Gavin Oliver, not half bad

At the back end of 93/94 season my dad won a raffle at work and he, I, and a couple of his mates got the Samaritan’s sponsors’ tickets for a home tie against Stockport. All this really meant was that we swapped our tickets in the kop for entry to a directors’ box, two minutes grinning like idiots on the pitch before kick-off, and some pretty naff seats at the back of the stand.

The game was awful, the pitch a sand pit and the result a defeat. But that’s not why I remember the game. Sitting on my chest of drawers at home is a framed picture of me receiving a signed ball from Gavin Oliver. In reality the task of meeting match sponsors must be a chore undertaken by those on the fringes of the squad, but the injured Gavin Oliver didn’t show any signs of tedium as he chatted, asked about my favourite players and whether I played football myself.

I was made up. I’d met Gavin Oliver. I remember Oliver having a bit of a reputation for scoring own goals and was not seen as the most cultured of centre backs, but he was there week-in-week-out as I was growing up and his was the name that my mum ironed on to the back of my claret and amber, Freemans sponsored, diamond patterned city shirt.

My Dad couldn’t understand why I had Oliver on the back of the shirt given that we had Dean Richards at the time and, quite frankly, Gav, while held in fond affection, was not necessarily revered for his footballing ability. But I was ten and at that age it was the little things that mattered. While I have been reliable informed that my first ever game was a cup tie against Everton in 1987, being three I can’t remember it. I know I had been to games and seen goals before, but the first one that sticks in my memory was scored by Gavin Oliver.

A trawl of football stats websites informs that this was one of only nine goals in just over three hundred appearances, so it sticking in my memory is perhaps all the more impressive. Again my Dad plays an important role, taking me out of school to visit the dentist, or so I thought. Unbeknownst to me and with the consent of my football-mad head teacher Mr Tony Cryer, I was going to my first ever away game – Tottenham Hotspurs in the Rumbellows’ Cup. We actually got there a couple of minutes late and had only really settled when Gav met a corner with a towering header and put us one up. He went on to have a good game at centre half and I came away knowing that if I wanted to be a footballer, he was who I had to emulate.

Getting into football at that time – after the almost glory days of the Dolan era and with the gift of hindsight, just before the glory days of Chris Kamara and then Paul Jewell – was not necessarily the most rewarding of endeavours for City fans. In the dark days of the John Docherty reign, the Spurs game was perhaps the only truly high point, a noble defeat. But Gavin Oliver was steadfast throughout, with City finishing in eighth, scoring more than they conceded.

Others, perhaps those a little older will have different memories of Gavin Oliver. It is clear he was seen as a bit of a comic figure at times. A copy of ‘Bernard of the Bantams’ from 1988, which I unearthed while trying to write this piece, suggests that the perfect Christmas gift for Gav would be a new pair of underpants given that he “soils his on every occasion an opponent runs at him”.

On perhaps the night of his finest moment (to my mind at least), the official Spurs match programme offers this pen picture of Gavin Oliver:

Gavin Oliver (Defender).
Born in Newcastle, Brian started his career as an apprentice with Newcastle United. He signed professional forms for the Magpies and made 32 league appearances for the club, before signing for Bradford City in March, 1989.

For me this unintentional error is telling. Like his unarguably more cultured centre-half partner Dean Richards, Oliver didn’t shout about himself and not being as gifted, often went unnoticed. However, he always tried to let let his football do the talking and while it wasn’t perhaps as fluent or eloquent as others, you always got the gist of what he was trying to say. For eight years he played pretty much week-in-week-out and never once did he shirk a challenge or pull his head away from danger. When he wore the armband, you could see him stand taller than his five foot eleven frame. Of course all young lads should aspire to be a Richards, McCall, or Hendrie, but being a Gavin Oliver isn’t half bad.

I think this is a nice way to finish, taken from an online Millwall fanzine:

All afternoon Tony Cascarino had trouble escaping the attentions of Gavin Oliver and Teddy Sheringham had one of those afternoons when nothing went right.

Cascarino went on to play at the 1990 World Cup and Sheringham didn’t turn out half bad either.

Better ways to earn a crust? Talking to Graeme Tomlinson

Gareth Grant, David Brown, Danny Forrest, Craig Midgely, Wayne Benn, Craig Bentham, Kevin Sanasy, Tom Claisse, Liam Flynn, Jon Worsnop, Tom Penford, Jon Swift, Tom Kearney, and maybe even Lewis Emanuel are all players with something in common; they had all called themselves Bradford City players by the age of 20 and were all playing non-league (or lower) by the age of 25. Add to this list the names of Des Hamilton and Graeme Tomlinson, two lads who left for greater things only for it to not work out for whatever reason. Let me ask, if you had to write a list of opposites, a list to balance the one above, who would be on it? Andy O’Brien? Dean Richards? Steven Schumacher (not a product of our academy though)?

