Issue When pre-season is not pre-season

As told by Michael Wood

If you missed Bradford City’s 4-0 win over Stambridge United last night then you are not alone. BfB did little to cover it and a straw poll of City fans responding to news of the opening goals on Facebook seemed to show that they knew that some games in Essex were coming, but they did not know when.

City won the game with goals from Leon Osborne, Scott Neilson, Omar Daley and James O’Brien – a second four goal win in as many days following the 5-1 victory over North Ferriby United – and word came from the South that City had been given a good game by the part-timers from Essex although many would debate how much of a game non-league footballers at the level of the club’s City gave played so far can give professionals.

Indeed there is a charge at Peter Taylor’s door that his pre-season preparations are weak and that is is no benefit to the players to have easy victories over poor opposition. Certainly Taylor’s aim is not to create an interesting and exciting set of games but is he creating a useful set?

Sadly – or perhaps not so sadly – no answer can be reached for some time. Since the days of Chris Kamara – if not before – every City manager has looked at pre-season as if it were non-competitive league matches to be treated as significantly as Johnstone’s Paint early rounds or end of season dead rubbers (which is to say as lightly as a professional club every takes a game, but still as if it were a “proper” match) but Taylor seems to take a new approach.

Taylor is doing everything he can to ensure that pre-season matches – at this stage – are not taken seriously by his players and that the games are re-contextualised as a part of training. A means to an end and not an end in itself.

Which is not to say that there is not a seriousness to the training that Taylor, Junior Lewis and Wayne Jacobs put the players through – quiet the opposite – but that Taylor is keen to ensure that his players know the difference between training time and the business time of the season.

Matches kick off at three in the afternoon, seven forty-five in the evening in proper games but Taylor breaks this association moving the kick off around an hour here, two there and ensures that games are presented to players and to fans in a different situation.

Eccleshill United aside the games – up to the race trim of the final week – are all far flung keeping the Bantams away from City fans who season on season extrapolate the entire league’s nine months or play on the basis of the first game they see in July. Rightly or wrongly players are judged in their rawest form. I never – and still don’t – think much of Michael Symes based on watching his first performance for City at Farsley Celtic. The likes of Stambridge might get a few extra people to have a look at the Bantams but in all likelihood two men and a dog will be watching City rather than the backing of an active travelling City support.

These things break the link between what happened at Stambridge and what will happen at Shrewsbury on the first day of the season. Breaking that link says to the players that they are in build up now suggesting that they are preparing for something in August not playing for the tiny glory of winning in a pre-season game.

Not that winning is in question. The teams are a distance below City’s standard but win, lose or draw one doubts Taylor would care any more than he would care if the Red Bibs beat the Yellow Bibs at Apperley Bridge. The aim is not to show how good – or poor – City are by winning games over the best opposition available it is to prepare the players.

Taylor believes this is best done by taking the pressure away from these games, making them more like a practice match than what we now know a pre-season games. It is building relationships between players, patterns of play on the field, understandings and partnerships. In a way Stambridge United, North Ferriby United and Eccleshill United are doing the job of human traffic cones to be trained against but not designed to challenge the City players in any way other than not allowing them to fail.

I mean that with no disrespect. Taylor approach presents City’s players with the opportunity to play against an opposition which as long as they approach the game in the correct way they will benefit from it. City played Didi Harmann and Joey Barton in a Manchester City midfield five years ago in pre-season and Steven Schmacher and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson spent the afternoon having passes picked off which – while purposeful practice – was unrewarding and represents a slight return. If Lee Bullock and James O’Brien play as they can then they spend games in possession, using the ball, building confidence.

The merits of Taylor’s approach will be evidenced in the season itself but – rarely in modern football – City have a manager who wants to approach pre-season as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.