Match Previews

The form team

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Bradford City play Cheltenham Town At Valley Parade in League Two, 2011/2012

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.

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

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Bradford City play Marine Juniors At Valley Parade in The FA Youth Cup, First Round

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.

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Making no excuses

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Bradford City play Swindon Town At The County Ground in League Two, 2011/2012

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.

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

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Bradford City play Macclesfield Town At Moss Rose in League Two, 2011/12

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.

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I have in my hand a piece of paper…

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Bradford City play Northampton Town At Valley Parade in League Two, 2011/2012

…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.

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