Playing the season out in July

Pre-season football matches should never be mistaken for football matches.

For sure they look like football matches and to the unschooled they would appear to be football matches: twenty two men hoof a bit of leather around and occasionally stop to score, swear or stop for some other reason; but they are not.

Chief amongst reasons for this contradiction between what seems to be and what is is that pre-season football matches are not processed as football matches are by supporters and listening in around Nethermoor as Bradford City recorded a 3-2 victory over Guiseley proved this.

Firstly – and not least importantly – is the result which drifts into irrelevance almost on the sound of the final whistle. It matters not that the Bantams were the victors, nor indeed is the manner of the victory especially important. City twice trailed the team from two divisions below and came back to win but no prizes are given for character in friendlies. Contrast that to the next time a teams from two divisions away play each other in Leeds.

What matters on an evening like tonight is extrapolation. Looking at performances and casting an eye into the distance of next May and assessing how that performance will pan out.

So Mark Stewart – starting for City up front alongside skipper for the night James Hanson – touches in an equaliser to make the game 2-2 and is dubbed a “natural born goalscorer” destined for fifteen to twenty goals a season. His smart and accurate touch at the front stick after good work from Hanson is impressive. Hanson wins much all evening against defenders who include former Bantams Daniel Ellis, Mark Bower and Simon Ainge and back to his best Hanson will be a force.

Ainge twice goes close to giving his new club the lead over his old as City’s back four struggle to clear their lines and it is a weak headed clearance by Steve Williams that allows Alex Davidson to score the opener. Branston has to sort out Williams soon, so grumbles go, or we will have a problem. Chris Mitchell can hit a dead ball, but one worries about him at the back, unfair on the strength of a single mistake.

Extrapolations on goalkeeper Mark Howard are not good. Gavin Rothery scores the home side’s second which takes a deflection but leaves the keeper looking flat. In-between the two strikes David Syers gets onto the rebound from a Stewart shot and equalises.

There is much extrapolation about Jamie Green on City’s left who is a big winner on the night looking a player of some ability in a first half in which City struggle to maintain a tempo. When the Bantams retain the ball they look good – and players like Richie Jones are impressive – but there are spells in which play becomes frantic. Dominic Rowe bursts with pace but lacks composure blazing wide and over a number of times but he shows a usefulness. Extrapolating Jones’ ball out to the winger, and the winger surging forward, is enjoyable as City go in at half time behind.

More troubling though is the extrapolation of a team which loses the ball being punished too readily, and of a team which is not able to maintain a consistent tempo being too easily pushed off stride. David Syers’ goal masks a performance in which he has struggled to take control of a midfield and his replacement with Michael Flynn turns the tide in City’s favour.

Stewart’s equaliser comes, and then a superb delivery form Chris Mitchell is headed firmly into the goal by James Hanson. Hanson celebrates a goal against his former club and could have another later as City – despite the odd worry over being turned around too quickly when giving the ball away – keep the ball better and pass around the field with more fluency. Nahki Wells and Ross Hannah both test the home keeper’s palms and in the end the scoreline could have been more tipped towards the Bantams, but the result does not matter.

What seems to matter is the mood of supporters who wander away happy. Guiseley supporters have seen enough to suggest that their next season may be successful enough while City fans have seen enough trailers of what is to come to extrapolate from balmy July night to the sunny afternoons of next May and conclude that it might be a season they would enjoy too.

Tonight is more than your average pre-season friendly

Tonight has being a long time coming for James Hanson. Two years on from bullying Burnley’s Michael Duff and David Edgar during a pre-season friendly when on trial for Bradford City, the 23-year-old striker makes a first return to Nethermoor Park and the club who helped to propel him into professional football.

This game has being a long time coming too for Guiseley. After Hanson’s trial proved successful enough to earn a contract at Valley Parade, a lengthy squabble over the transfer fee was only ended via a tribunal who stated City must complete a pre-season friendly against their local neighbours within 12 months. A fall out over kick off time with previous manager Peter Taylor saw a planned game a year ago called off, and it would appear City have been fortunate that Guiseley hasn’t taken action against the Bantams for failing to honour this game within the agreed timescales.

