recouped later with success and Dolan’s ambitions might have proved catastrophic. Hindsight in this case is not 20:20 and had O’Neill been City manager, had McCall and Townsend been a midfield pair, had Palin or Abbott been assured the shirt, had Dolan had spent a million we did not have, had John Hendrie not been unfairly sent off in the away game at Manchester City then would things have worked out better? One can only guess, but guess away.

Some twenty years after those events McCall and Abbott square off as managers for a place in a cup final – albeit a minor one – and put all those experiences to the test.

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