The Ben Williams season continues with City facing Aldershot Town in the FA Cup

Williams from Williams

The first time Ben Williams became known to Bradford City supporters was during the first round of the FA Cup when – minutes into the game with Halifax Town – he was picking the ball out of the back of his own goal.

An inauspicious start to a campaign that would see Williams keeping goal at Stamford Bridge but his afternoon at The Shay better when Phil Parkinson switched formation and Filipe Morais and Billy Clarke turned the match and the season around.

Jon Stead scored – he always scored in the FA Cup – and Williams’ role was largely forgotten but he did make a very good save from a Williams’ close range header. I’d describe it as memorable but it seems that not a lot of people remember it.

Ben Williams save from Steve Williams. Steve Williams is a former Bantam who exited Valley Parade around the time of the change from Peter Taylor, to Peter Jackson, to Phil Parkinson . In the words for former Chief Scout Archie Christie when asked why the talented Williams had left said that the player “did not want it enough.”

Wanting it enough was big for Christie, and is big for Phil Parkinson.

Wanting it

The last three weeks of Bradford City have been the definition of “wanting it”. A trip to Millwall, a visit from Blackpool, a trip to Aldershot for the 0-0 draw that brings about this reply, and a 2-0 win over Crewe Parkinson’s team had dug in hard to turn a few good wins into an impressive unbeaten run.

Parkinson’s has taken his Bradford City back to the most simple of building blocks creating a team which fetishises not conceding in the same way Barcelona lust for possession. Parkinson’s City will not concede – so the thought goes – and as a result the result will take after itself.

One has to go back to 24th of October when Wigan Athletic took the lead past Ben Williams for City’s last concession. Williams could have done better with that strike, and he got lucky with a shot from Crewe on Saturday that slipped greasy off his body and flew back into play but Williams has earned his luck with his graft.

My issue with Williams’ goalkeeping style – that he allows too much of a gap between the defensive line and himself – is addressed by Parkinson compressing his defensive unit at the expense of his forward line leaving the forward line lacking numbers. It is meat and potatoes and City are criticised for a negative approach to the game.

Criticism is always relative though, and relative to the criticism one gets for losing.

The work

The work which Phil Parkinson’s team have put into the last two months is transformative. Players have developed pairings where previously there was confusion. Stephen Darby has found an unlikely partner in Tony McMahon while James Meredith probably thought reuniting with Kyel Ried was unlikely too.

The central midfield pair are of two of Lee Evans, Gary Liddle and the much improved Billy Knott are a product of days at Apperley Bridge. Knott would be the poster boy for improvement with his push back from the Ghetto of being an “attacking midfielder” into a genuinely useful box to box player.

Would be if it were not for the backline of Rory McArdle, Reece Burke and Williams himself. Calm has replaced barked blasts. Control has replaced scrambles. Stern has replaced soft when running at the heart of the Bantams team.

There is a significant need for a collective improvement. It has happened.

A Ben Williams sort of season

Bradford City’s season has become a Ben Williams sort of season. Capable of slips, and at times doing things wrong, but improved with hard work and no better/no worse as is shown on the field.

I’ve always found this aspect of football as – perhaps – the most understated joy in football.

To support a Liverpool in the 1980s, a Manchester United in the 1990s, a Manchester City now is to experience football top down where expectation is winning and winning is everything. Bristol City supporters last season – with a team outspending its league – expected the same. It is rare to have that in football, I’m sure most at City never will have had it.

For the rest the drama is in watching teams which are – and I struggle to find a better description – only as good as they are on the field. City are in a morass of teams in League One who are in a similar situation. The FA Cup against Aldershot Town offers the kind of assumption which the Bantams seldom get, and can never enjoy.

Aldershot Town are struggling for form in the National League but so were City when City rolled up at Chelsea last year – everything in the FA Cup is set in the Chelsea context for a while at least – and while the Bantams should win they will only do so with the same hard graft that has turned the season around.

Hard work, and hoping the mistakes go unpunished. A year on from his debut and we are all having a Ben Williams sort of season.

How far can Phil Parkinson take Bradford City as his old team come to Valley Parade

Phil Parkinson’s time at Colchester United intersected at Valley Parade when Colin Todd dubbed him “the enemy of football” for the negative tactics which Parkinson used then, and uses now, to get success.

At Charlton Athletic Parkinson inherited a team from Alan Pardew which ended up being relegated but reached the play-offs places before his exit with one fan summing up the manager as offering nothing more than long ball to (Paul) Benson.

When Parkinson took over at Bradford City he was dubbed by some “Peter Taylor Two” so well known was the manager’s faith in a brand of football which few would describe as expansive and Coventry City manager Steven Pressley called “dark ages football”.

Few in The Shed at Stamford Bridge felt the lack of light.

The debate now over

For Parkinson the discussion on tactics has ended – if he ever considered it open – in the years since he took Colchester United to the second tier of the game and exited for Hull City. Parkinson’s teams play a certain way, and they get win, and that is that.

They win against Arsenal and Aston Villa and Chelsea for sure but against Burton and Preston and Rochdale too. They win individual games which get world wide coverage but they pick up a good number league points on their travels in games which are barely reported.

The 1-1 draw between Todd’s Bradford and Parkinson’s Colchester is remembered only for the irony of the manager’s statements when Parkinson arrived at City but it is typical of the type of result that Parkinson gets to trundle his team to improvement.

That improvement is metronomic. It creeps into the team. Three months ago and Filipe Morias was a mystery – to me at least – but Parkinson saw something and Parkinson tweaked something and Parkinson ended up with a player who for all his headline stealing is best because he is so practical. He fits into the hole Parkinson gives him to play in and – that run into the Chelsea midfield on 38 minutes aside – he has bought into Parkinson’s ethic.

Parkinson took a Colchester United side with the division’s lowest attendance – an a small budget – past Todd’s City and into The Championship. He left to join Hull City because of the greater scope that Hull offered with more money and bigger crowds.

The question that poises itself as old plays current at Valley Parade today is what is the scope for Parkinson at Valley Parade? How far, with an eye on realism, can City go under Phil Parkinson.

Mr. Christie

Former Bradford City Chief Scout/Director of Football/Whatever Archie Christie – who had a hand in appointing Parkinson – had his eyes set on the club sitting smack in the middle of the Championship. He thought it would take five years to achieve and that after that he would have no idea of how to progress the club from that.

“I’ll have tea think ov another plan” was his light hearted reply but his attitude is not uncommon in the perceived wisdom in football that has it that most teams if run well, playing well, and possessed of a decent budget will hit a glass ceiling in the middle of the second tier.

From that point one is playing against clubs with budgets that dwarf your own, facilities that are Premier League standard (often because the clubs have recently been in the Premier League) and there will always be enough of these teams outside the top league trying to get back in to make sure you cannot. For all the football you play, the good lads you have, the spirit you create and the Chelsea aways you enjoy the top table will always be denied to you.

