Differing career directions

There’s a saying about being kind to people on your way up as you’ll meet them on the way down – rarely in football is that greater emphasised than a reserve team fixture.

As up-coming youngsters strive to impress enough to earn a professional contract and the chance of a spot on the first team bench, senior players skulk about trying to maintain fitness and wondering what the future might hold. A wide spectrum of emotions and experience; and, as much as many ultimately don’t want to be here tonight, for everyone it’s the best passage to getting into the team on a Saturday.

It was in the number 9s of Bradford City and Derby County reserves sides tonight where the contrast was at its greatest. For Derby there was 35-year-old Michael Boulding – a familiar face at Valley Parade – coming to the end of a long career, while for the Bantams 18-year-old youth team striker Darren Stephenson is on the cusp of earning the opportunity to at least begin one.

The return of Boulding was a curious one. It’s just over a year since we last saw him on the Valley Parade turf after a 28-minute run out from the bench in a 1-0 home win over Darlington. His performance that afternoon almost encapsulated his time at City – he missed two reasonable chances and the team’s tactics failed to play to his strengths. A few weeks later new manager Peter Taylor released him, and he soon declared that he had lots of League One offers in the pipeline.

Then Boulding rocked up at Championship Barnsley pre-season, on trial while forgoing pay but failing to win a contract. Now he’s at another Championship club in Derby, but his actual first team prospects appear zero. Boulding’s final game for City was an eight-minute cameo at Port Vale on March 9 2010 – he’s not played a senior match for anyone since.

One wonders why he’s chasing rare first team opportunities at clubs so high up the football ladder, rather than seeing out his career playing week in week out for a League Two or Conference club. Certainly you’d imagine his first return to Valley Parade hasn’t quite gone as he dreamt it might.

Tonight Boulding looks pretty much the same player he did for 18 months at City. He was starved of service, balls were played to his head rather than his feet and in truth he rarely touched the ball. Undoubtedly he is a player of some finishing ability – he showed it in glimpses wearing City colours – but unless the team is built around his needs he doesn’t seem a player who will ever flourish.

But one number 9 who was flourishing was Stephenson. Having impressed at youth level, the teenage forward has been offered reserve team opportunities this season and made it two goals from six starts with a well-taken penalty to fire City in front after 13 minutes, following a foul on Scott Dobie.

That capped off a performance of huge potential. Sure there was a rawness at times – and the beauty of a reserve game is mistakes from promising youngsters aren’t greeted by loud groans but positive encouragement from the scattering of spectators – but the runs he made, his willingness to mix it and a good awareness of team mates saw him lead the line commendably. Arguably his best moment was a beautiful back heel to right back Adam Robinson – who also impressed – which no one, least of all more experienced Derby opponents had expected. A long way to go still yet you feel, but Stephenson’s potential is one to feel excited about and could even lead to a first team chance before the season is over.

More in the frame for an immediate game are Lee Bullock and Louis Horne, who both played as centre backs with watching interim manager Peter Jackson said to be considering one at least to start at the back on Saturday. It’s been a funny season for Bullock – like Boulding, his career winding down you feel – but he took to the centre back role expertly and made a series of well-timed tackles and headed clearances. Playing him – or Horne, who also impressed – at the back against Shrewsbury on Saturday represents a huge risk, but on tonight’s evidence it could work.

All of which would enable Lewis Hunt to stay as right back and David Syers to start in the central midfield in place of the suspended Jon Worthington. And given how poor Tom Adeyemi was in his 45-minute first half run out this evening, Jackson may favour this option. The on-loan Norwich midfielder gave the ball away far too often and one particular charge forward, which ended with him tackled after he should have passed long before, left reserve manager Peter Horne with his head in his hands. Adeyemi can be a good player, but continues to display erratic form which is difficult to trust.

If Adeyemi is the clear loser of Taylor’s departure and Jackson’s arrival, Leon Osborne isn’t far behind. Tonight Osborne wasn’t shy at vocally complaining about his team mates – at one stage Horne ordered him to shut up – but failed to demonstrate to Jackson that he should be earning a first team recall. After such a promising end to last season, Osborne’s stop-start City career has stalled again and one fears the leap to first-team regular is going to prove beyond him. Already on his fourth different City manager, more is expected at this stage.

Derby – with Nigel Clough watching on – equalised Stephenson’s penalty within a minute through a stunning Ben Davies free kick (another lower league player whose career has stalled by moving upwards), and on the half hour Chris Porter (there’s another!) fired home want proved to be the winner following hesitant defending.

Throughout the final hour, however, there was much to encourage Horne and Jackson. The on-trial Jonathan Brown impressed on the right wing, while in the centre of midfield Joe Mitchell and – after coming on at half time – Oliver Forsyth showed some good touches and produced the occasional eye-catching pass. In goal Lloyd Saxton commanded his area well and made a couple of decent saves. During his 45-minute run-out, Dobie showed greater levels of application and effort then he’d shown when playing for the first team of late.

