The first time Bradford City reconsider being the overdog as Halifax Town look for a giantkilling

Of the 79 other balls in the FA Cup First Round draw, few would have been as warmly met as the ball that signified a potential trip to FC Halifax Town – after comprehensively vanquishing Chorley in a replay – for the Bradford City supporter and, indeed, the wider TV audience: but there is more than geographical proximity that adds import to this fixture. This is the first time since the cup run of 2013 that Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City are forced to bring the mirror to themselves and see what gazes back at them.

First, dear reader, let me make no apologies for referring comprehensively to “that season” – any article anyone at all could write about Bradford City in 2014 and beyond has the potential to lazily fall back on using that cup run as reference: but in this case, I feel it is truly the first time introspection has a real reason to be made.

The diversion of cup competition while City are in poor league form a welcome one for Bantam fan, player and manager alike: it is fair to say that in the forest of League One trees, not many are being pulled up by anyone in a claret and amber shirt this term. Nor, to stretch the metaphor to the point of abuse, are they lost in the woods.

The team remain resolutely mid-table, overall neither excelling nor failing, and this in itself is cause for the mist of doom and gloom to become increasingly lower. The natives are restless, and they demand satisfaction.

With the FC Halifax Town game, the opportunity is rife – Sunday’s opponents are two divisions beneath in the pyramid: their team is partially made up of players who never made the grade at ours – and would never get in our current side, and add to that, the cameras will be watching as our bumper crowd shifts a further 20 minutes down the A58 (or A647 if you like your air thinner and your weather more extreme). Foregone conclusion: rub your hands together and wander off into the sunset.

At the risk of pointing out the clearly obvious: apart from the slight distance between our ground and The Shay, this is what Arsenal and Aston Villa both thought – and Watford and Wigan must have both thought it was even more of a relatively closed-door formality.

We are no longer the independent coffee shop outselling the Starbucks next door: in this particular dynamic, it is us who is the Tesco looking to flatten a third-generation cornershop. No neutrals will be looking to cheer us on from their sofa – our Cinderella story is very much over.

The great cup run of 2012/13 was built on standing against adversity, on steel, on being greater than the sum of our parts, and on steadfast terrace support. On Sunday, the likelihood of any of these things being present is slender: even if the fans do sell out the allocation – which, at the time of writing, is not being projected – what is the atmosphere amongst fans going to be? It is not, “We are here through thick and thin and Oh my we’ve done it”, it is, “If we do not score within the opening five minutes we will make our ire known”.

Only three players, and the manager, remain present from the team that started Capital One Cup Final – the same number of ex-City men in the opposing squad. It is going to be as much, if not more so, of a challenge of their mental strength as it is for newer cohort members. They have tasted success because they had belief in themselves as a unit against the odds: how can Phil Parkinson, who told Rory McArdle, Stephen Darby and Andrew Davies in the dressing rooms of Vicarage Road, the DW Stadium, Valley Parade, Villa Park and ultimately, Wembley, that if they galvanise and believe in themselves as a unit, they can accomplish great things – and then principally delivered on that promise – now turn around and make those same players believe that others who are now in the equivalent position cannot easily do the same?

As much as these three and the rest of the team will utterly embrace the diversion from the frustrations of the league campaign; will they be as excited, as invigorated, as out-and-out ready for the proposition of facing FC Halifax Town as the players of FC Halifax Town will be of facing Bradford City? The three players who have been rejected at Valley Parade will have, no doubt, watched the 2013 Cup Final and thought, “I could have had that moment” and whereas the stage on Sunday is very different, their motivation will be clear.

19 years ago was the last time Bradford City faced non-league opposition against a then- relatively-unknown Burton Albion and only the rear-end of Gary Robson could save our blushes, awkwardly bundling in with a part of the body few have ever scored a goal with, much less a midfielder who would usually have struggled to tell you the general area of the goalmouth, to sneak a 4-3 win. I have no doubt that the team of 1995/96 did not conceive they were going to be so closely-ran – in May that year, they were celebrating promotion to the Championship-equivalent at the Old Wembley.

Two years prior to that, Old Halifax Town of the Conference were beating Championship-equivalent West Brom in a televised match in the First round of the FA Cup, and I likewise have no doubt that that team of 1993/94 did not conceive that such a thing was possible, no matter how hard they believed.

Of course, the Bradford City of 2014/15 are not the Bradford City of 2012/13 or even 1995/96 any more than the FC Halifax Town of 2014/15 are the Halifax Town FC of 1993/94, and on Sunday none of these histories should matter. Whether the squad of 2014/15 use the parallels of 2012/13 as a curse, or a warning, remains to be seen.