I call this the 30-man-top-table theory which suggest that the Premier League is basically too small for all the teams who should be in the Premier League but those teams – the 20 who are in it, and those teams who have been relegated but are still rich – are constantly the sides who will be contesting places in the top division.

That some of them spend some time outside the top division is immaterial. They are a league within themselves and only from their ranks will the next Premier League be formed.

The problem with this theory though is that it is objectively wrong. There are plenty of teams who have put themselves into the Premier League on smaller budgets and maintained that position for sometime. Stoke City are a celebrated example, Hull City too. Likewise there are plenty of one time established teams who having fallen out of the Premier League now are the rank and file of the Football League. Leeds United and Nottingham Forest spring to mind.

AFC Bournemouth and Brentford are both pushing for promotion this season. If the second half at Stamford Bridge tells you anything it is that football is more or a meritocracy than people want to tell you it is.

What does Parkinson need?

What does Phil Parkinson need to move City on?

Time is an obvious factor. That City have not sacked Phil Parkinson is largely because of the bi-annual giant killing fillups. Had City not beaten Arsenal then the middle of League Two position was hardly recommending Parkinson to the board (who, I am told, have had cause to discuss the manager’s position) but after Aston Villa Parkinson’s stock was so high as to render him untouchable but halo glows only last so long.

Likewise when the Reading job came up a few months ago there were pockets of supporters who suggested that Parkinson had taken City as far as he could and it would be best if he did exit. Malcontent malingered and defeats to Rochdale and Yeovil gave it a voice that was silenced seven days ago.

That Parkinson does not come under pressure for his league form (which I believe to be good, but I understand that other do not) is a result of his side’s performances in the cups. The worry is that if Parkinson stopped performing “miracles” in the cups then the good progress he makes in the league would be for nothing.

In the medium term money is an obvious factor too. The higher City rise the more the club gets and needs but in Parkinson City have a manager who understands how to get efficacy of the player market and how a squad of 18 who are bonded can be better than two dozen players some of whom never play. I believe he needs support in this – the higher a club goes the harder the “right” player is to find – but I believe his philosophies are the ones the club should follow.

More than that I believe that the philosophies that Parkinson follows – and that Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche follow at their clubs – will become common at the top level of football. How it happens I could not say but Financial Fair Play will force smaller squads which will play better than larger squads. Parkinson and City are ahead of the curve on this and have a competitive advantage which will not last but can propel the club as it does.

Finally there is the question of City’s support level. It was a happen stance that the proposal for affordable season tickets which have changed the nature of the Bradford City support for the better. Jose Mourinho might have spent the second half watching the City fans and worrying about the noise but pre-Wembley-and-Wembley Roberto Martinez at Wigan Athletic did the same.

Cheaper season tickets had brought younger fans, and a broader fan base, which is a more vibrant fan base. That is what lets BfB sit hear at the rambling esoteric end of the market and Bantams Banter at the ranting, pleasing end and everyone to be happy. Because of the shot in the arm that was affordable season tickets City have a great mix of fans including more younger fans than one sees at most Football League clubs who – when a boy gets to be a man and money is most needed – jack up the prices to unreachable levels.

I’d like City to go further in this but they are unique in football in how far they have gone and while every year we have a debate over if the club can “afford” to keep the tickets I’d suggest we cannot afford not to. We need to keep the fan base energised, and the way to do this is to not exclude anyone with an interest in the club but without the means to buy a season ticket.

This third factor is key to the long term future of the club. The boys who bought a ticket because it was a hundred quid that they could afford at eighteen will bring friends, and eventually children, and I would expect Bradford City to buck the age trend in the Football League. Attendances will dwindle at the clubs that are pricing younger people out of the game and City will have the advantage again.

The form team

It would be easy to not notice in the trials and tribulations which are the life of a Bradford City supporter that the club has returned to something approaching form.

In the six games since the start of October City have played twice at home and four times on the road in the league which our “win at home, draw away Championship” form tell us should result in ten points. With two home wins and two away draws City have returned eight.

So when Phil Parkinson talks about the club having got the message about what it takes to get on in football he does so from a position of believing he is having some success in that aim.

Indeed the one thing that can be said about City’s recent games is that the players have shown the guts to drag out results in trying circumstances. The win at home to Torquay United and the draw at Swindon Town were both done with ten men following sendings off.

Which says much about Phil Parkinson’s approach to management and how he hopes to have his City teams become hard to play against. Swindon, in the play off places, could not break down the Bantams and like Macclesfield before them found chances hard to come by. It is a different City to one we are perhaps used to – Stuart McCall’s side created chances at both ends – but one which has started to have an impact.

Both the sendings off were for Andrew Davies and both were straight red cards leaving the player on loan from Stoke City with a three, and now a four match ban. The luck of the draw – or bad luck – is that two of those games will be the JPT and FA Cup.

In Davies’ absence Marcel Seip returns to his role in the centre of the defence alongside Luke Oliver while Liam Moore and Luke O’Brien take the full back berths in front of Matt Duke. It is heartening that with the changes at the back have not come an instability suggesting that Parkinson’s attempts to build an ethic as well as a team are having some effect.

Michael Flynn and Richie Jones were reunited in the middle at Swindon and continued to good effect. No two players typify Phil Parkinson’s comment to his players:

The emphasis we’re putting on the players is that to wear a Bradford City shirt, you’ve got to roll your sleeves up and work hard.

Kyel Reid takes a place on the left and Michael Bryan will hope for a place on the right although Jamie Devitt is pushing for a recall having returned to the squad. James Hanson and Craig Fagan are expected to carry on up front.

Cheltenham arrive at Valley Parade in a play off place and – like Swindon and Macclesfield – are in what is called good form. How Parkinson will approach the game – not including a reaction to a red card – will further inform us as to the style of management he hopes to cement at Valley Parade.

The next generation take their first steps as City juniors take to Valley Parade

When Bradford City’s juniors run out at Valley Parade against Marine in the FA Youth Cup first round most of the players will be playing their first competitive game at City’s stadium but unlike most of their peers in the past they will do so with a mapped out career path to being a professional footballer.

Changes at the club over the summer to create a additional tier of development between the juniors and the first team aims to take the players from the ranks of the young and work with them before they join the first team squad. The youngsters pulling on claret and amber in the past have been trying to prove that they are good enough to join a squad of League Two footballers immediately, the players tonight have to show that they have the potential to, and that is a significant distinction.

Steve Thornber’s team of under 18s – the qualification is that a player has to be 15, 16, 17 or 18 in August 2011 – face a Marine side who beat Leeds in the last round with the winner facing either Burton Albion or Boston United in the second round and many of the players on show (at 19:30, Valley Parade, Admission £4/Concessions available) have been in the Development Squad already this season.

Most notably is the much anticipated Scott Brown who joined City in the summer aged sixteen and turns seventeen today. He has played alongside Michael Flynn, Robbie Threlfall and Luke Oliver in the famous game at Silsden aquitting himself well. He regularly trains with the first team and does not look out of place when doing so.

