Boulding stays and will hope for a more competitive League Two

Touch wood, everyone will be starting the new campaign equal. Last season’s League Two saw a whopping 74 points collectively deducted from four teams, with the result a less competitive and more conservative division. With Luton beginning on minus 30 and Bournemouth and Rotherham minus 17, you had to be really bad to become embroiled in the relegation battle. Two clubs – Grimsby and Chester – were, thanks largely to some wretched winless runs. The latter getting relegated with Luton, who never really stood a chance.

But what of the rest? There were around 10 League Two clubs with little to play for last season. No where near good enough for promotion, but no where near bad enough to throw away such a sizeable headstart that relegation worries were anything stronger than faint. It was a campaign for going through the motions.

The downside, on Valley Parade evidence, was how good a result an away draw was thus considered and we had to become used to visiting team after visiting team playing either five at the back or five in midfield. Compare Macclesfield Town’s – the perfect example of a club able to coast through a nothing season – approach at Valley Parade last March to that of relegation-threatened Mansfield and Dagenham the March before. City’s home record may have been better last season, but few opposition teams turned up to BD8 with ambitions of testing it.

No player seemed to suffer more from this than Michael Boulding, who’s first season in Claret and Amber can be politely described as disappointing. It became quickly obvious that Boulding was a player who likes to run the channels and receive the ball at his feet, but the deep defensive tactics of opposing teams meant the space to do so was minimal. In too many home games Boulding was anonymous, rarely touching the ball never mind threatening to score. Away from home he wasn’t always on his game, but the increased space afforded by home teams more prepared to take the game to City meant he was a more notable threat. He ended the season with 13 goals – but hasn’t scored at Valley Parade since December 2008.

The affect of these opposition defensive strategies meant the kind of football the majority of City fans like to see wasn’t always possible, and over time the myth has grown that manager Stuart McCall likes his teams to play ‘hoof ball’. It’s true to a point that City have become more direct under Stuart compared to the style that predecessors Colin Todd and Nicky Law, for example, liked to play, but the chances of City getting through a sea of opposition players parked resolutely in front of their keeper makes the success of short patient passes manifesting into goalscoring chances limited. Get it into the opposition’s final third, even if it’s not by the prettiest of means, and the opportunities to get closer to goal increase.

During a season where there was endless debates about no Plan B, it would be wrong to say this was all City tried. It appeared they went for a mixed style with the ball passed around some times, then targeted down the wing at others, with direct attacks another weapon. Play the same way all the time and, against defensive-minded opposition, it becomes too predictable. Some of City’s better moments certainly came through quick-fire passing and, when in form, were an exciting team to watch.

‘Hoof ball’ really came to the fore during the poor run of form in March, which showed it was a sign of drained confidence. Players are less likely to try the patient approach when people in the stands are screaming “forward!” and ready to chant “you’re not fit to wear a shirt” at the first sign of problems, so our necks began to feel the strain from all those ‘hoof balls’ during the increasingly desperate run-in. Stuart needs players with certain qualities to take the club forward this season, the conviction to play to your strengths and take ownership of situations, even when low on confidence, being high up there. Easier said than done with League Two calibre players though.

Which brings us back to Boulding, who has today revealed he wants to stay and prove himself after last season’s disappointment. Whether opposition teams – more likely to go into matches targeting a win with a proper relegation and promotion battle – change their defensive approach this season remains to be seen. However for Boulding to succeed he’s going to have to show more in his game. Unlike at his former club Mansfield, where he was the star, this City team is not going to be built around him. He faces a battle just to make the starting eleven ahead of Peter Thorne and Gareth Evans. It’s not going to be enough for him to have long anonymous spells in games and to wait for the team to play him the right ball, he has to come looking for it and to be more determined to influence games.

There’s no doubting Boulding is a good player and City remain fortunate to have him. In a division that should be more adventurous and competitive this season, he needs to follow suit.

Lee exits having not touched the sides of the hole

City captain Graeme Lee has joined Notts County on a tree transfer and will line up against The Bantams in the first game of next season with supporters wondering why the defender failed to make the impression expected of him at Valley Parade.

Lee’s new manager Ian McParland praised his new signing talking much about his abilities in defense that would be echoed by Bantam fans. As a central defender Lee put few feet wrong all season and for the winter months was part of a back four that seemed to forget how to concede.

His abilities were at the top of this league and – as with Michael Boulding who offered to take a pay cut to stay today and others at the club – he is only moved on for financial reasons but Lee’s position at City as captain and senior player required more than simply doing a good job at the back.

McParland talks about Lee the leader and it was that side of his game that was sadly lacking over the last twelve months.

The Bantams sided floundered for the want of a firm hand and an open mouth on the field having moved from the calm control of David Wetherall and the Imperious McCall. If Wetherall struggled to fill the hole skipper Stuart left then Lee was positively swamped by it.

So as a player he will be missed but for a team that looked so rudderless for the last two months of the season a change is mandated.

McCall needs to find a captain of character to build a team with strength. He tried to make that captain Graeme Lee. Addressing that failure is a step forward.

Time for pre-season optomism?

There are times during the season where it’s neigh on impossible to get some City fans to say anything positive – but the prevailing mood amongst many so far this summer has been as dark as any last-gasp home defeat.

Some have gone as far as to believe the club faces a grim relegation battle next season, others can’t hide their envy towards clubs we were once able to look down our noses on. Within the last week though, it seems the new season is increasingly something to feel excited about. The fixtures are out, the majority of players we wanted to keep have agreed to stay and Zesh Rehman and Gareth Evans have joined Simon Ramsden and Jonathan Bateson on the ‘Players In’ list. It poses the question, is it time for pre-season optimism?

Those supporters who’ve taken a glass half empty look towards the future can fairly argue they are only following the club’s lead. At the end of last season, a gloomy picture of the playing budget for the next emerged. Manager Stuart McCall has consistently spoken of players needing to take wage cuts and played down the chances of capturing some of his transfer targets. Meanwhile the joint-Chairmen, Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn, have only been noticeable by their silence. No proclamations of targeting back-to-back promotions, no news of novel initiatives such as Lawn’s trip to Mexico last summer.

Undoubtedly, the uninspiring messages have been deliberate. Expectations over the past two seasons – much of which triggered by management and boardroom – have proved too high for the players to cope with. The feeling was that City had to get promoted in each of the last two seasons, but the much lower level of hype this time around may be about reducing the pressures of failure. The ambition is surely the same as the last two seasons, but the confidence in achieving it third time around is guarded against making public declarations.

Meanwhile some other clubs are spending significant money or at least talking about it. Rotherham have seemingly changed overnight from a club who end each season with an asterisk next to its name in the league table, due to points deductions, to big spenders. The seemingly terminally under-performing Notts County are set to acquire Middle East backers who are talking of lifting the club to the Championship within five years. That City and Shrewsbury began last season in similar positions of apparent affluence compared to others but still failed is forgotten by those who believe City can’t compete. But if a smaller budget rules a club out of triumphing over others, how on earth are Exeter City kicking off a League One campaign at Elland Road in a few weeks time?

Much of City’s finances depend on the future of the so-called ‘Big 4’ – Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee, Michael Boulding and Chris Brandon – who arrived last summer to widespread excitement. Their continuing employment is said to have severe repercussions over who else can be brought in alongside them, leaving McLaren, Lee and Boulding encouraged to take up their release clauses and Brandon free to talk to other clubs despite having another year left on his contract. Had any of these players not managed to disappoint last season, it would have been interesting to see how much their high wages really are an issue.

It’s not just getting them to move on that’s caused unrest among fans, but that plans to bring in new faces have apparently had to be delayed until their futures are determined. A couple of weeks ago Nicky Law’s decision to spurn City for Rotherham was seen as the fault of these players, by compromising Stuart’s ability to match the Millers’ offer. The arrival of Gareth Evans, who has turned down other offers, contradicts this and suggests City do still have the resources to compete.

That said it’s far from ideal that Stuart is trying to build his team for next season while not knowing if some of the positions are filled. It’s claimed Lee and McLaren are attracting interest from other clubs but, given the wage budget-cutting measures at City are far from unique in the bottom two tiers of English football, it s improbable all four will receive attractive offers to move onto pastures new. Will they be prepared to take a pay cut and stay? It seems unlikely and, while footballers can largely be tainted with the same brush of money-grabbers, it’s doubtful we supporters would volunteer to take a pay cut in our own employment and these players won’t find it that much easier to pay the bills than most of us do.

Of the four, Boulding and Brandon’s continuing presence in Claret and Amber next season would be the most popular – yet even if they all stayed it might not be the disaster some fear. We’ve seen plenty of players over the years disappoint during their first season but become well-liked players in time – Peter Beagrie and Claus Jorgenson spring to mind – and, given their previous careers, if they were joining us this summer as new signings we’d probably be excited to welcome them.

At least the futures of the rest of the wanted squad members have been largely sorted. For a club which ultimately only narrowly missed out on a play off place and can largely thank a dodgy run of form for undermining a top three challenge, tearing everything up and starting again makes no sense. With Omar Daley not expected back much sooner than Santa, Joe Colbeck’s role will be more significant. Despite suffering a disappointing campaign, only five League Two players set up more goals for their team last season. Lee Bullock and Matt Clarke get more stick than they deserve, and will hope to maintain their best form for longer periods next term. They may be at different ends of their careers, but Luke O’Brien and Peter Thorne were two of City’s best performers next season and can once again play a key role this time.

One player we won’t be welcoming back is the aforementioned Nicky Law who, along with fellow loanee Dean Furman, was one of the bright spots of an ultimately disappointing season. When on form Law looked too good for League Two level and, if not City, his next destination was surely at a higher level. Instead he’ll be plying his trade at Rotherham and, while the son of the former City manager might claim he doesn’t owe the club he was on loan to any loyalty, the fact it wasn’t long ago he was thanking its manager for saving his career leaves a bad taste. Still, his previous relative obscurity should give us confidence in Stuart’s ability to unearth more gems like him.

Whether there are many more like Furman is another matter. Said to have been offered a deal by Stuart, his acceptance or rejection may determine the level of pre-season optimism. If it proves to be the latter decision, it will surely be due to the offer to play at a higher level, which in its own way may make the pain easier to bear compared to Law’s defection. Whatever happens, the success of Law and Furman should give other clubs’ more talented younger players the encouragement to follow in their footsteps if offered the chance to move to BD8 on loan.

Furman signing would leave City’s central midfield looking strong, though there are still other areas of the team for Stuart to build. More faces will arrive, the pre-season friendlies will commence in three weeks time and pretty soon it will be time to head down to Nottingham for the season’s start. Between now and then, the excitement should only grow.

The reality of the last two campaign is we’ve felt better about our team when they’ve not been playing, through the summer, than during the season itself. Pre-season optimism can be dangerous, foolish and, when looking at the mood among other clubs, too wide-ranging to have any meaning; but during these long summer days it’s all we’ve got and it would be preferable to countdown to the start of another 10 months of ups and downs by at least looking forward to it.

McCall needs to create a Jerk-Free zone

What makes Everton a good team? According to Tim Howard the Toffee-men are “a Jerk-Free Zone.”

The keeper has sung the praises of the squad around him that prepare for tomorrow’s FA Cup final and for his gaffer – David Moyes – who has build a squad without egos, at least at the moment. Tomorrow the Jerk-less meet up with the likes of Didder Drogba – a bigger jerk in football it is hard to find – as Everton play Chelsea for the FA Cup.

Coin-throwers, phone-in callers, with sixteen year old affair havers. It is tempting to characterise Wembley tomorrow as Jerkless vs Jerks but doing so fails to recognise the duality of “Jerks in the locker room” – as Howard might say – and the effect it has on clubs on the whole and Bradford City last season especially.

The Jerkless Everton are a team without egos who get along well and one doubts the same could be said about City last year who’s relations can be summed up by the phrase attributed to Paul Arnison – although rumours have a way of being divorced from fact and Arni may have said nothing of the sort – that he didn’t want to move to Bradford because “none of the rest of the squad like me.”

For sure the Mexico four may have gone on holiday – Swine Flu seemed to stop when MPs started expense claiming – but as John Hendrie said in his T&A column

I know three or four of the Bradford lads are going on holiday together this summer but every year we’d go away as a whole team – even the club secretary would come along. That’s how close we were.

Hendrie notes that current City boss Stuart McCall would love to build something similar – a look at the reaction to a lad’s night out shows it is not as simple as getting the players to drink together once or twice – and no doubt he would but it was not the presence of jerks (or lack of, in Everton’s case) that were the problem at City but rather the split that characterised Chelsea’s fall from Premier League Champions to the third place they occupied this season.

The figures were ludicrous to think of but Michael Ballack and Andrei Shevchenko’s wages near doubled the next highest earners who were no mean players to begin with. Even at that level the likes of Frank Lampard were looking in the direction of Sheva and asking them to do twice as much to earn twice the wage.

Think back to Michael Boulding, Graeme Lee, Paul McLaren last season and compare them to Barry Conlon, Dean Furman or Nicky Law. Disparity in the dressing room always causes problems regardless of the jerk factor of a club. Benito Carbone was a really nice chap but the fact he was paid almost five times the average wage was a massive problem and one the team of 2000/2001 never looked like coming to grips with.

With Graeme Lee reported to be interesting Oldham and Paul McLaren raising looks from Rotherham McCall might have some movement in his team next season and should he then it is important not only to bring in the right type of player – good spirit comes with wins but having a set of nice blokes in training helps – but also to avoid created a two tiered dressing room again.

Sympathy for the Devil

When you need a good word the English language has plenty to choose from but just occasionally it is necessary to borrow one from elsewhere.

“Schadenfreude” has no single English equivalent but is an appropriate term for a common football emotion – delight in the misfortune of others.

There will be many who took great delight in Milwall’s victory last night but is it time to think why?

Whatever our respective fortunes next season it will be at least 2010/11 before we can hope for the renewal of the local derby we all love to see on a league basis. So is it time for a comparison?

Two neighbouring clubs both with recent financial troubles and fading successes now exist in the lower leagues. Both have experienced “failure” this season and both need to restructure and review playing staff as a consequence.

We are all too aware of the hold that some of our expensive staff have on us in terms of contracts – we need to offload costly players and come to terms with a reduced budget. This is the reality here and it would seem to be the case down the road as managerial “vultures” survey the pickings left after defeat. Some will be easier to move on than others, we may even gain financially from their end of season sale, but an upward move for a player is more likely there than at Valley Parade.

We need players who want to play for City not those who just want a job. A commitment to a club is not easy to achieve on reduced wages. “Stars” who sit tight in the hope of improved offers from elsewhere may find that they get cramp from sitting rather than playing.

However the contract conundrum pans out, I think it is us that stands the best chance of the two for promotion next season. If we don’t lose high-earning players we can at least get them to play to their potential. If they go, we already have the shopping list that takes account of our limited spending power. They may get more money down the road but finding effective replacements is not going to be easy – money can make mistakes as we know all too well.

Which brings me back to Schadenfreude. It has its place. I can recall chanting “Stuart, Stuart , What’s the score?” when he returned to play against us for Everton in a 3-1 victory for the Bantams and a good victory at that.

It was a taunt – fun but not malicious. But I can not subscribe to the way in recent seasons that we have turned a blind eye to some dismal performances and instead taken some kind of pleasure in failure elsewhere. I see no sense in cheering losing scorelines in another division when we have been watching some of our own players give less than their best. “We’ve lost but so have they” is no consolation whatever to me.

So is it time for perhaps a small change in action if not attitude? Do we really need to have another season where scorelines from “them” are flashed up at our games in order to raise a cheer? Those who are keen to know what is going on with the Beeston Boys have access to personal technology to keep them informed. Personally I prefer to watch and encourage my team rather than cheer an irrelevant result.

When we play in the same division maybe then I’ll reconsider. Until then, rather than deny history, I’ll focus on the future and forget schadenfreude – at least until the ref falls over anyway.

BfB’s Top Five Review of 2008/2009

BfB Player of the Season 2008/2009
  1. Dean Furman
    It is said that a manager knows his own position best and in – eventually – picking the Rangers kid Furman to be in the position – if not the shirt – of Bradford City’s number four Stuart McCall found an heir apparent. After breaking into the starting eleven later in the season Furman started to regularly feature in everyone’s “my midfield would be” harrying, unsettling and getting at opposition players when the senior players he displaced seemed unwilling to. Add to that his use of the ball which was superb then one can see a bright future for the young South African at Ranger – where he is expected to feature in the first team squad next year – and beyond.
  2. Omar Daley
    Where did it all go wrong? Tuesday night against a Darlington team all too ready to kick who had six nibbles at Omar before taking him out until 2010 with a rustic tackle that ended City as an attacking force for the season. It seems a million years ago that there was even a debate on Daley – who had turned in his fair share of gutless displays in previous years – who constantly and effectively providing an attacking option for the Bantams all season. The true measure of Omar – and the thing that finally silenced his critics – was just how much he was missed when he was gone.
  3. Luke O’Brien
    Emerging from the shadows with little more than the half remembrance of Gareth Grant skinning him in pre-season Luke O’Brien is one of those young players who’s progress is measured by how quickly one gets used to him. He had filled in at left back to a point where no hole was remembered – Paul Heckingbottom is hardly even talked off – and even raised to the hallowed level for a Valley Parade young player where the shrink wrap is taken off and he is as open to criticism as the rest of the squad. What joy. A fine first season.
  4. Rhys Evans
    The one time Chelsea and England u21 goalkeeper arrived at Valley Parade as something of a second choice after the club’s pursuit of Rob Burch but went on to make the gloves his own with intelligent goalkeeping based on smart positioning in the Gary Walsh stylee.
  5. Peter Thorne
    Another season in Peter? One hopes so. Thorne is the finisher that every clubs needs to gobble up chances when created. If we do offer the 35 year old another year then let us make sure that we provide him the ammo he needs.
Five best loan signings
  1. Dean Furman
  2. Nicky Law Jnr
  3. Zesh Rehman
  4. Steve Jones
  5. Paul Mullin
Five “get in” moments – The times we lost our heads in wild celebrations
  1. Accrington 2 City 3
    An awful performance and an awful result on the cards. Then with two minutes to go Barry Conlon heads home an equaliser to bring some relief and then 30 seconds later Joe Colbeck plays Peter Thorne through to improbably win the game. Don’t ask us what happened in the next 30 seconds, we rather lost the plot celebrating.
  2. Luton 3 City 3
    A game that had everything including a superb second half City display, coming from 2-0 down to 2-2. After the Bantams miss so many chances to win it, Luton scored in injury time, but then the referee blows for a penalty and Conlon scores the coolest spot kick you’ll ever see to send us wild.
  3. City 3 Chesterfield 2
    Another tense moment, another Conlon penalty to spark scenes of jubilation. City looked dead and buried after 20 minutes but came from 2-0 behind to win what felt like a crucial game.
  4. Rotherham 0 City 2
    How cold was the Don Valley stadium in November? We shivered our way through 70 minutes of tediously dull football, then Luke O’Brien charged forward from his own half and fired the ball into the net, enabling some of us to warm up by dancing on the running track.
  5. City 1 Macclesfield 0
    A must-win game and Macclesfield are time wasting and keeping every player behind the ball. Then Dean Furman wipes away an hour of frustration by firing the ball into the bottom corner. Promotion dream back on?
Five “oh dear” moments – The times we buried our heads in despair
  1. Huddersfield 4 City 0
    The fourth goal of an utterly humiliating evening, made worse for one of the BfB crew by his efforts to leave early being foiled by getting a flat tyre in his car, yards after starting to drive home, and getting stuck in the heavy rain, in Huddersfield, until almost midnight due to his spare tyre not working. Pre-season optimism disappeared that night.
  2. The Entire City 1 Dagenham 1
    We’re getting absolutely battered at home by a team playing the crudest form of long ball football imaginable. Just blow for full time referee and let’s never speak of this afternoon again.
  3. Stuart McCall at Dagenham
    The season is basically over and an-almost tearful Stuart runs over to deliver what feels like his resignation speech. How did it come to this?
  4. Omar Daley stretched off at home to Darlington
    We thought it looked bad, though no one could have realised just how bad…
  5. City 0 Port Vale 1 – Richards booting the ball away
    Yet another visiting team playing all out defence and getting away with non-stop time wasting. While the referee isn’t looking, Richards runs up and stops Rhys Evans taking a goal kick by booting the ball away. You’d laugh if it wasn’t so serious.
FiveSix biggest player disappointments
  1. Omar getting injured: I loved watching him run at people
  2. Barry leaving: I know the booze and all but even so.
  3. Michael Boulding: Top scorer from last season ran channels brilliantly and… well… not much else.
  4. Paul McLaren’s ways: Which are great for corners but get involved man!
  5. Chris Brandon: Cause everything will be alright when he is fit
  6. Willy Topp: I mean! What the Hell!
Five things seen through rose tinted spectacles
  1. Two defeats from 23 means teams won’t relish coming here next season.
  2. Another Bradford youngster makes a first team spot his own. Well played Luke O’Brien.
  3. Until we lost Daley and referees took a dislike to us, we competed with the best in this league.
  4. We’ve seen some great games and performances: Exeter (H), Accrington (A), Grimsby (A), Chesterfield (H), Morecambe (H), Luton (A), Gillingham (A), Aldershot (H), Rotherham (H).
  5. It looks like Stuart is staying to give it another crack.
Five things seen by the grumpy old sod…
  1. Winning less than half of our home games isn’t that impressive…and don’t get me started on the away form.
  2. We only had one home grown youngster playing regularly and most of the rest of the players are old and lazy.
  3. Daley was inconsistent and we were only near the top because no other team actually seemed to want to go up.
  4. We’ve seen some bad games and performances: Huddersfield (A), Bournemouth (H), Shrewsbury (A), Chester (H), Bury (A), Barnet (A), Notts County (A), Rochdale (A), Exeter (A), Bournemouth (A), Chester (A) Dagenham (A)
  5. It looks like Stuart is staying to give it another crack.
League Two team of the season – The players who have impressed against us
  • In goal: Andy Warrington of Rotherham United
    Produced a series of breathtaking saves to stop City running riot during the last home game of the season. Warrington just edges out impressive goalkeeping performances from Chester’s Jon Danby and Grimsby’s Phil Barnes at Valley Parade – especially as he didn’t resort to time wasting like the other two.
  • Right Back: Darren Moss of Shrewsbury Town
    The Shrews defender had a ding-dong of a battle with Omar Daley in January and just about ran out the winner. Strong, speedy and determined.
  • Left Back: Thomas Kennedy of Rochdale
    The Rochdale left back impressed in his sides 3-0 win over City at Spotland with his marauding bursts forward. Also made the League Two team of the season.
  • Centre Back: Steve Foster of Darlington
    Dave Penny’s Darlington lacked flair and finesse, their dogged approach best exemplified by the impressive Foster at the back.
  • Centre Back: Jim Bentley of Morecambe
    Okay he was a bit of an idiot in how he over-celebrated Morecambe’s 2-1 win over City on Good Friday, but Bentley was full of heart and gives everything to the Shrimpers cause. Courage that was not replicated by City on the day.
  • Right Wing: Dany N’Guessan of Lincoln City
    The French winger did his best to rip City apart on Boxing Day and looked impressive at Valley Parade too before Peter Jackson curiously took him off early. Destined to play at a higher level soon.
  • Left Wing: Miles Weston of Notts County
    Tore Paul Arnison apart on the opening day of the season, resulting in the City debutant having to be subbed. In the return game at Meadow Lane, tore Zesh Rehman apart.
  • Central Midfield: Darren Anderton of AFC Bournemouth
    One-time England winger played the holding midfield role in Bournemouth’s surprise win at Valley Parade in September, where he looked a class act whipping balls across the park. Anderton retired early allegedly due to then-manager Jimmy Quinn forcing him to train to intensively.
  • Central Midfield: Tommy Docherty of Wycombe Wanderers
    Another midfielder with an eye for a good pass, Docherty was hugely impressive when Wycombe came to Valley Parade and his manager Peter Taylor thinks he should be playing at a higher level. Looks like he will be next season.
  • Forward: Ben Strevens of Dagenham and Redbridge
    Strong, quick and clever with his feet – Strevens and his striker partner Benson were no match for City’s feeble defence at Victoria Road in April. Probably would cost a few quid, ruling City out of looking at him, but can’t see him at Dagenham much longer.
  • Forward: Chris Martin of Luton Town
    Poor guy, having a name like that; poor guy, playing for a club like that. Martin was a real handful when City played Luton at Kneilworth Road and should not be playing non-league football next season.

A Question of Belief

In many primitive cultures any type of bad fortune, from earthquake to stomach ache, was explained by saying that “the gods are angry”. This was due to a lack of knowledge and understanding that, in many cases, science and reason now fills.

But the past doesn’t quite go away. The language of primitive belief is still with us in many aspects of popular culture and none more so than football.

The news that Stuart McCall is staying at Bradford City will be welcomed by many (not all) as a victory for reasoned thought over primitive belief.

When Stuart arrived in the manager’s office he brought with him the level of adoration often afforded to a deity based on his reputation as a player and his well-known love for the club. Such was the level of expectation from so many that the status of “messiah” was, unfairly, thrust upon him and we all know the pressures that kind of responsibility can bring.

Hopes started off high and remained so for most of the two seasons he has been in the job. Support both, vocal and financial, was there so all he had to do was “achieve”.

The signs and omens were so good for so long but then came the crisis of confidence that saw the dreams of so many destroyed. Some turned against him as the team and therefore, by association, the manager “failed.” The automatic promotion dream was replaced by the self-imposed target of the play-offs .But that too faded quickly as the promise of the Aldershot victory was followed by a series of results that was devastatingly unpredictable and, more worrying to the City faithful, unexplainable.

The adoration that Stuart carried with him seemed all but lost only to be rekindled in the final home game when the realism of “nothing to play for” became a show of belief in the manager that looked set to leave us.

Whatever the reasons, Stuart changed his mind and remains with us. Science and logic may provide some explanation but, for many fans, Saturday’s show on and off the field appeased their deity. With this came celebration and joy but there was a much greater realisation – the gods were not angry, they were human!

Whatever his status among fans now, Stuart the manager (and by the way how many clubs sing their manager’s praises using his first name?) is now with us in the real world, a world that deals with the contracts and budgets of a 4th. Division football club. Reality has definitely bitten and the expectations for the future should now also be real. Yes we will still be among the favourites for promotion next season but whatever is achieved it will be in a climate of constraint that exists in so many clubs.

Many fans will still choose to live in the world of unconditional belief but reality is no bad thing. I for one still have “idols” but I prefer my idols to be on the pitch.
The Gemini-like twin partnership of Lee Mills and Robbie Blake is gone and the like of it not seen since at V.P.. The former faded fast from view, the latter forced to spend time in the “Underworld” – Ellandworld? – before re-emergence in claret if not amber. Add to these the legendary Bobby Campbell, the iconic Dean Windass, even the totemic Barry Conlon, they are the ones that have been out there on the pitch expected to perform the miracles we have all craved.

Stuart as a player will always be revered. But Stuart the manager has chosen to stay and live among us in the world of men (and women).For that I am thankful. He may have arrived in a blaze of glory but I feared that his loss and the inevitable period of chaos that would follow would have been epitomised in his departure in a big yellow taxi. (Forgive the mixed metaphor.)

The legend on the pitch remains but surely we all now see the man in the manager – not a superior being. I am glad we still have Stuart McCall as manager, even if he has now lost his divinity!

A tortured ending

This was supposed to be the perfect setting for the final scene of a glorious story.

Almost exactly two years since relegation to League Two was confirmed by a dismal 3-0 reverse at Saltergate, the resurrection of Bradford City was going to be sealed on the same spot. After the Derbyshire Police dogs had finished scaring away some of the chavviest opposition supporters you’ll ever see, City’s players would be presented with the League Two Championship trophy, or maybe only second or third would have been achieved which would still have given cause for wild celebrations. At the very least, we’d have sealed a spot in the play offs and be looking ahead with anticipation.

And if a film director was to tell the story of City’s triumphant 2008/09 promotion on the big screen, they’d begin it with a flashback to April 2007; to Steve Schumacher telling supporters to ‘eff off, to caretaker manager David Wetherall in tears, to tabloid newspapers proclaiming the club was going bust.

But there is no fairytale ending, not this time, yet again. It was an ending that saw City coast to the sort of 2-0 victory the backbone of promotion-winning sides are built upon. But the infrequency of such occasions – this was City’s first away win since beating Gillingham 2-0 in February and they have only won once more on the road, at Rotherham, during the last six months – is as much behind the anticlimactic ending as injuries and bad refereeing decisions. It was the sort of victory to raise spirits and prompt a good sing-along, but there is ultimately no feel-good story to the league campaign it marked the conclusion of.

City’s hopes of ending with a promotion party were effectively ended at Dagenham two weeks ago, and the feeling since has been one akin to a particularly stinking hangover. The glaring morning sunshine has forced the ramifications for failure into the spotlight. There is remorse towards what was done when the champagne was flowing, regrets when emptying the pockets and finding ATM receipts that recall how much money was spent along the way, despair at decisions made and the consequences that now must be faced. Even the good bits of news – of Stuart staying – can’t be cheered as feverishly as they perhaps deserve. The mind is occupied by so many what ifs and if onlys – and the best way of asking some now-unwanted guests to leave.

The line up for Saturday’s final game had a somewhat unusual feel, especially when remembering who had been left at home. There was no Rhys Evans, the keeper who began complaining about the lack of a new contract as long ago as February and who might now be taking Stuart McCall off his Christmas card list.

There was no Graeme Lee and Paul McLaren, two of those champagne signings who’s continuation with City next season compromises so much of the playing budget.

There was no Chris Brandon and Steve Jones, the former of whom’s City career is rumoured to be over before it ever begun.

There was no Peter Thorne, who we hope will be still scoring goals for City the next season.

