Forgetting the basics

For a time at least this afternoon, everything was looking rather rosy. Bradford City were heading for a third straight victory, and we could allow ourselves to fantasize about the highs which laid in store for the months ahead. Six minutes of utter madness later, and that uncomfortably-familiar feeling that we’ve sunk to a new low prevailed.

Somewhat-fortuitously a Luke Oliver goal up, the Bantams came flying out of the blocks after the interval and hemmed Barnet back in their own half. Twice the goalframe was rattled, numerous goalmouth scrambles came close to seeing the ball cross the line. A second goal, and it seemed the floodgates would have opened. Barnet looked awful and full of panic every time the ball came into their box. We allowed ourselves to chuckle at their desperate attempts to clear their lines. Victory seemed certain.

But that confidence in the stands was disastrously shared by the home players on the pitch. Soon control began to give way to casualness; concentration dropped for carelessness; composure switched with complacency. Gradually the passing became less purposeful, off the ball running neglected, tracking back surely someone else’s job.

They seemed to begin to believe it was too easy. A fatal mistake.

The creeping in of bad habits and a slipshod attitude was perhaps best exemplified – though by no means does he deserve to be singled out – by Omar Daley nonchalantly back-healing the ball when a throw in was delivered to him. Instead of trapping the ball, or at least checking for the positions of team mates before passing, his fancy flick rolled straight through to a defender. Still no big deal, we’re going to win easily. Don’t worry about any one pressing that defender to win the ball back. This lot are crap.

It was this type of switching off that led to Barnet grabbing a shock equaliser. The Bees had a throw in level with the penalty area which wasn’t defended tightly enough, and a dangerous ball into the area was inexplicably headed into his own net by second half substitute Rob Kiernan. It completely changed the complexion of the game, allowing bottom-placed Barnet to grab the ascendancy and City struggling to regain the focus and work ethic that had led to them bossing the half up to that point.

Five minutes later, Oliver lost his man from a corner and Anwar Uddin headed Barnet into a lead. City tried to stir themselves, piling forward and finding Barnet again looking shaky at the back. Daley cut inside and fizzed a powerful drive which Liam O’Brien tipped over.

But from the resultant corner, Kiernan made a mess of knocking the ball to Richard Eckersley after Barnet had cleared the ball, and suddenly three white shirts had just one defender to work the ball past on the counter attack. Izale McLeod squared the ball to Rob Holmes, who could not miss. So instead of City winning 3,4, 5 or even 6-0, a humiliating home defeat was all but sealed and delivered.

The damage could have been worse – City left the field with the play off deficit only increased by one further point, having dropped only one league position. But even if the Bantams quickly recover from slipping over this banana skin, it will take a while to forgive and to restore faith that promotion can be achieved this season.

For as bad as the six-minute spell that saw the three points chucked away was, it was the reaction from the players during the final 20 minutes that told us much about their stomach for future battles. They seemed to give up and go into their shells – little desire to wrestle back control of the match, inadequate levels of belief in themselves and others that they could come at least snatch a draw. Once David Syers wasted a one-on-one opportunity with 10 minutes left on the clock, fans flocked for the exits and it was difficult to blame them.

Too many players had given up, and by giving up they revealed a lack of commitment to playing for Bradford City and worrying evidence that, when the chips are down, they cannot be counted on. So yeah, they might go and beat Oxford and Aldershot over the next few days to haul themselves back into play off contention. They might continue to win more than they lose between now and May. But sooner of later they’ll be in a tight spot like this again, and if this is the best fight they can muster lets prepare ourselves for disappointment now.

Not every player threw in the towel. Gareth Evans ran all day, and it’s a shame there are so many supporters who refuse to appreciate his qualities. James Hanson battled hard and showed glimpses of his form of last season – though he and Evans were too far apart from each other. Daley was a largely a positive presence and worked hard. Syers, Luke O’Brien and Eckersley weren’t lacking in effort either.

But for them to have to carry other passengers meant a grandstand finish was never on. Indeed Barnet looked likelier to score again and McLeod had a goal ruled out for offside.

Had someone told us we’d lose before kick off, most City fans would not have been surprised. Over the years we’ve struggled badly against the lesser lights of the division we are in, especially at home. In the early stages City typically failed to set the tempo and the direct style of searching for Hanson’s head or relying on Evans’ legs was less pleasing on the eye than the quick-fire passing of a Barnet side who, as with their previous Valley Parade visits in recent years, looked better going forward than at the back.

The early chances were all Barnet’s – the outstanding Holmes dribbled from his own half and shot just over, drawing applause from home fans. McLeod blasted over from a good position. Earlier he’d forced a save from Lenny Pidgley after a mix-up between City’s keeper and Shane Duff which saw the pair vociferously argue over who was to blame for minutes after.

It seemed to be another afternoon where the crowd would soon be on the players’ backs, but after slack marking from City went unpunished and the groans began to get louder it was instead cue for positive chanting from fans that lifted the players and saw them end the half exerting heavy pressure. Just before the half time whistle, Syers brilliantly beat Liam O’Brien to a loose ball and crossed for Oliver to head home.

Cue the second half City onslaught and cue the warm feeling that this season was going to turn out gloriously after all. But then, cue the madness.