Brown’s partner in midfield could be James Nanje Ngoe. A combative midfielder Nanje is no light weight youth having battered into Kyel Reid in a tackle in training during our trip to training to talk to Archie Christie. Christie calls Nanje his Inesesta having taken the first year apprentice to play in reserve games against senior professionals and seen the midfield win the day.

Goalkeeper Callum Tongue has been on the bench for the first team this season and is expected to be the sticksman tonight. Development Squad striker Adam Baker is in line for a pace up front. Other names to look out for include Thomas Marshall who scored twice in the Development Squad’s 5-2 win over Marine and Connor Bower who will look very familiar to most City fans. While Mark was a solid central defender Connor is a speedy forward.

Picking out players in Youth football is a random science. The young Kevin Gallen broke all records but never had the career of Robbie Fowler who he put in the shade. David Beckham was the ineffectual one at Manchester United before he went out on loan to Preston. At this stage of a player’s development there is much to do before the child becomes the man and it is games like tonight which maketh the man.

Legend of Valley Parade has it that City’s juniors beat the Beckham Manchester United side back in 1994 but the dates do not add up. Nevertheless a City team that included Des Hamilton and Graeme Tomlinson progressed to the last four of this competition losing out narrowly to Arsenal in the semi-final after Tomlinson and Hamilton were drafted into the first team.

The run did much to build the confidence of those Hamilton and Tomlinson who joined the first team and quickly settled in to be positive contributors but even without them the rest of the juniors team near matched the Gunners side managed by a sweary Pat Rice who went on to win the competition. Looking over the programme for that day the only name which one might know is Matthew Rose who played five times for Arsenal but retired in 2008. The City right back on that day fitted the electrics for my boiler four years ago.

The reality is that a good few of the players who feature tonight will end up in that sort of position but for a few – the few who show the massive desire which is needed – this is the a significant step on the path to being a professional footballer.

Making no excuses

It is all about excuses, and who has to give them.

Take Phil Parkinson for example. He stands accused after the 1-0 defeat at Macclesfield Town of making an excuse about referee Rob Lewis. Parkinson pointed out that his team – who have faced not one shot on target from inside the area in the last 180 minutes with the exception of that penalty – would have had something from the evening were it not for Lewis’ intervention. This was “making excuses” – or so we are told.

We get no excuse – the City fans who travelled to Macclesfield – about why the penalty was given and the Macclesfield supporters who shouted for a red card with some justification got no excuse from Lewis for what they were not sated. BfB tried to get the match report with our usual polite email to the Football League. We were told no. Rob Lewis need not give an excuse for ignoring the Laws of Football.

He may be called to give an excuse for his language towards Craig Fagan. It seems that Fagan asked Lewis about the booking he got and was replied to by Lewis swearing. Industrial language is not uncommon in football but the Laws of the game were used to send off players (and after the game) turning games and even seasons and we were told that there was no excuse for that behaviour. One wonders what Rob Lewis excuse will end up saying to the authorities, if they ask him as a result of the complaint City have put in about the official.

“Excuse” has been the phrase de jour for sometime around Valley Parade for some time. As a club “making excuses” has been verbalised from top to bottom of the club. Mark Lawn – when talking about training facilities – said that the lack of them could be used as an excuse while Stuart McCall and Peter Taylor were both “excuse making” when they talked about various issues which hampered their team’s performances.

Should a manager find something else to blame when the slings and arrows of Referee misfortune rain down on his team? Should he go straight to problem number two stepping over the first issue? When it comes to criticising officials Ron Atkinson had a hard and fast rule: “I never talk about Referees, and I’m not making an exception for that berk.”

What is Parkinson to do? His belief is that a robust team that do not concede will pick up points on the road. Michael Flynn’s red card stopped that robustness at Hereford, the penalty robbed a point at Macclesfield. If Parkinson can put hand on heart and say that he was happy with the performances otherwise then should he make something up rather than saying something that could be called an excuse?

Are we – as Bradford City supporters – really a community which is too immature to handle the interpretation of the game as the manager sees it and do we need to have that game retold to us in a way we find more palatable?

Which is not to say that Parkinson’s approach is to everyone’s taste, that is is great to watch or that it will work in the long term just that it is the approach that he has always used and the one he believes to be right. It is also the approach that many teams come to Valley Parade with and that has caused so many home reversals so it would be wrong to not point to a certain validity in the frustration game. If people are criticising Parkinson for using it away from home then they perhaps may recall if they criticised Colin Todd for not being able to break it down at VP.

The culture we have in the Bradford City community would reject excuses and anything that sound like excuses casting babies down Manningham Lane with bathwater to follow. It is to say that we have no truck with with anyone offering reason, it is the denial of the ability to be analytical.

Imagine if you will – and dear reader imagine it is so rather than questioning the premise if you have a mind to – that the only reason that Bradford City did not return from Macclesfield Town on Tuesday night with at least a point is because of atrocious Refereeing. Would you want to know that? Would you want to be lied to? Would you want Phil Parkinson to make changes to a team which would have performed well otherwise?

The question is yours to ponder, but as Macclesfield Town headed towards the play-off places and people without the ability to do basic mathematics said that City’s season was over they did so with an undeserved result, if you would take my opinion.

To paraphrase: “You train all week, you do everything right, and then Rob Lewis decides the result.”

City go onto Swindon Town to play against popular fascist Paolo Di Canio’s side who sit seventh in the division. The Robins are much talked about for the enigmatic Di Canio’s presence but more importantly they have not lost for five (four wins and a draw) which is a run started at Macclesfield.

City go into the game with Matt Duke in goal behind a back four which will probably see Marcel Seip step down to allow Andrew Davies to be recalled alongside Luke Oliver. Luke O’Brien is likely to come in at left back for the injured Robbie Threlfall and Liam Moore will retain his place at right back.

Adam Reed looks is unlikely to play – his loan deal is up on Saturday and he does not have a clause in his contract that guarantees him a place – so Richie Jones and Michael Flynn will reunite in the middle. Chris Mitchell is hoping for a recall either on the right or in a three while Michael Bryan will hope that Phil Parkinson opts for a flat four in the midfield which would give him a place on the right. Kyel Reid continues on the left.

Craig Fagan will start up front alongside or to the side of James Hanson.

The walking stage as City head to Macclesfield looking to build a running position

Functionalism seems the most fitting label when reflecting on the way Phil Parkinson has lined up Bradford City in the last three games, at least.

Functionalism is a theory that design (in this case tactics and team selection) should be determined by its practicality rather than by aesthetic considerations. Like buying a supermarket brand of baked beans because money is a little tight, aside from the slip up to Hereford, the Bantams have accomplished their objectives in a largely efficient manner. The style will have to come later.

A run of disappointing results had intensified the need to start winning at all costs, and so for now at least the attractive manner of passing football that had featured in the Bristol Rovers and Port Vale games has been shelved by Parkinson. That’s not to say City under Parkinson have become as dour as they were a year earlier under Peter Taylor, but there are certainly similarities in the more organised nature of the way City have played.