There wasn’t even David Wetherall – the central character two years ago – which will do little to dampen rumours of him leaving.

But there was a team which displayed commitment, energy and guile. Jon McLaughlan took Evans’ place in goal and looked comfortable with everything thrown his way, though it must be acknowledged Chesterfield’s Jack Lester-less attack were toothless and failed to force a meaningful save from the former Harrogate Railway keeper.

Matt Clarke was recalled to partner Zesh Rehman at the back and was typically robust and strong. Occasional bouts of sloppiness apart, he and Zesh dominated their penalty area and would make for a good backline to start next season with.

Joe Colbeck was brought back on the right and looked more confident and lively than in recent weeks. A group of pathetic morons – apologies but that’s the politest term I can use – chose to chant “you’re not fit to wear our shirt” towards last season’s player of the season. That was during a rare moment they bothered to watch the game, such was there main interest in goading Chesterfield supporters. Joe did not resort to a Schumacher-style response, though that would have been too kind towards them anyway.

Up front we got to see the Boulding brothers and while the focus was mainly on younger brother Rory – making a belated debut and showing promise with some good link up play – Michael’s performance particularly caught the eye. This was every inch the player Stuart had worked so hard to pursue last summer, making effective runs here and there and charging at home defenders in a manner that suggested no one had told him this was a meaningless game. Michael was playing while the other two with clauses to leave were not, it’s to be hoped he’ll be willing to take a pay cut and remain a key player for next season.

After a first half of nothingness was shaded by City, with Colbeck shooting wide and an unmarked Lee Bullock directing a header the wrong side of the post, the visitors really stepped it up after the break and should have edged in front with Rory Boulding and again Bullock passing up presentable chances; but then Rory did well to set Nicky Law away down the left, who charged down the byline and delivered a purposeful low cross which was met perfectly by the on-rushing Dean Furman to fire City in front.

“Sign him up” was the chant towards Furman. When we reflect on where it went wrong this season, the injury that forced the influential midfielder to miss those crucial games against Morecambe, Lincoln and Dagenham will feature high up the list. In the last two games Furman has been simply outstanding and, if the rapturous reception he received at full time proves to be the last time we see him in a City shirt, we should at least be thankful we were given a season to enjoy his talents. Who knows what the future holds, but it’s not far-fetched to ponder that the next time we properly see him he could be playing for the host Country in the 2010 World Cup.

Chesterfield’s response was limited, with the only Blue passion coming from supporters chanting for manager Lee Richardson to be sacked. Drew Talbot should have equalised but fired woefully wide after charging through on goal. That would have been undeserved and, with four minutes to go, Michael Boulding sniffed out half a chance and smashed the ball into the net.

By that stage younger brother had been withdrawn and his replacement, Leon Osborne, arguably made a bigger impression after linking up impressively with Boulding senior and playing some intelligent passes. He also made clever runs, took up useful positions and might have grabbed a first senior goal had he not shot as hastily when a sight on goal opened up.

Kyle Nix also came on after Law, who was a menace on the left, took a knock. Law received a great ovation as he hobbled past the City fans with more “sign him up” chants. The odds are short on neither he and Furman being here next season, but even if one of the two could be persuaded to continue their fledgling career at Valley Parade next season there’d be cause for joy.

For now though, there is no celebration. The players came over to thank us supporters at the end, and the generous applause they received in return was well deserved. It can’t be forgotten that when it really mattered, these players choked. But at least a degree of pride has been restored following the last two performances and we don’t need to go into the summer feeling as miserable as we did a fortnight ago.

This victory won’t have cleared that hangover and the next few days promise to be particularly difficult, with tough decisions on player and staff futures needing to be made. Credible rumours are growing that Mark Bower and Evans have already left and it’s clear others will follow.

Quite how many do could yet be the key for next season, for there is enough quality and enough determination already in the dressing room to put right this season’s wrongs. The challenge is to keep those players and find new stars to deliver alongside them.

It’s also to be hoped that next season we get a more sympathetic script writer.

Everyone pitch in as City play Chesterfield in pre-season

There is a fantastic story about Harry Redknapp debating with Ron Greenwood how much he we be paid as a retainer by West Ham over the summer of his contract. The story – punch line “Yeah but Bobby Moore ain’t a better player over the summer” – is from a bygone age in the game where players who picked up £100 a week during the season got paid a retainer, rather than a wage, in the cricketing months.

All my footballing life I have felt the squeeze of the close season. It used to stretch out like an acre of time in front of one after the FA Cup final but now – even in World Cup less Summers – it is reduced to as close to a month as possible and that month is all speculation. Valley Parade – if memory serves – used to close in June. It does not now.

This was the way of things. Two years ago when he arrived at Valley Parade Stuart McCall managed a fortnight on holiday which represented the downtime but with the news of McCall’s remaining at the club, with Jon McLaughlin being given a run out and contract offers being discussed 2008/2009 is the first season to not have finished when the next one started.

Chesterfield – a sell out in anticipation of a play-off play-off which is not happening for either side – is a pre-season friendly. McLaughlin gets a run out and Lewis Horne may find himself given a debut while Leon Osborne may be called back to first team action. They are without Jack Lester with the former Grimsby striker – albeit no Barry Conlon – suspended. It is that kind of long afternoon.

It is a long afternoon to bid farewell to some that many might not want to have a good journey but would like to see away. The disappointment of the season is laid at the door or the senior players and the likes of Paul McLaren, Michael Boulding, Graeme Lee and Chris Brandon are to be offered reduced deals. Everyone will have their own opinion on who is to have roast beef and who is to have none but ultimately – perhaps – the finger pointing shows a lack of collective responsibility which has dogged the team’s performances all season.

“McCall and his staff” – a phrase one hears increasingly as the importance of the backroom team is suggested – have the collective responsibility and show it by sharing pay cuts. One hopes that a new spirit is cast in this time of retention that says to the players who do want to remain – Kyle Nix vocalised such a desire this week – that they must do so for what would be known as “The right reasons”. McCall expanded the points saying

“I will be taking a voluntary pay cut and some of the staff might have to do the same. It is horrible to have to tell people that but it will have to be done in the next couple of days. Even the lads that we want to stay will be getting a reduced offer.”

Only be at Valley Parade if you want to be at Valley Parade.

City’s side for Saturday – McLaughlin aside – is anyone’s guess and the future is cloudy but a future it is. Stockport County face a shaky future and Darlington perhaps no future at all. Whatever comes next season then City fans can and will know that it has been shaped in some way by last week’s pro-testament paid to the manager.

That much – at least – we take into pre-season.

The budget announcement should not spell doom and gloom

In recent years, there’s being a growing obsession with playing budgets and the comparison to others. Every season one or two sides gain promotion on a shoestring budget, the achievements of which are used as a stick to beat failing clubs with larger ones.

At City we know this more than ever, manager Stuart McCall enjoyed what is widely recognised to be the largest budget in the division, but has not been able to use it well enough to claim even a play off spot. Meanwhile clubs such as Exeter and Dagenham have achieved more with less. Champions-elect Brentford have spent money they don’t have on gambling for promotion, though it remains to be seen if they will fall the way of Stockport next season.City have gambled to a point as well this season, and now we have to face the consequences.

There’s no doubt Stuart has had the luxury of a large squad to choose from this season, and the news the playing budget will be cut by a third for next season is understandably prompting concern. The noises coming from the Chairmen hardly seem the most positive, though given how often big budget results in big failure in football, it shouldn’t mean approaching next season in trepidation.

It’s traditional for City to release a high number of players at the end of each campaign and, with cuts to make and new signings to think about, Stuart’s attention will already be on which of his players deserve another contract in the likelihood of him staying on as manager. Rhys Evans made it known some months ago that he would like a new deal and the stability concept that has seen many of us argue for the man in the dugout to stay can also apply to the man between the posts.

All five of Stuart’s present centre backs could leave this summer, with captain Graeme Lee one of the four players with a clause in his contract allowing him to leave due to the club’s failure to go up. Lee has been criticised, but is a good League Two player and seems a committed enough person to stay around to me. Matt Clarke is unloved by many and it must be acknowledged that the previously struggling back four looked stronger in his absence on Saturday. Zesh Rehman took his place and was outstanding. His loan is up, but so is his contract at QPR. If it came down to a choice between keeping one of the two my vote would narrowly go to Rehman.

When Mark Bower signed the four year deal which is about to expire, back in 2005, it was for a club with ambitions of a quick return to the Championship. He is likely to be City’s highest earner, a position not befitting someone who has made only four appearances this season. If the long-serving defender is offered a new deal, it will be for far less money. Simon Ainge and Paul Heckingbottom are likely to depart.

In midfield Paul McLaren is another with a clause to leave and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he took advantage of it and, with rumoured high wages, it would probably be for the best. Lee Bullock is out of contract but may have done enough in his last two impressive Valley Parade appearances to convince he could be a regular next season. Chris Brandon is rumoured to face an uncertain future, which is a shame as we’ve yet to see the best of him due to those injuries. Kyle Nix’s surprise inclusion against Rotherham looks too little too late, while we could only dream of keeping Dean Furman and Nicky Law. The former is reckoned by some Rangers fans to be ready for first team football at Ibrox next season, the latter’s future may depend on whether Sheffield United earn promotion to the Premier League. Even if surplus to requirements at Bramall Lane, he can play at a higher level than League Two.

Joe Colbeck’s sub cameo was uplifting and it’s unthinkable that he will be allowed to leave, Peter Thorne too has another year left in him and the 17 goals he’s bagged so far this season is impressive considering the number of injuries he’s picked up firing them in. If he stays, his decreasing fitness reliability means he cannot start the season as the main striker. Michael Boulding can leave but probably won’t. Rory too can go but again probably won’t.

Of the other loanees, Steve Jones was outstanding up front against Rotherham, but his inconsistency is maddening. Nevertheless an attempt to keep him should be made. Paul Mullin will not be missed by anyone but there’s little doubt another big forward will be signed up in his place. Keith Gillespie’s time at City will be quickly forgotten.

Stuart will be on the look out for new signings, but it shouldn’t be a case of ripping things up and starting again. This team has ultimately disappointed but it was the closest towards delivering promotion than any others we’ve had in recent years. Stuart has the summer to consider why it didn’t prove close enough and find the answers to ensure it goes closer next time.

For, while expecations may dampen for next season, there is no need to believe we can’t make a better fist of challeging for promotion with fewer resources. The economic climate that will start to truly impact on football next season, should result in clubs in a stronger position to negoiate with players over contracts. A smaller squad will hopefully result in a settled team. Injuries may undermine efforts, but the emergence of Luke O’Brien should provide confidence to try other youngsters. There may be less loan signings, but that would be no bad thing.

Stuart will hardly be left with a shoestring budget to build next season’s team, success as manager will come from making less go further.

Why can’t you do that every week?

“Why can’t you do that every week?”

Is that what would supporters ask of the the players, the manager, the club after the season at Valley Parade ended without promotion but with a fine win.

Bradford City’s problem – and the problem that has driven Stuart McCall to distraction and seen the 45th game of the League Two season finally rule City out of promotion or the play-offs following Dag & Red’s win over Notts County – is that the team team has been incapable of withstanding setbacks within games.

Goals ruled out, mistakes made, goals conceded all seeing the squad’s brittle morale crack. Think the collapses at Rochdale or Barnet, the reversals at Notts County or Morecambe. Defeats that came after when the team was incapable of withstanding the slings and arrows of fortune. In the swirling atmosphere of this day no such upset occurred and the Bantams powered to an impressive 3-0 win over an credible Rotherham United side who made a good fist of a game where ultimately they were lucky not to lose by more.

That the atmosphere was good was owing to the swell of opinion that Stuart McCall remain as City manager becoming vocalised and realised in a demonstration in favour of the gaffer. Save Our Stuart messages were held up, chants were made and the players responded with an intelligent and effective performance.

McCall sent out what – should he be true to his threat to resign – is his last team at Valley Parade with Kyle Nix recalled to create a four man midfield alongside Lee Bullock, Nicky Law Jnr and Dean Furman. Matthew Clarke was dropped in favour of Zesh Rehman and Steve Jones partnered Peter Thorne in the forward line. In the week – while paying tribute to Wayne Jacobs – McCall said he wished that his other signings had worked out as well as as his number two. Matthew Clarke, Michael Boulding, Paul McLaren, Chris Brandon and a few others are thus charged and as a result they cool their heels on the sidelines.

Those who did play did McCall proud with a display of tight passing at pace that could rank as the home performance of the season. After ten minutes pressure brought a corner which was cleared and returned goalwards by Dean Furman beating all on its way to goal except Peter Thorne who’s slight deflection continued the ball’s progress into the net. Rotherham’s defence were incandescent suggesting that Thorne was offside – visitors number four Danny Harrison could have been playing the City striker onside although confusion was king in the stands and on the field. The goal stood perhaps because Furman’s shot was going in and the Referee decided that a goal would have been without Thorne (entirely against the rules) or perhaps Harrison was playing Thorne on side or perhaps the Referee got it wrong.

Rotherham felt angry at the first and flattened by the second where Nicky Law Jnr got down the right – McCall’s diamond shaped midfield saw Law on the right hand side but not the right wing and he and Nix on the left hand side were able to keep in contact with the strikers which has proved a problem this term – and crossed low and firmly to Thorne who hit a close range finish after cutting in front of defender Nick Fenton. Thorne’s crisp finish left keeper Andy Warrington flat on his back, seemingly resigned to defeat.

Flat footed Fenton became flattening Fenton when – rather unprovoked – he lunged into Law as the City man shielded the ball out for a throw-in. That the visitors defender was yellow carded showed – perhaps – the end of season nature of the game rather than reflected the seriousness of the foul which was out of character of a well natured game.

The Bradford City team this season has not struggled when on top of a game exchanging blows with the South Yorkshire side but not being breached. A third almost came after half time when on a break – lovely to see a team come attack at VP – when Thorne crossed to Jones who saw his finish clawed away by Warrington. A second counter ten minutes later saw sub Joe Colbeck find Jones with an impressive pass and Jones sprint in on goal to finish the game.

Good performances were all over the field for the Bantams. Rhys Evans looked solid, Paul Arnison and player of the season Luke O’Brien got up and down the flanks and Rehman and Lee were solid against a lively attack which – when he came on – were dangerous especially in the form of Drewe Broughton. Also telling was the fact that Dean Furman took the all from the back four and used it well rather than allowing the back four to pump the ball long.

All of which came under a blanket of positivity from the assembled Valley Parade audience who got behind the team – really got behind the team – and the effects were seen on the field. Rotherham – who have enough points to have finished in the top three this season – were no soft touch but the Bantams bested them and while Thorne could have hat a hat-trick testing Warrington twice more The Millers were enterprising and could have got one back and – as we have seen – caused the wobble that has seen this promotion bid fail.

If they keep it up they will be challenging for the top three next season. The same is true of the Bantams on all levels. It seems to be that today and two weeks ago the represented a consideration on how the level of support and the level of performance are not just yoked together but that the one (not can but) will inspire the other.

The players took a lap of the field to applause – nothing compared to what everyone was expecting with the promotion which was expected – and Stuart McCall followed to a clear statement – “Stuart must stay” – from the supporters who had lifted the team to a fine win.

What would the players, the manager, the club say to the supporters who had created an atmosphere of inexorable victory:

“Why can’t you do that every week?”

The final curtain?

The clock seemed to start ticking by more slowly by the minute. Still over 35 minutes to go, and Liverpool are getting on top. Patrick Berger and Michael Owen have both gone close and the visitors seemed to be working up a head of steam. Could Bradford City, needing to hang on to the 1-0 advantage to seal their Premiership survival, make it to full time?

Another attack and only last ditch defending stops Owen getting in a shot, but the ball is only cleared as far as Dominic Matteo, who charges towards the penalty area. Yet then he is stopped by an inch perfect tackle from Stuart McCall and 16,000+ home fans pause from biting their nails to roar their approval and chant the name of their captain. Just above him, Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler, describing the action to millions of people watching on TV around the world, says, “At Bradford, when they remember the fantastic contribution he’s made to this club they will also recall that challenge he’s just made.”

Tyler was probably wrong, I personally only recall the moment nine years later after watching a re-run of the historic day for the first time on DVD and I’ve never heard anyone else talk about it. Yet there are so many precious memories I do hold of Stuart wearing Claret and Amber – and thousands of us have our own personal highlights too – that it’s pretty much impossible to choose only one that encapsulates everything we loved about him in that number four shirt. The bond between the player and club was far stronger than I’ve ever seen with any other player. We have other heroes for sure, but Stuart’s two spells as player make him a legend to multi-generations of City fans. He’s been part of the good times, he’s also been there for the bad.

Tomorrow Stuart will step into the Valley Parade arena for possibly the final time. As a manager he is the first to admit he has ultimately failed this season and for that he believes he must carry the can. The sight of a choked up Stuart at Dagenham is one that will live me for some time, for it was not supposed to end like this. When he came back just over two years ago the dream of leading City to promotion felt so real but it has almost turned into a nightmare. Stuart didn’t have to come back, he didn’t have to risk tainting his reputation, he didn’t have to face the booing and chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing?”

Whatever the viewpoint on whether he should honour his threat to quit or stay and fight on, it would take a supporter with a heart of steel not to feel sad when looking at the emotional turmoil Stuart appears to be going through. The man telling us supporters he wasn’t good enough at Dagenham was a man seemingly making his resignation speech. No one could argue he hasn’t given everything he can to deliver success this season but, with credible rumours of the stress from failing impacting on his health, his decision to stay or go must first and foremost be made by what’s best for himself and his family. If it is to be the end, no one should begrudge him one last fantastic reception tomorrow.

There is still the slimmest of chances that this season might still have a happy ending. If Dagenham lose at Notts County and if Shrewsbury suffer an unlikely home defeat to Lincoln, then a City home win would mean going to Chesterfield next Saturday with the slimmest of chances still in tact. Should either the Daggers or the Shrews gain at least a point, however, the play off trap door will be effectively closed with the pair due to play each other on the final day. Chesterfield (at Accrington) and Morecambe (at Exeter) can’t be discounted either, leaving City playing for a lot of what ifs.

Stuart’s players, who have been largely sheltered from a heap of justified criticism thanks to their manager, will hope to at least start making amends with what for many could also be their final appearance at Valley Parade. Rhys Evans, hoping for a new deal, will keep goal looking to recover from a rare mistake last week. In front of him will be Zesh Rehman, who has being promised a game in the centre. The stock of the Pakistan international has fallen considerably in recent weeks, though with seemingly no future at parent club QPR I personally wouldn’t object to him making a permanent move here this summer.

He will probably partner Graeme Lee, unless the City captain fails to recover sufficiently from last week’s injury in which case Matt Clarke will keep his place. Something tells me that, if he plays, Clarke is going to get booed by some fans, and he may not be the only one. The full back slots will be taken by Paul Arnison and freshly-crowned Player of the Season Luke O’Brien. Paul Heckingbottom (remember him?) has surely worn Claret and Amber for the last time.

The selection in midfield has been inconsistent and one of the most disappointing factors of last week’s defeat was how poor Paul McLaren and Lee Bullock – impressive in the last home game – were. The latter is hoping for another deal while the former is surely one of last summer’s signings with a clause in his contract allowing him to leave if promotion isn’t achieved. Perhaps like Mark Bower, McLaren looks a better player at a higher level. Considering the excitement generated when he was signed, ‘disappointing’ is a kind way of describing his season. With Dean Furman nearing fitness and Nicky Law benched recently, the chance to recall the on-loan pair for a good send off will be welcome. On the flanks will be two from Steve Jones, Chris Brandon, Joe Colbeck and Keith Gillespie.

Up front the rumours are it could be Peter Thorne’s last home game too. A new contract offer would surely be on the table, but a season of niggling injuries may have taken their toll and the popular forward call it a day. Michael Boulding, another surely with that release clause, will be vying to partner him ahead of Paul Mullin. A place on the bench could be Leon Osborne’s reward for a midweek hat trick in the reserves.

Rotherham will go above City if they win and can look forward to a summer during which they are sure to be touted as favourites to win League Two. Mark Robins the player may not enjoy Stuart-esqe standing with Millers supporters, but the popular forward is a popular manager and seems to go about his job with great dignity. Take away the points deductions and they would be 2nd in the league now, but they are not and they have less to play for than City players – even if there wasn’t any chance of the play offs.

For the players are telling us they want Stuart to stay and the owner is telling us they want him to stay. There are conflicting views among supporters, but the reaction this week has been uplifting with so many people coming out in support of the manager. There is a significant – a seemingly majority – amount of fans who want him to have another go at delivering promotion next season, to continue building up the club and to ultimately take it back to the sort of heights he was a big part of as a player.

It remains to be seen what sort of influence this support has on Stuart’s final decision, but if he is considering making tomorrow his final Valley Parade curtain he will end it knowing most of his audience wants at least another season’s encore.

A bad time to change

Stuart McCall has to stay on for another season as manager, simple as that

It’s got nothing to do with whether you’re pro or anti McCall. Before some of you begin bellowing at your monitors, let me explain by outlining the alternative scenario and it’s timeline.

At 5-00pm on the 2nd of May Stuart seeks out Julian Rhodes amd Mark Lawn to confirm his resignation. the season’s just ended and we’re now managerless. Now I’ll make only one assumption that neither Wayne Jacobs nor David Wetherall is going to get the job. So we’re looking for a new man.

With any luck the chairmen already have someone in mind so an appointment is confirmed by mid May. If not, with newspaper adverts followed by sifting through replies and organising interviews, City would be lucky to have someone in place by the end of May.

Either way, we’re into the close season and the playing staff are on their (undeserved) holidays.

So the new manager is faced with a choice…bring in players “blind” or keep on most of the existing playing staff. Hardly an appealing choice.

Any experienced manager will tell you that the only time the boss begins to know what he has (or hasn’t) got at his disposal is when he sees actual competitive matches… at least
3 but preferably more. I agree. as a fan who’s watched countless pre-season friendlies over too many years, I know what they tell you which is nowt! We’ve had great friendlies followed by terrible seasons and vice versa.

Competitive matches only begin 2nd week in August. by the time three or four are played and the manager has some idea of the team’s needs we’re almost at the close of the signing window and looking
at the dreaded loan signings to make up the numbers till the turn of the year and the re-opening of the signing window. By then we’re all in “hoping” mode. hoping that what we want is available.

We could, if they’re not, be looking at another season of marking time and planning for 2010/2011.

Now football success is a young man’s pastime and I’m not getting any younger. I do not want another wasted season marking time.

Stuart McCall, Harris Tweed and the cycle of failure

If you want to see me sad say to me the words: Harris Tweed.

I designed a website for Harris Tweed – the Scots fabric – that I consider to be amongst my best work ever. Have a look and hopefully you will agree it is nice stuff: Lovely fabric texture at the back, frayed edges, muted tones. I was rather proud, still am.

Harris Tweed owner Mr Haggas was not so impressed and had his mind on a different type of website which he dubbed a “unique sales experience” and everyone else said looked like it had crawled from worst use of the web in 1999. For various reason (not all of them bad, and none to do with you Steve) the people who had the job of protecting my design allowed it to be slaughtered and what went live was a travesty.

A travesty and a tragedy in that all the effort that had gone into creating something one could be proud of had been subverted in processes and systems which everyone involved knew and acknowledged would only bring failure. It did. The Harris Tweed website was redesigned within weeks of launch.

I knew my design was good, I knew Mr Haggas’s changes were mistakes and in the end I was right just as I suspected I would be but the first thing I said to my long suffering wife: “Am I a crap web designer?”

Stuart McCall is leaving Bradford City – be 99% certain on that – and it is heartbreaking for me and for many – but not all – who watched him sweat for the club on the field over twenty years. It is as God has stepped back on Earth and his feet have been found not to be those of a deity or to be of clay but to be flesh, and blood.

A desperate McCall – a man of steel, now broken – held back tears following the weekend defeat to Dagenham deciding that he must be “a crap manager” to have got the club into this situation. A situation which it must be noted is defined by what it is not more than what it is. We are not relegated, we are not running into the ground. This browbeating is all because we are not going forward, not cause we have gone backwards.

Melancholia apart though I’m distressed at the way that the end is coming to McCall at Bradford City and what that means for the club. The pressure on McCall comes – almost entirely – from the supporters, the levels of expectation they have and the timescales they expect those expectations to be matched in.

For as long as BfB has been going I’ve been hoping that the correlation between often changing managers and a lack of success might be grasped by all at, and who watch from the stands at, Valley Parade. Alas it seems not to have been and the virtues of sticking with a manager – any manager – and allowing them to build a club and a dynasty rather than a single team are lost.

My hope for McCall – the reason I wanted him to have the job – was that his legendary status might provide a shield from the ire so often and so calculatedly poured onto managers and allow him to do his job but this has not been the case. If anything the levels of expectation McCall’s name brings has been a handicap for the manager.

I hoped that McCall might turn up at Valley Parade every day for the next ten years putting in the levels of effort needed to make this club – any club – a sustainable success are all but gone and we are back no doubt to hired hands like Frank Stapleton who sees the job as a thing he can do twenty hours a week or Bryan Robson who seems to flaunt how little he cares for the club.

Perhaps it is not the manager himself changing which represents the most significant change but the structures of management. The 1974 Charity Shield’s pair of managers – Paisley taking over from Shankly and Clough from Revie – shows the merits of maintaining managers and the structures they are allowed to build on a long term. Revie’s replacement might have been damned but Liverpool hardly missed a beat going from Bill to Bob.

Closer to home we look at the change between Lennie Lawrence and Chris Kamara and then Kamara to Paul Jewell (and Jewell to Hutchings, although by then the cupboard was bare) and see the head changing and the body of the management team remaining the same. That said if McCall goes his backroom staff need not follow and if Wayne Jacobs was to be made manager not only would it be cost-effective but it would have a kind of sweet irony for all those who have carried out a personal vendetta against the City assistant manager which has gone beyond reason.

Certainly Jacobs and Wetherall have no reason to resign and there is a good case to be made for putting Paul Jewell in above them but Jewell has gaps in his armour that in two years his critics will be exploiting for all they are worth.

One wonders what the point of appointing a manager at the club is when we go through this pathetic charade every two years hoping that these incantations of shortlists and appointments will being about success all the while denying to ourselves that what we are doing makes that success less likely. The fact that one in twenty times this randomness might work does not justify its continued use.

I don’t think that McCall is a crap manager any more than Harris Tweed meant I was crap web designer and just as I felt let down then so Stuart McCall has no great reason to send a good number of the players he recruited a Christmas card this year nor does he have much reason to return to Valley Parade to be involved with the fans of the club again. The Stuart McCall All Stars who were assembled to raise money to save the club will have to find another manager if they are needed again.

Ultimately McCall takes responsibility because that is what managers do – take responsibility when success is not achieved within the timeframes supporters and directors want – but in letting him do so one deludes oneself that managers are the only factor in success in football, one excuses all other parties that are involved in making things in the community of the football club go in the right direction but are dereliction their duties and one damns the club to a continuing cycle of failure.

Stuart’s biggest failure

There are only 25 miles between Dagenham & Redbridge’s Victoria Road and Wembley – but after this crushing defeat Bradford City manager Stuart McCall might as well to start working on that trip to the moon.

An image of the front page of the first upload of BfB

to fans at te final stle.

This was one mustn’t lose game too many, one which pushes City below the victorious Daggers, one which puts City below the in-form Morecambe, one which, after Shrewbury’s surprise away success at Rotherham, leaves City four points off the top seven with two games to play. Mathematically it may still be possible, but only if a sequence of results so improbable they would be rejected by the writing team for Doctor Who occur.

Which won’t happen, because this lot aren’t good enough.

City weren’t particularly poor for the first 58 minutes that preceded Sam Saunders’  opener, but just like recent weeks the wheels fell off too quickly. Of all the failings which have been on evidence during the end of season collapse, it is the poor response to conceding which has hurt the most. There was a spell of ten minutes after conceding where possession was surrendered more quickly than ever and ideas to come back were in short supply. Testament to a lack of confidence, but most tellingly it betrays desire and passion.

Because just like other recent defeats, most notably at Morecambe, the opposition simply wanted it more. Dagenham were not a bad side but their direct approach made them predictable and defendable. Yet when they did not have the ball, home players harried and pressurised those in white shirts for it back. Their workrate was best summed up by a second half City corner which they not only cleared, but chased up the loose ball that went to Luke O’Brien, forcing the younger defender to pass it back to Rhys Evans. Even then the City keeper found his attempt to launch the ball back into the area compromised by a Daggers striker charging at him. This level of work rate was not shown by the visitors.

For a time that might not have mattered as City started reasonably well and created two glorious chances for Chris Brandon and Peter Thorne, which were both headed over. Steve Jones was initially, at least, a threat on the left and the recalled Paul Arnison looked comfortable bringing the ball forward at right back. With Dagenham giving a debut to 20-year-old on-loan Tottenham keeper David Button, who looked nervous with his catching and kicking, the initiative was waiting to be taken.

Dagenham, starting the day with faint play off hopes, were a threat going forward and Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke were kept occupied by the dangerous Paul Benson and Ben Strevens respectively. Work had clearly been done on defending set pieces with Paul McLaren assisting Lee in cutting out Benson’s flick-ons from throw ins and corners. Evans had to make one good save from a scramble in the box and the first half ended with City needing to step things up.

They did just that, with Thorne having a goal disallowed after Paul Mullin tangled with Button and City’s top scorer had an empty net to head the loose ball into. Stuart was angry about the referee’s decision not to award a goal and the list of close refereeing decisions against City in recent weeks is growing. However, unlike the chalked off strike at Morecambe, the two penalties at Rochdale and the foul in Lincoln’s opener, this was the least convincing case to feel aggrieved.