Beyond revival, and revival

Two years ago to the day on Saturday, a goverment think tank suggested that Bradford, and other northern cities like it, were ‘beyond revival’, and that its residents should move south to places like Oxford, instead. Some people who may or may not be writing this match preview may or may not have had one or two things to say about that. It may have been some time in coming, but it feels like there’s a revival in this part of the city.

Bradford City have lost their first two games of the season. The team have a 0% record in the league, and have been knocked out of the cup by the team most of our supporters can’t even bear to say the name of, at least not without vitriol. In two games, the against column reads five.

I state these facts because, despite these, there is great pride amongst fans about the team — which should not be confused with misplaced optimism. After a shaky first match against Aldershot, the team played against Leeds on Tuesday in the fixture most of the squad had been looking forward to since the draw was made: and their interest in playing the game transferred into a good performance that, rightly, the fans have been proud of. The call of Saturday has returned for fans and players alike, it seems.

And so to this Saturday, where City take on an Oxford side who have likewise had two defeats. As we will hope that City will be galvanised by their spirit against Leeds on Tuesday, the U’s fans will be hoping that their side can also continue with similar spirit to that which saw them bow out in extra time against Cardiff. That town is looking for a revival of its own right about now.

In the preview of the match, this site’s editor spoke of what there was for City to lose out of the match with Leeds, and it seems that the answer to that was the impressive David Syers, down in a heap in the second half at Elland Road, after bossing the midfield, now seeking specialist advice on a knee injury, rather than a trip to the city we should all be living in this weekend. Steve Williams may also lose the chance to continue in a central defence that asks as many questions as it answers, after suffering a problem with his thigh. Ramsden and Bullock complete the list of the maladied.

This leaves Jackson with a choice of Premiership stoppers to stand between the sticks: if Williams makes it, the chances are that he will once again play alongside man-mountain Guy Branston, and it would follow that Jansson would continue alongside them, after their 90 minutes together in Leeds. Should Luke Oliver come in, a new centre-back pairing would give neither Jansson or Hansen the obvious communicative advantage. The impressive Liam Moore, who positionally is probably the most aware defender in a City shirt at the moment, will undoutedly continue at right-back, and it is likely that Robbie Threlfall will default to left-back, continuing to fuel the speculation surrounding Luke O’Brien’s availability and squad status.

On-loan winger Michael Bryan will hope to take a berth on the right-hand side of midfield. Whether he does or not will likely come down to his fitness relative to his new team-mates, as the extra half-hour of football played by on Wednesday by Oxford should be looked to be exploited by Jackson. Likely, Richie Jones will continue exactly where he left off on Tuesday in replacing Syers, and the Oxford midfield should look to bunch up around Michael Flynn, fearful of another strike like the one lashed in against Leeds. Compton will be unlucky to be dropped after putting in some hard work in both matches, and it will boil down to whether the team is to play wide (Bryan) or look for free-kicks (Mitchell).

Up front, neither of the burgeoning partnership of Hanson and Stewart are looking troubled by Hannah, Rodney or Wells, all of which have come on for a few minutes, and none of whom have yet to show their true mettle as yet, although there is a slim chance it could be Nialle Rodney who benefits from Syers’ absence, depending on whether the manager decides to use the impact player early, or late, on. It will be a huge surprise if his pace is not seen at all during the game.

For the yellow side (which means the excellent pink kit gets an airing), three of their employees took the think tank’s advice literally, and now ply their trade there instead of here: the manager, Chris Wilder, was part of the decent City 1997-1998 Championship-level side, as right back. Jake Wright was a youth-team throwaway who now captains the U’s, and Paul McLaren got paid far too much money for delivering far too little, far too recently.

Whether the revival bears fruit on Saturday or not, the change in attitude in City fans is refreshing to see. As with any study, a change in behaviour is only significant if it then goes on to be the norm. The think tank may have written Bradford off: but, despite many times thinking the team is beyond revival, the latest crop are showing that belief, passion, and pride are sometimes formed from more than the mere sum of parts.

Shaun Murray, the unexpected

Some players are predicted to do better than others. Whether it be the club they came from, the price tag they carried, the league position City finished in last season, or even their mere physical presence – the simple fact is that the weight of expectation lays heavier on the shoulders of some players than others.

When Shaun Murray, who could generously be described as “diminutive” signed for an undisclosed (read: pennies) fee from Scarborough in the pre-season of 1994/95 (after the 6,000 or so that regularly turned up to VP had witnessed a finish three points outside the play-offs in the Third Division the previous term), it is fair to say that he was not viewed as a key signing.

Oh, expectation.