Why do I mention this then? Well I have this notion that football is quite a hard life at this level. We as fans pay a lot of money and generally believe that entitles us to make our feelings known. This is somewhat fuelled by the stream of money-grabbing players who grew fat as our club grew thin – plus, let’s not forget that most of us would give our right arm to pull on the claret and amber just once.

A career cut short

One man who got to do that is Graeme Tomlinson and I was lucky enough to get to speak to him recently. Tomlinson insists that despite his poor fortune with injuries, he still believes football is a fantastic industry to be employed in and that even at our level there is decent money to be made. He does concede however, that it was his big break at Utd and the help of close friends that ensured he would be financially sound even if his career were to be cut cruelly short.

But these are not the old days; this is not the Bradford of Tomlinson’s time. As Tomlinson himself accepts, league 2 youngsters and trialists will not be on particularly good money, the end of their career – regardless of age, is just around the corner. Take Steve Williams for example, at 22 and playing for Bamber Bridge, with a failed trial at Oldham behind him, he must have almost given up; if this season doesn’t work out the chances are we’ll never see him again. Same goes for David Syers or went for James Hanson last season.

Now I initially planned to write an article from the standpoint that for all those lads I named earlier, lads like Gareth Grant and David Brown, we might just have reached a point where football, for all its potential glamour isn’t really worth the hassle. To give your all from the age of 14 or 15 just to find yourself, every summer, getting geared up for pre-season friendlies to prove that you have what it takes at league 2 level against lesser opposition, prove to the fans that you are committed – yet not run round like headless chickens, and most importantly, not get injured. All of this with no guarantees and even less in your pockets if you are on trial, faced with the statistics laid bare; chances are your career will be over in the next five years.

However, with the assumption that many of you will not be particularly pre-disposed to feel sympathy for the young lads who are living the dream that still flits through your sleep – regardless of your age, I changed my mind. This was also in part due to something Graeme Tomlinson said when I asked him whether he thought it was all worth it for the youngsters:

It all comes down to an individuals hunger to play the game. If they love the game and it is entwined with their heart, wild animals couldn’t stop them from playing the game. But if the individual is money motivated then perhaps it is not worth it and one should seek an alternative career away from the beautiful game as even at part time level it is a lot of time and commitment for little financial reward

Watching Joe Colbeck

A year or so ago as I sat watching City trailing to a woeful Lincoln team, listening to folks moaning about Joe Colbeck, with the words of Graeme Tomlinson in my ears, I realised I wanted to tell people to lay off Joe for a bit but they never really did. We all understand that people pay their hard earned and as such should be allowed to complain a bit, Tomlinson understands that, understood that as a player, I’m sure Colbeck did as well, but the criticism become much more with Joe and I am certain that it will result in his name being added to the list. His exit to Oldham, and from Oldham less than a season later continued this path.

Nevertheless back at Lincoln as I sat there watching Colbeck take to the field as a second half sub and inject a bit of pace into a team that had waterlogged the pitch just so they could keep up with the ball, I thought to myself, what has the lad ever really done wrong? Come back from a bad injury and take a few matches to get his sharpness back? Go out on loan and play so well we have to bring him back? Be voted ‘Player-of-the-Year’? Play with a passion that sometimes boils over? The lad can’t do right for doing wrong.

All I could think was that here is a kid who loves City, loves football; a kid who plays with hunger and whose heart is indeed entwined with the game. Here is a kid who will pick the ball up and drive at a full back and if it doesn’t come off, will pick the next one up and drive at the same full back again and again until he succeeds.

Lads like Colbeck then and Syers now are playing for there future; a good season and he might be off to League one, but a bad season and he may just join Sanasy et al.

A short talk with Graeme Tomlinson

DH: How’s tricks?

GT: Great, loving life and living each day as if its my last.

DH: Generally, what keeps you busy/working at the moment?

GT: I made a decent enough living out of the game so don’t have to work full time. I invested some of my cash whilst I was playing in various business ventures and also property so looking after my business affairs keeps me relatively busy.

DH: Do you still play any footy/sport?