Shortly after Saunders struck for Dagenham after cutting inside on the flank and firing a curling shot from the edge of the box into the corner. Hardly great defending in closing the impressive winger down, but the strongest emotion was one of envy at how few current City players seem incapable or unwillingly to try something as opportunistic.

The response was slow and Benson rattled the bar, but eventually pressure at the other end began to start up again. Nicky Law was introduced for the disappointing Brandon, while an injury to Lee saw Mark Bower brought on for a first City appearance since September. I hope City’s longest serving player is supposed to be our vice captain. The alternative, which saw Lee pass the armband to McLaren, who looked at it with disinterest and waited for Bower to run past so he could pass it on, doesn’t bare thinking about.

Law was a typical menace on the left and set up a chance for Mullin, while another cross resulted in Lee Bullock heading against the post. Stuart gambled by going 4-3-3 and bringing on Michael Boulding for the long-since anonymous Jones, but the City sub is in poor form and failed to make any impact.

Instead Benson beat the offside flag and fired low past Evans to put the game out of sight and, after a terrible mix up between Bower and Evans, Strevens was left with the easiest of chances to make it 3-0. Maybe that flattered Dagenham, but such was the poor response from City’s players it’s difficult to argue they even deserved a lift back to Bradford after the final whistle.

As scores were relayed around the away terrace there was one which stuck out more sorely than even Shrewsbury’s success; Grimsby’s 3-0 win over Port Vale included two more goals for Barry Conlon. There are good reasons why Conlon was shipped off, but his replacement Mullin has not worked out. We hope loan players can put in as much effort as the rest, but it’s hard to believe this is the best the on-loan Accrington striker can muster. Caught offside continually and casual in his distribution, Bradford City may look like a nice addition to his playing CV but the words “going through the motions” should appear next to his appearance record. Jones is equally guilty of a lack of commitment and cannot be relied upon to always deliver when the chips are down. Law and the injured Dean Furman are loan players who give their all, but when Stuart allowed Conlon to leave he needed to sign a player to match the Irishman’s commitment.

But that isn’t Stuart’s biggest failing. At the final whistle the City manager ran over to us away fans, which took courage and character. The anger from some fans was temporarily suspended as we listened to what he had to say.

He asked us if we thought Thorne’s disallowed goal should have stood, he apologised for the performance and when a “Stuart, Stuart” chant started he asked us not to, saying something like, “I’m sorry lads, I’m not good enough and I’m sorry.” A typically up-front assessment from the City legend, but it is an accusation which first and foremost should be directed at those in the dressing room.

And that is Stuart’s biggest failing as manager. Two years ago, in his first interview after taking the City job, he told the Telegraph & Argus,

“I think back to the first time I was here when we signed people like Greg Abbott, John Hendrie and Chris With…no one had ever heard of them but they went on to be great servants for the club and loved being part of it. You still see them coming back because of that special bond. I want to bring in players like that who will hopefully develop and grow with the club.”

Stuart apologised to us supporters at the end, but Thorne was the only player who bothered to come over and thank us at the final whistle. The rest half heartedly clapped by the half way line and scuttled off. Let their manager take responsibility, let them hide away, let them treat supporters who have travelled some 250 miles to cheer them with no respect.

If anyone is leaving the club during the summer, let these players be first in the queue.

Return To Form Needed Fast

Bradford go into the game tomorrow knowing a loss could seal the fate of their season and Stuart McCall’s tenure as manager for good. City’s opponents, Dagenham & Redbridge, would themselves leapfrog Bradford should they secure all three points, with a game in hand still to come. With the teams surrounding Bradford seemingly happy to throw away points along with ourselves, we are still in a good position to sneak into the play-offs with the possibility of fighting it out with Chesterfield on the final day for the crucial seventh place.

Monday’s result against Lincoln may not have been the best tonic to our recent run; another home draw is the last thing the fans wanted to see. Nevertheless, there were positives to be taken from the game. Lee Bullock returned to the heart of the midfield in the continued absence of Dean Furman and grabbed himself a goal in the process. Bullock can count himself unlucky this season to have been the forgotten man, with injuries and the form of loan duo Furman and Nicky Law putting in excellent performances even when others around them were not doing likewise. Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke looked a little more confident and were unlucky to concede the goal in the manner it came with referee Fred Graham failing to spot two fouls in the build up to the game’s opener.

Dagenham & Redbridge showed in the reverse fixture this season that they are a team that like to get the ball down and play through the midfield. How tempted Stuart McCall will be to field a five-man midfield remains to be seen, as he will undoubtedly shuffle the pack. Michael Boulding may be one of the unlucky few that depart from the starting line-up with Paul Mullin impressing as part of a three man strike force that completed the last half hour or so against Lincoln. For all his persistence, Boulding has shown a tendency to be played off the ball a little easily at times, though, as against Lincoln, he was playing against a beast of a defender in the shape of Janos Kovacs.

City fans will be hoping that City can match the result from last season when Nicky Law grabbed a brace, though on that day the final score flattered what was otherwise an average performance. Dagenham are hampered by the loss of experienced goalkeeper Tony Roberts and have signed David Button on-loan from Tottenham as cover. Bradford are boosted by the return of Mark Bower are Luton terminated his loan following their losing battle against relegation. Bower was unfortunate to miss out on a place in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, with his only start for Bradford this season against Leeds in the competition restricting his first taste of action at Wembley. The Bradford stalwart will be hoping to force himself into Stuart McCall’s plans in the final few games and possibly even get his own victory at Wembley.

Realistically, Bradford need all three points just to stay in touch with Chesterfield, who face their own tough challenge against Gillingham. Optimism may be at a low with the fans at Bradford, but a win at Victoria Road could just be the tonic that the travelling supporters need to keep the belief going into to the final few games of the campaign.

Moans, groans and negativity

It was a warm Tuesday evening in late September 2009 and as the City supporters trudged away from Valley Parade, there was much talk about whether the appointment of Dave Penney in the summer had been the right move by Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn following Stuart McCall’s exit at the end of the 2008/2009 season. City had narrowly missed out of the final play off position after failing to win their final game at Chesterfield and thus as McCall had stated in April he quit the club that he loves as he felt that he had failed owing to the fact that Bradford City were still a Division 4 side. Now that Penney and City had suffered their third consecutive home defeat, this time to league newcomers Burton Albion which left them in the bottom half of Division 4, many City supporters were questioning Penney’s appointment.

Obviously, the above paragraph is made up but a similar scenario could occur later on this calendar year. City fail to make the play-offs, McCall is true to his word and departs from the Valley Parade hot-seat, another manager is appointed and City begin the 2009/2010 season in a poor fashion. What will the so-called City supporters be moaning and groaning about then?

The negativity inside Valley Parade on Easter Monday was disgusting. I’m sure that Joe Colbeck, last season’s Player of the Year, would be the first to admit that he had a shocker and when McCall went to a 4-3-3 formation bringing on Mullen for Boulding, many people near me were shouting “You don’t know what you’re doing” at McCall. Now whilst I’m not the greatest supporter of Mullen (I believe that he looks and plays like Conlon) and I would have kept Boulding on the pitch, I didn’t start hurling abuse at a person who has experienced promotion as a player, scored two goals in an FA Cup final, won numerous trophies with Rangers and scored in the World Cup Finals. I’m not saying that a great player makes a great manager as shown by Bryan Robson (in my eyes a superb player but a poor manager) but McCall is still learning the managerial role.

Calls for Mark Bower to return from his loan spell at Luton could be also heard on a day. This is the same player who has been abused in previous seasons. The negativity inside Valley Parade spreads like a cancer and it makes me sick! I for one kept shouting encouragement at our players and I still believe that we can make the play offs. And if we don’t I’ll be back at Valley Parade next season supporting the men in claret an amber. That’s what the difference is between a supporter and a fan. A supporters offers words of support during the difficult times which is what our team is experiencing at the moment as our winless run continues.

So to all you moaners and groaners out there, if you want to follow a successful club, go to Old Trafford and join the thousands of others who have no connection with Manchester but who want to follow a successful team. Or go to Stamford Bridge and watch loads of foreign players where local home grown talent has very very little chance of making it into the first team.

For me, it’s the delights of Division 4 at the moment, watching the likes of Colbeck and O’Brien, special home grown players. And who knows, it could be Colbeck scoring the winning goal at Chesterfield on 02 May. Now where’s that ticket for Saltergate…

A Chronic Illness

I’m really looking forward to the Dagenham game. I may not have the best of reasons for making that statement and I hope that BfB readers will at least understand my feelings, but the one reason for my anticipation is that I won’t be at Dagenham. It will be the first game I’ve missed, home or away, since Barnet back in February and I just feel the need to do something else.

In the run of eleven consecutive games since then, I’ve seen just two wins, both at home, and I’ve travelled more miles than I care to tot up. You have to bear in mind that I travel over 150 miles just to get to a home game. At least Chester brought some reduction in my mileage, although it hardly balanced out the trip to Exeter and Bournemouth.

For those of you who don’t drive any distance to get back home after a game, I should point out that the journey lengthens according to the result and the performance. The 70-odd mile trip back home was reduced to about 30 miles, or so it seemed, after the Aldershot game. On other days the same trip has felt like 200 miles.

It’s not just the travelling, though. I’m well used to that by now. I think I’m just generally worn out. Sometimes I think I’m not the only one showing signs of weariness. I think there are plenty of others more closely connected with Bradford City who display the same symptoms.

And it’s not just a question of being tired with the poor performances, although much centres on that issue. I’ve seen poor performances many, many times. I’ve watched years of fourth division football at Valley Parade and plenty of meaningless end-of-season games. If you go back to the end of the 1980-81 season, City finished 14th in the fourth division and played their last game at home to Hereford. Now there’s meaningless for you. And the crowd of 1249 remains a record low for a league game at Valley Parade. I could have reduced it to 1248 by staying at home.

I’ve seen City twice finish 23rd in the fourth division, a final placing that today would get you into the ‘non-league’ league. In one of those seasons they even managed to lose 7-1 at home (their second consecutive 7-1 defeat) to the team then bottom of the fourth division. I never felt quite as bad in those dark days. So it’s not just losing (or not winning) that brings on this malady.

I think I know what the cause is and, even if some fans don’t share my little delight about being given some brief respite care, I think plenty of the Valley Parade regulars will recognise my diagnosis. In a word, I’m disappointed.

In that team that played Hereford we had one or two decent players. There was a young kid at the back called Peter Jackson. There was a slightly older hand in defence by the name of Ces Podd. And up front there was a player in his first full season at Valley Parade. His name was Bobby Campbell. They all had character. OK, one or two of the rest of that team were hardly household names and fourteenth in the bottom division is no claim to fame. But I wasn’t as disappointed as I am now.

Disappointment in my case is a measure of outcome against ability. In real life, that is to say in places that are not Valley Parade, I have always tried to assess what I and others are capable of achieving and then to measure outcomes against that assessment. It’s no good expecting the youngster fresh from school to know how the business works. But the senior manager with twenty years in the job has greater expectations on his shoulders. Among many other factors, that’s why he’s paid more and why I expected more. The newcomer can hardly disappoint at first, but can do after a while if he shows no sign of progress. The senior man can disappoint a whole lot more quickly, simply by not living up to his capabilities.

And so it is in football. Nobody expected Bradford City in the 1960’s to win the league title or the F A Cup. We were a strictly fourth division outfit with, by and large, strictly fourth division players. (Yes, I saw the exceptions, like Bronco and young Hockey long before he could grow a beard.) Even that team of 1981 needed a few more, slightly better players to come into the side that would win promotion the following year. And if you want to see the other side of the expectation coin, there is no finer example than the team that one famous ex-player dubbed the worst team ever to play in the Premier League. (I wonder, how long did it take for his hair to grow back?) Exceeding expectations was what they did best.

You can’t be a Bradford City supporter for too long without being disappointed. Sometimes it’s just one or two games. Sometimes it’s a longer period, but maybe the disappointment is slight or moderate. But this time it’s over a very long period and, because the outcomes are measured against the proven capabilities, the disappointment is about as deep as it comes.

Back in January I wrote ‘At our best, we are truly better than this league. When we’re not at our best, we need to work hard just to match most of our opponents.’ To illustrate that point I cited two goals, one scored by Michael Boulding, the other by no less than Barry Conlon. Those goals had two things in common. They were both team goals, as opposed to examples of individual brilliance, and they resulted from open play of a quality several steps above this league. Indeed, I haven’t seen any opposition team match either of those goals this season.

I doubt very much if anyone at City regrets the fact that we scored those goals. The only reason for regret is that they set a standard that has not been attained for many weeks now. There were plenty of other moves earlier in the season that, while they weren’t finished off with goals, showed how good these players can be at this level. Again, the standard was set; the capabilities were revealed; the justified level of expectation was created.

At the start of the season City were among the bookmakers’ favourites for promotion. There was much hype and many column inches were spent on creating what I then saw as an unjustified expectation. This was, after all, a very new squad. We had not seen several of the signings, except as members of opposing teams, and we didn’t really know how good a team they might make. But by mid-season we knew what they were capable of and we also knew they would have occasional lapses.

As we near the end of the only 46 games that matter, those of us who have watched so many of those 46, in particular this one who has watched all of the last eleven, wonder where it has all disappeared to. If the pre-season expectations were mere words, the performances and the results soon showed what could be achieved. And therein lies the measure of the disappointment, that for so long now performances have fallen so far below what the players are clearly capable of achieving.

The inevitable question is ‘Why?’, but I’m far too tired to even attempt an answer to that one just yet. Let me have my respite, if you will. Let me stay away from Dagenham, if I promise to be back for Rotherham. And then let me try to think about ‘Why?’, even if it may all be a bit late by then.

The Most Important Man

Stuart McCall and Peter Jackson – two big figures in the recovery from the fire of 1985 in a game between these two teams – joined the silence honouring the departed.

McCall manages Bradford City taking the opportunity to when offered two years ago while Jackson is in charge of Lincoln City having knocked back the job at Valley Parade on Boxing Day 2001 having agreed to be our on Christmas Day. McCall would spend this anniversary or sorts with boos directed at him by some.

Some would have Jackson as Bradford City manager rather than McCall and others would not. Those in the latter camp could point to McCall’s match changing substitutions which brought about the aforementioned jeers at the time but were vindicated. Are these two thus the most important men?

The jeering for McCall came after substituting Michael Boulding and Joe Colbeck. Boulding had a game not atypical for him running into channels and working hard while never gelling with strike partner Peter Thorne. One could not fault Boulding’s work rate but would could take issue on how much of that hard work goes into the squad and how much goes into making sure that Michael Boulding has a good game? His impressive goal tally for Mansfield Town which made him League Two top scorer last season came when The Stags were relegated.

None of which is to say that Boulding is not a good player but rather than he is not foremost a good team player and – frankly – Bradford City are not foremost a good football team but rather a collection of good footballers. Does this make the job of managing the side into the job of getting Michael Boulding to play in a more knitted up way? Is Michael Boulding the most important man?

That City are good footballers would be debated only by dullards and that Joe Colbeck is a talented footballer would equally only be opposed by those who lacked wits. Colbeck has managed to return to being the target of Valley Parade’s defining characteristic – the vitriol heaped onto individuals – after being last season’s Player of the Season.

I have no respect for someone who will stay silent when a Colbeck is being cheered laying in wait for an opportunity to continue a campaign against him. Colbeck this season has cut defences apart yet he is booed today not for not making effort but for those efforts not having results. There is no doubt in my mind that Colbeck will go on to be a very good player at this level and at levels above but there is significant doubt that he will do that at Valley Parade.

After being player of the season Joe Colbeck is not the most important man.

One would think for all the attention given to Matthew Clarke that he was the most important man – one would think that Peace in the Middle East would emerge on the news he was dropped so dedicated are some against him – but it was telling that as some City fans sung “One Mark Bower” to criticise Clarke following Andrew Hutchinson opener for Lincoln.

Clarke was wrestled by Geoff Horsfield as a nothing ball that was hastily cleared by relieved Imps defenders who had worried that a clip of Boulding’s heels would result in a free kick and near 21 players on the field stopped – indeed when Hutchinson put the ball in it seemed to be more an act of time wasting than goalscoring – but the game continued and the visitors had their goal.

Five minutes into the second half “One Mark Bower” sang some City fans to chastise Clarke. “1-0 to The Referee” retorted the Lincoln fans to make some things clear.

City’s equaliser came when Peter Thorne was able to stand strong in the penalty area and work a ball on to Lee Bullock who finished from close range. Peter Thorne and Lee Bullock could be the most important men. Keeping Thorne fit all season has proved to be impossible and sure enough City have suffered when the switched on striker was not playing but Bullock – my man of the match today – has been a mystery in and out of the team all season and hardly ever allowed to continue the relationship he started with Paul McLaren at the start of the season.

As an engine room Bullock and McLaren are useful only if they have outlets for their possession and too often they do not. Steve Jones had a lively display – especially following McCall’s switch to a 433 which put him in the forward line alongside Paul Mullin who simply never loses an aerial ball – but this team has not been the same since an injury on a Tuesday night two months ago.

Omar Daley – in the stands and out until Christmas – is not the most important man but sometimes when City huff and puff and want for his creativity it is difficult to remember that.

Daley though – like McCall with his substitutions, Colbeck showing the nerve to difficult things even if they might make him look foolish rather than shovelling the ball off sideways and saving any blushes, Clarke in the side to stand up to a Horsfield who would have eaten Mark Bower for breakfast – split opinion with those against jeering.

Perhaps those who jeer are the most important men. They certainly seem to hold the power at Valley Parade grumbling away to get their way they are the exiled Cubans of Bradford City and Mark Lawn needs to convince Stuart McCall, and himself, that their is a future for a club when with twenty minutes left of a game at 1-1 three games off the play-offs which even after this draw there to be scrapped for the loudest sounds at City are the negatives and the jeers.

Which is not to say that they are the only sound, that they are the only fans, that they are people who need to be pleased but the voice that comes from Valley Parade is an overtly negative one and until this issue is tackled and resolved then the club is hobbled.

Certainly that negativity has taken chunks out of the club. Dean Windass – here today to watch the game after reports that he would bend transfer deadlines and return to the field – suffered untold abuse and his exit and the clubs relegation to this level were not unlinked. Windass is at Valley Parade and Paul Jewell has started to crop up in the media more and more.

Maybe they are the next most important men but they are not today.

For today this is League Two football and at the end of the game with three very clear incidents when crosses or shots hit hands of Lincoln City defenders in the penalty area and a goal caused by being the only man in the stadium who did not see the foul of course the most important man was Fred Graham the referee.

Depressingly, in League Two the most important man is always the Referee.

Opportunity for forgiveness

Forgive the tedious Easter analogy, but after Bradford City’s promotion hopes appeared to have been firmly nailed to a cross on Good Friday they have being partially resurrected after Chesterfield’s slip up against Darlington the following day. The gap is still only two points – and there are four games left to claim the elusive seventh spot.

Four games is not much. The phrase ‘now or never’ has been overused in recent weeks, but the failings of others keep it relevant. One can only imagine the mood among Chesterfield and Shrewsbury fans right now with no one able to grasp the opportunities and steal a march. Surely someone’s form is going to pick up at just the right time, why can’t it be City’s?

Lincoln at home is not easy, but far from impossible. With the Imps’ faint play off hopes effectively ended by drawing at home to Luton yesterday, they probably represent the easiest of City’s four remaining matches. Equally they are less likely to keep ten men behind the ball, time waste and frustrate the crowd in the manner a lot of visiting sides have this season. Manager Peter Jackson would love nothing better than a win over his old club and that should allow City more space to attack.

The big question, which has failed to evaporate during the weekend sunshine, is of the squad’s appetite for the fight. Friday’s weak second half surrender was worrying, but there were still positives to take from the first half performance. With Dean Furman still out, I would personally stick with the same starting eleven and give them the opportunity to put right what they lost. With Stuart’s habit of rotating his team, the possibility of freshening things up appears more likely.

Rhys Evans will keep goal behind a back four which, in the centre, struggled badly on Friday. Matt Clarke was brilliant against Brentford but calamitous at Christie Park while more should be expected of Graeme Lee than witnessed during recent games. Zesh Rehman at right back is troubling, given the on-loan defender’s preference for cutting onto his left foot, but he was much better at Morecambe and would expect to keep his place. Paul Arnison might be unlucky to be on the bench but his last start, where he was torn to shreds by Rochdale’s Will Buckley and had to be substituted, remains vivid. Luke O’Brien was one of the few players who could walk off Christie Park with their head held high on Friday.

In midfield Nicky Law Jnr is likely to continue alongside Paul McLaren, though Lee Bullock will be pushing for a rare start. The fall in popularity of Bullock is curious in that he’s done little wrong but get injured, but every time he comes on as sub there are loud groans. Joe Colbeck was a surprise starter at Morecambe and did very well, he should retain his place and hopefully those fans who like to spend 90 minutes calling him the “worst footballer ever to play for City” will have their clueless minds occupied elsewhere. Chris Brandon looked decent but is still struggling for fitness, leaving a strong possibility of the less-than-committed Steve Jones or the forgotten Kyle Nix taking his starting spot on the left.

Up front it’s to be hoped Peter Thorne’s early departure from the field at Christie Park will enable him to be fit to start alongside Paul Mullin. The on-loan Accrington striker had a decent first half on Friday but poor second. Questions continue to be raised over why he was brought in and Barry Conlon shipped out, though reliable sources suggest it had little to do with football and that such questions might be better directed at the Irishman and his attitude

Little had been made of some fans choosing to booing Stuart for taking him off for Michael Boulding and that’s probably appropriate. After Bullock was brought on, two supporters in the Main Stand choose to stand up and shout abuse at Stuart, who was within earshot. Yet while others might have agreed, everyone else stayed seated and it should not be a case of believing those who make the most noise represent anyone but themselves. A poll on the club’s message board found 68% of fans have lost belief in Stuart – at the time of writing, a mere 25 people had voted.

The game follows a minute’s silence that means as much to Stuart as any one else inside the stadium. After it he’ll hope his players put in a performance fitting for the occasion.

The path to forgiveness starts now.

A question of spirit

With 10 minutes to go at Christie Park, Bradford City had a one goal deficit to overcome and – with Shrewsbury’s defeat at Bury confirmed – a one point deficit to turn around in order to climb back into the play offs. That the players could only muster the feeblest of efforts towards reversing the former leaves belief in achieving the latter all but obsolete.

The third of the three main contenders for seventh, Chesterfield, can push the gap to four points by winning today, but on this evidence it might as well be 40 such is the apparent lack of stomach for the fight. It wasn’t so much losing the precious advantage Matt Clarke’s 37th minute header had earned City by half time, but the lack of confidence and belief to come back after falling behind. The qualities which had been on display in the first half were forgotten and, as Graeme Lee dithered about with the ball in his own half in the 90th minute, allowing his attempted launch forward to be charged down, the questions over leadership were raised louder. How Stuart McCall the manager needed Stuart McCall the player.

All of this should not eclipse the sense of injustice of seeing Peter Thorne’s header early in the second half incorrectly disallowed after the referee Nigel Miller appeared to overrule his own seemingly decent view of it crossing the line, after slipping out of Barry Roche’s hands, by going with the assistant’s judgment that it hadn’t. There was also a hint of offside to the build up to Morecambe’s equaliser, which ultimately resulted in Danny Adams crossing for Stewart Drummond to head home. But instead of heads complaining, they dropped – with dire consequences for the Bantams faltering play off push.

Sure there was fight, determination and willingness to go in for the 50-50 challenges, but largely only from those wearing red. Morecambe’s commitment was curious in that their own play off hopes appear improbable, but with their tails up they became dominant and were rewarded by Rene Howe’s spectacular strike. At the final whistle players and manager Sammy Mcllroy celebrated in a manner that suggested they believed a trophy presentation would shortly follow. It may be patronising to suggest they treated the occasion as their cup final, though it might be the closest either side gets to one in the coming weeks.

It wasn’t so much you couldn’t see it coming, but after an encouraging first half performance there was every reason to believe a much-needed first win in over a month was on the cards. Roared on by a sell-out away following which took up two-and-a-half of the four stands, City started in a positive manner and worked hard to retain possession and get forward. The recalled Joe Colbeck brought energy and pace outwide, which had been lacking from Keith Gillespie during the last two home games. Nicky Law, back from the start after a rest last Saturday and in place of the injured Dean Furman, added drive. Paul McLaren looked composed alongside him while Chris Brandon showed some nice touches on the left.

Morecambe, backed by an equally vociferous support, pressed hard and their forwards Michael Twiss and Howe provided some uncomfortable moments for Lee and Clarke, but the goalmouth action was mainly at the other end. Paul Mullin latched onto Thorne’s flick on, but saw his low drive tipped wide by Roche. Then Colbeck’s endeavour in closing down Adams allowed Thorne a shooting chance with the ball rolling narrowly past the far post. The lead provided by Clarke’s header from Law’s corner was well deserved and, with Zesh Rehman looking more the part at right back and Luke O’Brien getting forward well, the platform for victory was seemingly there.

Yet the battling qualities slowly evaporated after the interval. Morecambe’s equaliser came after 10 minutes of decent football from City which included the disallowed goal, but the threat wilted and the pressure began almost entirely coming from Morecambe. Evans had to make one excellent low save and was clearly frustrated by how quickly possession was surrendered by those in white shirts. In recent weeks one of the team’s biggest failings has been the failure to win second balls and the casualness in which home players were allowed to charge forward through a rapidly non-existent midfield led to some tense moments. Howe’s stunning shot from well outside the area left Evans with no chance as it flew into the corner.

But, unlike last season when the Shrimpers had come from 1-0 down at half time to go 2-1 up in stoppage time, there was still time for City to come back.

The desire and fight to do so, to not only salvage something from the game but keep the promotion dream alive, gave way to a seemingly weak surrender. The basics were forgotten and too quickly the team resorted to booting the ball forward from the back in a manner that reeked of desperation, instead of finding the composure to use a midfield which had been so effective in the first half at creating chances. Colbeck might as well have left the field – no reflection on his performance or desire, at one stage he booted the ball in frustration – such was the unwillingness of team mates to do anything but hit and hope.

Stuart’s changes, which had been so effective last week, did little to swing momentum back in City’s direction. Some City fans choose to boo the City manager after he replaced Thorne with Michael Boulding at 1-1 though, after been part of such a stand off when playing for City – when he was taken off away to Sheffield Wednesday in January 2000 to a chorus of “you don’t know what you’re doing” – involving then-manager Paul Jewell, he should take it with a pinch of salt. Thorne had done okay, but the decision to bring on Boulding looked logical to me at least. Steve Jones came on for the tiring Brandon but was too starved of the ball to be a threat, though he might have snatched an unlikely equaliser after heading wide of Roche’s goal. Lee Bullock came on for Law and Stuart received more abuse from fans nearby.

It’s easy to point the finger of blame for defeat at Stuart, who may now be four games away from leaving the club and possibly management for good, but the players cannot be exempt. The spirit is alarmingly lacking and there’s too much of an acceptance for allowing things to go against them. Maybe they can’t make each other play better, but the personal responsibility to at leave give their all should be a minimum obligation in return for the living their club provides them. Only a few could argue they did that in the second half.

Equally of concern is the regularity of losing points on the road. This was City’s 12th away defeat of the season, a record which matches the dismal relegation season two years ago and which has only been worsened during the even more traumatic relegation of the 2003/04 season, since exiting the Premiership. Only Aldershot and Chester have been beaten away from their own patch more often and the final two away games – at Dagenham and Chesterfield – don’t inspire great confidence of City improving.

On Monday they are at least at home with a quick opportunity for the players to redeem themselves. The ability of the squad to turn the situation round isn’t in great doubt, but the mental strength and desire sadly is. There are 360 minutes of the regular campaign for the players to demonstrate they want to end it with a chance of taking their team into League One – those who fail to should be first in line to exit Valley Parade during the summer.

The games are the thing

There is football and there are things next to football and the two are oft mistaken for each other.

There is the game played over ninety minutes and the rest of the week of discussion and debate, of extrapolation and interpretation and these things should not be interchanged for each other.

The Easter weekend – Sir Alex Ferguson’s oft talked about “moving time” – is a space in the calendar of the game where it is the former that is concentrated on. Four days and two games and at the end of it a much clearer indication of the outcome of the season is had. There is no permutation of results this weekend that can rule anything out or anything in and the lack of six days worth of pontification time allows the mind to focus solely on the game, and those who play it.

In the thick of it it is hard to tell if the players of Bradford City have been too much talked about this year or too little. They have been responsible for some shocking performances but the fiercest critics have focused on the manager as a reason for this. The blame for last year’s trip to Morecambe and the weak surrender was put squarely at the door of the players.

Of the sixteen players who were in City’s squad that night only two could hope to be playing in this game – Rhys Evans and Nicky Law Jnr – and both have been away and returned since. One is still at the club: Nix; Two are injured: Daley and Heckingbottom; Three are out on loan: Ainge, Bower and Conlon.

That the squad of players going into the game with Morecambe and Monday’s match with Lincoln City bares little resemblance is – depending on your point of view – a vindication of Stuart McCall as a man prepared to make changes of a vilification of him. At Easter such questions do not matter. It is about two games of football.

Winning two games of football which would go a long way towards winning a play off place for City but what is the point of discussing, of thinking about, that situation without amassing the points – six, four, three, two, one, none – over these two games. After then we can and will talk more but now – and for four days – football is a game of action and not words and is about players and not managers.

Rhys Evans starts in goal with Paul Arnison expected to continue sitting out to allow Zesh Rehman to play right back opposite Luke O’Brien and next to Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke. Last week’s tight four midfield with Keith Gillespie, Dean Furman, Paul McLaren and Chris Brandon is subject to change – Joe Colbeck on the right is a mystery still unsolved – while the forward line seems to be Peter Thorne and either Michael Boulding of Paul Mullin.