True, the maiden season for Murray was not a good one for the side: Lennie Lawrence steered the club to a mid-table finish, and left by November of 95/96. And, yes, some would cite his unwillingness to shoot and, true, it could be said that he’d have added to his tally of goals had he attempted to do more than pass it into the net once he’d reached the target. But, man, the route he took in reaching that target.

Murray possessed a relentlessness rarely seen before or since at VP when it came to getting the ball into the box. The only difference between his brand of route one and the route one of The Doc was that with Murray, the ball was stuck to his feet – and that’s not to say he was a greedy player: far from it. Murray wouldn’t stick to the wing and run, like, say, Daley. He would be in the middle, at full-back, seemingly devoid of the concept of energy conservation. Every passing triangle there was, Murray formed part of it.

You can imagine the opposition right-back turning up and stifling a snigger as they saw the tiny wee Geordie standing opposite them. By the end of the match, that smirk was well and truly wiped off their faces, as Murray would meander past them with guile and trickery that belied everything he should have been like.

After the 1994/95 season, and being the player of the season by quite some shout (at least in my own personal recollection of events), and the club pushing closer and closer (before making good on the threat) of making the play-offs, new manager Chris Kamara seemed to stop looking at what the player was like, and started to look at what he thought the player should be like. By Wembley in 1996, Murray was not in the team. He was not even on the bench.

In the season afterwards, we had the fun of Chris Waddle and that goal against Everton in the cup. We also had a very close scrape with relegation that was very much staring us in the face as the inevitable, not a mere threat. When Waddle left, the fans were crestfallen – the talisman had gone, and we were going to get relegated. Only João Pinto’s brother could save us now – except that the man from Portugal was finding that Bradford in March was not quite as alluring as his native Porto and, out of options, Murray found himself back in the side. Again, there was no expectation. We were going down, already – what would it matter that we played a bit-part player, most of the time playing on his wrong side?

Again, expectations were wrong.

In the end, City did stay up (on the final day), and Murray excelled in making the unthinkable achievable, again by bucking the trend of expectation. He had another season with City before the class of 1999 who took City up to the Premiership, but, make no bones about it, without Shaun Murray, Bradford City would not have been a Premiership club.

And who could have ever expected that?

Why I hope City have not dropped the ball with the 9,000

In February 2008, we were told of the new offer for 2008/2009 season tickets – if 9000 adults or more were to buy a season ticket before 15th June, they’d each receive another, free, season ticket. It’s now less than a week to the deadline and only slightly more than 6000 have been sold – despite selling twice that number last season. Why is this the case?

Are City fans jaded? Perhaps so – last season, for all the signs of recovery and general optimism, was a mid-table finish in the fourth division when all is said and done.

Are City fans lazy? Certainly some are – witness the mad dash for season tickets as the deadline approached last season.

Are City fans fickle? Maybe. It’s fair to say that a good deal of the fans who bought tickets last season were definitely conspicuous by their absence in the years post-Premiership.

Are City fans cheap? Yes.

The fact that we sold more season tickets at a lower level of football just because of the ticket price speaks volumes. I applaud City for lowering the cost, I really do – football has always been too expensive to watch, and to put it in the financial reach of real people is how football should be.

The offer itself is where I think Bradford City have dropped an absolute clanger when it comes to this season’s season ticket sales. It is my belief that the reason that there is a shortfall of 3000 season ticket holders is solely down to the buy one get one free offer – people are waiting to see how many tickets are being sold, before swooping in at the last minute and grabbing two tickets – one for themselves, one for their mate, and paying half each. These will be the same people that then complain that “City have no money again” as they sit there having contributed less than 4p for each minute of league football played that season at home.

I think City’s BOGOF offer is an inspired way of getting more people through the turnstiles, but it has been handled all wrong. The message should have been “Buy One Get One Free – for the first 9000 adult season tickets purchased, if we sell 9000 adult season tickets”. There would then have been a mad scramble at the start of the promotion (although it’s been made unnecessary by allowing renewals to be done online this season) as will inevitably happen at the end of this one, and those that bought after the 9000 mark would still only be paying £150. Even play it a little cloak and dagger, and don’t publicise how many tickets have been sold. Those that were going to split the cost with their mate would still be able to if they get in early enough – and if I’m honest, at least these people might actually attend the games instead of having an extra season ticket to give to someone who more than likely won’t turn up. At this rate, instead of getting 9000+ new supporters (which is the aim), City could be in a position where anywhere between 3000 and 6000 people just don’t bother getting a ticket at all, as they’ll miss the deadline and instead of paying £150 for two tickets, will have to pay £300 for one.

“City Til I Die” is the mantra from the stand – but in reality, it’s more like “City while I can bleed them dry” for most. And that saddens me.

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