As the saying goes, you need to learn to walk before you can run. City couldn’t afford to carry on playing well but losing points, so for now we are watching a different approach that is proving more effective in grinding out results and slowly tightening up a defence which has been far too leaky.

Expect more of the same at in-form Macclesfield tonight. City have only managed to pick up three points on the road this season, and haven’t won in the league away from home since James Hanson’s first half header at Moss Rose six months ago did much to preserve the Bantam’s league status. Parkinson apparently adopted a more defensive approach in the last away match at Hereford but didn’t get the sufficient levels of performance from his players; but it seems plausible he will prioritise not getting beaten this evening over playing in the open way at Port Vale a month ago, which was highly unfortunate to go unrewarded.

Should the slow and steady improvement be continued, it will be interesting to observe when Parkinson begins to give his attacking players more of a free reign to show their flair. Perhaps he has looked back on his early games in charge and concluded he tried to implement that passing, expansive style of play too soon.

As much as we can say recent tactics are more in the thinking of Taylor’s ethos, the former City manager had his team playing in that manner from day one and made no attempt to disguise such intentions. Parkinson, you feel, is different. Complaints about the style of football he played in previous jobs are well-known, but you don’t get to be a scout at a club with the philosophy of Arsenal – like Parkinson was when out of work last season – by being anti-football.

The need to earn wins and push City away from the relegation worries is hugely important, but that doesn’t mean Parkinson has found a formula that he will stick to for the rest of the season.

So we watch recent performances with raised spirits by the results, a few tiny doubts about the approach taken but optimism that what the more stylish football glimpsed previously will be continued when the time is right and with better personnel (e.g. a more solid defensive platform from which to play attacking football). Right now, functionalism is the key. One hopes we’ll have fun this season too.

Macclesfield offer a much stronger test than City’s last three opponents. Without being disrespectful, there is a theory that clubs of the Silkmen’s type – that is to say clubs with low resources compared to others – tend to start seasons well, but fade away when injuries and suspensions become too testing for a small squad. Nevertheless with three wins from four and only one home loss to date, it is not the greatest of timing for City to face them.

A win for City tonight though and we’ll have our own three from four, and the mood around the club will improve dramatically. A defeat and – with tough games to come against Swindon and third-placed Cheltenham – doom and gloom will weigh heavily.

Matt Duke keeps goal despite a constant soundtrack of supporters demanding he is dropped for Jon McLaughlin (odd that, seen as at the end of last season McLaughlin was getting slated). For me, the relationship between supporter and goalkeeper is about trust and, at the moment, Duke struggles to hold ours. As such, every time a goal goes in we instantly question whether he should have saved it. When a goalkeeper has earned our trust, we don’t do that unless they make a notable mistake.

Duke was blamed by some supporters for Michael Jacobs’ thunderbolt strike for Northampton – which seems ridiculous. Equally I can’t understand why Hereford’s goals were labelled his fault the week earlier. He is getting slowly better, and we need to stick with him.

In the defence, Liam Moore and Robbie Threlfall sit either side of Luke Oliver and Marcel Seip. It was an encouraging home debut from the Dutch defender, who looked better when he didn’t have to think compared to a few occasions when he had time to assess his options. Perhaps he is the opposite of Steve Williams.  Two of the midfield four pick themselves, with Ritchie Jones and Kyel Reid both producing superb second half displays on Saturday.

Who will play alongside them is where the controversy will centre on, if the game is lost (because Parkinson has already seemingly past the honeymoon and has been attracting some strong criticism from some supporters,  so they will need some ammunition). While Adam Reed did okay on Saturday, Michael Flynn is playing far too well not to be recalled on his return from suspension. However, Reed may keep his place in the centre and Jones moved wide right.

If Parkinson does this all hell will break loose, because it means the promising Michael Bryan will have been dropped. Yet the functionalism theory dictates that playing with two out and out wingers away from home is a more risky strategy, and Parkinson does not seem shy of making such a tough call in picking Jones as a wide midfielder to give City a stronger central midfield. Personally I thought Bryan did well in flashes on Saturday, but some of the praise he received seemed a little over the top.

Up front Craig Fagan and James Hanson will continue, with Parkinson a big fan of the pair developing a partnership that showed initial promise on Saturday and at Burton a few weeks back.

There are plenty of other people waiting in the wings, but the likes of Jamie Devitt, Chris Mitchell and the injured Ross Hannah may have to wait patiently until the pressure on the team lessens to the point style can be prioritised again. Rarely has a Bradford City season being about the squad of players, rather than the first 11, in the way that this one is shaping up to be.

I have in my hand a piece of paper…

…or rather a collection of a pieces of paper stapled together in the top left corner. It was passed to me by Archie Christie – it has his first name under the staple – as part of the day we spent with him as an illustration of the work that get done at City.

I’m not going to tell you what is in the papers for reasons which will become clear, dear reader, but I can tell you what it says on the front. Under a large Bantams’ Badge reads the words “Bradford City Match Assessment” and under that – written in pen (although this is a photocopy) read the names “Macclesfield T” and “Northampton T”.

The date reads “17th of September” which was – according to the inscriptions – a dry and windy day.

For years, decades, I’ve heard about football clubs who “do their homework” on the opposition, who “have them watched” and for the first time I have the information (or a part of it) which Phil Parkinson and Steve Parkin will be looking over to plan City’s team.

It is a coincidence that paper I got was between is City’s next two opponents but probably not that scout Nigel Brown who authored the document – it carries his name – took in the match. Nigel Brown and Archie Christie talked about arriving at City and finding a filing cabinet marked scouting reports which had sub-divisions for each league and each letter in that league but absolutely nothing in them. If someone had been doing the homework at Bradford City before Christie and Brown then the dog had almost certainly eaten it.

It struck me in the weeks after embedding with him that Christie’s role at the club split down three lines none of which were having that much attention paid to them before his arrival. The first and most obvious was the player recruitment and development side which is an all encompassing one taking in watching players as well as the activities with the Development Squad. Then, most celebrated, is his deal making as seen in George Green’s move to Everton. Potentially Green’s move is the largest transfer between the fourth tier and the top tier of English football ever. Finally there is the homework side and preparing information for the first team’s manager.

Christie started the operation from an empty cabinet and was taking in a game at Halifax Town when he bumped into Brown – Brown told us that most Scouts know each other – and Christie invited him to come in and help with the network. The pair of them assembled a team of around a half dozen scouts up and down the country. There is a private scouting network which clubs can subscribe to which provides information on any team for a fee which might account for where Peter Taylor was getting his information on visiting teams but Brown is sceptical about the merits of that. It struck me that if the aim of scouting teams is to find weaknesses then a report that is freely purchased by anyone will detail faults that a manager would be a fool not to fix. Christie and Brown’s scouting – if it contains a note on how a team can be got at – is known only to City.