Alan and Stuart

They were 99.8 miles apart and the level of volume was different, but last Saturday Newcastle United’s Alan Shearer and Bradford City’s Stuart McCall received the same reception.

Alan had just walked into the St James Park arena he knows so well and is still revered for his heroics in – 206 goals in 404 appearances in a black and white shirt – at the start of a new chapter. Having retired to the comfort of the Match of the Day studio, he is back as caretaker manager with eight games to save his club from relegation. A pack of photographers surround him as a capacity crowd applaud and chant his name.

Stuart has just completed what has become a familiar walk from the dressing room to the dugout in the Valley Parade arena he knows so well and is still revered for his heroics in – 45 goals, but so much more in his 395 appearances spanning two spells in the Claret and Amber – for game 95 of a fledgling managerial career. Under pressure and increasingly unloved by some, the City boss nevertheless receives a great ovation from most home supporters ahead of a game his team must not lose to remain in the promotion hunt.

Alan was confirmed as caretaker boss on April Fools Day but the position of his club is no joke. A pitiful six wins all season has left Newcastle staring the unthinkable, the Championship, in the face. Only five seasons ago they’d narrowly missed out on a Champions League spot for a second successive season, after finishing fifth. Shortly after they sacked manager Sir Bobby Robson, then quickly went through Graeme Souness, Glen Roeder, Sam Alladyce and Kevin Keegan. Now boss Joe Kinnear isn’t well enough to salvage the mess and the under-performing club come under the control of one of its greatest performing players.

Stuart was confirmed as City boss in the summer of 2007 and how the club needed him. Since Paul Jewell was allowed to walk away in 2000, with City in the Premiership, the club has gone through Chris Hutchings, Jim Jefferies, Nicky Law, Bryan Robson, Colin Todd and caretaker David Wetherall, slumping to three relegations in six seasons. “We need some passion,” was the cry, and there was Stuart learning the ropes with Neil Warnock down in Sheffield, ready to go it alone.

Alan is what’s needed to save the club, is the general feeling of Newcastle fans scratching their heads at how a squad with the likes of Michael Owen, Damien Duff, Obafemi Martins, Steven Taylor and Kevin Nolan are in such a mess in the first place. One supporter sums it up by saying of Alan, “if he can’t inject some passion into these players, no one can” and most people can relate to times when their team is in such a mess that matters such as tactics, picking the right players and confidence don’t matter – you just want to see passion displayed. Passion can lift Newcastle out of relegation, surely?

Stuart set about rebuilding his beloved Bradford City and instilling passion but, very quickly into his first season, the pledge to deliver promotion looked rash and the team were underperforming. How can a legend like Stuart tolerate seeing his team thrashed 3-0 at home to Accrington? How can he pick less than committed players like Omar Daley? Eventually Stuart turns it round but there’s too much ground to make up and it quickly becomes a case of building for the next season.

Alan couldn’t have picked a worse opposition team for his managerial debut. Chelsea are still fighting for the title and second half strikes from Frank Lampard and Florent Malouda ensure there is no fairy tale start in the hot seat. Other results have not been kind and the situation is becoming ever desperate. Sections of the media are smug and pour scorn over supporters’ hopes that inspired words from their hero was all that was missing. One such journalist writes, “That’s the problem with Messiahs, things tend to get messy for them pretty quickly and, in this context, passion is a loaded word.” Does passion cloud judgement? Is passion a poor substitute for managerial ability?

Stuart appears to be getting it right second time round, with a blistering start to the season giving way to some gritted determination which keeps City in the automatic promotion into February. But it suddenly all goes wrong again and rising anger from some prompts Stuart into re-thinking his future and vowing to quit if a play off position isn’t achieved this season. “That’s the problem with Stuart, he’s not a manager,” becomes an oft-used phrase, in between loud booing and abuse at his players. Numerous arguments are started with the words, “he may be a legend, but…” Is passion a poor substitute for managerial ability?

Alan probably knew his Newcastle would lose to Chelsea and next week’s game at Stoke is now massive. It’s unthinkable that Newcastle could lose that one, maybe the one after that too. Three points is the gap to make up, but can a team which has been wretched all season be turned round by passionate words from the legend? Does he have the managerial ability? Suddenly the dream managerial appointment feels almost nightmarish. Surely Alan – 206 goals in 404 appearances – isn’t going to be man who drags his club into the Championship, is he?

Stuart is applauded as he walks to the dug out against Brentford because, even with his team on the brink of failure and facing another season in a division everybody hates, the vast majority are still desperate for him to stay on, still desperate for him to succeed. No amount of name calling behind an online alias can distort the fact many others still believe. That 45 goals but so much more in his 395 appearances means he is a leader we should not discard so readily. That if the club is going to be plotting for promotion to League One again during this summer, its better it is still Stuart doing it. City don’t play great against Brentford, but, despite the lack of quality, they improbably equalise in injury time. Credit to perseverance and also credit to Stuart for effective substitutions that changed the tide back in City’s favour. Would he be celebrating passionately on the touchline without some managerial ability?

Alan might be back on the Match of the Day couch next season, but Newcastle may no longer be appearing on it. Yet what if the great escape is pulled off? What if Shearer can get the passion back and get the results? How much more of a legend will he become to the Toon Army? And what chance would Joe Kinnear have of re-claiming his job with the inevitable pressure to offer Alan the permanent position? Not even Mike Ashley is that stupid.

Stuart might be out of work this summer, but what if Peter Thorne’s stoppage time equaliser is the turning point? What if the top seven spot is achieved? What if in seven weeks City’s players and management are dancing around Wembley with 30,000 City fans chanting Stuart’s name? No one would be calling for him to go then. Passion would be back in vogue.

Alan would learn in time that fans who, at this moment believe he can do no wrong, will eventually be compiling lists of why he doesn’t have a clue and why he needs to go. He will have to explain why a player who doesn’t look interested to the fans is a key part of his side. He will sign strikers not fit to lace his boots and face questions over his judgement. 206 goals in 404 games will in time be used against him. He may be a legend, but…

Stuart knows all of this and more, but is learning to have broad shoulders and that some things need taking with a pinch of salt. That for every fan pleased he’s picked one player, there are others scratching their heads and how ultimately this should not matter. He will know that, as he keeps building up the club in front of and behind the scenes. Working tirelessly to return the club to the sort of position it enjoyed when he, with his 45 goals but so much more in his 395 appearances, was playing such a big part of.

Alan and Stuart both have much resting on their shoulders during the season’s final weeks and there is much in common with the clubs they oversee. Both have been in the decline. Both have guilty of looking at the here and now and forgetting the bigger picture. Both have too often believed the answer to the problem is to bring in another manager.

Alan is still able to walk on the River Tyne water in Newcastle fans’ eyes, but Stuart’s untouchable status has long disappeared. Some fans argue his lack of experience has held back the club, though recent history hardly suggests a different manager would have done a better job in rescuing the sinking ship. Maybe the fact City are doing more than tredding water now is something Stuart deserves credit for. The passion to do more than a good job, but do a good job for his club; the increased experience to know what’s needed to deliver success, using his passion in the right way.

Whatever Alan and Stuart can deliver in these next few weeks, their commitment, work rate and desire to deliver a better future for their clubs will not be questioned. Not to save their bacon, not to look like heroes, but because they care deeply. Success and failure will mean more to them because of who it is for.

Perhaps the biggest lesson their employers and supporters could learn is where hiring and firing has got them and what they would lose if Alan and Stuart aren’t still in their respective dugouts come August.

A story in the telling

There is a nervousness as three o’clock passes and Bradford City – so long in the last chance saloon – kick off against League Leaders Brentford who arrive at Valley Parade looking to start this endgame of the season with a win they need to cement promotion.

Who on Earth will replace Ces Podd? Podd is a legend and we are throwing in some skinny kid who loves Leeds United to replace him. He is sixteen too and very ginger.

Thorne is on the floor. It is spent. It is all lost. The clock is, as always, the demon that devours Eden and after the City number ten put Steve Jones’s centre towards goal only for Brentford keeper Ben Hamer to save.

The Bees are £10m in debt and believe that promotion will help lessen that deficit and to that effect they have pulled in a clutch of players on loan from the higher leagues like Billy Clarke, Damian Spencer and keeper Ben Hamer who is quickly into the action as the Bantams enjoy the better of the early exchanges. Spencer – for example – has arrived from Cheltenham in League One who need to cut their wage bill. It would seem that if City would like promotion then Brentford need it to increase income as expenditure raises.

The kid is doing well and Oldham seem to be interested in him but he seems to be able to play a bit. Hopefully he will stay cause Trevor Cherry thinks he can do something in the middle. Nice to see some spirit in the side and the kid has that.

Stuart McCall has sent City out to play a tight four-man midfield and his plan seems to have some merit with the Dean Furman and Paul McLaren middle of the pitch trading blows all afternoon with the confidence brimming Brentford and perhaps shading the midfield battle.

It was the last minute and all is spent because Thorne is on the floor and Hamer has saved City’s last chance to level up the game and, perhaps deserved and perhaps in short measure, this promotion push has faulted for the final time.

The spine of the team is impressive. Jacko at the back, Bobby up front and the kid in the middle pushing and prompting. We are going to be champions this year and the kid is unbelievable.

McCall’s selections have been causing concern for many all season. Chris Brandon – denied from the line up for most of the season – is back and looked useful forcing a save out of Hamer after good work on the right. Brandon his the ball low and Hamer’s save was the equal of a reaction stop Rhys Evans made earlier form a free kick that deflected off Graeme Lee when driven at goal.

Brandon on the left was more successful than Keith Gillespie on the right who struggled. One can only guess what has gone on with Joe Colbeck – the fact that he does not even feature on the bench is clearly not just because he is out of form – but Gillespie and Jones have been incapable of replacing the drive of the winger who starred at the start of the season.

It is all spent because there is no Barry Conlon to troll the ball home as he did earlier in the season and Hamer will claim Thorne’s late stab at goal and give the league leaders a 1-0 which they might not deserve but have worked for and will take and City will fail.

Back home now and The kid is the captain. The kid’s contribution has been immesurable.

Gillespie brings to mind the Pitcher of Piazza, New York Catcher. He has the skills but his body is unwilling. He puts the ball past a man and would have got to the ball but now lack the yard of pace. Given a choice between trying to nurse Gillespie into form or Colbeck back I would want Joe back in the side but management is often about things unseen.

It is all over because City have failed to win promotion and not even reaching the play-offs, the result of this 1-0 defeat, will see Stuart McCall leaving his club, our club and no longer will we have the hope that McCall brought. It is all over for McCall and for us and everything is lost.

Nevertheless City gave as good as got in the first half. Thorne had a useful chance that Hamer saved and Graeme Lee hit a fierce free kick that the keeper was well placed and took to chest.

An inch off the top division. The kid is going to leave but he has done us proud. The kid says he will be back. He says “unfinished business.”

A word for the referee David Foster who unsurprisingly failed to shower himself in glory. His bookings for Dean Furman and Paul McLaren set an early and harsh precedent that he failed to maintain to ludicrous levels once Damian Spencer had picked up a deserved booking for persistent fouling. Spencer jumped around Matthew Clarke and went blindly into Rhys Evans as the keeper scooped up the ball which could only been dangerous play and should have been a second booking but was not.

It is all over because Peter Thorne is on his haunches in the penalty area. He is on the floor. We were wrong.

Likewise Dean Furman – booked in the first half – made a lunging tackle from five yards away which (I believe) got the ball but resulted in a free kick and thus was given as a foul and as such should have seen Furman given a red card. Billy Clarke flicked the ball away as City prepared to take a free kick and should have been given a second yellow card but was not. The rules of football are not mutable on the basis of the outcome of breaking those rules.

Clarke was booked for removing his shirt in celebration of a well worked goal that gave Brentford the lead. Clarke darted in front of Graeme Lee and wrong footed Evans before peeling away to the joy of his team mates and his booking. It was a well worked move that would cut open many a team but it was telling that it was one of few times that the effervescent leaders breached the Bantams defence.

A night in Italy and the corner comes in and there he is – blue shirt on – on the floor pushing out a leg to poke the ball past the Swedish keeper. The kid. The kid has six league titles, the kid has scored two in the FA Cup final, the kid beat Leeds. The kid has come back.

Brentford taking the lead deflated the Bantams and let the air out of Valley Parade. Michael Boulding – benched in favour of Paul Mullin who won lots in the air but seemed on a different wave-length to Peter Thorne – came on to make a three man forward line and Steve Jones replaced Gillespie on the wing.

It is over because they key to this season was not keeping Throne fit because even a fit Thorne is on the floor and in the mud and on the damned floor in the penalty area after Hamer has saved his last minute shot and the ball is bouncing between them but it does not matter because Thorne is on the floor.

The Bantams had forward motion but seemingly not belief – at least little belief around the ground – but it was noticeable that following the goal Brentford moved back twenty yards and tried to defend. Furman buzzed around trying to win the ball from the two lines of four and showed a will to get something from the games he challenged Adam Newton heavily pushing both into a signboard at the side of the field: “Ever had unprotected sex?” it asked, Newton just had.

Gareth Whalley has the ball and is running away from the box as Wolves pile on the pressure. The Ref blows his whistle and eyes scan, looking for the kid, arms aloft. The kid.

Nevertheless the game ground down and it seemed that City would lose and fall behind Chesterfield in a possibly fatal blow to play-off and promotion hopes. There was a cross in from the left that Steve Jones hit the ball across the box and Peter Thorne – on his second attempt – stabbed the ball home to raptures, fans spilling onto pitch and general wondrous excitement.

It is all over because Peter Thorne is on the floor as the ball is sliding towards him and Hamer starts to look worried but it is all over.

So Stuart McCall takes his City team to Morecambe on Friday while Shrewsbury Town – who drew with Grimsby Town and a goal from Barry Conlon – play Bury but by then Chesterfield could have gone seventh if they beat Lincoln City on Tuesday. Wins are the order of the day and this draw when all is done is not the sea-change in performance that the Bantams needed.

Shot after shot, game after game, getting battered, still in with a chance. Last day of the season and the kid will not stop running until that final whistle. That glory.

Peter Thorne climbs from the mud and the dirt and Hamer is scrambling towards him but the City striker has fixed his eyes on the ball as if he – out of everyone – does not realise it is all over.

Not a sea-change but a start and one that the Bantams can push on from and perhaps that is not a benefit that will be felt this season but maybe that will be next. I think we have to let our manager – whoever he is – build something rather than taking the attitude that chopping and changing will eventually yield results which is seldom does.

Myers and the kid. There is blood. Twelve months later the kid is gone again and everything has gone to Hell.

Peter Thorne is getting off the floor.

Let the manager build, let him doing a job, if he fails this year then let him try again next year because I believe we are not going to get anyone who wants to do well for this club more than McCall does and we are not going to find anyone who can put that feeling into the team than McCall has.

The kid is back but everything is a struggle. It looks like the kid has cracked it and we are doing well but the wheels have come off the wagon and we have fallen out of the play-off places. The kid is on the radio. He sounds down. He sounds flat. The kid is on the floor.

Today City kept going long after the support had accepted defeat and that is all I want from the manager’s team and from City and all perhaps that anyone should want.

If you don’t like that then sue me.

The Bantams looking for the knack

The Bantams go into this game looking for a first win in five, and with only one goal in the same amount of games. City are only one point out of the play off places and need to get back to winning ways to cement a chance to go to Wembley. Chesterfield are steaming up the league after a string of impressive results which only the likes of Brentford have managed of late.

The away game at Griffin Park earlier in the season was another of City’s losses on the road against the top teams in the league. It has to be said though, based on reports an account of managers and players alike, but for a free kick that shouldn’t have been, City would have taken a point from that game. Ironic that it is that point that keeps us out of the play off places at this stage.

So Brentford visit Valley Parade on Saturday looking to strengthen their grip on the League Two title. Andy Scott has done a terrific job with the resources at his disposal and it is teams like Brentford that City look at can only wonder what could have been. Nevertheless, Brentford have lost to Chesterfield, and drawn with Gillingham not forgetting the floodlight debacle away at Dagenham when live on Sky. One wonders if the re-scheduled game will be re-broadcast, something which is far too familiar…

A positive to take from the Chester result was the clean sheet. Although City have only scored one in five, Stuart McCall should be able to call on the services of Peter Thorne, who its hoped has recovered from a neck injury that has kept him out of the last couple of games. Who Thorne will partner up front is yet to be seen, though I get the feeling the ex Norwich man will work well with Paul Mullin, who whilst working hard in the last couple of games, has done nothing suggest he will be the remedy to Bradford’s scoring worries. If Thorne is not fit, expect Michael Boulding to be up top along side Mullin, and if Thorne is fit I would not be surprised if McCall reverts back to the centre forward pairing that had most League Two managers quaking in their boots in early season.

Rhys Evans keeps his place in goal after an eccentric performance at Chester, and a back four of Zesh Rehman, Graeme Lee, Matt Clarke and Luke O’Brien will be tasked with keeping the away team from scoring. There are calls for Paul Arnison to be recalled at right back, which I personally agree with. Not for his defending ability over Rehman, but his ability to get forward and not ignore the right winger in front of him. If City are to prosper on Saturday, the full backs could well be important assets to the attacking mentality.

Midfield is certainly the problem area for Stuart at present. It seems Dean Furman is the only definite name on the team sheet at present. The little South African is sure to be playing first team football for Rangers next season, with rumour of Barry Ferguson departing to Russia in the summer. Stuart then gets to pick from three of the following: Paul McLaren, Lee Bullock, Nicky Law jnr, Keith Gillespie, Steve Jones, Chris Brandon and Joe Colbeck.

Personally I would go for McLaren alongside Furman in the middle (he was the only player to consistently find another City player with the ball on Saturday) and Jones and Colbeck on the wings. Nicky Law has looked tired of late, and I for one would like to see him rested for a few games, with the potential to have a big impact on the play offs. Jones although sometimes flatters to decieve, has looked like a player who can make something happen, and with Thorne back in the mix, this bodes well for City. Colbeck gets my shout because in times like this, you need your home grown players who wont shirk a tackle, will die for the cause and more importantly will run and turn the opposition defence, something which City have not done enough lately.

This is an important game for the Bantams, and could be more so pending Chesterfield’s result on Tuesday night. Lets get behind the boys and push for that play off spot. Yes its Brentford, and yes they are on a decent run but in this League, anyone can beat anyone and City have this knack of beating teams at the top when they are up against it.

Billy Painter at Bristol City anyone?

Mr Chris Dunphy

On the 12th of March, 2009 this website published an article by Michael Wood entitled “Are you part of the thousand who did not turn up Rochdale?” in which there were questions with regards to the attendance figures of the Rochdale vs Bradford City game on the 10th of March, 2009.

The questions raised in this article were answered fully in a statement released by Rochdale FC which was reproduced on this website along with the referred article. This was accompanied by a statement from Michael Wood accepting without question the clarification of the attendance figures.

Comments made by the website readers on this article along with elements of the article have caused some concern and as a result the article and associated comments have been removed by request of Rochdale FC and Mr Chris Dunphy.

At no point did Mr Wood intend to imply wrong doing by Mr Dunphy or by Rochdale FC or by any member of staff of Rochdale FC. Mr Wood deeply regrets any unintentional inference or suggestion of wrong doing and would like to take this opportunity to fully apologise to Mr Dunphy and the staff of Rochdale FC for any offence or discomfort caused.

This website and Mr Wood would like to clarify that it is incorrect to state that any of the staff at Rochdale FC or Mr Dunphy have been involved in duplicity in regards to financial misdemeanours, financial misdeeds or crooked practices. Any inference to that nature taken from the article is entirely incorrect and unintentional.

This website and Mr Wood have been frequent in praise of Mr Dunphy’s campaign for good governance in football and believe him to be of excellent character and a positive influence within the game of football.

This website and Mr Wood have on many occasion made the case for good governance and business practice within football and especially of the style displayed by Mr Dunphy. We believe him to be of the highest integrity in his affairs with Rochdale FC and in his other business interests.

Those connected to this website, and especially Mr Wood, very much regret publishing text that may have been interpreted as suggestion of criminal activity within the article in question and wish to reiterate their sincere and deepest apologies to Rochdale FC and in particular to Mr Dunphy

Stuart’s striker blind spot

Let me say at the outset that although I am a McCall supporter, when his arrival was first rumoured I though it would be an act of lunacy on his part to take the job at the time he did… bottom division, no money, financial knifedge. All he could do would be to ruin his unique legendary status… as has happened.

I haven’t agreed with all his decisions during the season: team selections, substitution policy etc. What is it with professional football? no matter that tactics/personnel can prove to be wrong early on, they must not be changed in a match till the hour mark whatever happens).

Then again, I didn’t agree with everything Paul Jewell did in ’98-99.

Sadly I’ve come to the conclusion that Stuart has a blind spot which has hampered our progress and it’s to do with strikers!

Before the season began everyone was aware that we would be lucky to get 30 games out of Peter Thorne and that Barry Conlon wasn’t an adequate replacement, for all his effort. True, he’s scored more goals this time but, take out the penalties and he doesn’t look nearly so adequate.

Stuart had another chance to put this right when Topp departed but we got Chris O’Grady. 2 coments on him that I heard were “doesn’t even look like a footballer” and “signed him just ‘cos he played well against us once….bad reason!”

Having now seen Paul Mullin I can only say that he doesn’t seem to have anything that Conlon didn’t have. There was talk at the time of Pawel Abbott instead. I remember thinking that he would have been a better bet for us.

Only time will tell how much this striker shortage has cost us. Right now it looks like there is one remaining playoff berth to be had and that we aren’t favourites to get it!

It can still be done but I’ll stick my neck out and say that if we don’t beat Brentford on Saturday it will be all over for us, a draw won’t be good enough.

Should we be worried that Stuart is just one of us?

Perhaps fortunately, I wasn’t able to get to Chester on Saturday. I gather that I didn’t miss a great deal. However, I did catch Stuart’s post match interviews and despite the relative positivity of halting the losing run, I noticed a disturbing tone in his voice.

Stuart sounded like one of us, and I find that worrying. As supporters, save for giving the team our full backing, we are impotent. Despite hours of tactical deliberation and conversation amongst ourselves, we do not pick the team and we cannot make decisions that directly impact the players. I understand that’s part of being a supporter and part of what makes football great. When we turn up on a Saturday or a Tuesday we are powerless to influence what unfolds before us, and as frustrating as that often is, it’s part of the thrill we seek.

Listening to Stuart on Saturday, he sounded just like one of us… as though he had been powerless to influence what he had just witnessed. I felt more dejected on Saturday than I have at any other this season, because Stuart sounded like a man who’d thrown in the towel. The usual rhetoric (“18 points to play for”) was there, but he didn’t give the impression that he believes we’ll make the play-offs any more than I believe we will.

As a supporter who is powerless to influence proceedings, I want to hear positivity from our leader. As the manager, Stuart is the person who, more than any other, has the ability to influence what happens to Bradford City. I want to hear a determination, a rallying cry, a sense of fight. Stuart verbally portrayed none of those. All I heard was dejection, disappointment and distress…exactly what I felt.

Perhaps therein lies the problem. I am coming to the conclusion that the reason I, and so many other supporters wanted Stuart as manager, is the root of the problem. Stuart is one of us. He mourns like us in tragedy, celebrates like us in triumph, and hurts deeply like us when we lose. I find that an incredibly attractive quality in our leader. However, like many of us, he appears not to truly believe that we can go up, and like all of us, appears unable to influence on-pitch matters sufficiently.

So, where do we go from here? Well, I don’t necessarily believe that the grass is greener on the other side. I would deeply love Stuart to succeed, but he needs to instil some fight back into his team and his supporters. Stuart needs to realise what a huge influence he is on us all, players and supporters alike. At the moment, I have no belief that we will go up, and if Stuart’s public rhetoric and body language are replicated in the dressing room, then neither will his players.

The spirit of the mid-table finish

I had a good chuckle to myself before our game with Chester on Saturday. The match day programme was making a big deal about Sir Bobby Robson sticking up for manager Mark Wright, while his traditional programme notes were no more than a collection of press quotes sandwiched between over-the-top praise from the editor for his managerial ability. Apparently if he’d been allowed to work his “transfer magic” the Blues would now be 15 points better off.

As the home players came onto the pitch to warm up, the enthusiastic bloke on the microphone urged home supporters to give them a round of applause for earning “a heroic point” at Bury the previous week, to which they obliged. In addition to thanking the match day sponsors at least three times he also kept yelling about “believing” and it would have been interesting to see if the home fans, who must listen to this sort of thing every other week, bothered to listen or were screaming at him to shut up, with their team winless in 17.

But if two sides of the ground were trying to ignore the cheese, the atmosphere in the away stands was chalk in its comparison.

For some 30 minutes before kick off I listened to a group of fans nearby moan long and hard about City’s form, players and management. “We’d better win today, or we have no chance of the play offs.” As the stand filled up I felt as thought all around were either moaners or quiet people, the latter group probably biting their tongue like me. As the game kicked off some chanting began, but it soon fizzled into quietness and, by the second half, groans and moans. All I could hear was people yelling abuse. Every time Matt Clarke came near us he was told to eff off. Zesh Rehman was the subject of largely harmless but still borderline racist jokes as he failed to get the ball forward quickly. Michael Boulding and Steve Jones are lazy bastards, Paul Mullin garbage. With no substitutes in sight the focus quickly turns to Stuart. “He’s not a manager,” it’s said of our manager.

I’m not criticising fellow fans, I happened to be in a bad section of the away support and anyone who travels almost 100 miles to support their team has a right to air their views. City were awful, clueless during the second half especially. The lack of confidence quickly manifested into desperation to rush the ball forwards instead of showing composure. The quality of crosses into the box was pathetic, the invention in the centre of the pack minimal. Stuart should not escape criticism either, the 4-3-1-2 formation employed failed to have an impact on a five man defence, resulting in City playing too narrow and direct. He did not make changes to the team’s shape and the questions Blues winger Richie Partridge posed were not replicated on City’s flanks. The team has played better and been booed off, so such a reaction came as no surprise when the final whistle was blown.

Yet as disappointed as I felt with the performance and game trudging back to the car, it was the boos which remained ringing in my ear. No one would advocate the kind of over-optimistic uncritical approach of Chester and our recent dreadful run of form is testing everyone’s patience, but again we quickly turned on the team, groaned loudly whenever a move broke down and only chanted on a few occasions during the second half. A goal, no matter how undeserved, might have changed the poor atmosphere, but the spirit and togetherness we should have with the team on the road has disappeared.

And if that sounds fanciful, you mustn’t have watched City on the road last season. The atmosphere at away games during our first campaign in the basement league was the best it had been since the first in the Premiership. I still look back fondly at that night at Lincoln, where we didn’t stop chanting for 90 minutes and were rewarded with a thrilling win. I recall the joy at Blundell Park when Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu struck a stoppage time penalty and Stuart had to race over to appeal to those of us in the away stand to calm down, such were the scenes of jubilation which had spilled onto the pitch. I remember the fun we had at Accrington, the second halves at Darlington and Notts County, the Wetherall day at Rotherham, the noise we made at Bury and Rochdale. All of this and the club finished mid-table.

Of course we won more often on our travels than this season, which helped the enthusiasm of support. One of my favourite away trips last year though was Stockport. We were in an uncovered stand, it was raining heavily and we were playing terribly, losing 2-1; yet we didn’t stop singing, even throughout half time. Last season we had chants for almost every player, we would sing the White Stripes song and sometimes even Johnny Cash. After games my lot would drive home with our voices hoarse from making so much noise, but almost always feeling happy for the experience.

This season, for whatever reason it’s just not been the same. Huddersfield and Leeds were fun, but the edgier atmosphere you get in derbies meant it was less comfortable. At Accrington I watched a middle age man push my wife out the way and someone else spit at the home keeper. At Lincoln we witnessed fighting in the high street and then a group of our fans try to kick off with the home fans during the game. At Notts County we quickly dished out the dreaded “you’re not fit to wear the shirt” and told players to ‘eff off at full time.

At Rotherham I was freezing as we sat their quietly and a young lad behind me spent the game slagging off everyone else’s man of the match, Luke O’Brien. My favourite away trips so far are Macclesfield and Luton – the former because we cruised it so could spend the second half having banter with the home side’s struggling strikers, the latter because, after first half adversity, we passionately got behind the team. Bury was good for that, too.

I do wonder if the increased away followings this season have something to with why the atmosphere isn’t quite as good. I don’t mean everyone who’s started coming more regularly this season is a moaner or fails to get behind the team, but more that larger crowds mean the fans who regularly start the chants are more spread out from each other.

This may have nothing to do with the team’s failings on the road this season but, as our players attacked our end of the stadium on Saturday, how much of a difference might it have made if they were loudly roared on, applauded when they did things right and not yelled abuse at when they did things wrong? If a player gives the ball away he hears groans and that doesn’t help him to have the confidence to show more guile the next time he has possession.

There are at least three away games to go and there should be a decent turn out at each. I hope we don’t carry on like the last few away games, making some noise for the first 20 minutes before gradually getting quieter, applauding ourselves later over how we brought such a big crowd and how our team “don’t deserve us”. If it goes quiet at Morecambe next week and the grumbles start to get louder, I hope a few more like me will remember the spirit on the road last season and start singing, “Stuart McCall’s Bratfud Army.”

We supporters might not be able make the players perform better, but maybe like the Chester fans we need to at least try believing.

Great game, Charlie

A raw wind blew into the faces of the thousand Bradford City supporters who made their way over to see a not-quite-must-win-game at the Deva Stadium. At the end of the game, although the wind had abated somewhat, the mood among the faithful had dropped several degrees.

But let me not put all the City fans into the same category. Let me give a special mention to one particular fan. I know him only as Charlie. At Valley Parade he is to be seen at the bottom of the Kop, having been asked not to sit just behind the dug-outs, I understand, where his vociferous support drew a few complaints.