At full time there were predictable boos from a now-sparsely populated Valley Parade. Peter Taylor appeared to become embroiled in a heated argument with a supporter at the front of the main stand. My friend, who has better hearing than I, said other fans were chanting “Taylor out”.

But it’s difficult to understand how this defeat can be blamed on Taylor. He made two substitutions early in the second half when City were on top – but the players taken off, Tom Adeyemi and Duff, both had injuries and were arguably City’s worst two first half players anyway. Mark Cullen came on for his debut and showed promise in his positioning – hopefully he can be that goalscorer we badly lack. The less said about the other sub, Kiernan, the better.

Yet still, the blame for this disastrous defeat should begin and end with the players. They allowed a dominant winning position to be surrendered through forgetting the basics. They lacked the stomach to chase the game after they’d allowed Barnet to go¬† 3-1 ahead. They let down their manager, us supporters and everyone connected with the club.

They are not a bad people. The sad realisation, as Barnet coasted through six minutes of injury time without the slightest of scares, is that they are just not good enough to match our ambitions of getting into League One. Collectively they are good players on their day, and they will lead us to brilliant victories over the coming weeks and months. But they don’t have the consistency to perform week in week out, and they don’t have enough resilience to grind out results when they are off their game.

Blame that on Taylor for building this squad if you will. But with revelations today from the T&A’s Simon Parker that the wage bill will be cut if City don’t get promoted this season, worry more about the future.

League Two – it looks like we’re going to be staying here for some time.

Liverpool bow to pressure, not reality

A look at the Premier League table – frozen over a cold FA Cup weekend – puts Liverpool under Everton and above Blackpool as Roy Hodgson leaves the Anfield club by mutual consent. The position tells much.

Blackpool are much lauded this season under Ian Holloway who is being talked as a potential England manager with his maverick style likened to Brian Clough and the idea of him being passed over representing the same kind of error. Nevertheless his side sit down Liverpool who now have Kenny Dalglish returning as manager.

The natural reaction by many, if not most, is that the two cannot be compared and that what is a good performance for the Seasiders is unacceptable for the Reds. That Liverpool should be being far better than Blackpool, not one place.

And this is true at present. Blackpool were a fine team in the 1950s when every factory shut down for a week and whole City’s headed East for the coast, sea and a week of a good time but when the package holiday arrived Blackpool descended the leagues. At 13th in the Premier League Blackpool are “over performing” but taking their highest watermark they are some way off the days of Stanley Matthews. The money to sustain the club, the affluence of the town itself, had diminished.

Blackpool are by no mean alone in this fall from grace and no better example is needed than Bradford City in this the anniversary of the 1911 FA Cup win. The Glorious 1911 is well worth a read detailing (one of ) the best team(s) in the country who played at Valley Parade in a Manningham that ranked as one of the most productive and affluent areas of the United Kingdom.

Walk around Manningham and look at the housing on the crescents, the stone work, the beauty of it all were one to strip away a hundred years of industrial decline. As with Blackpool and the package holiday the artificial fibre and end of the wool trade is the underlying story of the decline of Bradford City. The tide ebbing out.

It is this tide which ultimately decides the success or failure of clubs. Looking over Europe and it is rare for the town on its uppers to have a successful team and often the decline of an urban centre is mirrored in the decline of the club that it supported and other clubs rise up and up as a result of money coming to a City. Wander around Manchester and see the affluence of the reinvented City Centre or the new Salford Quays and then look at the top two in the table.

Now anyone who talks ambition at Valley Parade talk about getting the club “To the Championship, where it belongs” which is a point one could debate all day without resolution. Bradford being a City in the top ten of population one might ask why the target is set so low? Bradford being a City with so many scars of financial turmoil one might ask why so high? Certainly the ambition is no bad thing.

Back to Liverpool and like Blackpool and Bradford the City is not what it was. Various statistics from various Government departments conflict on population sizes and relative wealth but the overall view of Merseyside is that it has lost a lot of people to other parts of the country and what remains is not that well off.

Like Bradford and Blackpool Liverpool the City has declined and with it has gone the two football teams. Everton used to win UEFA Cups and were two weeks off doing the double but now their aims are more modestly set at getting as close to fourth place in the League as possible.

Liverpool, however, still maintain the aims of the times when they were dominant in English football and talk about challenging for the Premier League title. As a recent Champions League winner they certainly have cause to talk in such a way – although that was before the First Americans and their abuse of the club – but they do so swimming against a tide that ebbs away as surely as it has done at Valley Parade or Bloomfield Road.

There is a benefit in the brand of Liverpool which is built on the belief that the club is a successful one and the aims that see them want to be performing better than they have this season. Setting high aims and (more importantly) believing they can be achieved is a vital part of creating success and it is no coincidence that all successful teams are often dubbed “arrogant”.

Hodgson’s exit from Liverpool is thus painted as useful. It says that Liverpool expects better performances and in doing so continues the (perhaps healthy) belief amid the players, the fans and the world at large that the higher echelons are the club’s rightful home.

It staves off the reality of a situation – a reality which has become endemic at clubs and in cities like Blackpool and Bradford – which redraws the map of football.

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