Issue Here comes the season

As told by Jason Mckeown

Rochdale and Bradford City took to the pitch with the words of  The Stone Roses’ “This is the moment I’ve waited for” blasting out of the Spotland PA system. And while we all know that moment is really still another week away, there’s a sense of liberation in reaching this point.

The close season is almost over, another lengthy break from football survived. For the sizeable travelling City support, Saturdays have now returned to being about going to the football. 46 league games to look forward to, three cup competitions to take a curious interest in.

We’ve made it. Now let’s get started.

There’s so much analysis and debate about whether pre-season friendlies really matter, but I think what we all want to gain at this time of year is re-assurance that the players are ready and able for the many battles ahead. And in a decent workout against opponents who begin next week a league above, there was much to feel assured about. City were every bit Rochdale’s equals this afternoon, and that was while missing key players.

A few weeks back, manager Peter Taylor  stated this game was ideal preparation for Shrewsbury, and the 4-5-1 formation he employed in the first half offer strong clues to his thinking for the tricky opening day trip to the New Meadow. The sole forward today was the clearly confident Gareth Evans, who has maintained his strong end of season form into pre-season at least. While not best suited to the target man role, Evans was charging all over the final third to make himself available to others, attempting to hold up the ball so midfield runners could get forward and support him.

Apart from a tentative performance from Omar Daley on the left wing, this approach was largely successful with Scott Neilson in excellent form and on-loan Norwich teenager Tom Adeyemi catching the eye with his box-to-box style. Lee Bullock and Luke O’Brien largely held central positions in the middle of the park, and the ball retention from City was particularly impressive. Patience took precedence over urgency, as the ball was methodically worked around the pitch. Robbie Threlfall came closest to scoring during the first half, with a long range drive.

Taylor reverted to 4-4-2 after the break, with new strikers Jake Speight and Louis Moult brought on and O’Brien moved to left wing. Within 10 minutes of his first appearance in claret and amber, Moult latched onto Adeyemi’s through ball and firing a perfect low shot into the bottom corner to put City in front. Taylor had previewed Moult’s arrival on Friday by stating he was signing a striker who offered something different to what he had, and his style of playing on the shoulder of the last man is certainly that.

The lead was short lived as former City loanee Chris O’Grady found space, following a partial clearance, to fire a low shot past Jon McLaughlin; with the City keeper initially unsighted due to the number of players in the box. And when a minute later Lewis Hunt – another half time sub – tripped Jean Louis Akpo-Akpra inside the area, a credible win looked set to turn into defeat.

O’Grady’s run-up for the penalty was similar in length to Blanco’s for Mexico against France at the World Cup. As he got closer, he kept adjusting his pace, while McLaughlin erratically moved left-to-right on his line and feigned to commit himself to going to his left. The mind games were won by City’s new number one, who did actually dive to his left and superbly kept out a decently-struck spot kick. It should be noted McLaughlin’s performance was far from flawless, he looked very tentative from crosses in particular. But as confidence boosts a week before a season go, he couldn’t have asked for a better moment.

City shaded the final 20 minutes, with the much-discussed Speight making more of an impression as the game went on. He is quite small with quick feet, but what  really stood out was his strength in holding up the ball. The reaction from supporters near me when he came on suggests he has much convincing to do after what’s gone on, but by the end he’d offered some evidence to justify Taylor’s faith.

Defensively City looked strong all afternoon. Zesh Rehman barely put a foot wrong, Oliver caught the eye with his passing ability. His half time replacement Shane Duff seems to be an excellent acquisition and Hunt, who looks a bit like Richard Edghill, should be adequate back-up for the on-form Simon Ramsden. A big question mark with the 4-5-1 formation, if employed, is the tracking back of the midfield. Certainly Neilson cannot afford to allow opposition full backs to brush past him in the manner Joe Widdowson regularly managed in the first half.

Adeyemi almost snatched a late winner with a superb long-range shot that was tipped over, and when the final whistle was blown seconds later a buzz of satisfaction emanated from City fans as they warmly applauded the players off. The first Saturday back – none of the others are likely to be as relaxing as this.

For as the season kicks off for real at 3pm next Saturday, the expectation levels also return. City are touted as favourites by some bookies, and how that will translate into the weekly battles remains to be seen. What will our reaction be if City lose at Shrewsbury? 45 games still to go, but the pressure will surely increase. And while this workout offered plenty of indications that the players are taking on board Taylor’s instructions, applying it when the grumbles are reigning down from the stands is another matter.

Can the patient passing approach withstand the predictable bellows of “FORWARDS” from some fans?

All we know about this season is that City will win some games and City will also lose some games (the rest will probably be draws), and how the ups and downs are managed will probably determine whether this is the season it finally comes together.

Rochdale may still be a league above us, but that didn’t stop our light-hearted chants about how small and rubbish their set up is compared to ours. We, and others, consider Bradford City “too big for League Two”. But that inevitably creates a level of pressure on the players which their rivals on the pitch simply don’t feel. Whether it lifts or weighs them down cannot be calculated during a relaxing pre-season game, but we’re about to find out whether they have the mental strength to make our dreams come true.

This is the moment, the moment to go back into the pressure cooker.