The scouts (including Christie and Brown) go watch League Two games, non-league games, reserve games and fill in the type of form which sits in front of me today. The approach is detailed. Reserve games are important in case of suspensions forcing a change to the starting eleven while non-league games (and higher reserve games) allow information about players who may end up being recruited by the opposition. Christie tells a story of Dagenham being undone by a player who had not featured in the first team but cropped up on a Tuesday night on the south coast to frustrate the Daggers.

There was an obvious question about what Christie’s scouting network had thought about the City teams he had faced. Christie did not say anything against anyone who had stalked the halls of Valley Parade before him but the impression I got was that at Dagenham City’s team under Stuart McCall was considered to be nice to look at but soft in the centre and easy to get at, easy to beat. I loved watching Stuart’s side’s play expansive football but I’d have to agree with that analysis.

The empty cabinet is an interesting idea but we know that in the past managers at City have talked about watching clubs – Stuart McCall’s post-game interviews would often include a reference to having seen the team before – but the image remains. John Hendrie once talked about how City would often see unknown faces around the training ground who turned out to be the opposition scouts finding out the team for Saturday.

So one assumes that there must have been paper in this cabinet at some point, files on teams and players filled by McCall (who took a scouting role for Norwich after he left City), Colin Todd or whoever, but the open space tells a story of its own.

That story involves the recruitment of a scouting network to watch teams 70% of which are based in the South. It involves a network of contacts built up who fulfil Brown demanding criteria. Brown worked with Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn Rovers having a hand in the signing of Alan Shearer for £3.5m and the sale of him for “£16.75m” (which is not the figure widely circulated, but the one Brown told us) after “getting the best years out of him.” After working with Dalglish – “He never watched games, loved his videos” – Brown moved onto Wigan Athletic as Dave Whelan started building his tier three club built to compete at the top level from the ground up. Brown is the sort of man you hope a scout is, quietly spoken but deeply knowledgeable and with a steel in his eye for a player. While Christie believes that desire is the thing to look for in a player Brown wants acceleration over five yards. The two are a great combination – Christie calls Brown “Nigel Green” and Brown smiles back. “I can’t do the negotiations like Archie can” he went on to say.

The scouts who Brown and Christie got to join City were tasked with watching City too – the City they watched being the one which Mark Lawn commented on last week – and gave their opinions. Perhaps these informed Lawn’s comments and Parkinson’s changes since he took over. Certainly there were recurrent themes in the reports which Christie and Brown got back and it seems to me that those have been addressed, or have been attempted to be addressed.

The aim of the opposition scouting networking is to provide the manager with everything he could want. It is then up to the manager and his coaching staff to decide how much notice he wants to take of that information. Not all managers are interested but what I have in front of me makes fascinating reading and I could see no reason why a manager would not welcome this with arms open. The Damned Utd (not an historical source but a cracking read) has Brian Clough refuse to look at Don’s Dodgy Dossiers on the opposition, real life tells us he had Peter Taylor watching every inch of opponents.

Without showing the report it is hard to illustrate what it has in it but the circulated version of a report on Newcastle United written by Andre Villas-Boas when he was scout at Chelsea offers similar (although City use numbers and not pictures of shirts) and is indicative of the level of research which goes into preparing for a game.

There is no Bradford City Official Secrets Act (aside from Christie tell us not to go showing the report around, it has not left my office physically or virtually since) but I think it is best if what we know about them stays under wraps for now but I recall watching City over the past thirty years and seeing the odd event that would have been captured in this document and would not have poised a problem. The Paul Merson/Benito Carbone short corner that unlocked City in the Premier League, the wall of tiny Wigan players who created themselves in front of City’s wall at a free kick in the late eighties only to break off and leave many bemused and little else, Peter Jackson and Chris Branston’s antics from a corner at the McAlpine in the mid part of the decade.

Simple things like the fact that a number three might play in central midfield and not left back to more technical and detailed lore. The experience of watching City play Northampton Town at Valley Parade will, for me, come with a crib sheet and I wonder how that will change the way I see the game. When he was Coventry City manager Gordon Strachan was fond of appearing on Match of the Day saying how he and his players had worked all week on doing one thing and – for reasons of their own – the players had decided to do something else. I wonder if I will see the same.

Northampton Town arrive at Valley Parade on the back of a 3-0 defeat by Port Vale which saw questions asked but in generally rude form. They are seventeenth in the table.

City go into the game on the back of a disappointing result at Hereford United and have before them a familiar set of criticisms. Matt Duke is criticised because he could have been better positioned for the goals that Hereford scored (or so it is said) although the best position is always “in the way” and “not in the way” seldom has any merits. Duke’s single clean sheet was last time out at Valley Parade against Torquay United.

Luke Oliver and Marcel Seip are expected to retain the central defensive positions although Steve Williams is returning to the reckoning. Liam Moore and Robbie Threlfall will be full backs although looking at the report I might be… No, best not.

Michael Flynn’s two game suspension sees him sit out the match and allows Adam Reed and Richie Jones to take the middle positions with Kyel Reid wide left. Phil Parkinson could be tempted to drop Jamie Devitt to wide right, recall Mark Stewart for that position or give Chris Mitchell his place in the side back. City have missed Mitchell’s delivery in recent weeks. David Syers’ injury and Flynn’s suspension open the possibility of Scott Brown getting a place on the bench.

Craig Fagan is starting to be cemented into the forward line up in James Hanson’s absence though injury. Hanson may return and take a place in the starting line up although if he is not fit Parkinson may continue with his policy of having a man lead the line and another feeding off him and deploy Devitt or Stewart behind Fagan. All link men – the position in question – are judged by a standard of Peter Beardsley and Stewart seems most able to find space and move the ball on then make for an attacking position but Devitt’s game could be tweaked to do the same.

Such talk is the talk of scribbles on paper though – attacking diagrams done on beer mats – and football is played on grass and not paper. Some pieces of paper, however, certainly are worth a read before the boot sets foot on turf.

When you have to change a winning team

There is an adage in football that a manager should not change a winning team and as the Bantams celebrated the uplifting result over Torquay United last weekend one can imagine Phil Parkinson would liked to have kept what the Bantams brought off the pitch on against the South Coast club and put it straight into the game with Hereford United.

However, having passed up the idea of appealing Andrew Davies’ red card Parkinson is in the rare position of being able to change a winning team by adding another player to it.

And that player seems certain to be Guy Branston who came off the bench to great effect against his former club last week and looks set to replace Davies. The next three games offer Branston a gilt edge chance to do all his talking – and he does like to have his voice heard – on the field. If in three games time Branston and City have thoroughly put the habit of conceding one or two soft goals a game behind them then the captain will have convinced all.

However with Steve Williams playing the full game at Gateshead as the reserves won 2-1 the more mobile defender might give the manager a choice to make between Williams and one of Branston and Luke Oliver.

With Phil Parkinson new to the job it is difficult to guess what the manager will favour: two big men, one big and one nimble, and so on, and Saturday will start to tell us how the Gaffer likes his teams to play.