Ultimately you feel these sort of evenings are quickly forgettable to experienced pros like Dobie, while for Stephenson and co they could prove a memorable stepping stone to greater things. Just remember to be nice now.

The bellowing

Everyone has one near them at Valley Parade. No matter where you are in ground you are not more than a blast of the vocal cords away from someone who can really bellow.

Where I park myself in games we have a number of them – I might even be one myself at times – and each of these bellowers have their own bug bear which brings about the bellow. For some it is the shout of handball whenever the kickeater goes near a shoulder, for other’s it is pointing out the failings of the Referee. On Saturday those people were busy.

Also busy on Saturday was one orator who’s chief comments comes on the occasion of a corner kick which is cleared by a defender. As the ball arcs away one hears the pull in of breath and the exhale “You’ve got to beat the first man City!”

Invariably there is a qualification: “losers” is a favourite at the moment, the odd vulgarity too; but never any sense of a sense of why the move had failed. Of why with the entire field to aim at a player would go for the very place where the opposition are standing.

A corner kick has to beat the first man for sure but if that were the only qualification then could one could punt the ball high and happy over a hundred yards and believe one had done good work? A corner has to beat the first man of course, but not the last City man and as the Bard said “there is the rub.” The first man is only on the field to get between he who has the ball and he who would receive it.

Football is easy to play in the stands and even easier to heckle. A corner kick that beats everyone is as useless as one which is cleared by the first defender but considering the first defender takes a position near to the most dangerous attacking player who is being targeted to head the ball in then it is unsurprising that so often does he get to the ball.

Likewise a direct free kick “has to beat the wall” but if – in doing so – it beats the crossbar it is a chance wasted and so the taker tries to aim at a gap over wall and under bar or rather he has to do that if his aim is to score.

If his aim is to avoid the criticism of the attended masses – the bellowing – then he can just hit a nice shot that raises over the wall and – drat! – clears the bar. No one ever got booed for forcing the keeper to scramble across his line, but such a shot is unlikely to go in.

And no one every got booed for putting a corner deep in the box, and when crossing a free kick no one ever got booed for hitting one towards the edge of the box and not into the danger area where the keeper has to gamble on coming and can be beaten to the ball. Trying to whip a ball in with pace that gives the keeper a decision to make risks putting the ball too near the goalie (he can use his hand, so he gets to more things than the strikers) but it also promises more rewards for the forwards than a punt to the edge of the box.

What is a player to do? He has a choice between the safe thing that offers no risk but little reward and the rewarding route which risks drifting a ball over the bar, to the keeper, at the first man and incurs the ire of the bellow.

This conundrum happens all over the field. Does a player take responsibility for the ball or does he pass it on to a team mate? The one keeps him safe from the bellowing but puts his team mate in trouble, the other and he might be the one who is left with football pie all over his face.

When up front does the player make the run behind the defender knowing he will look a fool but trusting his team mate to try find him or does he stay short and in the defender’s pocket knowing that he will not be the odd one out? That someone else will take the blame.

Wingers who drift as wide as they can on to the touchline looking like they present an attacking option but leaving the battle in the middle unjoined, visually separating themselves from their team mates, hiding in sight. Players who do not meet the captain’s eye as he looks for someone to take a penalty. When one player misses there are ten on the field who “would have scored” but they are no more use than the ten thousand in the stands.

This question defines – for me – what one could call “quality” in footballers. Peter Beagrie was one of the best players I’ve ever seen and his answer to these questions is the I Ching of football. “Real bottle is doing the thing on the twelfth time you know to be right, even if it has gone wrong for the last eleven times.”

“Not trying” in football is only rarely seen in the Alen Boskic walking around the pitch as if out for a summer stroll but is more often seen in the player who does not take responsibility for the collective performance. The player who at the end of the game says that the has done little wrong, but one struggles to recall any time when he could have done anything right either. Not trying is not risking looking a fool, not risking the bellowing.

Not everyone can deliver a ball like Beagrie but everyone can follow his lead. Rather than hiding in the game every player can try play the corner which just drifts over the first man’s head and onto our centre forward who nods home or the cross which leave the keeper in no man’s land and sometimes they will look like a fool for doing so, probably more often than not, but they do it because it is the right thing to do.

Rather than than the meaningless ball, the hidden player, the shy free kick. I can forgive a player his inability to do what is difficult but not his unwillingness to try that for fear of exposing himself to ridicule. Give me the player who will try hit the sweet spot than one who does just enough to make sure he never puts his head over the parapet.

I think about the “first man” guy every time we get a corner and how the difference between the corners he bellows at and those he cheers when they are converted is the matter of an inch or two that goes over that first man’s head and drops for the second – and our – man. The difference which invokes an often vitriolic response is an inch or two in a ball hit over thirty yards.

Rather than an inch or two lower than two feet higher and the corner taker slinking away as his team mates chase ball and get the bellowing for not being “in position”. Rather the players look to do what is best, rather than look to not be considered the guilty party.

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