Issue Doherty’s arrival reveals Taylor’s intentions

As told by Jason Mckeown

Every summer, I do my best to avoid getting sucked into the hype of the up-coming season. But like almost every other Bradford City supporter, the news Tommy Doherty has signed for the Bantams has increased my optimism and anticipation towards attempt four of escaping League Two.

It’s too early to be making any credible predictions of lifting the League Two title or finishing in the top seven, but Doherty’s arrival does offer strong indications of what we can expect to be viewing come August, and the type of entertainment that it will provide us.

Peter Taylor arrived at Valley Parade last February with perhaps more pre-conceptions formed than any other in-coming City manager in modern history. Sacked by Wycombe Wanderers the previous October to complaints of playing boring football, a widespread view was quickly formed that, under Taylor’s interim reign at City, we’d see regimented, organised football that would get results, if not get us onto the edge of our seats.

The first few games quickly backed up this theory; as although City began to put more wins on the board, it didn’t make as thrilling a watch as predecessor Stuart McCall’s 4-3-3 approach that had made enjoyable viewing until it lost its way in November. But then, at the mid-point of Taylor’s trial, we saw a different approach that relied too much on the in-form James Hanson and barely involved the centre of midfield.

City became a long ball team, and though there are merits to such an approach at League Two level, it was dispiriting to watch the back four repeatedly launch the ball long to Hanson’s head. Short, incisive passing had become other teams’ preserve.

And for me it hit rock bottom when Hanson’s season was ended by injury at Bournemouth and, for a game-and-a-half, we had the sight of giant on-loan defender Luke Oliver up front, with the same long-ball approach. The games against Macclesfield and Burton made depressing viewing, and the suspicion was growing that City would become all about tall strikers and winning percentages the following season.  Was this really Taylor’s way?

Thankfully the final five games – after Oliver had been recalled by parent club Wycombe – saw a revised 4-3-3 formation which relied upon the front three’s on-and-off the ball movement and the midfield three passing the ball around intelligently. The five games ended unbeaten, with the wins over Morecambe and Northampton among the best performances of the whole season. Once again, confidence in what Taylor was trying to implement could be felt.

And though the news of Oliver’s permanent arrival earlier this week left me uneasy, the capture of his former team mate Doherty has lifted spirits because it is a statement of intent of how Taylor sees City lining up next season.

Put it another way – he hasn’t signed Doherty with the aim of the defence bypassing midfield in favour of Hanson’s forehead.

It now looks increasingly probable that City will become a passing side next season. Taylor is keen to re-sign out-of-contract Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn, and the likelihood of the pair lining up with Doherty gives City – relatively speaking – the most capable collection of midfield passers in years. Already it looks as though the 4-3-3 Taylor ended the season using will be continued – a formation which also quickly becomes 4-5-1 when required.

It suggests Bullock continuing to play the holding role, or moving forwards alongside Flynn so Doherty can perform it and three needing to strike up an understanding. Despite rumours of a new striker arriving, Taylor might already have designs on selecting Omar Daley and Gareth Evans as wide forwards, with Hanson in the middle. Both Daley and Evans can drop back to midfield if need be, in the same impressive style Taylor lined up Wycombe at Valley Parade – with Doherty at the heart of attacks and off the ball running a key factor – in February 2009.

Such an approach excites me. Winning regularly is of course the most important factor to any choice of tactics, and we City fans could arguably put up with long ball football if it got City into League One next season. Yet there is something to be said about trying to do things the right way, and the idea of City becoming a passing side, playing in a style pleasing on the eye, is one which could pave a route back up English football’s pyramid.

We go to watch City because we want them to win, but being entertained along the way would be widely-welcomed too. And the idea of City passing the ball around the pitch, finding and exploiting gaps through clever running and patience, would be appreciated by many supporters. Throw in Taylor’s strong emphasis for organisation, and the template of City’s last successful promotion attempt wouldn’t look too much different to Bradford City 2010.

Since Paul Jewell oversaw that triumph, a number of managers have generally tried to deliver success through the traditional 4-4-2, with little success. Jim Jefferies’ sides were too overloaded with attacking intent; Nicky Law’s attempts to play passing football limited by such thinbare resources and questionable selection in the middle; Bryan Robson’s deviation to 4-3-3 more about not getting beat; Colin Todd’s return to 4-4-2 strong defensively but let down by over-reliance on inconsistent wingers.

We saw McCall adopt many different approaches during his two-and-a-half-year reign, but failure to adapt to visitors’ defensive intentions and lack of confidence to keep faith in tactics and players when a losing run began undermined his work, especially when he really had the personnel in 2008/09.

There are no guarantees Doherty can be the catalyst to making Taylor’s suggested approach a success in the same way McCall was for Jewell – look at the excitement Paul McLaren’s arrival triggered and subsequent disappointment over his performances. There are also big question marks about whether the traditionally impatient Valley Parade crowd would tolerate patient football, with the spectre of it falling down under a torrent of boos and screams of “forward!” easy to imagine. But if things slot into place, Taylor’s likely approach could deliver success and leave us immensely proud of how we did it.

The Barcelona/Spain of League Two – why not? Doherty’s arrival doesn’t guarantee glory, but it at least allows us to dream of an exciting – and very watchable – future.