Issue The 2010/11 season reviewed: part one, on the pitch – when the wheels came off

As told by Jason Mckeown

There is always one game in every season, one moment in that game, that one moment in that one game in the season when everything can change, when things can either come together or fall apart for the rest of the season.”

The Damned Utd, David Peace

Saturday 8 January 2011, and Bradford City are leading second bottom Barnet 1-0 at Valley Parade. The home side have been dominant since the half time break, twice hitting the woodwork, but a second goal hasn’t materialised. Yet they are well on track for an eighth win in 13 league games; and as it stands only goal difference will keep them out of the play offs. After a bad start to the season, it all seems to be coming together for City under Taylor – who during the week had turned down the Newcastle United assistant manager’s job – and hopes of promotion are high.

But during the second half, standards begin to slip. The players stop working hard for each other, stop getting the little things right, stop pressing the visitors. It’s as if the game had become too easy for them, that they believe that can coast it. It was to prove costly.

That one moment in that one game in the season when everything can change occurs when on-loan defender Rob Kiernan needlessly heads a Barnet cross into his own net. It is a truly shocking moment, and as the home side go onto collapse in the game – eventually losing 3-1 – it leads to a shocking second half to the season. This moment triggers the start of a run that sees the Bantams win just six of their remaining 24 games. Soon we wouldn’t be looking upwards, but nervously over our shoulders.

It would be a ridiculous assumption to make that, without Kiernan’s game-changing own goal that afternoon, the Bantams would have fulfilled those pre-season expectations of at least a top seven finish, but it certainly killed growing momentum and spurred the subsequent nosedive in form. A moment of madness, that instigated a maddening end to the season. That it could have ended much worse than it did is a consolation of sorts, but can’t disguise the scale of under-achievement.

Four months on from that dismal January afternoon, it’s hard to believe we were once able to harbour hopes of promotion. Yet although the season begin woefully, a more acceptable autumn had seemingly set City up for an exhilarating second half to the campaign. Along the way, there’d been some brilliant moments – the apparent season-turning win in the London sunshine at Barnet, the thrilling come-from-behind 3-1 victory over Cheltenham, the crazy second half 5-0 crushing of Oxford, and the jubilant 1-0 success on a rain-soaked Tuesday night at Bury. “We are going up” we sung with growing conviction. “Peter Taylor’s Bradford Army” we chanted with feeling.

Comparisons were made with the last successful Bantams promotion bid in 1999, where the players and management recovered from a nightmare start to climb into the top two and hold their nerve. Certainly the early season results bore strong similarity, as City began with four defeats from their five opening league matches. Occasional signs of improvement – a fortuitous last minute win over Gillingham and credible 0-0 draw at Rotherham – were quickly forgotten as poor results continued. In truth, only the commendable League Cup showings against Championship clubs Notts Forest and Preston provided us any hope that the players could turn it round.

Morecambe at home in early October was arguably the worst performance of the entire campaign, the 1-0 loss failing to do justice to how badly City performed. Having defended so well at Rotherham days earlier, the decision by Taylor to drop strong performers Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien for two young kids signed on loan from Manchester United seemed to deflate players and fans. Meanwhile lanky defender Luke Oliver was still playing up front, which made for largely ugly viewing. Taylor was subject to a torrent of abuse at full time. National media speculation grew that he was one game from the sack.

Then came that huge win at Barnet, and much improved form. Taylor, it seemed, had evolved team selection to finding the right players, and the best football of the season came during October. Omar Daley was deployed in a free role, partnering either James Hanson or Jason Price up front. Lee Hendrie was displaying his Premier League pedigree wide left, while David Syers was proving a revelation in the centre of midfield alongside an in-form Tommy Doherty. At the back, Steve Williams was outstanding while summer signing Shane Duff was, for a spell, able to shake off injuries and impress.

Form slowed a little, but victories – such as over Hereford in December – still occurred regularly enough to keep City in the position of play off dark horses. There were a number of injured players due to return in the New Year, and Taylor confidently talked up the prospects of truly kicking on.

Of course that never happened, and seven weeks after turning down Newcastle Taylor departed the club having seen his popularity sink drastically. We knew before he arrived in February a year earlier that City would be more dour under his management, but not this dire. Lack of entertainment might have been tolerated if the Bantams were winning each week – though that early season win over Stevenage put doubts to that – but losing and playing negative defensive football was a miserable combination. So Taylor left – the b*****ds having ground him down.

His final match in charge – a 3-2 victory over nine-man Stockport, where Gareth Evans netted in stoppage time to send us into raptures – had seemingly eased the threat of relegation. But despite interim manager Peter Jackson winning two of his first three matches in charge, fears kept returning that our league status could be surrendered. Jackson at least had City playing more attractive, attacking football – but results failed to improve. Heavy defeats in April to Torquay, Southend and Accrington left the Bantams too close to the relegation zone for comfort. Jackson – not able to make any signings – was having to make do without key defenders, as the injury problems continued and the club’s financial issues began to come to light.

In the end enough was done to preserve league football, but it remains an enduring mystery how City under-performed to such an extent this season. Taylor blamed it all upon the injury list, and this probably explained how a promotion push never ultimately materialised. But it does not fully justify finishing seventh bottom of the entire Football League, as the lowest scorers in the three divisions.

Taylor had a strong budget, certainly strong enough to do better. The rotten luck with injuries suggests he was right to bring in quantity over quality during the summer, but City were too badly lacking in certain positions. Daley and Leon Osborne were the only natural wingers at the club after Taylor sold Scott Neilson a fortnight into the season. On the eve of the campaign Taylor admitted he feared he was lacking a quality goalscorer and he was to be proven right. There was so much inconsistency to team selection. A curiously high number of players made captain.

Too many chiefs. Not nearly enough leaders.

And not for the first season, we were left to question the number of loan players brought in and lack of longer-term thinking. While club captain Rehman should have handled the situation of being continually left out for inexperienced loanees better, he deserved fairer treatment from Taylor. When Tom Adeyemi scored a consolation at Port Vale in February, there was something unsettling about how pleased he looked about it. Although Richard Eckersley caught the eye at times, on other occasions he seemed more interested in looking good than taking the right option when in possession. For whatever reason, it just didn’t look as though everyone was pulling in the same direction; desperate to achieve the same things.

Ultimately, only Syers and O’Brien can look back on the season with their head held high. Others contributed positively at times, but more should be expected and demanded. Yet still – no matter how awful the league table looks and how much misery we’ve had to endure over the past 10 months – were it not for the one moment in that one game, this season might have turned out oh so differently.