Within the very limited confines of a stadium with a capacity of a little over 5,500, Charlie found himself, as just about everyone is in this ground, well within earshot of the officials and the players. And several ears were well and truly shot at throughout the afternoon. If it wasn’t the unfortunate assistant who spent the entire match on Charlie’s touchline, it was the fresh faced referee getting the benefit of Charlie’s expert knowledge of the rules of the game.

On the odd occasion that Charlie wasn’t holding a conversation with the officials, he had plenty to say to the City players. As far as I could tell, all of these comments were constructive, not to say even encouraging. I was quite sure that Luke O’Brien paused in the first half to take in Charlie’s instructions.

Now Charlie may not be everybody’s cup of tea. Some may even wish he would occasionally just sit down and watch the game. But there can be no one who would suggest that Charlie does not give his all for the team within the limitations he faces – the most serious of which is that he can’t actually get on the pitch.

Charlie gets in the faces of everyone who makes him feel aggrieved. He exhorts and cheers every half decent piece of play from his side. And his hand gestures and general body language give the most eloquent, silent expression to his moments of disappointment. There were many such occasions for Charlie to endure at Chester.

I mention Charlie at such length because he struck me as the very epitome from the fans perspective of so many of the qualities that the same fans look for from the players. Charlie is commitment personified, constantly pressurising the ‘opposition’ and never conceding an inch until that final whistle has been blown. I really would like to describe the team in the same words.

Paul McLaren came in for Keith Gillespie in the only change to the starting eleven after the home defeat to Port Vale. But McLaren is no tricky right winger and the midfield had to perform one of its many recent reshuffles to accommodate a player who used to demonstrate how far above this league he is. Dean Furman was the nearest to a left-sided midfielder for City, although most of the attacking down that wing in the first half came from Luke O’Brien, who looked much improved on one or two of his recent displays.

A Furman shot and a Lee header both gave some work for Danby in the Chester goal, with Rhys Evans being required to make a save at the second attempt from Kevin Ellison. The first half had a few goalmouth scrambles, especially at the end City were attacking, but neither goalkeeper was exactly overworked.

As the wind dropped for the second half, all the fans must have been hoping for some more cultured football. As any City follower knows, you can always hope, but must be prepared for your hopes to be dashed. Long range shots from O’Brien and Law went just over and wide before Evans dived full length low to his right to save from Lowe. The more notable features were the continuing tussle between Clarke and Ellison, which eventually earned the pair of them yellow cards, and the substitutions of Brandon and Bullock for Jones and McLaren.

By the last ten minutes City were playing with hardly any width and even less invention. Chester scrapped like a side fighting to stay in the league and having to make do with a small squad of players that hardly looked anything above their league position. Once again City did little to suggest they were much better than their opponents. Furman, as ever, covered every blade of grass and the front two never stopped running, despite rarely looking like taking any of the few half chances that slipped through the net of this drab game.

With only one goal and now one point in the last five games, that 5-0 win seems so long ago. With promotion rivals taking points off each other, the gap to the play offs is a lot less than recent form ought to have made it. But now that City’s target is apparently seventh spot and with Chesterfield edging ever closer, we have to be grateful for points deductions, without which we would already be tenth and looking at another season of mid-table mediocrity. It is all a far cry from that early optimism and, without Thorne and Daley, there are few occasions when you really believe City will score. Cue the league leaders and an unlikely home win.

The end seems nigh for City at Chester City

The transfer deadline for loan players passed without incident at Valley Parade as the season’s true end game began. Lincoln City prepare for another season in League Two by cutting costs while Wembley is prepared for the end of season flurry of games.

End game, but not yet “must win”.

The words “must win” are used far too often in football and as such have lost relevance and once again City face a game that a win would do a power of good in but defeat while telling would not be fatal to the club’s play-off chances.

There will come a time in the next six, seven, eight, nine or ten games that the Bantams will face a game that if it is not won then League Two football is a certainty next season but it is not this day at Chester City.

It says much about the season that four defeats on the spin have not ruled City out of the chance of a play-off place – never look at the table and add twelve points, it is not good for the mind – but do spare a thought for those bookmakers who lined up two clubs as favourites for automatic promotion: Bradford City and Shrewsbury Town.

It it us and them, and Chesterfield if they win games in hand, who are bashing out for the bottom of the play-off places as things stand and whatever gut wrenching is being done at Valley Parade is probably also taking place at The New Meadow. Grant Holt does not come cheap.

However to restrict the talk to these clubs and this last play-off place is to undersell the essentially random nature of the top of League Two this term. We are time away from “must win”.

“Should win” has been a problem for City this season. Around Christmas time the players seemed to slip from the mindset of digging out victories to expecting better results than earned and I would argue that the turn away from “doing the right things” – the panacea of all things in football – came at Shrewsbury when TJ Moncur and Graeme Lee clashed heads and the home team scored.

Since then it will be better when the right backs are fit, when the midfielders are fit, when the form turns around. Players are excused in a variety of ways and Stuart McCall’s job make sure that City minimise defeats and move on and one suspects that if he had the season to do again he would do things differently. That, dear reader, is the beauty of institutional memory and retention of people.

My take on City at the moment is that the Bantams have a pool of players more than talented enough to be winning games but that those players are not taking responsibility for winning those games. The phrase “players standing around waiting for someone else to win the game” has featured far too often in my thinking and in my estimation this is a problem one gets in modern football where teams at this level boast four or five loanees and a few who have contracts that expire when the season is over.

Long term commitment, significant investment, institutional memory.

All of which undersells the superb form of Dean Furman who has shone out for City this season. Such is the problem at the heart of the debate over the future of City management. It is all in the balances, and it is hard.

Rhys Evans will keep goal but in front of him four of Paul Arnison, Graeme Lee, Matthew Clarke, Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien will play. There are those who would not play Clarke but I am not one of those people and recall the brittle way the Bantams used to be bested before the big former Darlington player came into the side. Could Rehman do the same job? See above.

Up front McCall hopes to have Peter Thorne back to partner Michael Boulding but will use Paul Mullin if Thorne needs more rest. McCall’s thinking on rather having Thorne fully fit for six games rather than half fit for seven precludes the play-offs. It was said at the end of last season that keeping Thorne fit for this year was key to success and certainly when the striker started to struggle with injury so did City.

Midfield holds the problems. The embarrassment of riches seems to be a thin seem these days with the likes of Keith Gillespie and Steve Jones hardly inspiring on the flanks last week.

Chris Brandon, Lee Bullock and Joe Colbeck all got a run out for the reserves and with the addition of Dean Furman that could be the Bantams midfield for Saturday. I would throw in Paul McLaren for Bullock in that quartet and others would not think of leaving Nicky Law Jnr out. It is all in the balance, and it is hard.

Chester City is not “must win” and – blame a week off work – there are many permitations and calculations around the end of this season. If one assumes that the rest of the division will continue to score points at the same rate and that the Bantams picked up seven wins then City could expect second place. More realistically the Bantams have to do a couple of wins better than some of Shrewsbury Town, Bury, Exeter and Chesterfield to be in the play-offs.

This seems like a tough call for a team in a slump but with the division’s poorest travellers Shrewsbury heading to Wycombe the Bantams could expect the seventh place team to have 59 points even if we still had 58 at the end of play. In two weeks we play Brentford while they play Grimsby. When we play Morecambe they will be playing Bury.

Not must win. Not yet.

Bradford City and financial reality

Commercial reality works two ways in football. The fans and the directors may look at money matters from different perspectives, but the club is still there in the middle. David Baldwin and Mark Lawn have both been telling the media in the last few days how they see that reality at Bradford City. Fans trying to come to terms with short-time working or no work at all can hardly be expected to forget about four consecutive defeats before the deadline for the cheapest tickets passes.

Bradford City are victims of their own publicity in two respects. At the start of last season the manager said that anything less than promotion would be a failure. So, by those standards, a failure it was. This season it was the board’s turn to explain on more than one occasion how they had put together a budget that they expected to produce a £600,000 loss, which would be justified by the much hoped for promotion.

In this respect City are not alone. Brentford, for example, are apparently aiming to wipe out the best part of a £10 million debt by getting themselves promoted. Just how the prospect of League One football produces anything like that amount of extra income may baffle some of us, but Brentford’s board are best placed to decide these things. And we won’t even begin to consider how Darlington’s business plan for the season depended on gates of almost double their actual attendances.

But by far the best piece of publicity City have achieved in recent years, even bringing them a trip to the House of Commons (I wonder what the second prize might have been!), was the cheap season ticket deal from two years ago. In those days when Julian Rhodes was the only chairman we had, he made it plain that the offer would only be taken up by the club if 10,000 or more supporters signed up for the deal. You do not need to be Einstein to work out the sums. Then along came Mark Lawn and his money, which allowed a little bit of juggling to extend the deadline for those 10,000 and eventually, including the free tickets for under elevens, over 12,000 were on the list.

The disappointment of a mid-table finish reduced that number by 1,000 or so for this season, but the excitement of automatic promotion prospects kept the idea very much alive for next season. The cheapest tickets (£99 in the Bradford End, but generally £150 for an adult) had to be bought by the end of December and then the £175 ticket deadline was the end of this month. The December sales went well, not least because on deadline day the team was just goal difference away from an automatic promotion spot. The later sales, we now know, have gone less well and it isn’t difficult to see why.

The problem, however, is that within two years the fans have come to regard a revolutionary idea as something perfectly normal. Those running the money side of the club are desperate to point out the huge price differences between City season’s tickets and those at virtually every other club in this league. It is, in my view, unfair to single out any individual club for comparison, such are the vast differences between the have-nots and the have-even-lesses of the fourth division. But, if you take the average price of season tickets in this league, City’s prices will be as far below as our average gates are above those of our rivals.

A few things clearly need spelling out. The first is that the prices for 2009-10 are fixed, no matter how many people take up the offers available before or after the end of March. Any scrapping of the cheap ticket scheme will not be before 2010-11.

Whatever income the club gets from its season tickets goes a very long way toward fixing the players’ budget. Match by match income is unpredictable and guesswork is no way of running a business that has, to say the least, had its recent financial problems. So every season ticket that isn’t sold is that much less to spend during the summer on players’ contracts.

Of course fans are currently very disappointed about recent form, none more so than those who have spent money, which brings no benefit to our club, in watching defeat after defeat away from home. That disappointment will only grow if promotion by one means or another is not achieved. Such are the expectations which nobody has seriously tried to dampen. Nor should anyone be anything other than positive.

But football fans generally concentrate on matters on the field of play, sometimes paying insufficient regard to matters behind the scenes. Whether it be £175 this month or £250 next, a Bradford City season ticket is great value in the fourth division, even if the product may not do exactly what it said on the tin, and excellent value in the third. For some fans, the state of their finances will have deteriorated since they bought this year’s season ticket. No football club can ignore that, but, equally, no club can lower their prices to the extent that would help those on a vastly reduced income.

The question that the rest of the fans have to face is whether they are prepared to pay £175, £250 or the instalments plan of £200 to give Bradford City the best chance of having a strong squad in 2009-10, regardless of which division they are playing in. The alternatives – a weaker squad and/or paying £20 a game and presumably not getting to as many, if any, matches – are just about all there is to consider. This is the financial reality of being a Bradford City supporter.

The league could shake this week as administration Thursday nears

One could hardly have guessed it this morning reading a collection of newspaper headlines about Christiano Ronaldo will leave England because of a lack of protection from Referees and how one side of Manchester are being told they should pay £30m for a player who could not find the net on the other side that around a tenth of the professional clubs in the country are battling with the decision as to whether they should go into administration by Thursday.

Thursday – the third in March – is football’s deadline for having ten point penalties given to the current season’s total rather than next. The problems of exiting administration are such a fifteen point penalty on exiting without the CVA that City twice had in place is practically guaranteed should you be looking a wiping out debts for the start of next season and not be under administration by Thursday then a club would start the year on minus fifteen and not minus twenty-five and as AFC Bournemouth and Rotherham have proved – that is not a killer blow.

My thoughts on punishment for clubs entering and exiting administration differ from other but mostly these articles and the debate on the subject assume that the fifteen point penalty – which is discretionary – will be levied and not the punishment which Rochdale’s Chris Dunphy would unilaterally dish out which would be expulsion from the league.

The wording of the League’s rules is always hard to come by but to paraphrase would be to say that a club that exits administration without a CVA in place is expelled from the League unless there are exceptional circumstances which in the cases of Leeds United, Rotherham United, Luton Town and AFC Bournemouth there have been. If a circumstance happens every time it is not “exceptional”. The Football League were probably acting within the interests of protectionism in ensuring that they do not lose those four clubs and that is probably no bad thing.

That they continue to do so depends on how much sympathy the likes of Rochdale’s Chris Dunphy can drum up in his well meaning if scattershot campaign for good governance in football. If football becomes populated with enough Dunphys then the next vote on is a club can exit without CVA and retain a place in the League will be to the negative and someone will be cast down to the lowest of the low level of the football pyramid.

Bradford City’s governance is managed by virtue of a chunk of cash put in by Mark Lawn who hopes that attendances can be retained for future season. That we have not brought in player x or player y down to an unwillingness to go back down the route of unrealistic debt and something that we should all be happy about as City fans.

What must Chris Dunphy feel about Brentford – £10m in debt and hoping for promotion to pay the bills – running away with the League Two? Probably the same as I feel but Chris Dunphy gets a vote he could mobilise against them if they end up in the poor house. Would Chris Dunphy vote that Luton, that Rotherham, that Leeds should have been thrown out of the Football League and effectively ended as football clubs?

This is the judgement the reportedly ten clubs who are considering entering administration in the next two days are making. Will they be added to the list of exceptions or will the hand become the wrist and will one, two, five, ten clubs not be making it to next season?

And if they do will they be taking ten point penalties that mean the table on Friday will differ drastically from that on Wednesday?

How far away is the Blackpool Tower?

The Blackpool Tower is a mile down the road but the Twin Towers beckon for City now.

Stuart McCall was not playing the night in 1996 when the Bantams bested Blackpool to write Chris Kamara’s name in City’s – and football’s – history as the first manager to take City to Wembley and win and the first black manager to win at the old, now gone, stadium.

The new Wembley – something akin to a shopping centre they say but an enticing thought – is the aim for McCall now with the City manager watching the fourth defeat on the bounce against Port Vale and deciding that the push for automatic promotion is off.

In following the path via Wembley of Kamara McCall presses the case for stability – Kamara was assistant manager to Lennie Lawrence before taking the job on and a member of his backroom staff who took over in Paul Jewell led City to the Premiership – but the two managers approach the end of season lottery from different perspectives.

Kamara’s City went on a winning run of around a third of a season going into the play-offs as the form side while McCall’s are badly out of sync with each other and needing a sea change in performances to not only reach the top seven but to win when there.

The current City boss has indicated that there is a chance for the players in the squad to reclaim starting shirts. I’ve always believed that too many loan players make for a tepid team and were Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren and Joe Colbeck back in the side for the trip to Chester City at the weekend then I would be happy and few would probably be surprised.

Famously opposing Kamara at Blackpool the night when City came back to win 3-0 to steal the play-offs was Sam Allardyce who following that game snuck off to Bolton and emerged some years later as a regular Premiership manager with the failure of May 1996 respected as a part of his learning process.

Man(ager) of the moment Rafa Benitez has a string of woefulness in his early career in Spain which is considered to be a part of the making of him. The two wins in twenty three games at Valladolid and the sack were followed by one win in nine at Osasuna and the local Archer came calling again.

All of which is to say that if the metaphorical twin towers elude McCall then perhaps it will form a part of that process of learning – the making of the man so to speak and something that someone will benefit from – but utterly regretful with the thought of 23 more clubs coming to Valley Parade to play like Port Vale did on Saturday.

The excitement of Blackpool never seemed so far away.

The worst punishment

Putting aside debates over Stuart McCall’s ability for a moment, everyone should be horrified by the prospect of the Bantams manager leaving this summer. A managerial vacancy in May will mean the play offs have been missed and a resultant punishment no one connected with City will relish – more of the same.

Today’s 1-0 defeat to Port Vale was a bad advert for League Two and sadly something its biggest crowds have had to become used to. Not so long ago visiting teams came with clever game plans that often worked, this season the majority show up with limited aspirations of avoiding defeat. Five across the midfield, time waste as often as possible and, on occasions home players get through, bring them down by any means necessary.That they succeeded owed more to City’s lack of confidence than any better parking of the bus compared to others.

The only goal of the game came four minutes after the break through a neat low finish by David Howland, but the chance came seconds after City had been on the attack and Keith Gillespie, making his full debut, had produced an ill-advised short pass to Dean Furman which had too much power to control and allowed Paul Marshall to break forward. Graeme Lee stood off him too long and, when he did eventually put in a challenge, the ball spun into Howland’s path from which he beat Rhys Evans.

It was the only time Vale troubled City’s goal, though the territorial advantage the Bantams enjoyed didn’t manifest itself into many chances. Lee might have made up for his hesitancy for the goal with three attempts that were cleared off the line, Clarke had a decent half volley attempt which was straight at Valiant keeper Jon Anyon, Furman blazed over and Steve Jones stabbed a few efforts wide – but at no point in the game was momentum built up to the level of heavy pressure.

The biggest concern for Stuart will have been that the final whistle did not herald only the second home defeat of the season, his team looked beaten long before it. Confidence is draining from certain players who, only a matter of weeks ago, were in excellent form. Low confidence for City typically results in a more direct approach and an over-desperation to force a goal which was evident even during the early stages. The lack of composure in hurrying the ball forward rather than passing it around patiently meant possession was quickly gifted back to Vale, who tried their hardest to boot it back in the direction it came.

Stuart has faced the conundrum all season of two central midfielders being out numbered by three opposition and seemed to have found the solution in the boundless energy levels of Furman and Nicky Law, but even the on-loan pair looked jaded and unable to influence the game. Out wide Gillespie and Jones battled hard and caused problems, but the double-marking tactics left them struggling for space and the efforts of Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien to support were undermined by the former’s favouritism of his left foot and the latter’s struggle to handle the counter attack threat from his side.

Up front Paul Mullin made his debut after signing on-loan from Accrington and, though he showed some good touches and battled well, offered nothing Barry Conlon does not on a good day. The hope for Stuart will be that he has higher consistency levels. Michael Boulding looked useful with the ball at feet but finding space is a problem he’s faced at Valley Parade all season. With the ball invariably aimed at Mullin, he was forced to feed off scraps. Stuart introduced Chris Brandon and Lee Bullock from the bench, but neither had any impact.

Fortunately for City, this impact on the league table has been just as slight, with only Rochdale winning and the gap to third still only a mountable six points. Realistically the play offs are the target but the worry is this further dent on confidence will make it even harder for the players to achieve that. Next week’s game at Chester becomes even more must-win and, with The Blues winless in 17 and having fallen into the bottom two for the first time, it will be a pressure game for both sides. Losing is unthinkable and would bring the reality of missing out on the top seven and another season in League Two closer.

That we are even here in the first place owes a little to today’s whistle-happy referee who did as much to ruin the spectacle as Vale’s Marc Richards and his kicking the ball away time-wasting efforts. It’s almost two years ago to the day since Steve Bratt was last officiating at Valley Parade and on that afternoon he stopped a resurgent City effort against Blackpool by ridiculously sending off Steve Schumacher just as the Bantams were completely on top. The score was 1-1 but the game ended 3-1 to the Tangerines with the hapless referee later admitting he was wrong to dismiss Schumacher – in between City were relegated from League One.

Back at the scene of the crime, Bratt played completely into Vale’s hands by continually stopping play and awarding some bizarre free kicks. On at least two occasions City players were fouled, only for Bratt to give the decision the other way. He also displayed ridiculous inconsistencies with the advantage rule, at one stage pulling the game back ten seconds after a Vale foul hadn’t stopped Boulding charging into the area with just a defender and keeper to beat. No wonder the Vale players were so quick to shake his hand at the final whistle.

Stuart was yet to be installed as manager on Bratt’s last visit; as assistant to Neil Warnock, he had just witnessed Sheffield United lost 3-0 at Chelsea. The bright lights of the Premier League quickly became distant after the five successive defeats early into his City managerial career, last season. His immediate task is to make sure that record isn’t equalled next Saturday, as well as restore hope we might escape another year of punishment.

I’ll miss Barry

Barry Conlon has left Bradford City for Grimsby Town – seemingly the fall out of the discipline problems he and Matthew Clarke have had – and probably will not be back and I for one will miss him.

Of course Conlon was not the most talented player who has every pulled on a City shirt but few so obviously battled for the cause as Barry did. The list of players who – had they been able to put the effort in that Conlon did – would have been much better players than they were. Lee Sharpe, Michael Standing, Ashley Ward and on and on.

Barry gave it all and while that was not much what it did was give an example to the likes of Omar Daley that it was that level of effort – and no less – that would be allowable. I see Daley’s change in performances from slacker against Leyton Orient to committed winger this season as very much a lesson of the likes of Conlon.

That Barry had little to give – that Barry on his best day was only ever going to be as good as some players strolling through the game – arguably made that effort more admirable.

I could never understand the criticism of Barry. I reserve my disdain for the likes of Lee Sharpe who could have given more rather than the Conlons who gave all he could.

He carved out his career at City by giving all he could until – one supposes – the disciplinary problems which would seem to have brought about the end of his City career.

A Conlon that does not do give all he can is never going to be worth a place in the side and if Stuart McCall is of the belief that he will not be getting that 100% Barry then he is right to move the player on to Blundell Park.

All of which creates a tragedy of sorts. A man who has to struggle, has to give his all, to achieve what others find easier and slips from that, and is moved on for that slip but leaves a lasting legacy that for Bradford City, and for Stuart McCall.

One must give his all and if he does he will be backed to the hilt. Fall from standard and you are cast down far from grace and glory, or to Grimsby.

McCall – and City – return to Valley Parade amid the clouds for the visit of Port Vale

When last we departed Valley Parade optimism was the order of the day with calculations over how many of the nine points on offer from three away games City would win.

Zero points it turned out, and as a result Stuart McCall’s next step on the field at VP following the two fists punching the air at a 5-0 win is under the clouds of his statement in the week that should the Bantams fail to make the play-offs this season he would leave.

This has been discussed here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here and here, and here and here.

I believe managers are important but that players also have responsibility for performance and while it is ultimately the gaffer who carries the can for three defeats or missing the play-offs it is the players who remain at the club and – because of that – are culpable.

There is an obvious discussion over the future of disciplined pair Barry Conlon and Matthew Clarke with rumours having them leaving the club before deadline day. Conlon and Clarke has struggled for popularity at Valley Parade and these problems are manna for their critics.

Conlon is as he always has been, an example for the players who believe that they can give anything less than everything on the field of play. He is limited in talent but big on heart.

Clarke is more complex with the results of his addition to the team being manifest apart from his performances. Some believe he is a liability, a poor defender, the maker of mistakes yet since his coming into the back four City have stopped being bullied by big fellas at the back and become more solid defensively at Valley Parade.

The sight of Mark Bower, a return for whom is talked about to replace Clarke, bouncing off some six foot three forward who wheels away celebrating a goal after was all too common before Clarke found his way into the side and it is that which plays on the mind when the idea of replacing one with the other comes up.

Naturally Clarke may not be the only reason that City have – for want of a better phrase – added biggness at the back and with Zesh Rehman at the club he may not be the best but for all his problems the practice of playing Graeme Lee in David Wetherall’s role next to a commanding central defender has worked for City and that has been in no small part down to Clarke.

Nevertheless The Lee/Rehman central defence partnership with Paul Arnison and Luke O’Brien along side them seems to be the next logical option. O’Brien’s form has dropped before he was dropped but he and Arnison’s forward motion with the ball is important to City going forward. Wise man say no team’s biggest problem is ever the full backs.

Most problems in football come from – and can be traced to – the central midfield pairing. Certainly Stuart McCall was the solution to any number of problems as a number four and in Dean Furman he has a player who is cut from similar cloth. Is Furman “doing enough”, does he stand and to be counted and take responsibility for the teams performance as a player in that fulcrum role should? He does as best he can but perhaps a partnership with Nicky Law Jnr the pair lack experience.

I would prefer Furman with Paul McLaren in the midfield but in all the talk of McCall leaving no one has suggested he should be replaced by Michael Wood – alas I was hoping they might – and the manager is the manager and has the right to make his decisions.

Certainly though Law is a fine player when things are going well buzzing around impressively and adding to the forward line. When not on top of a game is Law capable of winning the ball back and turning the game back to us? Sometime, but only sometimes.

Perhaps this is why Law has started to feature more on the flank or towards the attacking lie than previously and why Lee Bullock – an able player but one who like Law seems to be at his best when we are at our best and not one who like his manager could take a game by the scruff and turn it around.

The play-off chances – ergo the future of the club – probably hang on which of these four midfielders McCall picks.

The flanks are much of a muchness. Chris Brandon seems set to start on the left hand side for his first kick off at Valley Parade while Joe Colbeck, Keith Gillespie and Steve Jones compete for a single berth on the right flank unless Jones is required for forward duties.

Peter Thorne missed the midweek game with a sore neck and Stuart McCall will hope to have the player fit for Saturday (Thorne will not play) lest Jones or Conlon is ergo Joes or Conlon will be (Conlon leaves) deployed alongside Michael Boulding.

All believe that this is a must win game with an irony that should City get three points and a fistful of goals then the Bantams could end the day back in fourth as with the end of the last game at Valley Parade.

If that is case – and because the possibility of that being the case exists – perhaps we should wonder about our reactions to the bad clouds that circle. If the result of the last fourteen days were to be that we were in the same position now as we were then when optimism was the order of the day then was this self-flagellation necessary and what long term effect will it have had?

McCall has not even started at City who need to decide who runs the club

Stuart McCall has to stay as Bradford City boss and not because he is a good guy or a Ginger God or a club legend but because sacking him will only make sure we end up in the same situation we are in now in eighteen months time and throws away any good work that has been done at the club leaving us to be run by a much of bitter moaners.

Second point first. Who runs Bradford City?

Is it Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes representing the supporters who have backed McCall with League Two record attendances or is it forty or so Scrots and a bunch of Chavs on a message board taking time away from posting up racist abuse and commenting on how right the Daily Mail is about everything? If it is the latter then tell me now and I’ll find something better to do with my weekends if it is the former then they should hold a steady line.

First point now. Hold a line because Stuart McCall has just got started at Valley Parade. There is no point in appointing a young manager if after 18 months of doing the job you let him leave. If you want instant results go to Terry Venebles, if you appoint a young manager then you don’t let yourself be forced into letting him leave when he is just working out how the phone system works and where the cones are kept at Applely Bridge.

Patience isn’t a virtue in football, it is a necessity if you want success.

If you are happy to piss away money hiring and firing managers then give them eighteen months each and edge them out the door after that. It is practically proven to fail and for every example of instant success you can find you get pull out ten where changing a manager has made f*ck all almost no difference.

Everyone wants stability at the club. Stability does not start with the next guy it starts here and now with sticking to a manager especially one who is bothered about the club and giving him the time to get things right.

Cause in the end what is sacking a manager (or letting him leave cause some morons have hounded him out)? Is it a punishment for him or for us? Look at the say the muppet crowd got rid of the England manager. Did Sven Goran Erickson go off sobbing while Steve MacLaren took us to European glory? No fecking way. Sven got paid all the same and we had The Wally with the Brolly so tell me who got punished then?

McCall will be gutted to leave City but he will leave and we will be left with a Aidy Bothroyd, a Keith Alexander, a Alan Rape Me Pardew for a year and a half and be wondering why we carry on looking disjointed and have no passion.

How can we demand passion from out players when we get rid of our most passionate player? How can we want a stable club with we keep smashing up any stability we have?

We should not even be talking about Stuart McCall’s position at this club until he has had three or four years. It is not like we are in danger of relegation. We might not go up! Big fat hairy deal! Not going up we should be used to by now. When was the last time with eight games left City even looked like they might get a play off place? 1999?

The club have got to decide who runs it and what it is for. Is it Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn or it is whoever shouts the loudest? Once that is decided if they could all they need to do is decide if they want to be successful and try doing the same things that work at the clubs who do well (Liverpool have got to sack Benitez ! He sold Robbie Keane! Liverpool don’t have any strikers! Hang on, 4-1!) or just want to piss around wallowing in mistake on mistake until everyone loses interest.

Note Oh yeah, I don’t want comments on this article. If you don’t like what I say then argue all you want, call me whatever you want. What people who want McCall out of City are doing is smashing up my club because they are too vindictive or too stupid to know better. If you are one of these people I don’t want to have a nice little discussion with you. Hell, I’d find it a tough choice to brake at a level crossing for you.

A remarkable change is required

In recent seasons visits to Bournemouth have always brought the welcome sight of a wonderfully green, flat pitch and the less welcome prospect of facing a club in financial turmoil. The Dean Court pitch was as good as ever, although City decided not to make best use of it. You can have the worst pitch in the world and it won’t matter if the ball is in the air all the time.

The Bournemouth players had been paid just 40% of their February wages. Their talisman, Steve Fletcher was not fit to play, we were assured by the stewards. The game and the club had survived only because one would-be investor had stumped up £33,000 last week to stave off a winding up order and a deal had been done to keep the landlord’s bailiffs at bay for a little longer.

Out of adversity came spirit, something City cannot lay claim to in many matches this season. All the spirit was with the home team, as was most of the passing on that excellent surface. Perhaps another set of changes unsettled the visitors; certainly the loss of Peter Thorne to another injury limited the attacking options; and even his most ardent detractors must be wishing we could have Omar Daley back. Whatever the causes, this was a dismal night for the travelling faithful.

