Issue #125 How Football is ploughing fields without planting seeds

As told by Michael Wood

An away trip through South Yorkshire

Chesterfield away is a classic of the genre. A one goal victory that came when Bradford City ground the ambition out of the home side leaving only struggle.

Every pass forward was marshalled and pushed away by an imperious defensive line. Every easy clearance was made hard by strikers and midfielders who chased down what would have been the routine were it not for the attitude that manager Phil Parkinson has drummed into his team.

The goal came when Tony McMahon finished off a mazy run and low cross by Billy Clarke. Clarke enjoyed his best game in claret and amber and tormented the Chesterfield backline dropping into the hole between James Hanson and the midfield and exploiting it.

Chesterfield’s response – to bring on the aging Richie Humphrey – showed a team stepping back on their home turf. McMahon’s goal finished off the home team.

Parkinson would say after the game that City could have had four – indeed the post was pinged a number of times – but really the City manager oversells his policies. A one goal away win excites Parkinson – and excites me – because of the grind that has seen wins come Scunthorpe United, Rochdale, Doncaster Rovers, Oldham Athletic.

Those days are Parkinson at his best.

Playing away to teams that want to win mirrors the visits of Sunderland, or Arsenal, or Aston Villa, or the trip to Chelsea. When the opposition commits to victory Parkinson uses Hanson the battering ram occupying multiple defenders, and soaks up pressure with a mean back four.

The City manager’s problems come at home when teams sit back and defend the Bantams attack which is sporadic as shown by the third fewest goals scored total in League One. When City are forced to make the play in a game then games slip away from Parkinson.

Or sometimes things do not work.

An away trip to South Yorkshire

Text message before the game with Sheffield United: “Upper or lower?”

Reply: “Neither.”

Going to a football match should not cost more than going to the cinema. I’ve said this in the past and I believe it.

I think that Bradford City’s home pricing is a rare oasis of sense in a madness of a game in which this generation sells the game from the next and does so with a great deal of support from those getting fleeced.

Bradford City’s away pricing – and walk up pricing – is equally toxic to the game as a whole. Last time I checked it cost £25 to go to Valley Parade as an away fan. It cost £22 at Chesterfield, it cost similar at Walsall, it cost similar at Doncaster, or at Scunthorpe and so on.

The impact of this aggressive pricing that makes following football a thing that only some can afford is obvious to anyone who sees the aging supporter group and the gentrification which seems to come with it.

£27 to get into Sheffield United is certainly something I can afford but it is not something I will pay. It is a few pounds more than other games and those few pounds are hardly significant to me but I will not pay it.

And I do not know when the hand becomes the wrist nor do I feel like I’ve created a hard and fast rule never to be broken but I would not support this part of football’s attempts to gouge out of my pocket because they assume that because I can pay it they should sell to me, aged 42, for a price that me, aged 21, would never have been able to pay.

The combination of the two

If you enjoy a team that puts in a performance that is part frustration, part opportunism then you would have enjoyed the Chesterfield game.

I would argue that Chesterfield, or Scunthorpe, or Doncaster, or Oldham were little different to the game with Chelsea that defines 2015 for Bradford City: Minimise chances coming at your goal and maximise what one has at the other end.

But I cannot say with all honesty that all people would enjoy all or any of those games. I am cut from a cloth were I am more impressed with hard work and honesty on a field than I am by rabona kicks and 45 man massing moves.

I enjoy seeing a team with limitations which overcome those limitations, some of the time, and the processional football of the Champions League leaves me cold. I’ve no interest in football where the players who walk onto the field against Barcelona believe they are beaten before kick off.

Winning away at Chesterfield from few chances but battling to make sure that the team does not concede a chance let alone a goal is a good Saturday afternoon for me but probably only because of the narrative it creates.

It is enjoyable to watch my team Bradford City attempting to overcome limitations because I know those limitations. There is an overarching story of the emergence of Rory McArdle from understudy to as rock of defence, or about Tony McMahon finding a role having floated anchorless at the start of the season.

(There is also a story about James Hanson being not good enough for a transfer to a professional club, not good enough for the bottom of League Two, not good for the middle of League Two, not good enough for a League Cup semi-final, not good enough for a play-off second leg, not good enough for League One, not good enough for a team chasing the League One play-offs. One day he will not be good enough and I’m sure the phrase “we told you so” will be used regardless of all the times naysayers were proven wrong. Watching Hanson over the last few years is a lesson in the narrative of football.)

These things are seen over the course of months, and years, and not in isolation. Football, for me, is never viewed in isolation. I find the idea of turning on Sky Sports to watch any old game as mystifying as opening a book at a random page, reading twenty pages, and then putting it back on the shelf.

To watch the unfolding narrative of a team one needs to be able to watch often and prices over £20 are no aid to that for me but would have been a substantial problem to me twenty years ago. Is Sheffield United vs Bradford City £27 worth of entertainment when – if one considers it – one could take a friend to watch The Force Awakens in IMAX and still have change for popcorn?

I can’t remember a worst time

Sheffield United away is not Chesterfield. Without a game owing to waterlogging and without the regular training pitches owing to flooding reports return that City lack sharpness and are easily beaten. Football is a multi-polar world and games are hard enough when preparations are ideal.

The supporters – both Bradford City and Sheffield United – are subject to some racist chanting from Sheffield United fans and some chanting that is unpleasant. This will be passed onto The FA – who are perhaps the least able and qualified body in the Universe on this subject – but probably not to the Police.

The FA never seem to tire of their role as prosecutors of – some might say persecutors of – those whom the Law of the Land can find no case against claiming their lower standard of evidence as somehow better than the one that is required by any court which could not be prefixed with the term Kangaroo.

I would not want to have The Racists of Sheffield who were at Bramall Lane to be convicted for what they said or what they think. I’m happy to just consider them to be a collective of idiots and be done with it.

But I did not pay £27 so what can I say?

The focus

To suggest that football needs to understand better its audience is to allow the game – the collective of clubs and organisers – leniency on the charge that they understand full well that they increasingly greying men who populate matches are the ones who will dig deepest for tickets and that they exploit that.

The people who run football always need more money and they know that people aged 35+ in good jobs with good incomes will fund their extravagant demands for more wages paid, more promotions pushes, more mistakes and managerial pay-offs.

These people are the focus of football’s attention. In twenty/thirty years time when those people have retired to Saturday afternoons in more comfortable surroundings there will be no generation to replace them because that attention is so narrowly focused.

Oddly enough because of the odd combination of Wembley twice and season ticket pricing Bradford City are one of the clubs who have some protection against this – there is a healthy group of younger City fans who have been allowed a stake in the support – but mingle with the home fans at an away game and appreciate the difference.

Football is ploughing fields without planting seeds.

The longview

Sheffield United away is I am told a bad performance in isolation but not out of keeping with how Bradford City perform. When taken over a longer period City are averaging a point and a half a game away from home, as well as the odd Chelsea if you will.

Often the game plan of Chesterfield works but when it does not the result is as it was in South Yorkshire. Since Phil Parkinson arrived his plans have had a shifting impact on the mentality of the club.

When he arrived the club was congratulating itself for avoiding relegation out of the Football League under the hapless Peter Jackson. Now there is a consideration that the club is not ideally placed to reach the second tier of English football.

But I – and perhaps you – only know this having been fortunate enough to be able to afford to follow the club from that period to this.

I do not see how that will be possible for the coming generations of football.