GT: I don’t play football competitively, but occasionally get a call asking me to play in a charity match, I had Exeter on the phone but I was away in Maguluf. however, enjoy a kick around now and again with my nephew Konnir whom is joining the Watford Academy next season. Also I enjoy golfing, I find it highly pleasurable and love the social aspect of it. I am currently playing off 11 and will hopefully down be to single figures by the end of the season!

DH: Did you ever pursue your coaching badges?

GT: Yes I still dream one day of going into management, people have been getting onto me saying that I need to finish off all my badges soon, but realistically I’m still very young and time is definitely on my side.

DH: Do you still keep an eye out for City in the news?

GT: Absolutely. The club will always have a special place in my heart. City have wonderful fans who were incredible to me during my time at the club so I always keep an eye on what’s happening. I must say it hurts me to find the club in league two.

DH: Are you still in contact with any lads you played with (at City or elsewhere)?

GT: It’s a funny one, unfortunately I don’t keep in contact with as many of the lads from City as maybe I would if I stayed for longer. I was bought by Man Utd when I was quite young and lost contact with a lot of my mates from the youth set up. I still keep in touch with the likes of Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs who have all had glittering careers and I’m proud to call them friends.

DH: In the Guardian you said that you didn’t regret the way things turned out, now you’ve stepped away from professional and non-league football, do you still feel the same?

GT: I have to admit I can’t help thinking what might have been as even Sir Alex told me when I got released from Manchester United that I had lost that little bit extra I had previous to my leg break. Prior to my leg break he had said to me that he saw me as a key part to the future of United. However, the compound fracture occurred and those were the cards I was dealt and I just have to deal with that. So yes I do now slightly regret the way things turned out when I think about my career now, but I cant complain as I had a better career than a lot of players and it let me in to a whole new world which has been shining dazzling and splendid.

DH: You also said that football didn’t rule your life at the time, does it even figure in your life any more? Is it still important?

GT: It still figures in my life as I follow how the clubs I played for are doing and always watch the big games on the tv in particular the champions league ties. It is not the most important thing in my life and just like when I was playing it does not rule my life. It was never my eternal love, my everything.

DH: When you were on trial at clubs like City (the 2nd time), did you worry at all about life outside football? Especially what you would do and the money side of life?

GT: Luckily I got sound advice from my advisors, Charles Poaches and Lukasz Shemshov and invested wisely early on in my playing career and I was lucky enough to know by my late twenties that bar a catastrophe, I would be financially secure for quite a few years.

DH: Do you think clubs should do more to ensure youngsters have something to fall back on? Indeed, was there anything there for you?

GT: If you look at the Man Utds and Liverpools of this world, they have academies for youngsters teaching them all the works of life. For lower league clubs without this infrastructure, it’s very difficult to do anything apart from batter them on the pitch with a football!

DH: Should supporters be more understanding of how hard a footballer’s life is at League 2 level? Or is it all par-for-the-course?

GT: All par-for-the-course I say. Whilst it’s disappointing City are in League, the supporters pay good money to come and see Cit and they deserve to see some entertainment… of course getting on the team’s back isn’t good for anyone.

DH: For all those lads who will probably end up on the part-time circuit, without ever really getting a taste of the big time, is it really worth it anymore?

GT: It all comes down to an individuals hunger to play the game. If they love the game and it is entwined with their heart, wild animals couldn’t stop them from playing the game. But if the individual is money motivated then perhaps it is not worth it and one should seek an alternative career away from the beautiful game as even at part time level it is a lot of time and committed for little financial reward.

DH: Especially with the risk of injury playing such an important role in shaping a player’s career, does lower-league/non-league football represent a good way te earn a crust?

GT: Make no mistake it is decent money in the lower leagues and there are plenty that are earning a good crust, however, not enough to set you up for life and have the fancy cars and the luxury mansions in Monaco. Add in the risk of injury and it does not look too attractive but it is a wonderful, wonderful career which allows you to meet fantastic people.

DH: Do you have anything you would like to mention about the current state of football/Bradford City? Any advice for youngsters/trialists?

GT: I think the gap is widening between the Championship and the lower leagues, much like the Premiership gap is forever getting bigger. I recently went on a family trip to Poland and knew a few contacts from my playing days who invited me to go watch Legia Warsaw (res) vs Wisla Krakow (res). There were three players who caught my eye (and apparently have attracted interest from Man Utd, Spurs, and Barcelona): Lucasz Woppenyeknick (16), Urisz Leppenbracknov (16), and Mikel Bhitch (18), all of whom were extremely talented youngsters. My advice is for any youngster to play each game as if it’s his last and give 110%.