The two bad boys from last week were reinstated, with Zesh Rehman moving from central defence to left back to replace Luke O’Brien. Chris Brandon started his first league game and, with Brandon on the left, Steve Jones on the right and the Law-Furman axis reinstated, the midfield looked far more balanced and solid than at Exeter. The image lasted for all of four minutes, the time it took the apparently injured Fletcher to use the space given to him in the penalty area to fire across Rhys Evans and just inside the far post. If only City had ‘injured’ players who worked that hard.

By far the high point of the game for the travelling supporters was a Nicky Law free kick from just to the right of the penalty area. Matt Clarke rose highest in a crowded box and the 1-1 scoreline gave us all hope that the worst was over. That hope lasted almost a quarter of an hour before Fletcher ran on to an excellent through ball into the box to leave Evans helpless once more.

The visiting fans had barely had time to digest that goal when Lee and Clarke tackled each other just inside their own half. The ball broke loose to Goulding, who ran through unchallenged to place the ball yet again beyond the unfortunate Evans. In little over a minute virtually all hope had been extinguished and half time could not come soon enough. The away dressing room must have very little paint left on the walls.

Whatever was said at half time, it failed to prevent an almost immediate repetition. This time Lee needed no assistance from Clarke in placing his soft header straight into Goulding’s path. The rest was a carbon copy of the third goal and the game was over as a contest.

It shouldn’t have been over, of course, because there were still 40 minutes to play, but City showed few signs of getting even one goal back. Bournemouth finally were deprived of the services of Fletcher through injury in the 65th minute and effectively declared in the 79th minute when they took off Goulding. These two, one big and muscular, the other quick and skilful, had plagued the City defence all night. There was no comparison with the ineffectual play at the other end of the pitch, where Conlon won less than his share of headers and Boulding was comfortably contained by bigger and stronger defenders.

Keith Gillespie replaced Brandon in the 63rd minute to make his City debut and his first touch was a cross that flew inches in front of the diving Boulding and out to safety. Gillespie showed his keenness and some quality touches, without getting the opportunity to create a real goal scoring chance.

Jalal in the home goal was kept busy for the last twenty minutes only by his amused responses to the away fans’ chants of ‘Keeper, Keeper, give us a wave’. This by-play at least brought an end to the cries of ‘One Mark Bower’ and the fleeting ‘What a waste of money.’ Ten minutes from the end the team bus could be seen behind the open end of the ground leaving its parking spot. It was irresistible to wonder if the penalty for this inept display was to make the players walk home.

In the last few minutes Matt Clarke lightened up the night by playing left wing. One cross caused some havoc in the home defence and then a run into the box brought a late corner, which, like so much else, produced no real threat. At the final whistle there was a brief, uninspired booing, followed by a rather longer appreciation of the home team’s chances of staying up, which have been much assisted by their 7-2 aggregate wins over a team that now looks as though it doesn’t know where its next victory will come from. The gap to automatic promotion may still be only five points. So many of the other top sides have to play each other in the run in. Third place may yet be achievable with a historically low points total. All is far from lost, but a remarkable change will be required even to make certain of a play off place.

Even the Big Issue man had a go at us!

The weekend had begun so well!

A good trip down with few motorway delays, we 4 checked in at the city centre hotel at 7 pm Friday. Just time for a quick shower and a bite to eat before going to sample a few of the Exeter centre hostelries. Then it was back for a quick nightcap before bed and a lovely night’s sleep.

Next morning a full English breakfast was followed by another look around, this time in daylight. The remains of the city wall and a visit to the castle were followed by a coffee in the square overlooking the cathedral. Then it was back to the hotel to meet the last of our 5 (who unlike us had travelled that morning) followed by a walk to the ground back through the city centre.

Just time for a quick pint at a pub in sight of the grounds away end for a bit of football chat with Exeter fans and a few other City fans.

it was when we got into the ground at 2-45 that the disquiet set in. the team selection didn’t meet with our approval! Comments ranged from “that’s not a team to win… it’s a team not to lose.” to “Stuart got the selection wrong at Rochdale… this is even more wrong.”

A couple of us chipped in with “why can’t he decide on his best 11 and let the opposition worry about us, that’s what we did in ’98/99, we all pretty much knew what the starting 11 would be week in week out.”
“Same in ’84/85” an older member of our group added.

After kick off, in the early part of the game our 5 across the middle didn’t particularly dominate the midfield and we persisted in hoofing the ball forward to our lone striker. Michael Boulding got no change against their big men at the back for Exeter.

Their goal was a fluke… simple as that; but, that apart Exeter were an eminently beatable side. City were toiling and the “not to win but not losing” strategy looked increasingly out of place. When the substitutions finally came, sadly there was precious little noticeable improvement. At the final whistle, as we made our way to the exit some City players ran across to the Bradford fans. As they did, from behind us we heard shouts of “F___ off” and “you’re a load of f___ing rubbish”.

I remember thinking “Stuart got a lot of unfair criticism on the message board when we were doing well. He’s gonna get slaughtered for this!”

As we walked back to the cars through the centre of Exeter, optimism was in short supply. After 2 defeats in a week against our nearest rivals, the dreaded play-offs looked to be looming. There was no talk of staying down south for the Bournemouth game.

The question was asked “Will winning our remaining home games be enough to secure a play-off place because, apart from at Chester I can’t see another away win this season if we play like that?”

Just then we reached a road junction between the city centre stores and a chap selling big issue looked at us with ill concealed amusement and said “Bradford? ha ha ha!”

Our misery was now complete!

Conlon vs Clarke? McCall is the loser in that battle

There is speculation that the breach of club dicipline that saw Barry Conlon and Matthew Clarke dropped from the squad on Saturday was a punch up between the two biggest bruisers the Bantams had and frankly had tickets been sold for that event I can imagine it would be worth watching in that Clash of the Titans way.

This speculation might be filed next to Paul McLaren’s walk out and will never play for City again or Peter Beagrie’s famously broken leg on the 1st of April 1999 – “Which one is it that he hasn’t broke?” – or it might be grounded. I’m not one to speculate without fact on my side and the paid could well have been fleecing the young ‘uns at cards or staying out past curfew but for something will be proof that Stuart McCall lacks the strength to impose discipline.

His most famous moment – to many – is falling off a car drunk. One can see the problems he would have telling players how to behave but perhaps the punishment for the pair – of which McCall says We’ll keep it private but it’s over and done with now. They are both back in the squad. – is that strength being flexed.

Not too far away breeches of club discipline became an issue after the Oldham Athletic players were seen scrapping at Belle Vue Dog Track. John Sheridan paid for the problems with his job although a 6-2 defeat at the weekend would not have helped matters and now he has been replaced by Joe Royle.

McCall and Sheridan were on opposite sides of the camp in the 1980s with the Irishman Leeds United’s favourite midfielder and Stuart City’s. Both are in management at the same time and both have discipline problems to deal with.

Boundry Park provides an interesting test case for City fans. Oldham have fallen out of the play-off zone after looking good for promotion earlier and in Royle they have their totemistic manager – their Paul Jewell – back in charge replacing a young favoured former player. If the potato headed one can lift them into The Championship then those City fans who believe that the Bantams should be making a change in the big chair can point to that and make the point that the same should have happened at Valley Parade. If not then one could argue that there is some proof that changing managers does not equate to changing fortunes.

We watch with interest as we watch the reintegration of Conlon and Clarke back into the City side. Neither have enjoyed universal popularity but both have merits. Conlon never gives up and is an object lesson for the rest of the side – an example if you will – while Clarke’s abilities are evidenced not in singular moments but in a sea change in City’s modus operandi. It used to be that the Bantams were bested by big men bullying Mark Bower and now those days are over. That Clarke has failings in other areas one must balance against those benefits and the idea that Zesh Rehman offers similar, if not better.

Both players will live to fight another day – players always do and John Sheridan is out of work while his brawling players continue to be paid – and so will McCall who in having to wield discipline will be viewed by some as lacking it.

In McCall I trust

Ever since the fixture list was released last summer, myself and some friends had been looking forward to our trip to St James’ Park, home of Exeter City. During the cold, dark autumn months of late 2008, five of us decided to make a weekend of it and stay over night in Exeter after the game. So with maps at the ready (no sign of a sat nav in my car) and our over night bags packed, four of us left West Yorkshire before 8am and headed south towards Exeter. Eddie commented that he hadn’t been up so early on a Saturday for years and what was worse, he and Stephen had not got to bed until the early hours of Saturday morning. However, with the thought of a good weekend ahead and a journey which was smooth with no hold ups or delays, we picked up our fifth team member, Paul, who’d caught a train from Reading to Exeter. We found our hotel, and after the helpful receptionist gave us directions to St James’ Park, we headed off to the ground in high spirits.

A couple of pints of real ale including the fine Tribute from the St Austell brewery were consumed in the friendly Green Tavern whilst watching Liverpool beat Manchester United 4-1 and then it was into the ground. As we walked into the away end, this is how I remembered some of my earlier away trips supporting City in the late 80’s and early 90’s; a terrace open to the elements! Andrew headed off for a Cornish pasty which prompted a stampede to the tiny snack bar located in the corner of the away end. Much of the pre-match talk centred around the fact that Thorne was only on the bench. Had McCall come for a point?

The game started fairly evenly with an outstretched Boulding just failing to connect with an O’Brien cross. Steve Jones, who had started on the right wing, due to Colbeck been relegated to the bench, tested Jones, the Exeter goalkeeper but his shot went straight at him. However, on 20 minutes disaster struck; an innocuous cross from Moxey on the Exeter left appeared to strike Arnison and looped over the stranded Evans and into the Bradford net. That was how the score stayed until half time.

The second half started with McLaren wearing a shirt which displayed no number on the back of his shirt. Is this against the rules? Answers to the editor please. City continued to toil away with the busy Boulding being supported by Law. However, with Furman, McLaren and Bullock all starting in our midfield, we were lacking width on the left hand side. The situation was crying out for the now fit Brandon to come on or even the recently signed Keith Gillespie. Neither came on but Thorne did appear in place of McLaren with about half an hour of play to go. Many supporters could be heard muttering, “why didn’t McCall start with two up front instead of going for a 4, 4, 1, 1 formation?” Unfortunately Thorne’s introduction to the game had little effect and Colbeck didn’t really have time to make an impact when he replaced the hard-working Furman with five minutes to go. Indeed, Exeter were the closest to scoring again, when Rehman bought down Stansfield and from the resulting free-kick, Evans finger-tipped Moxey’s fierce shot on to the cross bar. The final whistle blew following a Bradford corner and we had experienced our tenth away defeat of the season and more worryingly, our fourth consecutive away defeat.

As the 500 or so City faithful trudged away from the ground, you could now hear many supporters saying “if I was manager, I would have…” After any City defeat as I exit the ground, I always hear many supporters expressing their opinion (which they are entitled to do) which tends to suggest that they would make a better manager. Personally, I disagreed with McCall’s starting eleven. I would have gone for a 4, 4, 2 formation with Thorne starting upfront with Boulding and giving either Brandon or Gillespie their starting debut to provide some width on the left side of our midfield. However, I was delighted when McCall recently signed an extended contract as I believe that he is the right manager to take Bradford City forward. I’m sure that McCall wants promotion this season, just as much as we, the supporters, want it.

And so, the five of us headed into Exeter city centre for a few more pints of real ale including one in the greatly named Fat Pig followed by a excellent curry at Ganges. We were left to contemplate what might have been but it was interesting to hear more views on our performance on Sunday morning when we got chatting to some fellow City supporters, at our hotel, who’s also been to the game. Interestingly, we agreed that McCall should start with a 4, 4, 2 formation on Tuesday night at Bournemouth.

It is not plain which plan is being followed

Note: The following is Paul Firth’s report in the game with Exeter that was mailed on Saturday night but took some time to arrive leaving events to pass it with the news of the reason for Conlon and Clarke’s exclusion. The report makes interesting reading so is included.

Many words have been written on BfB earlier this season on the concept of ‘Plan B’ and, in particular, on whether Stuart McCall has one. At Exeter it was not plain which Plan or, indeed, if anything that might be dignified by the use of a term such as ‘plan’ had been put into action.

The obvious response to the Rochdale defeat was a reshuffling of the team. At kick off it wasn’t easy to work out what the team, as opposed to the eleven players, would be. Maybe this was the plan, to confuse the opponents. It certainly confused me for long enough. The Thorne/Boulding/Conlon debate took another twist with only the middle one of the three surviving. But what looked like a 4-5-1, with Boulding on his own, became a 4-4-1-1, with Nicky Law ‘in the hole’.

Zesh Rehman replaced Matt Clarke, who had been no worse than a few other defenders at Rochdale. But the midfield saw the biggest changes. Out went Joe Colbeck and back came both Lee Bullock and Paul McLaren. About the only description to be given to this section of the team was disjointed.

We all know how effective Law and Furman have been together and that there can be a problem if the opposition have a few more tall players. Disrupting that partnership can be justified, but not so easily. This was not so much a disruption as an earthquake. Furman looked lost. Not only was he without his partner, but he was no longer sure who his partner was. McLaren rarely crossed the half way line. Bullock’s function seemed to be to get on the end of any high ball from the back – and there were far too many of those again – and only Jones, in his spot on the right wing, seemed truly at home.

The bench contained no fewer than two more right wingers in Colbeck and the newly signed Gillespie, together with Brandon, Thorne and Ainge. The absence of a keeper should no longer be a surprise, perhaps, but do we really need two right wingers on the bench? Messrs Conlon and Clarke, sitting in the row behind me in the stand, looked in danger of tripping over their faces so long were they. I don’t think they liked not being in the sixteen.

The Cowshed roof at St James Park (the Exeter version) has an overhang that reminded me of the old Valley Parade stand. The football in 2009 also reminded me of the pre-1985 style. I lost sight of the ball for about a third of the game because either a stanchion obstructed my view or the ball was once more coming out of the sky above. The pitch appeared to be in very fine condition, but perhaps the groundsman had threatened both sides about wearing out his grass.

City without doubt are at their best when they pass the ball at pace along the ground and use the obvious skills of the front six. Instead they competed with the home team in a game of hoof-ball that was unedifying and rarely entertaining. It summed up the quality of the match that the only goal was a complete fluke. Dean Moxey advanced up the left wing, going past Arnison with some ease, despite the attempted hand-off. As Arnison returned for a second attempt Moxey crossed from near the corner. The ball was deflected up in the air over the head of the hapless (and capless) Evans and into the net. Whether the sun shining straight into his face made any difference only Evans will know. The Exeter keeper in the second half was not bare headed.

At half time there had been plenty of good work down City’s right, but the home keeper had had just the one shot to save, a half volley from outside the box hit well enough by Steve Jones, but requiring only a routine stop.

As the teams came out for the second half I couldn’t help thinking of the symbolism in McLaren’s change of shirt. His new top had neither number nor name. In every sense he would now be anonymous, any identity being revealed only when the number 4 came up on the fourth official’s board twenty minutes into the half. Enter Peter Thorne and another change of formation, with Law, Furman and Bullock vying with each other for the midfield area not covered by Jones.

As the second half progressed City had more and more possession in their opponents’ defensive third. Corners and free kicks were apparently endless, but the home keeper had very few saves to make, the best being with his feet following a Jones run and shot. In front of him Taylor and the wonderfully named Troy Archibald-Henville hardly put a foot wrong and dealt so comfortably with the string of high balls that they must have wondered if City’s defenders had been told that Barry Conlon was in the stand.

For a brief moment our saviour looked to be on hand. A long ball from Luke O’Brien found Peter Thorne between the central defenders and he was through into the area. Memories of that goal at Port Vale flashed through the mind, only to be wiped out in the next flash. Perhaps we should just say that there was a difference in pace, Thorne was put under pressure before being able to hit a shot and the move came to nothing.

Dean Furman’s confused day came to a slightly premature end when Joe Colbeck replaced him with five minutes remaining. There was still enough time for the entire team save for Luke O’Brien to go up for a corner and for Zesh Rehman to be yellow carded for an offence that might have brought a red – especially if it had really been an offence.

There had been much huffing and puffing, not to mention too large a portion of high balls. The effort was undeniable, but in truth neither team showed the skill level that would suggest they were capable of promotion. A disappointing result took City out of the play-off places n a day when a win would have done so much more. Messrs Conlon and Clarke were stony faced. Perhaps they shared my thought that, if we have to play so many high balls, it might be best to have someone their size to get under them.

The long leap of faith to Exeter for Bradford City

Exeter City, or Town, or United. I forget which it is but Michael Jackson once played here and like the King of Pop/Stuff that people don’t talk about any more City would like to get back into the big leagues.

Jackson is selling out stadium and City might be depending on which figure you believe but without wanting to run down the corner of Devon too much both club and pop star would rather be somewhere else.

For City to get on we need to play better than Tuesday night but 3-0 flattered them and a whistle happy Referee did not help matters. That said City need more spine and more punch away from home.

So who better to get that punch than Keith Gillespie the former Newcastle man who brawled unsuccessfully with Shearer and beat up the Beatles, well, George McCartney anyway. Gillespie is an out and out winger and one of the best crosses of the ball in the last fifteen years. He comes in to replace Omar Daley in the squad and played a reserve game alongside Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren and Kyle Nix as City’s midfield options increase again.

Joe Colbeck is struggling to get back to form and so could drop out for Gillespie’s debut but probably the former Manchester United winger will start on the bench alongside Brandon with Colbeck, Nicky Law, Dean Furman and Steve Jones in the midfield.

The back four still does not let in many goals but seems to binge on them like some demented Priest who presents one pious face to his flock on Sunday at Valley Parade with a clean sheet then goes away on a drink and drugs bender of letting in goals away from home. Zesh Rehman is in line for a recall probably over Paul Arnison but maybe over Luke O’Brien. I don’t like the idea of dropping a card carrying City fan for anyone. You get passion from playing passionate players and who is more passionate than a guy who if he was not on the pitch would be next to it watching?

Up front Barry Conlon is expected to be back on the bench for Michael Boulding. Peter Thorne keeps his place.

We talked about needing five points from these three away games. A game in we have zero but two wins would give us six points. The faith but be kept just like those people who refused to believe anything bad about Jacko and that Priest mentioned before. Why? Well whatelseyagonnado on a Saturday?

CityCheerGate

Only nine days ago I was writing about my concerns after the game at Notts County. For those with very short memories, City lost 3-1 and a significant proportion of the 1200 ‘supporters’ began the booing and chanting of ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’ before half-time, when the home team had scored three goals from their only four shots (the fourth sailed miles over the bar).

Fast forward to the next away game and even more City fans turn up at Spotland. City lost 3-0; Rochdale had rather more than three shots on goal; and there was not a negative chant or a faint boo to be heard. Indeed, the fans who stayed to the final whistle – and those who left early to try to avoid the terrible traffic could almost be forgiven – carried on cheering and supporting the team and the manager in every possible way.

If a week is a long time in politics, how long is nine days in football? Don’t say ‘nine days’, please.

What has happened in that short space of time to produce a wholly different response? It couldn’t just be two home wins, could it? Not even when one of them was a 5-0 win. City’s lasst 5-0 win came under Colin Todd in the first round of the League Cup ironically at Rochdale.

My explanation for the change is three-fold. The first part is that the fans have taken to heart the words of the manager that we’re all in this together. If City are going to get promoted, the cause will not be helped by booing and the rest. I’d like to think that the fans took my words to heart from nine days ago, but I know better than that!

The second part of my explanation is that the 3,000 plus (or minus, if you’re giving the Rochdale version of the attendance) were united with the team in adversity. Most of us had suffered the ludicrous delays getting to the game that simply prove the accuracy, as well as the irony, of the chants of ‘what’s it like to see a crowd?’ I travelled from the ‘wrong’ end of the M62, but met the Bradfordians at the same motorway junction. Did you see that police traffic car undertaking us on the hard shoulder of the A627M? What contribution did he make to getting the traffic moving? I gather we may not have started the game too well – I rely on others for an account of the first few minutes – but for what I saw of the first half City were on top.

And then the team’s own adversity took over well and truly. From my seat over the assistant referee’s shoulder, neither of the penalties was a penalty. Being hit by the ball with your arms down is not within my definition of ‘deliberate’ and just because the forward falls over doesn’t necessarily mean it was a foul, ref. The assistant, who looked to have a much better view than the ref, flagged for neither. And Lee was obvious still so aggrieved after the final whistle about the elbow in his face that he showed the ref exactly how it had happened. So that’s the fans and the team – oh, and the management, since Jakes was sent to the stand – all suffering one injustice after another.

But the third part of my explanation for the absence of negativity is a reflection of something I’ve been saying all season. The boos at Notts County and the reaction at Bury followed what looked like a lack of response or effort from the players in those games. Too many times I have looked in vain for a spirited reply, of the type we always seemed to have in those glorious days when the coaching team were players. It was the spirit that kept us up one famous year. But I didn’t have to look too hard last night.

I wasn’t trying to find Radio Leeds as we battled back through the Greater Manchester traffic after the game, but I gather one articulate caller made out a case for a lack of effort. It’s a good job football (and BfB in particular) is all about opinions. It struck me that, even after the realisation that we’re all in this together and even allowing for the unity from adversity, a lack of spirit would still have been greeted unceremoniously last night. That so many disappointed fans still cheered the team off says it all for me.

So, whatever the reason or reasons may be, effort will rarely be booed, even in defeat. Every club wants to tell you how it has the best fans. At Notts County I would not have been convinced that City could make such a claim. After Rochdale, all that I’m looking for is the same support and the same effort (and a different ref). The next two away games won’t be easy, but they will be as important as Rochdale – especially if automatic promotion is to remain the prospect it should still be. I look forward to writing about two more games where the supporters have done their bit and maybe where the team’s efforts have produced a more fitting reward.

The fan’s lot

After plans for the evening came up in conversation yesterday morning, a Manchester United-supporting work colleague told me he couldn’t imagine a worse place to be that night than Spotland.

His views were partially based on the ignorance Premiership supporters like to inflict upon us lower league fans – his evening was to be spent in front of the TV watching Liverpool fool themselves into believing a 4-0 thrashing of Real Madrid was the stunning achievement it might have been a few years ago – but as Rochdale charged forward in the final few minutes and almost delivered their own 4-0 win, I couldn’t help but look back on his words as prophetic.

Just getting to Spotland had been a tension-packed episode. I had booked a half day holiday and went through to Bradford with my friend Steve to meet my wife Rachel, a Primary School teacher, who was holding a parents evening. It overran by 40 minutes, which left us very late getting onto the M62 and subsequently stuck in horrific traffic in the ridiculously badly-planned roads leading into Rochdale, with less than an hour to kick off. After more stress finding somewhere to park, we finally got into the ground just as the teams were coming out onto the pitch and the consistent stream of people who arrived after us demonstrated the traffic congestion had not got any better.

So the least we deserved was a decent performance, right?

That’s the problem with football. Ultimately success is enjoyed by the few and the rest of us are left regularly coping with the heavy feeling of disappointment we had to bear as we made our back to the car at full time. The last few games for City have triggered a huge contrast of emotions that leave you wondering why we allow ourselves to be so openly exposed to them. It’s horrible to watch your team lacking the stomach to fight back while knowing there is nothing you can do to change it – and it’s a feeling we’ve become so used to in recent years.

It’s easy for us to feel sorry for ourselves, but many of us at least have the consolation of having seen City succeed and what better days are like. My feelings were more of concern for my wife, who first started watching City on a regular basis four years ago and who’s time as a season ticket holder has not seen anything like the level of success this season has been.

On evenings such as this I think I’m paying my dues and that, when success does eventually come around again, I can look back on these darker times and enjoy the moment that bit more. How do you keep faith without the good times to fall back on and if the belief grows that success will always be someone else’s preserve?

In the last two seasons City have grown their fanbase thanks to the season ticket offers and for away games there’s been rekindled enthusiasm. The true damage of last night’s defeat may not be reflected in the league table, but in maintaining the level of support the club has worked so hard to gain.

Stuart McCall talks about the players feeling the pressure when playing in front of large away followings like the one at Spotland and there’s an absurdity about the situation. Whether long-time supporters or relatively new, no City fan believes the Bantams should be playing at this level and getting thumped 3-0 by a League Two promotion rival falls woefully short of expectation levels.

Unfortunately this present team does not look equipped to compete at a higher level and the pressure of at least getting there is weighing them down. It cannot be a coincidence that the players have generally performed better this season in front of smaller away followings, something which might be more of a regular occurance if next season’s fixture list again includes Accrington and Barnet.

Maybe my friend knew what he was talking about when he said Spotland was the last place to want to be last night, in the second half it certainly appeared the players felt that way.

Another bad repeat

Shortly after half time at Spotland, Bradford City’s players found themselves rueing missed opportunities and a two-goal burst from the home side which left them chasing a deficit. As symbolism goes it was a pretty fair analogy of City’s promotion challenge to date – and of the size of the task this defeat leaves them in achieving that goal.

Fortune certainly favoured Rochdale and the three-point advantage they now look down upon City from in 3rd place is less comfortable than this three-goal victory might suggest; but while manager Stuart McCall can point to a woeful refereeing display from Scott Mathieson contributing greatly to his side’s fourth away defeat in five, he will also know much of it was self-inflicted.

Quite how the evening went so wrong is something Stuart will be pondering for the next few days. Having spent the first 20 minutes under the cosh from a vibrant Dale side who passed the ball around with fluency and alternated attacks down both flanks, City were the better team for spells during the rest of the half and could easily have gone in at the interval one or two goals ahead.

Barry Conlon, recalled ahead of Michael Boulding, ably linked up with Peter Thorne and was effective in holding up the ball and allowing others to get forward. Steve Jones carried on where he left off Saturday with some teasing dribbles and dangerous crosses. Nicky Law and Dean Furman, while never able to dominate the middle of the park in the manner they’d succeeded in the last two home games, competed well against the industrious Gary Jones and Clark Keltie.

The best chances fell to Thorne, who twice saw one-on-one opportunities against on-loan Blackburn keeper Frank Fielding blocked. The first one stemmed from good play by Conlon which left City’s top scorer with time and space to do better than the scuffed effort straight at Fielding. The second was a more difficult chance but better attempt, which needed to be pushed wide of the post. Just after half time Graeme Lee’s header from a corner was superbly stopped again by Fielding and, with other half chances created, most of the goal action fell in Rochdale’s penalty area. Rhys Evans did see one headed effort flash wide of his post.

Yet shortly into the second half Rochdale scored after Joe Colbeck, who endured another tough evening, fouled the dangerous Will Buckley and the resultant free kick was nodded home by Rory McArdle. With new purpose to Rochale’s game the tide quickly turned, although it was the dubious help from the officials in adjudging that Conlon’s attempt to clear the ball from a corner included his arm which put them in a stronger position. Adam Le Fondre, twice scourge of City last season, dispatched the resultant spot kick despite Evans getting a hand to it. When an even softer penalty was awarded following Matt Clarke’s challenge in the box – which looked clean from my position – Le Fondre repeated the feat.

But whatever sense of injustice City felt, demonstrated by assistant manager Wayne Jacobs getting sent off from the dug out and Stuart holding a long conversation with Mathieson at full time, it should not disguise another poor response to adversity. A decent performance once again fell apart and the final 35 minutes did not make pretty viewing from a Claret and Amber perspective. Rochdale continued to attack with purpose while desperation became too quickly evident in City’s forward play. Having successfully harried home players into mistakes during the first half, it was now the away team who couldn’t get time on the ball.

A premature panic on the touchline didn’t help either. As soon as Le Fondre struck his first penalty a double substitution was made by Stuart which had little effect. I’ve been told all season that Stuart “never makes his subs early enough” – funny how Todd, Law, Jefferies, Jewell et all were just as bad at this – so maybe this action was applauded by some, but considering City hadn’t done a lot wrong up to then such drastic action seemed a bit much.

Certainly Conlon was unfortunate to be taken off and, though his replacement Boulding was a willing worker, the ball stopped sticking in the final third. Substituting Colbeck was probably the right decision, though some of the abuse he is getting from some fans right now is unfair. Somehow last season’s player of the year has become the “worst player ever” and jumping up to scream when he struggles to keep an attack going is hardly going to help him rediscover confidence that has been lost since returning from a first significant career injury.

Lee Bullock came on, with Law moved out wide and doing a decent job, but the likelihood of City coming back had diminished long before the second penalty. At that point change three had been made after Paul Arnison was rescued from the roasting Buckley was dishing him and Zesh Rehman brought on. With Lee’s form notably dipping, arguments for bringing Rehman into the centre or keeping him at right back and recalling Mark Bower from Luton are being aired. Stuart must be pondering how a defence which has looked so strong at home can be so feeble away.

Something which, with two important away games in Devon and Dorset this next week, urgently must be improved on. Results elsewhere still leave City in a decent position but the team’s failure to deliver extraordinary results rather than just good results may ultimately leave it facing an extended end to the season rather than a top three podium place. There’s been too many poor performances on the road and there was no evidence at Spotland to suggest this would be the last.

Stuart did an excellent job of ensuring his team responded positively to the Barnet and Notts County set backs and the immediate challenge is to do that again. But for City to achieve promotion this season – automatic or via Wembley – his ability to get to the bottom of why it keeps going wrong will need to come through.

McCall will hope City can start the way they finish

In eleven days – and three away games – time the promotion hopes for Bradford City will be much clearer but as a signal of intent and a send off on that decisive Odyssey the Bantams could hardly have been more emphatic.

Indeed it seemed 75 second after kick off when Peter Thorne was wheeling away following the opening goal of the game that the seven days since the defeat at Notts County could have been a lifetime of a span.

Thorne reclaimed his scoring touch darting into a hole that Michael Boulding had made in the defence to get on the end of an excellent low cross from the left by the increasingly useful Steve Jones and pushing the ball past a hapless Nicky Bull who would not get near any of the five goals he picked out of his net this afternoon.

Following on from Thorne’s goal City never wobbled. A minor incident involving Rhys Evans coming out of his goal as City failed to follow stay up centre back Anthony Charles which resulted in a not that threatening snubbed out shot at goal.

