Withdrawing the question as City lose meekly to Oxford

Since the earliest days of Peter Taylor’s managerial career at Bradford City, I have been asking questions about the respective priorities of winning and entertaining. The game at the Kassam stadium provided the definitive answer to those questions and I shall ask no more.

Those among the travelling band – and there were a good number who made the long journey – will also know the answer. For those who weren’t first hand witnesses, please bear with me while I give some brief details of how the latest defeat panned out.

Before kick off there was the familiar sight of a changed City team. Hanson and Evans could only make the bench; Cullen made his first start; and Luke O’Brien moved forward to make room for Robbie Threlfall at left back. It looked like a fairly orthodox 4-4-2, with Cullen and Daley as the front two. So City wouldn’t be hitting any high balls up front, would they?

The Kassam could have been built anywhere – and it was. It is probably the only ground in the league which you approach from a science park. We kept being told that it would be 11 or 12 degrees during the game and maybe it was. But the wind blowing straight into the faces of the visiting supporters still felt remarkably cold and was to feel ever chillier as the game wore on.

After a couple of early Oxford shots, one going over the bar and the other being deflected gently into Lenny Pidgeley’s arms, City produced a surge up the left and, from Luke O’Brien’s cross, won their first corner after eight minutes. The home defence failed to deal with Robbie Threlfall’s set piece and, almost inevitably this season, David Syers was the man to put City a goal up.

I move forward at this point to some seventy minutes later, when the home team scrambled an equaliser, to be followed another six minutes later by an equally close range winner. The nearest Bradford City came to their own equaliser was when James Hanson, an 88th minute substitute, stretched, slipped and failed to make contact with a short back pass to the home goalkeeper. 2-1 it was, then, and it was impossible, even for those with the most blinkered claret and amber outlook, to deny that Oxford deserved their win.

I left out some seventy minutes, didn’t I? Well, here goes with my description of that period between City taking the lead and Oxford equalising, although it will follow a theme or two, rather than a minute by minute account.

Not for the first time this season a City goal almost immediately brought about an obvious tactic of settling for that one goal and defying the opposition to score. This strikes me as an increasingly bizarre strategy, not least because of the number of occasions when, in his after match interviews, Peter Taylor has complained about giving away soft goals. With such a risk being so evident, defending a 1-0 lead for 82 minutes seemed a foolhardy approach – and so it proved.

But this is not just any old defending. The cliché of the two banks of four was there in abundance, with the two front men a little unsure whether to stay somewhere near the front (i.e. roughly in the same county as the other nine) or to come within sight of the midfield and thus stay in City’s half of the pitch. This dilemma was caused because the bank of four that wasn’t the defence was almost indistinguishable for the other bank of four, so close together were the eight. For most of that seventy minute interlude eight white shirted players (and one in green) rarely ventured more than 30 yards from the goal they were defending. There was no such concept as ‘the goal they were attacking’.

Body after body was hurled in the way of Oxford shots. Pidgeley flew across his goal to make one blinding save and the home team’s finishing was sufficiently wayward to keep the score at 1-0 for what seemed like an age. There was no attempt to stop Oxford from playing the ball among themselves until they approached to within thirty yards of goal. Even then they had plenty of opportunities to pass through and round the massed ranks of the visiting defence. For long spells City seemed unable to keep the ball long enough to look up for a man in a white shirt. I was looking for a tell-tale sign of the invisible force field that prevented the ball reaching the half way line.

The familiar sight of eleven men back defending corners and free kicks brought the predictable result that the lines were never properly cleared. An interesting comparison here with the systems used by other managers in recent games against Bradford City. A week earlier Barnet, at 2-1 up and with quite some time still left to play, defended a City corner by leaving one man upfield and another out of their own penalty area. As the corner was cleared the two Barnet players lead the charge upfield that made it 3-1. Oxford, also 2-1 up but in the third of four minutes of stoppage time at the end of the game, also kept one man up while defending a City free kick. The clearance reached this one man, who held up the ball while support arrived and the pressure on the defence was eased.

The reaction of the away support told its own tale. Even during the heady moments of the 1-0 lead, the visiting fans were at best edgy, at worst critical of every breakdown of an embryonic passing movement. By the latter stages the mood became darker and darker, with hardly a positive word to be uttered by those who endured this match to its final whistle. And ‘endured’ strikes me as a mild term.

I must return to my original question about winning and entertaining. I do so with a heavy heart, both as a season ticket holder with next year already paid for and as a supporter of Bradford City Football Club, rather than as a supporter of any individual who might, for a shorter or longer time, have been connected with that club through the years of my support. In those years I have seen some poor sides. The Fourth Division strugglers of the 1960’s come to mind, as do later teams in the period before the glory days of Wembley and beyond. But none of those teams ever left me feeling as I did on my way out of the Kassam.

This Bradford City side spent seventy minutes offering nothing for its supporters to enjoy. It made no attempt to entertain. It concentrated on one thing only, namely winning by the only goal of the game. How and why the referee allowed Pidgeley to get away with such blatant and cynical time-wasting will forever remain a mystery. Less mysterious is what lay behind the strategy to defend the lead at all costs. Goal scoring and entertaining has become an optional extra at Bradford City. Winning is all that matters. Two years ago Wycombe Wanderers, managed by the same Peter Taylor, won automatic promotion from this league. In their 46 games they scored just 54 goals, but they lost only eight games. After 24 games Bradford City have scored just 22 goals, but have lost 12 times.