DH: Would you change any of it?

GT: I would change the fact that I was injured. Sure I wish my career dazzled like the moonlit sky, but I met some really good guys and gals along the rocky road so it’s all good. I believe that if the injuries didn’t occur you could have seen me at United a lot longer and even a part of the side that won the champions league in Barcelona in 1999.

DH: Do you still DJ?

GT: It’s more of a hobby as I have a family. A few years back I performed in a few clubs and did a few gigs nationwide, which was an awesome experience!

A professional always gets the job done

The drive from York to Bradford is quite a nice one on a Saturday lunchtime; with Fivelive on in the background it represents the calm before the storm. Today however, I had to find a different route thanks to the Bramham Park music festival and, discovering myself stuck behind a traction engine near Harewood I had an ominous sense of foreboding.

That said, I wouldn’t trade my journey for the trek faced by the reasonable number of Torquay fans who will still be making their way south, with, let’s face it, rather little to talk about.

Today’s match was an interesting, if not always entertaining affair. Torquay did not, like so many before them, come simply for a draw – though despite their open play, never really created anything of notice. This openness afforded both teams the opportunity to play some nice football in patches and when City did, they looked impressive.

For much of the first half City looked nervous, hardly like a team that had scored 5 only seven days prior. But when the ball found Luke O’Brien or Joe Colbeck, and the space and width were exploited City burst into life.

A fantastic move on about the half hour, which saw a delicate chip from the comfortable looking Williams finding the head of Hanson, whose cushioned header was met by a lovely control and volley by Evans – just wide, was probably the highlight of the first 45. On about 45 minutes and 59 seconds however came the breakthrough, which left barely enough time for the ref to restart before he called for half time. The goal, a James Hanson header from a subtly chipped James O’Brien free kick was a well-earned reward for City who had been dominant without being spectacular. It was also a fine reward for those who hadn’t hurried off for their half time pie.

As I reflected during the break the word that came to mind was professional. Nowt fancy I’ll grant, but a professional performance from City over all, professional from Simon Eastwood whose ears must burning from all the jeers that were desperate to leave the mouths of City’s boo boys.

Professional also from a back four that attended to their defensive duties before surging forward. Professional from Colbeck, who despite not having his best match, seemed to be at the centre of anything positive that hadn’t come from Luke O’Brien. Professional from Gareth Evans who chased every ball regardless of whether he had much chance of catching it. My only gripes at the interval where that we still seem to lack pace and though James O’B played rather well, he is not a natural wide player.

The second period was something like a childhood trip to Morecambe; we were always going to get there in the end so there was no real need to rush and once you got there, there was very little to write home about anyway.

City were always in control of a match they were always expected to win. And, despite neat passages of play involving the O’Briens, or Colbeck, or Evans, Or Hanson, with the ball failing to hit the net, I feared that those natives with shorter attention spans would become restless.

Fortunately for all, the last quarter of an hour saw the introduction of the much-anticipated Scott Neilson. The former Lilywhite instantly lifted both the team and the fans with a couple of quick, direct, enthusiastic, and relatively successful surging runs. He reminded me of an ‘on-song’ Colbeck, though the fans seemed much happier to forgive Neilson’s couple of slips than they ever have with Colbeck.

Neilson was positive and he was fast. Quite frankly it served as a reminder of just how effective Omar Daley can be and the thought of both playing on the flanks really does fill me with a sense of excitement. I’d just finished telling my mate that I thought Stuart McCall could have possibly tried Neilson and Colbeck together for that bit of extra pace rather than bring Chris Brandon on, when the number eleven sprinted onto a through-ball and applied a cool finish to end the game.

Again, a nice reward for a professional, if not spectacular City performance and a nice reward for Brandon who I felt brought a bit more balance to the left side when he was introduced.

I started by saying that this match was interesting if not always entertaining and it was; McCall’s collection of youngsters, rookies, basement-bargains and until recently, amateurs, turned in a thoroughly professional performance and look like they’re starting to gel.

All I want for Christmas is Omar Daley

Omar Daley has a contract with Bradford City until 2011. We can say that with certainty; on that, we can all agree. Therein, however, ends the consensus on Daley. For my part, I love him, am a signed up, card-carrying member of the Omar Daley fan club – an honorary ‘reggae boy’. I have watched him mooch around never leaving second gear for 70 minutes, all the while hoping the next pass reaches him, because in him I have faith. I have sat and watch him persecute a young right back, electrify the crowd, and provide a real cutting edge to our attack, all the while my Father is complaining about his lack of commitment. I tell you all this now because Omar is a love-him-or-loathe-him player and if you loathe him, you will find no satisfaction here.