This was as much of a chance as the visitors had to get back and within minutes Bull once again picked the ball out of his goal following Dean Furman’s deflected strike which was just return following a corner which saw Matthew Clarke shoved unceremoniously from under the ball in what was an obvious penalty denied.

That it was denied was no surprise with Referee Graham Salisbury in charge. Salisbury had once denied City a goal against Yeovil following a defender pass back and sent off Jermaine Johnson in the same game in what was the wingers last game for the Bantams. Salisbury makes a habit of sending off City players but today restricted himself to ignoring that penalty and allowing Marvin Morgan to get away with the kind of loose arm across the face on Clarke which is exactly the sort of thing that he sends City players off for.

Nevertheless – and to paraphrase Sean Connery – losers moan about the Referee and winner go home with the match ball. Or the prom queen. Dean Furman deserves both for another superb display controlling central midfield. Much of how City do in the forthcoming games at Rochdale, Bournemouth and Exeter will depend on how much Furman can break up play as he did so well at Valley Parade today.

With his club Rangers making people redundant and looking for ways to save a bob or two I would not be at all surprised to see Furman starting SPL games next season – nor do I think he would look out of place – but in the years since Stuart McCall the player left the club and Stuart McCall the manager returned we have (any club would) been crying out for a replacement and in Furman we have one.

My erstwhile colleague Jason sings the praises of Nicky Law Jnr who delivered the perfect corner for Peter Thorne to glide through the air to head in the Bantams third, again Charles – conspicuous with his Afro – stood still as his man reeled away in celebration.

Rochdale’s defeat to Bury at midday had seen the Shakers go third and Rochdale drop to fourth. A 5-0 win would put City fourth and at the start of the day the task was to keep fifth as the Bantams supremacy continued it looked feasible.

A note at this point to the school who had turned up with a banner in support of “Bradford City and Zesh Rehman” and a country flag in tribute to the defender who unfortunately for the kids spent ninety minutes on the bench watching another excellent display by Paul Arnison at right back.

Arnison has not enjoyed universal support from City fans but it seems that when he plays the Bantams have another dimension and the support that Arnison offers to right winger Joe Colbeck is important.

Colbeck is getting back into the swing of things and looked dangerous in the second half rampaging forward getting a reward with two minutes to go putting in another low cross that skimmed past Charles and to sub Barry Conlon who touched the ball past Nicky Bull from seven yards out (Edit: The cross was by Nicky Law Jnr). Target man Barry using his head to stay on side by coming onto a ball which seemed to elude Shots left back Anthony Straker who chewed the linesman out all second half and never was spoken to about it unlike JJ three years ago.

Spoken about but never seen was Chris Brandon who – some two thousand years after signing for City and getting injured – made his début coming on for Michael Boulding seconds after the hard working striker had been unlucky not to add the fourth that Conlon got and would have had the fifth with what would have been his first kick for his home club following Colbeck’s low cross but Rhys Day stuck out a leg and Aldershot’s afternoon was all over, as was the game.

The Bantams up to fourth and on to the road to far off places on the South Coast following a short trip to the team we jumped over in Rochdale. When City return to Valley Parade in two weeks time the reminder of the season will have been shaped.

Realists would say that to expect more than a point away from home is too high an expectation and should City get three from three or less then it would seem that scrapping for play off places is the order of the day.

If we can score at a rate near two points a game – two wins, a win and two draws, one of each even perhaps – then we would be looking at the ability to challenge for the automatic promotion places and the play offs would be fall back.

The criticisms of City’s manager – as with the defeats – seem a long time ago with proposed successor Peter Jackson spending the afternoon watching his Lincoln City get pounded by Grimsby. McCall has got City into a position where the finish to the season defines the season.

Last year the Bantams approached the last months looking to find form and a run, the last promotion side the Bantams had were looking to hold onto faltering form. McCall’s City are well placed and pick up points at a consistent rate on the whole. The season enters end game with the Bantams firmly in the position where should we perform well then we can manufacture our own destiny.

He will hope that the finish the season as we started this game and that the start of that finish is as complete as the finishing today. As a signal of intent this – the tenth home win of the season – is as telling as they come.

What should happen next – Bradford City vs Aldershot Town – League Two 2008/2009

It’s March, which in recent years for City fans has meant either anxiety over surviving relegation or disappointment at having nothing to play for.

It’s been exactly 10 years since credible promotion hopes have lasted this long into a campaign and there’s a sense of excitement at what might lie ahead. City welcome Aldershot to Valley Parade tomorrow and then travel to promotion rivals Rochdale and Exeter a few days later. It’s time for our bums, to quote Sir Alex Ferguson, to start squeaking.

Credit for what the management and players have achieved so far this season is often in limited supply from some quarters, but they have delivered more than other recent City teams in getting this far. Though there is perhaps one mental block that it’s still questionable they’ve overcome this season which will be put to the ultimate test tomorrow – the comfortable home win.

City should win tomorrow, although should is a dangerous word. In our first season out of the Premiership we should have beaten Stockport, Millwall and Sheff Wed at Valley Parade. We should have earned home victories over Gillingham and Walsall in 2002/03, Derby and Rotherham 2003/04, Torquay in 2004/05, Bournemouth in 2005/06, Northampton 2006/07 and Accrington 2007/08 – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When we should win, we invariably slip up and it’s such habits which could be looked back on with regret if promotion is not achieved come May.

City’s home record is much better this season and only Bournemouth have taken maximum points, though that was a game we should have won. There have also been draws with Luton, Barnet, Dagenham and Accrington which the team and us supporters went into confident we should win. Aldershot may have a woeful away record and go into their March with nothing to play for, but they should not be taken lightly as any points dropped by City would undermine whatever’s achieved in Lancashire and Devon next week.

After a much-needed and well deserved win over Macclesfield Tuesday, manager Stuart McCall will have a more confident squad to choose from and is likely to keep it similar. The biggest question lies up front with Peter Thorne rested and now vying for a recall and Stuart debating whether to hold him back for Tuesday. Barry Conlon came in and had his best game for some time while Michael Boulding was much improved after his frankly pathetic showing at Notts County. One may drop to the bench and the other may face that prospect a few days later.

In midfield the partnership of Nicky Law and Dean Furman did more than most to earn the Macclesfield win and both are a joy to watch at present. Furman has revealed his celebration for Tuesday’s winner was dedicated to the injured Omar Daley which is not what you might typically expect from a loan player, it also seems to go against rumours of dressing room unrest which have been circulating.

Steve Jones frustrates me for his less-than-committed attitude and it will take a while to forget the disgraceful manner he left Zesh Rehman to be slaughtered by Myles Weston at Meadow Lane last week. He is popular with some fans and can be excellent when he wants to be, but his style of running down blind alleys and woeful crossing is a little too reminiscent of Ben Murihead 2003 for my liking. He will keep his place on the left with Joe Colbeck continuing to find form and fitness on the right. The flurry of games over the next fortnight make it a good time for Chris Brandon to be almost back as it may prove too much for last season’s player of the season to start them all.

The defence should continue as they were. On Tuesday Graeme Lee appeared to be the target of the boo boys with previous victims Matt Clarke and Paul Arnison passed over, probably due to how well they both played. Such ‘support’ has yet to be directed towards Luke O’Brien, who was much better after a slight wobble of late. Rhys Evans keeps goal and will be proud of a home record that has seen him beaten only once – a deflected free kick – between the sticks at BD8 in nine games.

Aldershot seem to be enjoying the kind of season newly-promoted teams regularly enjoy in starting well before drifting off towards the end. They’ve won one in 11 and none on the road since November, although did cause Gillingham a few problems recently when they drew 4-4 at the Priestfield. They also inflicted City’s first defeat of the season back in August.

Which means there is that usual danger lurking behind thinking City should win tomorrow. We’ll turn up that bit more relaxed, get behind the team that bit less and get frustrated that bit sooner. A home win wouldn’t be earth shattering but, though we’re not used to games meaning something in this way come Spring, we shouldn’t forget that picking up maximum points as often as possible is what’s vital at this stage – whether it’s a fixture we should or shouldn’t win.

Thanks to Deano addiction now has a purpose

Being a supporter of a football team (and having read Paul Firth’s excellent article, I use the word ‘supporter’ very carefully) is a careless addiction. Little did I know when my Dad carried me through the Kop turnstile as a four year old, that the slippery slope towards addiction had begun.

As is often the case with addicts, I’m not entirely sure when the ‘want’ to go to matches became a ‘need’ to go, but perversely, I’m fairly sure it was around the time that I stopped actually enjoying games involving my beloved Bantams. As anyone who has read Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, or indeed for anyone who follows City, will appreciate, football matches are not wholly enjoyable experiences.

It probably says quite a lot about our society that many of us persist in aligning ourselves with this painful ritual for forty weeks of every year. It’s the anticipation that I find so difficult to understand. The week prior to matches is spent in glorious anticipation of the weekend’s fixture; the previous weekend’s torture conveniently moved to another part of the brain.

After all this anticipation, the match itself should be a release. It isn’t. It’s a further build-up of tension and frustration, usually followed by disappointment, which reigns until the anticipation of yet another match kicks in. Victories are appreciated, but rarely enjoyed – the avoidance of the disappointment of defeat overriding the joy of victory… such is the strange and perverse world of the football supporter, or perhaps that’s just me.

But sometimes, just sometimes, one of those games comes along. A game that I enjoy. Strange as it may seem, I found yesterday’s victory over Macclesfield thoroughly enjoyable. Perhaps expectations had dipped following the previous weeks’ debacles; perhaps the disappointment hadn’t given way to anticipation prior to kick-off; perhaps others felt just like me.

Or perhaps the answer is much simpler than that, and perhaps his name is Dean Furman. Here is a player who should be a crowd favourite for his effort alone. Yet Furman marries his endeavour with great skill and all the attributes of a complete midfield player. I thoroughly enjoy watching this guy play football. He clearly is too good for League Two but unlike other loan players who think they are too good for this level (and aren’t), playing for Bradford City seems to mean something to Furman.

I love the way he moves the ball, the way he passes, the way he tackles, the way he shoots. Common themes run through his play: a purpose, a determination, a grabbing the situation by the scruff of its neck and coming out on top. None more were his attributes displayed than two instances last night. Firstly, as City attacked the Bradford End, Macclesfield broke away with men over. As the ball was pushed past Furman he took down his man with no great subtlety and received a deserved booking. Not his greatest moment in many respects, but he did what was best for Bradford City in that situation and that’s just fine in my book.

Secondly, and more obviously brilliant, was his goal. Picking up the ball in midfield he drove with purpose at the blue wall in front of him, rolling the ball in to Boulding, who for once held off his man, before expertly playing the ball back into Furman’s path. The midfielder finished off expertly with his left foot to cap another brilliant performance. We look a really good team when we play with tempo and purpose. Dean Furman is the epitome of these attributes.

Last night’s performance was refreshing in the wake of a couple of horror-shows. I think (though I’m not entirely sure) that I may have still enjoyed last night’s performance had we not won, but I went away with a smile on my face following a great performance and a great victory. Another few smiles before May and we may be able to celebrate the avoidance of the disappointment of not gaining promotion!

It rains on the just and the unjust alike

A lesson: Nothing is every as bad or as good as it seems.

Two defeats on the road were supposed to have derailed the Bantams promotion bid however at the end of a frighteningly cold bordering gale evening City sit fifth three points away from the automatic promotion slots with a home game on Saturday.

That City ended the game was in large part down to Stuart McCall sending the Bantams out with a game plan and the players sticking to it.

The conditions saw every ball that went over shoulder height blown and blustered off course and given an element of unplayability which which was only countered with low, passing football which the Bantams steadfastly adhered to.

In the opening minute Steve Jones – who enjoyed perhaps his most disciplined, most useful game for the Bantams – got on the end of some useful play by Nicky Law Jnr on the left and took a heavy challenge in box. The referee ignored Jones’s half hearted appeals and his limp away but the scene was set for the ninety minutes of near constant City forward motion.

Macclesfield Town – managed by Keith Alexander in a way which is not impressing the locals – threatened little in the game and not at all in the first half when they played with the wind behind them. Alexander’s game plan involved long balls to strikers Gareth Evans and former City young player Emile Sinclair and very little else.

Alexander’s opposite number in the Bantams dug out had the luxury of better players more capable of using the ball on the ground and more of an idea of what to do in possession. Dean Furman – booked for cutting down an attack cynically – resisted the urge to cross a wide ball and drove into the box cutting back to Steve Jones who whacked a shot against the bar. Michael Boulding and Barry Conlon almost beat former City trialist Jon Brain with headers. City pushed.

Eventually – after half time – that pressure resulted in a well crafted goal when Furman tucked a ball into Boulding who held it up manfully and released back to the midfielder who slotted in on the hour.

The Bantams never looked like surrendering the lead with Joe Colbeck – who previously in the game had struggled to blend back into the rhythm of the rest of the side – started to regain a dangerous edge on the right wing and Nicky Law Jnr’s tireless midfield running opened the visitors up a number of times. Peter Thorne – a late sub – Barry Conlon and Jones could have added to the lead.

The single goal was enough and the Bantams climbed the table. It was thanks to McCall – if you believe the manager carries the can for all ills and thus gets credit for all good things – or his players who not once failed to seize the responsibility they failed to show before should you be of the mindset that those who kick the ball are in charge of all.

Me, I like to think that there is a synergy in a football club and that tonight City identified a way of playing and stuck to it and were rewarded. It was not the greatest win, rain and wind is not the hardest problem to solved but they proved too much for Alexander of Macclesfield but McCall of City untied the knot.

It rains on the just and the unjust alike and football managers are beset with being judged on the results of games such as this that hang in the balance.

Nothing is ever as good, or as bad, as it seems but things certainly seem better for City..

McCall looks to show the guts as City face Macclesfield at Valley Parade

Today we discuss: How much are the clubs managed like the manager?

It is often felt that a manager maketh a team in his image from the attacking entertainment of Newcastle United and Kevin Keegan to the sturdy charges of Steve Bruce at Wigan Athletic the manager’s template becomes the team’s tactics. Certainly a glance down the table suggests that that theory is enjoying prominence save the odd exception – Arsene Wengers’s players are much better than he ever was – with the likes of David Moyes creating a stocky team and Martin O’Neill a determined and able one.

This has not always been the case. Bryan Robson’s meat and potatoes Middlesbrough – and his potatoes and nothing much else City sides – were a million miles away from the most exciting midfielder in the country he was when he skippered England while the playing on his own winger that was Paul Jewell begat a side built around playing for each other.

Stuart McCall’s Bradford City team have turned in – it is widely felt – two gutless performances totally at opposite to the way the midfield terrier himself used to race around the pitch trying to kick every ball. McCall showed more passion in the last minute of a 4-0 defeat at Coventry than some of his charges did at 0-0.

It must be galling for McCall to watch players who put in less effort although few would doubt the City manager had an engine near unparalleled in the game and how McCall reacts to the realisation that his finest quality is also one of the rarest defines his relationship with the players. Unerring passer Glenn Hoddle’s famed disgust at the lack of technical skills in the England dressing room that included David Beckham led to his exclusion of the pre-iconic winger from his 1998 World Cup side but – as one of those players put it – “We can’t all be Glenn Hoddle.” It seemed the England manager had not realised that.

So Stuart McCall looks for a response for his players who were criticised last week for not taking enough responsibility for the performance and have failed to redress that balance. McCall points out – to deaf ears perhaps – that as disappointing for all that the team’s 3-1 defeat at Notts County was it was not the overwhelming that the scoreline and resultant negativity suggests. “They have only had four shots and three of them have gone in” said the City boss.

The negativity is something that has grown since this fixture – Bradford City v Macclesfield Town – opened last season and is a fact of life for a football manager. There is an old adage repeated in Syd Fields book on screenwriting where nine of ten people stopped when walking down an L.A. street and asked “How is your script coming on?” replied “Brilliant, but how did you know I was writing one?”

Blindly as football fans of any colour or stripe if they are happy with their club’s manager then perhaps it would be all but one in ten who grumbled back to you. Most football supporters talk much about the need for stability at their club but alas it always seems that there is an element who believes that that stability starts with the next manager.

A wider point on management is that it works best when allowed to enact longer term planning, a specific one is that our management has started to manifest the first improvement in demonstrative results in ten years and an even more specific point is that ludicrousness of the thought to replacing our gaffer with someone who is fairing more poorly at a club in our division.

City start two home game – two more – that promise to be season defining but ultimately success and failure in both will not guarantee nor deny promotion with Macclesfield being followed by Aldershot Town on Saturday and do so with a squad that has questions over fitness as much as attitude.

It escapes no one that since he lunged for a ball against Darlington Rhys Evans has conceded seven goals where previously he was keeping clean sheets but the goalkeeper seems to be City’s only option between the sticks and is not held liable for the goals on the whole either. The defence that was solid is not anything but and there are calls for Paul Arnison to be restored and Matthew Clarke dropped for Zesh Rehman to be put into the heart of the defence. The experiences at Luton Town suggest that three – not two – big lads to head the ball away is no bad thing and while he has performed well for most of this season the fact that this debate on who should form the back four never includes Luke O’Brien is curious. The lad has done exceptionally well since he broke into the first team but accepting the three big fellas rule then it is he or Arnison and not both.

The midfield is a problem area. It is a scant month since Nicky Law Jnr had to be acquired at all costs and now it seems he is part of a team who are not fit to wear the shirt – or so supporters sang on Saturday – and the continued use of loan players in the middle and fear that some – well, only me perhaps – had that it would make a soft centred team are realised. Not that Dean Furman, Law and Steve Jones are to shoulder all the blame for the last two results. Perhaps those three players – with the detachment that being a transient singing gives you – look at the past 180s minutes and say “Teams lose away from home, that is football, you make up for it with a couple of wins at home.”

The loss of Omar Daley and perhaps use of Chris Brandon shapes the midfield as would – if they were true – the rumours of an absence for Paul McLaren. In the never that humble opinion of this writer McLaren and Furman would be City’s best engine room with Joe Colbeck on the right and Steve Jones the left which is tantamount to admitting that until Brandon is fit we are playing with ten men – or one man hobbled – but virtue of having to play Jones on what is very obviously an uncomfortable position.

Peter Thorne – having scored his first goal in four months – is expected to be joined by Barry Conlon up front with Michael Boulding doing little to engender good will in the first half on Saturday. There is something of a debate on the need for another striker at the club which perhaps encapsulates the entire problem with City not just this last two weeks but perhaps going back years.

Players- and for that matter managers – are never given the expectation that they can and should improve but rather are aimed at to be shunted away and replaced. I don’t think that City need a new striker, I think last season’s top scorer and a guy who once cost £3m should take responsibility for playing well.

That is what Stuart McCall would have done. That is how this club should be managed like the manager.

The Passionate Customer

For me going to away games is a very different experience from the regular trips to Valley Parade – and not just because some of the away trips are shorter. Saturday’s (longer) journey to Meadow Lane gave me cause to think about one of the main differences – the fans. I choose that word ‘fans’ carefully, for reasons I shall come to in a moment.

Back at our home ground I have had the same seat in the Midland Road ever since the stand was rebuilt. Around me are many of the same faces that have always been there, albeit the younger ones are grown up now. (The forty somethings who have become fifty somethings don’t look a day older, of course.) Through all those Midland Road years no one around me has ever shouted abuse at opposition fans or started a chant that has more to do with the team we hate. I still wonder how either of those helps my team.

I wouldn’t want you to think that we sit in silence. That would be very far from the truth. We have plenty to say and, even if the comments of one regular – ‘McCall, do something!’ – are less than obviously constructive, we have plenty to say about the team’s performance, be it good or bad. I am especially fond of letting the officials know what I think of them, although I doubt that they hear me.

Away from home, those around me are a different crowd and can be vocal in an altogether dissimilar style. There were over 1,200 City fans at Meadow Lane, about 10% of those who go to home games. A fairly representative sample, you might think. For the 90% who are relying on Jason Mckeown’s match report for their knowledge of how the fans reacted to the performance, I want to add a few thoughts of my own, particularly about supporters, as contrasted with fans.

The cries of ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’ were loudest in that short interval between the third goal and the players leaving the field at half-time. There were other chants, some of which are not for a site like this, but the more interesting ones showed a different slant on the fans’ views of the team performance. It was ‘We want our money back’ and ‘What a waste of money’ that got me thinking.

What those latter chants showed was that the fans go to watch their team with certain expectations. On Saturday the expectations were clearly not met when the second and third goals went in before half time. Had it been Chelsea scoring those goals, that response might not have happened. But this was a mid-table fourth division side and City were supposed to be better than them, especially after the promises of improvement after Barnet.

What the fans were complaining about was not just that the team was playing badly (which was plainly true), but that they had come to expect better. They had spent their hard earned twenty pounds each (plus travel costs and the rest) not just to see a game of football and to support the team, but to see them perform well and preferably to win. The whole notion of supporting the team through thick and thin had gone out of the window. It had been replaced by the customer’s privilege to complain about the quality of the product he had paid for.

If I go to my local supermarket and buy a full priced tin of beans, only to get home and discover that there is more juice than bean, then I am well within my rights to take it back and complain. I do that because I feel I have paid for better; I have been cheated; I want some recompense from the store; and perhaps I hope for improvement in the future. But nobody would dream of calling me a supporter of the store. I am a customer.

Professional football, as must be obvious to the thoughtful observer, is a curious mixture of sport and business. The business end has taken an increasingly leading role for some years now. The Prawn Sandwich Brigade are the extreme example of this change toward the customer. But the vocal away fans at Meadow Lane are different from the Prawn Sandwich Brigade only in the way they express their desire to obtain value for money. One lot keep quiet, because they don’t care about what is happening out there on the field; the other lot do care, but in the same sense as a customer cares.

Experience suggests that constructive criticism, especially from our managers, is the best way forward. Very few professionals in any walk of life improve by being abused by their customers. Many more will react by saying ‘I don’t have to take this, even though your custom is going toward paying my wages.’ Just try shouting abuse down the phone at a call centre employee and see where it gets you. Cut off, is where it gets you and you still haven’t got your complaint resolved. And shouting abuse face to face at the customer service desk when you return your beans will get you arrested.

Now I would be the first to agree that supporting (and this time I chose that word carefully) your team is a passionate business, not to be compared with buying baked beans. But I thought we’d all agreed after BarryBooGate that support means just that. You cheer and clap the good moments, few as they might have been on Saturday, and encourage improvement in the not so good moments.

There is a story often repeated where I live about the Liverpool team that won the European Cup in 2005. They went off at half time 3-0 down and all they could hear was their own supporters still singing at the tops of their voices all the way through the interval. We all know what happened in the second half and the likes of Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerard will tell you that they couldn’t let down their own supporters.

There was a little less hostility from the away crowd in the second half on Saturday. Some of it turned to sarcasm – the olés when the opposition kept passing the ball among themselves – and some of it became quite amusing – the chants of ‘Let’s pretend we’ve scored a goal’ followed by a mock celebration. Just how these changes of mood come about would no doubt be a fascinating study for some psychologist. But what would they know?

What I’m trying to find out is whether football fans, and City fans in particular, have stopped being supporters and have become customers.

Supporters can still express any view after the match, especially in this Internet age. Sometimes for the players during the match silence says it all and I have to say that’s my attitude. If I’ve nothing to cheer or encourage, I stay quiet. Lots of people back in the Midland Road adopt a similar approach. We support whenever we can; we criticise among ourselves, not directly at the players while they’re still out there and there’s still hope. Even as a passionate customer, always seeking improvement in the quality of the product, how can I expect to achieve what I’m looking for by joining in mass negativity?

I may feel it appropriate to be negative and even abusive, if I want to be a passionate customer and put the ‘customer’ part above anything else. But is that still part of being a supporter? Haven’t I stopped supporting in any meaningful sense of that word?

Significant? We’ll soon know

The impact of this dismal defeat on Bradford City’s season will ultimately be discovered during the next few weeks, although the immediate signs are far from good. The distance from the automatic promotion spots has increased furthermore and it would be optimistic to believe City can even make the play offs given the evidence presented at Meadow Lane. Hot on the heels of the Barnet debacle, a season of promise is suddenly falling apart.

This was supposed to be different. What happened at Barnet a one-off with manager Stuart McCall admirably stating he wouldn’t allow it to derail what the club is trying to do. By 3pm in Nottingham that had translated into giving all but Joe Colbeck – still struggling for fitness – the opportunity to redeem themselves. With strength in depth there should be no assumption on anyone’s part that their place in the team is secure. Sadly it appears too many aren’t paying attention to what’s over their shoulder and did nothing to repay their manager’s faith. Tuesday’s starting line up against Macclesfield will be very interesting.

City’s performance didn’t start off badly and for the opening 10 minutes there were plenty of indications the team was going to respond well to last week’s hammering. Matt Clarke headed a decent chance over and there was a crispness to the passing and movement with the recalled Lee Bullock adding some bite to midfield and Nicky Law, switched to the left-side, a threat.

Then on 11 minutes a City free kick was swung into the box, the ball was cleared to the edge of the area where Graeme Lee battled for it but lost out to a home player who then put Jamie Forrester through on the counter attack. Only Luke O’Brien seemed to be back for City and his tentative attempt to close down the former Leeds striker allowed the ball to be rolled into Jonathan Forte’s path to fire home. A worrying way to be caught out considering City were the away side.

The test was getting bigger for the Bantams, though the goal against the run of play was initially met with a resumption of attacking intent. Yet slowly the passes began to break down, the off the ball running featured less, County’s double-marking of the widemen tactic began to have a greater effect. Dean Furman flashed an effort narrowly wide and Peter Thorne might have done better after he cleverly worked some space but fired weakly past the post with Steve Jones in a better position. Everyone seemed to be waiting for someone else to conjure up something.

Something came at the other end instead with the impressive Forte striking again after some good close control – though the ball should have been cleared before it reached him and even then he was afforded too much time and space. A third followed just before half time through former City loanee Delroy Facey. He is best remembered for poor shooting skills and generally not caring when temporarily employed by City, a description which could be aptly applied to Jones here.

Although he certainly wasn’t the only one to display a disturbing lack of fight. Quite what has happened to the impressive defensive efforts which had seen just five goals conceded in 11 games is a deeper mystery than a niggling injury to Evans, who again did nothing wrong. Clarke and Lee were both shaky, particularly the latter who seemed to play in a trance as he often cheaply coughed-up possession and struggled to clear his line. Not a captain’s performance. O’Brien had a difficult first half and, though Zesh Rehman started his loan spell looking a class above most of his team-mates, he is worryingly sinking to their level.

In midfield Bullock and Furman are good players but did not make a cohesive partnership. A moment in the second half where they both went for the same ball summed up their disjointed influence. Thorne and Michael Boulding have forged a good partnership previously, but neither did much in possession other than lose it. Not surprisingly there was an angry reaction from the 1,200+ travelling fans with the dreaded “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” aired as the players trudged off at half time to face an equally upset Stuart.

The second half was slightly better with some players – O’Brien, Law, Furman and Thorne – restoring a degree of pride. Joe Colbeck was brought on for Boulding with Jones switched up front and there never appeared too much danger of County extending their lead. Perhaps most concerning for Stuart though was the lack of urgency and belief towards engineering an unlikely comeback. It was as though the game had been written-off and the second half was about preservation of a first team shirt for Tuesday. There were occasional good moments and Bullock and Furman did go close, but it was still largely poor.

Thorne did at least find the net with five minutes to go after good work from City’s best second half player, Colbeck. As consolations go it was pretty good too as it allowed last season’s top scorer to finally end a near four-month drought. A seventh goal in four games against the Magpies could prove significant if it leads to a return to the scoring form that his team so badly needs.

Not that Thorne, along with his team mates, could escape the angry abuse of many City fans at the final whistle with the atmosphere long-turned ugly. Passion is one thing but telling players to f*** off is a little strong no matter how deserving they were of receiving it. There was clearly a look of shock on many players’ faces as they attempted to applaud supporters. Reacting in the right manner now is going to be critical.

All season long there has been this feeling that City are going to gain promotion no matter how many soft goals they conceded and how many average performances they put in along the way. There was plenty of time to find top form and plenty of ability in the squad. Well there is no longer much time left and we cannot hope players will find their best form soon. It must happen now – and carry on.

City have not looked as less likely to gain promotion as they do right now and it has to be hoped this will be the moment the penny drops. No longer can the players think it will happen, they must make it happen. Six points from the next two home games will only be a start and they must then kick on in crucial away fixtures at Rochdale and Exeter. And then keep going.

Should that be achieved this defeat might be looked back on as significant because players would have learned some harsh lessons, got back into the promotion hunt and proved they were fit to wear the shirt. For now at least, few fans will be holding their breath.

How fragile is this life as City prepare to face Notts County

If perspective were needed on last week’s 4-1 defeat by Barnet then City did not have long to wait for it with Darlington’s unexpected fall into administration on Wednesday.

As the Bantams navel gazed the Quakers stared into the abyss counting the cost of ambitious plans and living beyond their means.

The defining sight of more football financial madness – for me at least – was Liam Hatch the on loan striker who the club could ill afford coming off the bench to try score against an injured Rhys Evans.

Evans was not to blame for the goals at Barnet but in the context of another administration it is not hard to see why City decided not to have another senior professional keeper on the bench. If that decision costs City on the field then perhaps it – and thinking like it – saves the club off it and thus it should be applauded.

Notts County turn up in financial talk often. The club that once lent Juventus a kit saw investment plans fail this week and have a murky future but as Bantam fans take a seat at Meadow Lane it is worth remembering that the yearly rent as set by the council there would pay for City at Valley Parade for just four days.

Notts struggle this season but are probably not to be troubled by relegation and the resurge of AFC Bournemouth which makes the foot of the table interesting. Last week though proves that if you think the three points are there for the taking they are almost certainly lost.