Matt Duke celebrated his first clean sheet of the season in goal and Liam Moore and Robbie Threlfall will continue at full backs. Luke O’Brien and Marcel Seip would both like a place on the bench but the new squads of sixteen rule looks like forcing Parkinson into a selection. Parkinson told BfB he is no fan of the drop from seven subs to five and preferred the more full bench. Personally I see no reason why a team should not be able to call on any registered player giving a limitless bench of which three substitutions could be made.

Also lighting up Gateshead on his first appearance and hoping to trouble the bench is Scott Brown although the sixteen year old looks like he may have to wait and watch Richie Jones and Michael Flynn who are growing into a superb partnership. It is hard to know who to praise more. Flynn for his comeback and the way he has worked well with Jones or Jones for his expansive play and work rate. Both are the sort of player you want in the heart of your midfield.

Kyel Reid will carry on on the left hand side. Norman Hunter – when City assistant manager – was once asked who the best player he had seen was and unexpectedly he answered “Leigh Palin.” The lightweight City midfielder – who struggled to nail down a place next to Stuart McCall in the mid-to-late-1980s – came with a caveat though as Hunter continued “for twenty minutes, and then nothing.”

Reid seems to have the same capacity to have a spell in the game where one is convinced that he is hardly worth a pair of boots and then another spell when one joins the flat footed defenders in being mesmerised by his play. If he could turn it on every week one doubts he would be in League Two, but as long has he keeps his defensive duties done then his on/off play does no harm and much good.

Adam Reed – who returned from Sunderland after going back North to get over injury in his first game at Burton – might trouble the right wing although Mark Stewart’s play when dropped back merited a standing ovation last week and could see him keep the spot. Jack Compton started in the position last week and will hope to feature again, Jamie Devitt is hoping to find a place in the side and could also feature.

Whoever does not feature at right wing may get a call alongside Craig Fagan up front. James Hanson may recover from injury and as with the central defensive pairing we will learn much about Parkinson’s approach to attacking options from who he picks. Playing with another big man would suit Hanson’s game and he could do well – as we saw against Barnet – in feeding as well as flicking the ball on. The likes of Devitt, Stewart, Nakhi Wells and Nialle Rodney all chomp at the bit for a place up front.

Which is good. City have a big squad – but a small playing budget, this season’s big squad costs less than Peter Taylor’s small one and one would struggle to say it is worse – and plenty of competition for places which Parkinson is a great advocate of. “It takes care of training” says the City boss.

Hereford United – second bottom of League Two – will be fighting the same fight as City won last week. The season starts to become established and teams do not want to be near the bottom when it starts to be set in cement. Last week’s win from City was great but to meet Phil Parkinson’s plan of being in the top half of the table by Christmas there is a need to pick up points at the least on the road.

The pressure on Parkinson – after last week’s result – will to be return with three and again we will learn something about how he approaches the game in how he sets out to get a win or keeps safe in looking for a draw.

The smile, and how to retain it

The wife woke up at 5.45am as usual on Wednesday morning, discovering that she had still not refound her voice that had been lost in the wake of Bradford City’s thrilling penalty shootout win over Huddersfield Town. She was tired. Too tired really. The journey back from the Galpharm seemed to involve a couple of wrong turns and so we got home later than hoped. No voice and feeling utterly knackered – not a good combination for a Primary School teacher.

Still on the plus side, one of her teaching colleagues was a Huddersfield Town supporter. Be sure to ‘bump’ into her today…

And that’s what derby victories are all about – the bragging rights. The opportunity to get one over our friends, family and work colleagues and to continue taunting them for months to come – no matter what they try to argue back. In the wake of Tuesday’s victory for the Bantams, there were some attempts from those of a blue and white persuasion to talk its significance down. “It was only a Huddersfield reserve side” argued some Town fans, in view of eight changes made. Given Phil Parkinson made six for City, so too was ours by this logic.

“The league’s the most important thing” whined Huddersfield’s BBC Radio Leeds pundit Kieran O’Regan, as though it isn’t for City. Presenter Gareth Jones beautifully caught O’Regan out by then asking the former Terriers player when he thought Town and City would next face each other in the league. (Para-phrasing here) “Well we’re going for promotion this season, I can’t see Bradford going up. So not for a while.” “So you’re saying it will probably be a few years until they play each other? Well until then, Bradford fans now have the bragging rights don’t they?” Long pause.

What a night. The penalty shootout was utterly nerve wracking, but after Nialle Rodney struck the winning spot kick – euphoria. When Michael Flynn missed City’s first attempt, it was easy to fear the worst. As the twists and turns unfolded with the packed away end cheering or groaning, my wife was completely frozen in fear. She couldn’t move, so gripped with worry she was. The celebrations in the end were wild, while the Town fans looked as devastated as we would have. At 1-0 a group of home fans on the left side had attempted to charge at us City supporters in anger, only to be stopped by stewards. Trouble occurred outside as we headed home.

That is the ugly side of football that no one should enjoy, but it showed how much the game mattered for both sets of supporters in attendance. Yes it was only the JPT, but as Stuart McCall once said a game of tiddlywinks between the two sides would matter. Yes it was via the lottery of penalties, but two League One sides have now been dumped out of the cup by the Bantams which is impressive. Yes there were no league wins in-between those two victories, but perhaps the corner is finally turning.

The victory over Town followed a better weekend that followed a bad one and bad one before that. Now the challenge is to maintain the upwards curve of improvement and finally start to make an impression in the league. There has still only been one League Two victory to date, and past form would suggest City will follow up a heroic cup victory with a cowardly league performance. That can’t be allowed to happen, not least with a bumper crowd expected and in need of being entertained.

Torquay will be no pushovers – beaten in the play off final last season, and with memories of a 3-0 stroll at Valley Parade last April still fresh in the mind. But at the same time they are no world beaters – even by League Two standards, as they are only 13th so far. There’s no guarantees in football and City are in no position to underestimate anyone, but another slip up will be difficult to accept and the team badly need to keep the fans’ post-Huddersfield mood in tact come 5pm.

The six changes Parkinson made on Tuesday worked well and will give him plenty to ponder for tomorrow, although the five players who kept their place after Burton Albion were the five who truly excelled. Matt Duke, Liam Moore, Luke Oliver, Robbie Threlfall and especially Flynn were outstanding at the Galpharm (even if Threlfall could have used the ball better at times). Indeed it was noticeable that Parkinson choose to keep the backline in tact and was rewarded by further improvement even if two goals were again conceded – at least two have been let in for six consecutive games now.

Duke might have made a meal of a couple of Huddersfield shots, but produced a string of terrific saves that will have done his confidence the power of good. Moore played with a level of commitment not usually associated with loan players, while so powerful was Oliver’s header for 2-1 that it brought back fond memories of David Wetherall. Threlfall will also keep his place tomorrow, though Andrew Davies will be recalled over Guy Branston. It was a mixed night for the club captain, who was superb in many aspects but struggled with his distribution.