The plan, lest anyone else hasn’t noticed, is not working.

It has now become obvious even to this eternal City supporter that there is only the one aim. That aim is to win as many games as possible by whatever dreary means are required. That end, winning enough games to be promoted, will apparently justify those means. At least, that seems to be the thinking of those in charge at Valley Parade. But, unlike entertainment value, which up to a point is a matter of opinion and open to debate, winning is very black and white. Bradford City currently have nine white marks and twelve black marks. And, so far as concerns entertainment, they have precious little above no marks at all.

Even if we have to be so cynical as to think only about ticket sales for next season, does anyone in charge really think this will encourage those who are less mad than the 6,000 who have already paid their money? Is there really no thought to entertaining the fans? No, I promised I wouldn’t ask that question again, so I withdraw it. I know the answer only too well and I am much the sadder for that knowledge.

Mark Lawn and stopping thinking about promotion

Mark Lawn’s successes at Bradford City are limited.

Whatever one thinks of the man and his actions – not talking to his manager for nine months, threatening to wind the club up when three or four idiots vandalised his car, authorising spending £600,000 of money the club did not yet have for selling on a youngster Fabian Delph on players rather than facilities – it is hard to suggest that the vast majority of them have had the aim he desired.

That is because Lawn’s aims are two fold and firstly – and most obviously – it is promotion and three and a half years since he arrived the closest the Bantams have come to troubling League One seems to coincide with the moment when Lawn’s relations with his gaffer went sour. We all recall the hours and the times.

But I come not to bury Lawn but to praise him for his second aim – and the one which he is most tempted to drift away from – is perhaps more important than promotion. It is the financial stability of the club and the fact that in a game fuelled by Bradford City – on the whole – are in the black.

Season on season since Mark Lawn arrived Bradford City’s balance sheet has – more or less – shown the the club is not losing money and considering the significant and huge drain on the resources that the rent of Valley Parade from the Flamingo Land Pension Fund represents this is not to be underestimated. The club owe Lawn (and Julian Rhodes) a chunk of cash but that loan is (it is understood) offered at a rate that allowed the Bantams to stop paying debt maintainable and use those funds.

So when talk emerges that Bradford City are being looked at by investors as a potential purchase it comes as no surprise. A rare beast in football, a club that when they are purchased ostensibly at the price of paying back Lawn’s (estimated, correct me if I am wrong) £1m and whatever the club owe Rhodes then the business side is solvent from the first day of trading.

Lawn – apparently – is not short of offers for the club but most of them are more Peter Etherington than Geoffrey Richmond and the joint chairman sums up the situation saying “At present nobody can come along with the sort of investment that would make a difference.”

It would seem that Lawn is as stuck with his critics as his critics are with him and the frustrations of owing and working under the restrictions of ensuring solvency of the club show in his statements. He talks about supporters with wide eyes looking at other club’s spending saying “So unless somebody can find a magic money tree and give it a shake for us, (City’s ability to sign players in January is) not going to change.”

Lawn talks about waiting for the right man to take over rather than someone who would look to make a quick buck and he is right to talk in such a way but perhaps he is the right man.

One could talk about the business sense of the Bradford City board – The Santa Dave leaflet, please no – but the main problem seems to be a kind of cart before horse approach to that aim of promotion where everyone at the club is part of a mad scramble trying to get into the top three of League Two.

Promotion is set as the aim – Julian Rhodes talked about back to back movements up to The Championship – but with that contradicts the talk of solvency when teams like Notts County or Peterborough United are stealing the League Two title. Those clubs spend buckets of cash on the idea that they must ascend the leagues as soon as possible.

Those teams tough represent the exception and the rule in football is that things are won by the club with biggest club, rather than the biggest spenders. Blackburn Rovers, Chelsea and (perhaps this year) Manchester City have all opened the wallet and tried to buy the Premier League title but if those big spenders fail then Manchester United win it as a default setting. No mad scrambles at Old Trafford, just maintaining the pace.

So rather than setting promotion as an aim create some objectives, set some areas in which City are to improve. I make no apologies for talking again about facilities because the higher up football one gets the bigger and better they are but the correlation between facilities and league position is unignorable.

There are plenty of things which are done by others which should be – and sometimes are – replicated at Valley Parade. Peter Taylor’s insistence on overnight stays is a good example of this as his desire to have a better playing surface (although his desire to suit and boot the players contrasts to Arsenal’s leisure suited lads).

Innovation has its place but is is naive to disguise failure to compete on various levels as new thinking and using the established pattens which have brought the promotion that Lawn and City crave to clubs like Rochdale and AFC Bournemouth – making the setting up of those established pattens as the aims – could prove more fruitful.

When asked about where the club will be in five years the tendency at City is to list a division – famously and with some effectiveness in building belief Geoffrey Richmond said “The Premier League” – but if the answer were about an increased turnover, better facilities, and so forth then perhaps the horse would go before the cart.

Perhaps making Bradford City a bigger club, a club with more of the trappings of a successful club, will bring that success and there is no reason that Mark Lawn – with a sound financial head – is not able to stop talking about promotion or bust and start talking about how he is going to make City bigger and better by whatever increments he can and let osmosis take the Bantams up the leagues.

At the moment Lawn is a Dave Simpson of a chairman – a hand on the tiller and not someone one always agrees with but someone who has as many good limits as bad – but there is no reason why the current chairman should not change the priorities of the club towards stable improvement in increments rather than boom or bust thinking.

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