In the anonymous world that houses the plethora of message boards and online forums, the post-season boredom has frequently given way to wistful reflections on what could have been. If only McCall had a plan B, if only Brandon had played, if only Lee was a better captain, if only McLaren had not been too good for this division. Obviously, deep down none of us blame one decision or one player, but I can’t help feeling that had we been able to call upon Omar Daley throughout the last two months of the season, we may have faired better. He’s a game changer and I can’t imagine he wouldn’t have at least made something happen against Port Vale at home, or away at Chester. Four points was all we needed.

So how will we fare without him, and more importantly, what will his reappearance do for our team, or season, our hopes of promotion? I remember the talk around Christmas last, about how the return of Brandon would be akin to a new, ‘big-name’ signing. For one reason and another, that failed to materialise, only now are we seeing our ‘new’ signing, and the jury of the terraces is still out. But Daley isn’t Brandon; we know what Daley is capable of – know what he is capable of in a City shirt for that matter. I’ve spoken to plenty of folks who believe that if we just hang in there-or-thereabouts until Christmas, Daley’s return will give us the impetus to race toward that May finish line, a race that with Jamaica’s second fastest man is sure to be exhilarating.

But can we, in all honesty, even with a glass half-full, really believe that? This is a player who will have missed eight months of football, will need at least another month to regain match-fitness, and is largely celebrated/utilised for his pace, which will surely be diminished at least slightly. How do we even envisage his return? Will this be a return that can’t come too soon, necessitated by the failure to perform by the ineffectual, sluggish Brandon, or inexperienced Leon Osborne/Luke Sharry? As a return out of necessity to replace the recently departed Colbeck, who has, at last, been rescued from the shop window by Oldham? As a return that is hampered by the niggly nature of the injury he suffered? Or what about a return that is largely constrained to the bench due to the fantastic half a season had by his replacement on the flank?

Anything other than the latter scenario could be catastrophic for both player and club. A hurried return steeped in expectation is likely to end in only one, predictable manner. A bit-part role however, for a player who can leave the bench for 30 minutes and change a game not only represents a genuine alternative for Stuart, but a sensible rehabilitation for a 29 year-old whose physical and psychological state must surely have deteriorated during his eight month absence. It also limits his exposure to the fickle-faithful, the boo-boys who will undoubtedly forget that Daley has just spent the last eight months struggling to walk. This season is not Daley’s; anything he contributes must be seen as an unexpected bonus. We can get back to the expectation game with Omar next season, but we have to accept that whilst it has gone unsaid, any injury that keeps a player nearing his thirties out for eight whole months is most definitely career threatening.

I hope that this time next season Omar is terrorising some Alfreton Town fullback, cutting in from the touchline to score goals galore. But we must also prepare for the possibility that Daley’s game will have to change long-term, that we will never get the same lad back again. It has happened to the best of them, Giggs being the prime example. The pace will never completely desert him, but it is used sparingly, deployed in a targeted fashion, even used in a different position. I’m not sure whether I can ever see that happening with Daley, as even his fans often see him in one-dimensional terms, as a pacey winger with a few tricks. If that pace is dulled with age and injury, Stuart is going to be faced with a dilemma; armed with a winger who no longer puts the fear of God into division 4 defenders, does he throw him on the scrap heap, or deploy him differently?

I think if you look back at his best games, they have come when his searing pace has been coupled with a drift inside, when he has picked the ball up in the centre of the park and had every direction in which to run. These games have also seen him charging back to help out the fullback and then play his way out of trouble. These games have also seen him pop off a shot or two. The Daley knockers will counter that he rarely gets such a shot on target, that he often passes too late and that his distribution is inconsistent, and indeed they may have a point, but show me a division 4 player who doesn’t tick those same boxes.

I could of course be wrong, Daley may give us all an early and gratefully received Christmas present by bursting back onto the Valley Parade turf, full of beans and as fast as he always was. If that happens it has the potential to reinvigorate the team and give them an extra dimension. But if he doesn’t, I hope we will put the time and effort into a lad who signed a three year contract, a lad who hasn’t been constantly angling for a big move (to Oldham), a lad who began his international career at right back, who often plays in the centre of the Jamaican midfield, who is respected for his leadership qualities within the national team set up, and may just surprise us with the depth of his ability.

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