In midfield Ritchie Jones and Kyel Reid should return, but Adam Reed is out and whether Jamie Devitt – on his way back from injury – comes straight back in too depends on Parkinson’s view on Luke O’Brien. I thought he was excellent on Tuesday taking people on, and he did a good job helping Moore when switched to the right midway through the first half. Chris Mitchell had another good game and set up the opening goal. He will probably be left on the bench and is unlucky to do so. Jack Compton should be back on the sidelines too, which seems right compared to what Reid and O’Brien offer. Flynn is the only certain midfield starter.

Up front, James Hanson’s absence on Tuesday offered fans calling for his permanent removal from the starting eleven a chance to press their claims. Rodney and Mark Stewart did well at times, but in my view Hanson’s presence was missed and when City struggled to clear their lines and keep the ball I’m sure I wasn’t the only one hankering for a target man of Hanson’s ilk. It was heartbreaking to see Ross Hannah’s big chance be ended by an awful challenge just seven minutes in, and with the former Matlock striker set to miss this game Stewart will probably take his place on the bench and Craig Fagan and Hanson – if fit- recalled.

Whoever is left out of the 11 from Tuesday can feel unfortunate, and for those who come in or who retain their place this week has seen the competition for places intensify. Parkinson needs to have a squad who can’t be sure of their places and who must deliver the goods at all times, and he needs to have people queuing up outside his office door pressing their claims for a starting spot.

Every reason then, to believe this squad should be sufficiently motivated to win tomorrow.

Every reason then, for the bragging to be able to continue.

Parkinson turns the ship

Taking his Bradford City team to Burton Albion in search of his first win as City boss Phil Parkinson talks like a man who can see the turn of the tide.

We have worked hard again in training this week, we’ve brought another player into the football club – the squad’s evolving (Adam Reed) – I feel it’s getting better all the time. The positions that we are filling now are the key positions that I felt needed addressing when I sat down with the chairmen at the very beginning.

Reed’s arrival at Sunderland to join the central midfielders adds to Andrew Davies’ joining from Stoke City, and Craig Fagan and Kyel Reid’s signings, in a Bantams team that starts to be shaped in the manager’s image.

The frustration of the AFC Wimbledon game was clear for all to see with too little decisiveness and responsibility taken and too few links between the midfield and the forward line leaving James Hanson once again isolated up front and four players attempting to make the connection between the lines and none quiet able to get it right against a five man defence which enjoyed sitting deep.

Away from home – and with less onus to attack – Parkinson’s team are perhaps better suited at this stage as they look to build confidence. Parkinson has a plethora of options available but has he calls on those he looks to do so in a way that blends a change in attitude on the field. The losing culture talked about in the week seems to have been obvious to the manager, as to managers before him.

That culture has proved near impossible to turn around and Bradford City is like a large ship struggling to alter course. Parkinson has identified the problem quickly in his time at City, which is a step in the right direction. Previous managers have not found a way to deal with it.

Sitting ninth Burton Albion come into the game with suspensions to Aaron Webster and Ryan Austin following the 3-1 defeat to Gillingham.

Patience is here and there as Bradford City face AFC Wimbledon

When the history of early 21st century football is written, the emergence of clubs with AFC prefixes will surely loom large. Whether they will be portrayed as grassroots revolutions or romantic daydreams only time will tell. At present their impact on the greater game is limited. They are a curiosity more than a threat to the established structure of the game. However, if AFC Wimbledon progress further up the divisions their ethos and ownership structure has the potential to reverberate throughout the professional game. The watershed moment would surely arrive if AFC Wimbledon overhauled the MK Dons.

However, we would do well not to over romanticise AFC Wimbldeon. Multiple promotions, and even a debt controversy, suggest that they are not FC United-esque mid-life crisis, revolutionaries. AFC Wimbledon are a limited company, albeit one dominated by the shareholding of their Supporters’ Trust.

Interestingly they also have an Independent Supporters’ Association, which suggests, in parallel with revolutions everywhere, Lincoln City for example, that factionalism is a fact of football life. So, is Saturday’s match at Valley Parade an encounter between two former Premier League clubs, or a vivid example of how a well organised grassroots football club can rise through the leagues to meet a former Premier League club which has spent a decade fighting crisis after crisis?

All that will fade into insignificance once the whistle is blown at three o’clock. The Dons arrive at Valley Parade off the back of an impressive 4-1 victory over Cheltenham. However, their form, like many in the division, is erratic. It has included a four goal thumping at Macclesfield. Are we in for another high scoring encounter? Few City fans would put money on their defence keeping a clean sheet, so it is probably a question of outscoring the visitors.

City have injury doubts over Kyel Reid, Michael Flynn, Liam Moore and Robbie Threlfall. Phil Parkinson has shown a reluctance to change the starting eleven during his short stint at the helm. However, perhaps the injuries and the poor second half performance at Crawley will force his hand?

Fortunately, he has options, although it appears that the most popular change among some supporters, Luke O’Brien for Robbie Threlfall, is the most unlikely to happen with the former Liverpool player seemingly the most likely to recover. Undoubtedly the defence requires work. The return of Steve Williams in a couple of weeks appears to be a formality. For Saturday Parkinson’s options are limited. Whilst he has wingers to spare, the back four is highly likely to remain in situ. We can only hope that the defence, and the captain’s Twitter account, have a quiet weekend.

The Dons game is beginning to take on some significance. Despite the team receiving praise for their free flowing football, and pledges that the fans would be content to have attacking football this season, some are beginning to nervously glance at the table. However, a similar glance at the calendar will reveal that it is still September. We have a new manager and a restructured team. Patience is a dirty word at Valley Parade, but show me the options?

The hare and tortoise approach to team building as Bradford City head to Crawley Town

The Manchester City defender Wayne Bridge will always hold a special place in Bradford City’s history – for it was his free kick goal for Southampton vs Wimbledon in 2000 that indirectly helped the Bantams avoid relegation from the Premier League. But in the wider football world, it seems unlikely he will be remembered beyond once refusing a handshake.

Bridge has recently been in the spotlight after turning down numerous offers of first team football away from Eastlands, in preference for stagnating in the reserves and training alone.

He has not started a Premier League match for Man City since last October. And though he may shortly be persuaded into joining a Championship club on loan, the £90,000-a-week left back apparently seems more concerned with living the footballers’ lifestyle than playing football itself.

The deep pockets approach to building a team

It didn’t have to be like this, and Bridge can hardly argue he wasn’t warned. He left Southampton to join Chelsea’s sudden Roman Abramovich revolution in 2003 – a star signing for the club at the time – but as the Blues progressed and could attract a better calibre of player, Ashley Cole arrived and took his place.

So when Man City, suddenly flush with money, came knocking in 2009, one might have thought he’d realise what would eventually happen and say no. Perhaps, with The Guardian quoting a Man City insider declaring Bridge has become “more interested in what he’s doing on his Saturday nights rather than Saturday afternoons”, he was happy to fulfil his fate.