Finally it’s here though, and for Hanson – who is expected to be named captain for the evening following Ross Hannah taking the armband for the visit to his old club on Friday – tonight should be a memorable night in reflecting how far he has come. Having first appeared onto Stuart McCall’s radar following an impressive pre-season friendly display against the Bantams in 2008, a year later he was offered that trial following an outstanding record of 46 goals from 67 games for the Lions.

Hanson’s first year at City was a huge success, finishing top scorer with 13 goals from 39 games and being voted player of the season by supporters. Talk of higher league interest began to surface, and Guiseley might have been looking forward to an extra windfall following the tribunal hearing granting them a sell-on clause. Last season progress slowed for Hanson, with only 9 goals from the same number of games as the year before and a number of average performances. He wasn’t helped by a chronic lack of service from his team-mates, but finding many supporters on his back towards the end of the campaign was not the sort of second season he would have hoped for.

Like a number of players who remain at the club from last year, this is a big season for Hanson where his career can go in one of two directions. With some justification he can say he has proved himself a professional footballer, but things can quickly change and the drive to improve that has seen him rise from Eccleshill United to Guiseley to scoring a winning goal for Bradford City against Nottingham Forest needs to be rediscovered, rather than him going into a comfort zone.

For Hanson and the team-mates who line up tonight, a look into the eyes of their opponents offer stark warnings of how quickly you can fall. The Guiseley squad is awash with former Bradford City players who have fallen down into the part-time ranks. There’s Mark Bower, 10 years a Bantam, who signed from FC Halifax during the summer. Bower’s drop down the leagues still seems a huge shock, though a large reason for him becoming a part-time player was to jointly set up an Estate Agent business.

Alongside him at the back tonight could be Simon Ainge, who spent two seasons on the fringes of the City first team, plus Danny Ellis – who never made a senior appearance. In midfield there’s Luke Sharry, a bright talent who many – myself included – predicted would make it at Valley Parade. Up front there’s Danny Forrest, who nine years ago memorably burst into the first team and was so hotly rated that the club set up a special website dedicated to him. Tonight has probably felt a long-time coming for all five of these Guiseley players, who each might feel they have a point to prove.

If Hanson takes most of the attention on the field, the Nethermoor Park boardroom may also be a topic of interest as City’s pre-season programme gathers pace. Listed among the club directors on Guiseley’s website is one Steve Parkin. Last month the millionaire businessman publically revealed he was bidding to buy Bradford City, alongside the Bradford Bulls, to form a Bradford Sporting Club. Two offers to purchase the Bantams outright were rejected, before joint owners Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn offered Parkin the opportunity to join the club as a third investor.

Parkin has since cooled his interest, revealing he is in the middle of tying up another business deal that is proving time consuming. But while no takeover or new investment is imminent, the possibility of Parkin getting involved with Bradford City remains in the longer-term. With football rules stating you can’t have controlling interests in two different clubs, Guiseley must be wondering whether investment they enjoy from Parkin will be withdrawn sometime in the future.

All of which is for another time, but the increasing links between Guiseley and Bradford City do stir up added interest in this game beyond a typical pre-season friendly. Having watched the Development Squad thrash Silsden AFC a week ago and then the first team draw 1-1 at Matlock Town last Friday, manager Peter Jackson will look upon tonight’s game as a chance to mix together players from both games as building fitness and understandings becomes the priority.

The future of the latest round of trialists following the Hanson route are also to be resolved. Nahki Wells has figured in both games so far – netting twice at Silsden – suggesting he is being heavily considered. Danny Kerr, who showed promise against Silsden, may get another go. Those who failed to impress in that game – such as the wonderfully named Mole Kes – will have already been released.

Of more pressing concern is the goalkeeper situation, with former Aberdeen shot-stopper Mark Howard expected to be given a chance this evening as he battles with Rhys Evans and Jon Brain for a contract to compete with the still-injured Jon McLaughlin next season. Iain Turner is still training with City, but looks set to move to Preston.

Since storming out of Valley Parade two seasons ago, the stock of Evans has risen considerably among supporters following a succession of replacements failing to convince. Yet while his performances for City during the 2008-09 season were solid they weren’t exactly spectacular, and his two years away have seen him make just 14 first team appearances elsewhere.

Howard and Hanson aside, the rest of the team tonight is impossible to predict. There are less than three weeks until it all kicks off, and so a degree of significance can be attached to this evening’s events which means no one can afford to take it too casually. Besides Hanson himself is living proof of the importance of making a good impression in July.

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