Issue Withdrawing the question as City lose meekly to Oxford

As told by Paul Firth

The Team

Lenny Pidgeley | Richard Eckersley, Rob Kiernan, Luke Oliver, Robbie Threlfall | Tom Adeyemi, Lee Bullock, David Syers, Luke O'Brien | Mark Cullen, Omar Daley | Gareth Evans, Jake Speight, James Hanson

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.