Nevertheless Bridge has been both the beneficiary and victim of two of the highest profile team building strategies of recent years. Considered a key arrival for both Chelsea and Man City at one stage; each club’s speed of progress then left him no longer good enough for its ambitions.

Yet for both Chelsea and Man City this left a difficult problem. Huge wages were committed on signing the likes of Bridge, Hernando Crespo and Adrian Mutu at Chelsea, and Bridge, Emmanuel Adebayor and Craig Bellamy at City – and with even bigger wages then needed to bring in the ‘next level’ players, a very expensive and unneeded reserve team was a legacy and a headache.

Man City might have bottomless pockets for the moment, but most other clubs do not. And so the folly of splashing out heavily on players, who can only take you some of the way towards your intended destination before you need to replace them, becomes clear in time.

2008/09 revisited – the flaw in the plan

At Bradford City, and on an altogether different scale of budget, such an approach was tried in the summer of 2008 when then-manager Stuart McCall was handed a budget of £1.9 million and joint-Chairman Julian Rhodes spoke publically of aiming for back-to-back promotions.

That money largely went on the wages of Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee and Michael Boulding. Let’s ignore for one moment the fact this strategy failed on account of the Bantams failing to go up, and pretend the season hadn’t collapsed with 11 games to go.

Had City crossed the promotion line, would these four players have been good enough to lead the Bantams straight through League One and into the Championship the following season? Or would they be near the top of a list of players needing selling, as McCall would have looked to spend money securing the on-loan season stars Dean Furman, Nicky Law and Steve Jones – on top of targeting other new signings?

And herein perhaps would have lied a significant problem. For the wages of Brandon, McLaren, Lee and Boulding would have proved too high to allow them to sit on the sidelines, and efforts to move them on would have been just as troublesome as they were when McCall had to try to get rid of them because the promotion effort had failed. Meanwhile to get Furman and co, plus others, would have needed the Chairmen to dig deeper once again. The path of progression would have come at a much higher cost, and may not have been sustainable.

£100,000 a year to sit on Crawley’s bench

Crawley Town arrive to Valley Parade tomorrow with very real concerns of this type. Benefiting from sizeable investment which is dubious in its origin, the Red Devils spent some £600k on transfer fees alone last season and were rewarded with a stroll to the Conference title. Having again been heavy spenders this summer, they began as pre-season favourites for promotion and have gone into their first ever Football League campaign with the pressure and expectation they will sail straight into League One.

Yet recent results are not good. Having not lost a league game since October 2010, they have been defeated in three of their last four games. Add in cup matches, and it’s five defeats from six. Last Saturday they were thrashed 6-0 at Morecambe, on Tuesday they were beaten 3-0 at home to Swindon. Not exactly the form of would-be champions.

And for the dislikeable Steve Evans and his wealthy benefactors, a new and perhaps unexpected problem is emerging. All that money has only got them so far, and to fulfil their ambitions it looks like they will need to spend a great deal more. Some of the players who may no longer be good enough are reportedly earning £100,000 a year – who else would be willing to match that and take these unwanted players off their hands? Last season Crawley were nicknamed the ‘Man City of non-league’. It looks like they could soon have a few Wayne Bridges of their own.

Work in progress

The contrast in the Bantams’ new approach is stark. So much has been talked about this building for the future outlook that it is getting repetitive, but with City electing to buy potential rather than buy expensive a more sustainable approach is developing. Relatively speaking most of the summer signings came cheap, and if they don’t prove good enough or can’t match the progress of the club they will not be expensive to move on. On the other side of the coin they may also become valuable assets if they develop strongly, potentially providing decent transfer fees.

If this strategy and this team can take City upwards, there would be a less likelihood of a nosebleed halfway on route to the top and fear that vast money must be found to sustain improvement. The speed of progress may be slower, but perhaps along the journey we’ll skip past a few clubs who had apparently spent their way to success, but are finding it a struggle to maintain momentum.

The midweek defeat to Port Vale emphasised that this is a slow burner approach. Eight games in and City have produced some wonderful football and the team is developing into one many of us have fallen in love with, because of their high work rate and commitment. Yet only one win has been recorded and four defeats have already been chalked up. As the league table begins to carry meaning, 22nd-placed City are one point worse off compared to last season’s dreadful start.

Promising displays are not yet turning into results. No one is panicking, but for now an uneasy feeling is difficult to avoid.

Bouncing back from a first defeat in five

Despite Crawley’s recent results, tomorrow is a tough test for a City side looking for an immediate response to Tuesday’s set back. Matt Duke is top of the list aiming for redemption after his howler for Vale’s second goal raised questions about his match sharpness. At the moment he is averaging two goals conceded per game; and while some of those were unstoppable strikes, we’ve not yet seen him make too many noteworthy saves to prevent opposition attacks.

The back four may be shaken up or Parkinson – who at half time at Vale Park told his defence not to sit so deep, which brought about an improvement – may be tweaking other areas of the set up to provide greater defensive protection. Liam Moore got through a tough first half to again impress, and his long throws are a useful weapon. Robbie Threlfall did okay, but the more attack-minded Luke O’Brien could flourish in this team. Guy Branston had a tough evening at Vale Park and – if Steve Williams is back soon – could be favourite for a breather with Luke Oliver showing better form.

The midfield four often becomes a five when Jamie Devitt floats deeper, and is impressing greatly when City have the ball but are a concern when they don’t. Michael Flynn has received some criticism for his performances this season, but to me it seems he is playing a deeper role than he used to which might be confusing some. Just like Lee Bullock two years ago, it seems Flynn is being asked to perform in a way that better conserves his ageing energy levels while still contributing positively. Ritchie Jones will play alongside him, with Chris Mitchell wide right and Kyel Reid wide left.

Mitchell is another with his critics in the stands. I had the misfortune of sitting next to a no-doubt-committed-but-ridiculously-negative supporter in the first half on Tuesday, who commented that Mitchell reminds him of Gary Locke because “he was half a yard off the pace too.” Mitchell is the kind of non-tackler, methodical player many fans always seem to hate, but continues to be quietly effective in his positioning and passing ability. The direct-minded Reid gets better every game – he is Omar Daley v2.

Up front Parkinson’s search for a striker concluded with the signing of Craig Fagan but the former Hull City man has not played much in over a year so will be lacking match fitness so expect James Hanson to partner Devitt. Hanson’s time in the first eleven is probably coming to an end for now, but in away games his value in holding up the ball to relieve the pressure on the rest of the team is especially invaluable and he emerged from Vale Park with plenty of credit. Ross Hannah bangs loudly on the door but the excellent Concentrate on the League website argues why he should be super sub for now. Nahki Wells has also moved up the pecking order; worrying times for Mark Stewart.

Undoubtedly the pressure tomorrow is on the home side. Defeat for Crawley and who knows what ambitious owners would do about Steve Evans. A loss for City would spell greater relegation fears but, as Micky Adams declared in midweek, this team has the potential to challenge at the top.

Crawley climbed to the summit much faster, but may increasingly become envious of the Bantams and their plan.

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