Lost too for City is Omar Daley who will probably not play again until Christmas and is a huge miss especially away from home where his pace sprung many a counter attack.. Steve Jones fills his place in the squad and sympathy for the over aggressive Darlington declines.

Jones and Joe Colbeck will take the flanks although there is some suggestion Nicky Law may go on to the wing to allow Paul McLaren to return alongside Dean Furman with the South African being considered to have come out of last week’s game with head high.

The back four seems to pick itself but Paul Arnison will hope that a shakeup would see him back at right back. The full back will probably sit out again to allow Zesh Rehman’s power to be deployed opposite Luke O’Brien and alongside Bradford City’s tribute to the Huddersfield boss Graeme and Matthew. Rhys Evans is believed to be fit enough to keep goal and kick goal kicks but the City press officer – Mr. S. McCall – is perhaps understandably keeping quiet about that.

Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne – the scurge of County with a hat-trick at Valley Parade, one at Meadow Lane and two in the first game of the season – will be paired up front. Daley’s injury and reports from the reserves on Rory Boulding suggest that Barry Conlon’s usage as third striker aside City have little pressure on the front two with Steve Jones being perhaps the only option outside the three regulars.

Such is life though living life within one’s means. City – in this week – should be celebrated for this.

I have seen Chris Brandon play

It had been quite a few years since I last took in a reserves game. The only one I actually recall was in approximately 2001 when a strong Manchester United strolled into Valley Parade and a City reserves record attendance of 6,000 witnessed a 3-0 away win. The club cashed in that night (rightly so?!) – charging a fiver a head.

That game could not have been in more constant to what I saw on Tuesday afternoon.

There is something quite strange about attending a game at 2 PM on a Tuesday. My sister (how did I convince her to go to this one?!) and I parked right outside the City club shop at 13.55 with no hassle at all. I spotted one Huddersfield coach a bit further up the road, and just outside the “executive box” entrance I walked past Mr Peter Jackson who was escorting an elderly gentlemen into the stadium. Some other City fans outside enjoyed some friendly banter with the ex City man and now Lincoln City manager (and lest we forget former Huddersfield manager).

It was free entrance for all supporters. In the Sunwin stand foyer, the canteen was open for business and there was a gentleman selling an A4 team sheet with the line-ups on for 10p a pop.

Taking up a seat near the halfway line, about halfway up (similar to my season ticket position in the Midland Road). I noticed that there were about 200 people in attendance. The crowd was a mixture of the retired, a few students, and the majority as it turned out had come from up the road and who loudly cheered every Huddersfield goal.

The majority of the City interest in this game was focused on a first real look at Chris Brandon, a summer acquisition from our local rivals that we faced in this game. “Brando” as he is clearly called by his teammates – derived by being able to hear every sound the players make in this environment – had a positive outing. He shows some excellent touches and close control and seems to be very comfortable with both feet. He wasn’t overused in this game, as most of the game was run in the centre of midfield and his teammates didn’t pass to him as much as you might have expected. As soon as ex City loanee Tom Clarke, who was playing right back against Brandon, was substituted in the second half, Brandon began to have more of an influence on the game. And his performance was capped with an excellently struck free kick from 25 yards out that flew past the Town keeper and into the net.

He nearly added a second late on as he surged into the area but struck just wide, as the goal opened up for him. The encouraging signs from this were that he completed a full 90 minutes and seemed to be fairly fit at the end of it. But in my judgement he looks at least 2 weeks off being fully match fit, allowing him to fully gain match sharpness.

With regards the rest of the City reserve team, five players had played a first team match this season and used this game to gain more match fitness.

Paul Arnison captained the side but was badly caught out for the first goal conceded by letting Joe Skarz get in front of him and got on the end of a cross from the right.

Simon Ainge looked really commanding on occasions in the air, but had a torrid time dealing with the lively Kiegan Parker. Ainge made an absolutely terrible mistake at the end of the first half by hesitating and letting Parker in for a lob – which should have resulted in a routine tip over the bar by Convey – but the young goalkeeper embarrassingly could only palm the ball into the net. Ainge looks some way off making the first team playing centre back – right back would surely suit him more, as his decision making at times is very sketchy.

Lee Bullock had a steady game, and had a few touches of class and influence.

Joe Colbeck threatened in the first half, but faded in the second. Colbeck took a poor penalty at the end of the first half, which was saved low to his right by the Huddersfield keeper.

The biggest disappointment was up front with the Conlon and Rory Boulding partnership. Both players had terrible games, especially Boulding who never got a meaningful shot on goal – and just ran around making bad decisions when in possession of the ball.

I was equally unimpressed with our young prospects Louis Horne and Luke Sharry on this display. Both players look a million miles off making a first team debut. Sharry gets out battled in midfield and his shooting leaves a lot to be desired. Horne seems to only know how to pass the ball back instead of going forward, and was guilty of “foul throwing” twice in one game. Terribly unprofessional.

The strong team that City reserves put out we heavily beaten by a better side who created more chances and were clinical in front of goal.

But putting aside some of the disappointments of the players’ on view – the key to this exercise was to get two of our most dangerous wingers getting more games under their belt. Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon could be the key players that could catapult us out of this league. The more games they play and gain match sharpness the better as we desperately need them both firing on all cylinders for the crucial weeks that lie ahead.

I picked up my ticket to the Notts County away game after the match. Can we put the Underhill disaster behind us and start playing like promotion candidates? A repeat of last season’s trip to Meadow Lane would do just nicely thank you.

Counting to ten…

I hate these types of weeks after City have lost. The league table inevitably looks worse, there’s a moment where you get up each morning and the pain of defeat suddenly comes back, work colleagues mercilessly take the mick out of you.

What I really hate about these weeks though is the level of debate among City supporters, or should that be lack of. Any sensible discussions online are hidden in a flurry of anger and the blame culture which so often blights this country. From everything going well, the club is apparently verging on crisis. Everyone and everything is wrong – and it has been all along.

The decision of manager Stuart McCall to play Rhys Evans has been the subject of most of the discussion and, ignoring rationale reason or the fact Stuart says the City stopper was fit enough to play, another entry has been added to Stuart’s list of crimes.

You almost want to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of the arguments some are making for why, even if Evans was fit enough to play, it was a suicidal decision of Stuart to do so. At one stage there was a good argument against Stuart for this, but it’s been lost in a sea of drivel.

Adding to the debate of course has been Barnet manager Ian Hendon who, according to one supporter, has shown Stuart up to be the novice we all know he is after the Bees manager declared hearing City had the nerve to play a half-fit keeper motivated his team to win.

That’ll be the same Hendon who was celebrating his first ever managerial win and who enjoyed a stunning playing career with Leyton Orient, Notts County and Northampton. One would have thought most people would argue Stuart knows what he was talking about more than a bloke clearly trying to make some headlines, but not some City fans it seems.

If I was a Barnet fan reading the comments made by my manager I’d be curious, why on earth has a team which has not won at home since October need such a dubious motivation to spur them into playing like Real Madrid? Haven’t they been cheated their supporters somewhere?

But fine, add this to the list of Stuart’s crimes along with the others because it’s not one which contains rationale arguments anyway. Reading online some of the reasons for why Stuart doesn’t have a clue almost gives you renewed faith in believing he is the man – because if these are the best arguments people can come up with no one, least of all Stuart, need pay any attention.

Wycombe away we didn’t have enough shots on goal, is one argument I read today, wow why have we just offered Stuart a new deal? Apparently he gives too much praise to opposition teams, whatever that means. To me it implies people are not clever enough to realise there’s a difference between what a manager says to a journalist and to his players, though I do like the idea that opposition players spend their Fridays scanning the T&A website to read what Stuart says and are more confident as a result. I wonder if our players do the same?

Another fan argues that it’s disgraceful he plays Matt Clarke ahead of Mark Bower. Come off it, are you serious? Are you going to games with your eyes fixed onto your shoelaces, determined not to notice, never mind acknowledge that Clarke has been in excellent form? “We played rubbish last October.” “We were lucky to win a few weeks ago.” “Can you believe the muppet signed Chris O’Grady?” “We’re struggling for goals, and he got rid of the prolific Willy Topp.” “He never makes his subs early enough.” “He needs a hair cut.”

Then of course is the persistent criticism of Wayne Jacobs which makes no sense. It’s been going on almost since the day he re-joined and to date I’ve still not heard a single valid reason for why he should be sacked. I’m also intrigued to know this magical ‘experienced’ coach is who is going to come in for Jakes, tell Stuart everything he’s doing wrong and inspire City to the Champions League in four seasons, or something similar.

The criticism of Wayne Jacobs is similar to the abuse many persistently threw at him when he played for this club and just as much as I had no idea why it was justified then I don’t have a clue now. No one can possibly know what sort of job he is doing because no one is seeing his conversations with Stuart, training the team or scouting opposition. It’s disgusting and unfair abuse towards a loyal club employee who has done nothing to deserve it. Some would even call it bullying.

Any attempt to argue back at supporters who are so determined to be negative is usually met with abuse and ridicule, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been accused of wearing rose-tinted spectacles in recent years. I genuinely don’t understand why people are so determined to see everything so negative and it scares me. Scares me because if this is the logic they can display to football how do they react to stuff in their own life?

What’s the answer for those of us who might be upset at what happened on Saturday but don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater? Stay off the message boards, do not pass the heading ‘Your say’ when reading the T&A website, resist the urge to call the person labelling Stuart a muppet something stronger back. Ultimately just like the management and players, we need to keep looking ahead.

All of this criticism will go away if City win at Notts County of course, but I’m worried about our chances to be honest because it looks like Chris Brandon could make the bench. Stuart isn’t really contemplating using a half-fit player is he? Didn’t the idiot learn anything from what happened last week?

What arrogance. Ian McPharland won’t even need to bother with his pre-match teamtalk…

Responsibility for the poor performance ends with the players

Seven days less two hours stand between the end of the Barnet game and the start of the Notts County match on Saturday that gives the Bantams the first chance to put right what so obviously went wrong on at Underhill and that week will feel like an eternity.

As far as defeats go the 4-1 reversal to a team who were struggling to stay above clubs that started with a handicap reads as damningly as it could for City’s promotion hopes although such reversals are not without precedent in good times for the Bantams. The 4-0 defeat at Coventry City’s Highfield Road in 1999/2000 hardly seemed to precede the last day escape in beating Liverpool nor did the comprehensive 3-0 defeat at home to QPR in 1998 seem to suggest that the Bantams would be playing Premiership football next season.

Nevertheless both came to pass and both with in large part down to Paul Jewell’s ability to create momentum in his teams while being able to approach games as individual and discreet events with no connection needed and no propensity to drag a bad result from one to the other. That, more than anything, is Jewell’s greatest asset as a manager and one which Stuart McCall will hope to emulate as the Bantams – well placed and we twelve games to go in League Two this year – must bury this result as deep as can be.

However in burying Barnet the players cannot be allowed to let it slip from memory. It is an object less in the hardest truth in football to maintain in these days where the media revels in telling us that wins should be assumed for some clubs.

Liverpool’s goal on Sunday – according to the BBC – “saved their blushes” against Manchester City as if the Reds need only to turn up to Anfield and the game would be won giving no credit to the opposition. Very few – perhaps only one – games played in a decades of football seasons can be considered forgone conclusions and Bradford City’s trip to Barnet was not one of them.

Players need to focus on the idea that every game must be won before it can be won. The two points dropped by Manchester United since Christmas are not Liverpool throwing a title away but rather a relentless surge from the Red Devils. Bradford City’s three wins on the spin were not the result of being paired with three clubs that were de facto worse than us – Grimsby Town, Gillingham and Wycombe are bottom, middle and top – but the result of a team reacting to the defeat at Bury and looking to do things properly, to win every game by winning the battles within the game.

Every game has to be won.

Which is in the reckoning what City failed to do and the accusation at the players doors is that they thought they could win just by turning up and any player who is not itching to put that right, who’s week in training is not all about putting that right, who is not laying in bed on a evening how they can put it right need to turn up on Saturday to try put it right.

The week should be a long time. It is a long time with a defeat like this hanging in the mind but not the air. McCall must minimise and move on. Take the lesson from the game that every minute of a game, every game of a season, needs to be battled in and that the players cannot turn up and win or worse, stand waiting for someone else in claret and amber to take the responsibility for the performance.

Once the squad is assembled and has been drilled and proved that it can play – and City are only two games gone from beating the team that dominated League Two – then the manager and coaching staff play a significant role in preparing the team mentally but ultimately no manager tells a player to put in an insipid performance, to hide from the ball, to be reactive rather than proactive in making things happen on the field.

It is easy to forget that – indeed there is much debate on it – after a week of perpetrations the manager has little control over the players once they are on the field. Kevin Keegan believed in that, it tormented Brian Clough, and on Match of the Day after a Coventry City home defeat Gordon Strachan famously intoned

We spend all week telling the players what to do and they nod their heads and tell me they have heard me but on the weekend they go and do that!

The retention and extension of Stuart McCall at Bradford City was much talked about at the end of last week and surely McCall spent days preparing his side for Barnet in the way that had seen other victories this season. Someone at City is accused of boosting the home side with the news that Rhys Evans was not fully fit but could play anyway recalling Sir Bobby Robson’s famous tunnel comment at the Cameroon to the England squad –

This lot can’t play.

Having been selected and proven in previous games as a team of quality who can perform as a team the players need to take responsibility for their own performances and the vast majority of them on Saturday would not be able to say that they did as much to win the Barnet game as they did that against Wycombe Wanderers on the Saturday before and that – not Stuart McCall or Rhys Evans or the much discussed Press Officer at Valley Parade – is why we lost.

The players have seven days to think about that.

Don’t believe the hype

When the Bantams got beat by Bury a few weeks ago I thought the reaction from City fans was overblown and a bit silly. I guess that is cause I know a lot of people around Manchester and didn’t think Bury were the sort of team that you should beat yourself up about losing to. Barnet are.

Losing 4-1 to Barnet is a woeful result and the performance with it was inexcusably bad and you can expect a wild reaction to it from all parts of Bradford City.

Expect Stuart McCall to blow his top.

He took a risk on playing an injured Rhys Evans and while the keeper’s thigh did not help and while he probably would have got closer to the four goals if he had not be carrying the knock he should not have faced so many shots and even if he had been in full fitness City would still have been beat.

All over the pitch the players let Stuart McCall down. Of the game only Dean Furman and Graeme Lee can come out with head held high and to be honest both of them failed to link up properly with people around them. Far too many players seemed to have bought into the idea that Bradford City were incapable of conceding a goal, that we could automatically beat a team like Barnet. That we were special.

And no team is special, and every game needs to be won and to win a game you need to work. To be honest in this need you need to work your balls off and City had a team of players not doing that.

Nicky Law totally failed to stamp any authority on the game totally living up to the idea that loan players don’t really get stuck in enough. Steve Jones was worse and went back to his old ways of playing on his own. He was a passenger.

Joe Colbeck, Peter Thorne, Michael Boulding, Zesh Rehman and Matt Clarke all looked like they were waiting for someone else to bring the performance. Like they were standing around watching and not like they were international captains, senior players and players of the season who are part of a promotion campaign. They sat down and watched when they needed to stand up and be counted.

Luke O’Brien was no worse than anyone else but best shows up the believing your own hype that has got into the City team. O’Brien is only a great player when he plays really well and all this talk about him being a player in the season in waiting seems to have got into his head and today he was skinned time and time again by Albert Adomah. Either Adomah is on his way to something wonderful or O’Brien needs to get his head back into the game and stop thinking of himself as the bright young thing.

Bad displays all over the pitch and players not taking responsibility for the performance Stuart McCall should have read the riot act to them and he should make changes. Paul McLaren and Lee Bullock will spend all week in training trying to get in for the Notts County game cause Law will find it hard to stay in the side. Omar Daley was missed massively. One thing no one would say Daley failed to do is take responsibility (he would keep the ball all day long) and if Chris Brandon is ready then the team badly needs a City fan in it. Barry Conlon gives his all and both strikers need to get back into gear. Thorne is improving and Boulding scored but they did not look dangerous or enterprising enough. The words “Billy” and “Topp” were used on the way out of the ground. Sometimes you can go too far.

But you have to go far to get a game like this out of the head. No one on the pitch today should consider themselves as secure in the side cause thinking that caused this appalling result.

Into the final third – Barnet vs Bradford City – League Two preview

31 games down, 15 to go. As the season enters its final third every point gained and lost is going to seem increasingly crucial.

During the last week the League Two promotion race has taken added significance for Bradford City after visits from two of its main rivals. This time last week we’d all have taken four points from tricky games against Wycombe and Darlington and, though City have dropped one league position after achieving that, they remain very much in the hunt.

What the two games did emphasise is the tightness of this season’s promotion battle. Brentford and Wycombe may currently be able to glimpse daylight between them and the rest of the pack, but with only six points separating the top seven no-one can be sure of anything. Three from Brentford, Wycombe, Bury, Shrewsbury, Rochdale, City, Darlington and Exeter are likely to finish in the automatic promotion spots and, from those who don’t, only one at least can claim promotion via the play offs, if Dagenham or Gillingham don’t steal in. Those clubs ultimately celebrating in May will be well aware of how close many ran them, which will only add to the achievement.

Meanwhile at the other end one of the most non-eventful relegation battles ever is suddenly getting interesting after Bournemouth’s 1-0 win over Accrington last Saturday pushed the previously doomed-looking Cherries into touching distance of others. Luton are down but Stanley, Chester, Grimsby and of course Barnet are starting to realise that a season of underachievement might yet be punished and have much to do during the final weeks.

It means weekend fixtures such as Accrington v Dagenham, Darlington v Grimsby and Chester v Exeter are important for both sides and City’s trip to Barnet is no different. The London club has only won once at home all season and once home and away in 21. Trooping off the pitch having lost to Notts County last Saturday to discover Bournemouth are closing in should have provided renewed motivation to build on a three-match unbeaten run against the Bantams.

The biggest worry for City ahead of the game is not of the dangerous John O’Flynn and Albert Adomah, but of finding a keeper to face them. Rhys Evans’ injury on Tuesday leaves him needing to recuperate and second-choice keeper Jon McLaughlin is desperately unlucky to be ruled out because of concussion. Stuart is actively looking for an emergency loan keeper but may play Evans through the pain barrier and ask Luke O’Brien to take his goal kicks again. One hopes it won’t come to that because if nothing else defenders taking goal kicks enables the opposition to play a higher line up the park, something Darlington attempted in the second half on Tuesday.

At least the rest of the defence will be fit to carry on their impressive form with Paul Arnison unlucky to be watching from the bench as Zesh Rehman plays in his right back slot, it will be the first time during his loan spell that the Pakistan international will have stayed in the same position for two consecutive games. Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke partner in the centre with another round of groans at how much ‘hoof-ball’ the duo contributed on Tuesday. It’s a shame some supporters cannot understand football better and appreciate Darlington’s ploy of packing the midfield made it almost impossible for City to pass their way forward. As you would expect from a side looking for a 9th clean sheet in 12, both centre backs are in great form. O’Brien’s dipped on Tuesday and a leading contender for player of the season will hope to be back to his best tomorrow.

In midfield Omar Daley’s injury should result in a Joe Colbeck start. He’s now made five substitute appearances since returning from injury and has impressed, although struggled against his former club Tuesday. As did Steve Jones on the other flank, who continues to play brilliantly one week and disappointingly the next – a typical winger, perhaps. Nicky Law may be moved out wide instead of Colbeck with one of Paul McLaren or Lee Bullock brought into the centre to partner Dean Furman. Up front Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne will continue. The latter is desperately hoping for a first goal since netting against Barnet last November.

The visitor’s attacking approach impressed that afternoon, but it’s points not plaudits both sides will want tomorrow. Anything less than victory will be disappointing for City, but it’s in games such as these they’ve so often slipped up over recent years. Everyone in League Two will be keeping one eye on everyone else and, as rearranged matches are finally played and other six-pointers such as Saturday’s Rochdale v Brentford are concluded, the next few weeks will be crucial with some of the leading pack likely to lose ground.

An away win for City tomorrow may not be considered earth-shattering, but it would nevertheless be an important step towards crossing the now-approaching finishing line ahead of the majority.

McCall signs a new deal with City

Promotion or not Bradford City are keeping Stuart McCall as manager after the boss signed a deal that keeps him at Valley Parade until the Summer of 2011.

This backing of McCall is a signal of intent from the club that the belief is that the team is progressing under the totemistic manager and that his continued presence at the club will ensure that progress continues.

In a way this is Mark Lawn signalling a break from the hire and fire management policy of past City chairmen and the mentality of the rest of football.

As a sample of the effectiveness of changing manager as a strategy City’s lesson could not be clearer. Sacking does not improve a club.

Thus it is hoped that stability will. One of Stuart McCall’s greatest assets is that – a tiny percentage aside – City fans want to see him succeed and he has not become the soft target for supporter ire that his predecessor were.

All of which undersells the job the manager is doing and the marked improvement City have made under McCall. Losing at home – the bane of City since the Premier League days – has been banished on the whole and the team is capable of playing impressive, flowing football.

Ultimately Lawn has looked at these improvements and ignored the seduction of the ethereal suggestion that a change will bring anything better.

Honesty, passion, commitment, stability. These are the things that McCall represents to City – always has – and the things that Mark Lawn has backed fully in giving the manager this new deal regardless of the end of the season.

That Neville Southall feeling

John McLaughlin’s injury – he will miss the game that should have have been his debut away at Barnet at the weekend after he and Darren Byfield clashed in a closed doors friendly with Doncaster Rovers and the keeper was knocked out – leaves City looking for an emergency keeper and sends fans minds racing back to a Sunday Sky TV day in 2000 when Bradford City were left scrabbling for a keeper and ended up with Neville Southall in goal.

The history of City’s need then differs to now. Stuart McCall the manager decided to have three keepers at the club: Rhys Evans, McLaughlin and youngster Matthew Convey; for financial reasons more than footballing ones – an extra goalkeeper costs, unsettles and is not often used while when McCall the player reteamed with his former Goodison Park team mate Southall in 2000 for the home game with Leeds United it was because of a set of circumstance that while common place in the madness of that Premiership season were curious to say the least.

Gary Walsh had lost his place to Matt Clarke who had in turn been injured – both those custodians having been impressive to say the least – and Aidan Davison had taken on the gloves superbly but with Clarke heading back to fitness – or so we were told – in the week before the home game with Leeds which represented a first top flight Valley Parade clash with our rivals in many lifetimes and a chance for an in form City to snatch some bragging rights.

That week saw the transfer deadline pass on Thursday and at the time Clarke was expected to be fit although Paul Jewell had seen the need to go looking for another keeper alighting at Elland Road. Recollections become rumours here and this story lacks hard confirmation but it is said that Jewell asked Chairman Geoffrey Richmond for money to spend on a promising keeper he had seen and Richmond gave him £200,000. Jewell made a bid – £180,000 – for the second string keeper at Elland Road and had it accepted on the proviso that the player – Paul Robinson – did not play on Sunday.

If that is true then one can only assume it was brinksmanship that saw City walk away from the deal. Perhaps – three months before the club’s meltdown began – it is an indication that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. Nevertheless Clarke was – it was said – fit to play until Sunday morning when it was announced to supporters, Sky and all that he had fallen down the stairs at home and was not fit.

Rumour became fact – “Clarke lives in a bungalow”, “he was never fit” – but on that Sunday morning a young keeper named Danny Taylor prepared to glove up to make his Premiership debut in the West Yorkshire derby.

Apologies to Danny if this is incorrect but the description that followed is as simple as it is brutal. Taylor bricked it.

Jewell watched as his youthful keeper quivered in the dressing room in the hours leading up to the game and knew that he had no chance to putting the player – who now runs a barber’s shop in Bradford – into a Premiership game. His only other option was 41 year old goalkeeping coach Southall.

I heard a story about Southall once that broke a man’s heart. The Everton keeper played before obscene wealth in football but still must have made a few quid but whatever he made he had squandered forcing him to – as the story I heard goes – beg his agent for public relations work to pay the bills. Before playing that game for City Southall had been in goal for Torquay a month or so before because in the frankest terms he needed the money.

So Southall took to the field and the rest is a history cruelly told. My recollection is that Southall had three saves to make all game and only got to one of them – his mobility was limited to say the least and it seemed that he could not dive – leaving Leeds to score twice with the reply of a stunning, Match of the Day title making Peter Beagrie goal. The Guardian noted after the game that City had the spirit to suggest that they might be up for a relegation fight that they eventually won. Leeds went on to the Champions League and – as a result of ridiculous investment based on that – to where they are now.

Southall – perhaps the greatest goalkeeper Great Britain had produced – became a laughing stock. It was an unfair end to the career of a legend of the game.

Unfair too on City. Leeds fans would argue the point but I believe that on that day the Bantams were the better side and that with a keeper able to perform would have been left celebrating a win over them from Elland Road. Fate is fickle but adversity bred a spirit in that side that saw Liverpool and the last day of the season escape.

Fast forward nine years and the Bantams are looking for an new keeper in the days leading up to a game that could not be further from a Premiership derby – away at Barnet – but is perhaps no less important as Stuart McCall’s side mount a promotion push and look to maintain momentum. Evans’s strain and Convey returning from loan at Salford City injured along with McLaughlin’s enforced absence after being knocked out are things that few could cater for.

Perhaps though – if there is a moral to the Southall story – it is that success in football is often subject to the arrows or outrageous fortune.

City lack the steam to go the distance against Darlington

If there was a time for Bradford City to win the evening’s clash of promotion chasers at home to Darlington then it was in the opening twenty minutes when the visitors – who has not played since the end of January – looked in danger of being swamped by a bright Bantams side looking to carry on with the three game winning run.

At ninety minutes most City fans were happy with a point.

City’s early flourishes seemed to push through a rusty Quakers side with Peter Thorne looking mobile and enjoying some dominance over Steve Foster and Michael Boulding probing dangerously but the Bantams bluster never found a way through and was met with some aggressive challenges by the visits with Neil Austin and Jason Kennedy both pushing the boundaries of a lenient Referee in Staffordshire’s Tony Bates.

Bates allowed rustic lunges to go in checked and Darlington – either to their credit if you have come down from Durham or not if you like your football matches to contains as much, well, football as possible – played those rules the fullest.

The tackle that ended Omar Daley’s night – and with medial ligament damage perhaps season – was Austin going in my opinion past what should be considered fair but not in Bates’s. Certainly Daley’s being carried off on a stretcher seemed to signify a drop in the Bantams game and the shaking off of the rust of the visitors. A couple of minutes later when Rhys Evans reached to stop a ball going out for a corner and limped back to goal matters were worse.

Evans struggled for the remainder of the game and Luke O’Brien – putting in an uncharacteristicly sloppy if still solid performance – started taking his goal kicks. City went close to scoring when Peter Thorne saw a shot loop off a defender and bounce back off the bar and Michael Boulding seemed shot shy when trying to squeeze between the two big defenders of Durham in the Bantams other chance of note but dominance that had started the game had gone into a game shared.

Nicky Law Jnr and Dean Furman struggled to keep control in the midfield in the second half as the visitors got up to speed and then began to show the reserves of energy they had and while Furman performed manfully once more Law was out battled and shoved out to the left wing for Lee Bullock’s return in the middle.

Darlington’s shift up through the gears showed their freshness over a Bantams team playing another in the march of matches that is League Two but resulted only in a single chance of note – Pawel Abbott forcing a great save out of the hobbling Evans – and some approach play that was snaffled out by a masterful three of Zesh Rehman, Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke.

One can only imagine what Dave Penney – Darlington manager – made of his teams attitude to Evans’s injury which seemed to provoke a series of long range and rather weak shots. Either he told them to play that way or he will have been tearing his hair out at the wastefulness that saw them have 11 shots at goal but only one that could seriously be considered a chance. “Evans has a bad leg”, one could have summed it up, “But he has arms!”

Clarke has an odd time at City. He chunks the ball long to groans but would argue that he is no one’s David Beckham or Glenn Hoddle and that what he does do – superb chance saving tackles and providing strength at the back – he does very well. He was my man of the match tonight for sure and is part of a back four that has gone four games without conceding.

All of which looked unlikely at half time when Lee Bullock was practising saving shots from Barry Conlon and a shirt was being prepared for the number eight to make him number one. Back then very few City fans would not have settled for a point come nine thirty.

A point is what we got.

Darlington face City on a night where promotion breeds excitement

Two weeks and three games ago people were talking about Stuart McCall and City as if this season was a goner after the defeat to Bury. Three games, five goals, nine points and no concessions later and everything in the garden is a bit more rosy.

On Saturday City beat Wycombe to show how serious our promotion credentials are although I’m not really sure why anyone would thing they were not. Come to think of it I wonder how Peter Taylor and the Wycombe fans are handling the 1-0 defeat on Saturday. I wonder if they are going through the same teeth-gnashing and self-abuse that some City fans did after the Bury defeat. I wonder if the people in whatever county Wycombe is in (Buckinghamshire) are so ready to give up on promotion as those City fans were? I wonder if people down there are saying it is time for Peter Taylor to go?

Whatever people around City seem to think about the way things are going the team itself ticks along nicely with a nice blend of aggressive and attractive pay seeing of the absurdly named Chair heads, or boys, or people on Saturday. The inside midfield pair of Nicky Law and Dean Furman looked the business and Steve Jones finally started to do something to suggest that he might not need to be recorded as a third team in any game.

For a month or two Jones looked as integrated into the City team as a pair of tusks next to the trunk on a VW Beetle and if Saturday had been reported as Bradford City 0 Wycombe Wanderers 0 Steve Jones 1 then it would not have been far off the mark but the Irishman seems to know that he can play with the other guys in the striped shirts and is all the better for it. Funny how Jones, Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley all get accused of being greedy or arrogant or not making the right decisions but all three of them are ten times more worth having on the pitch than Bobby Petta ever was.

I keep hearing about Omar’s decision making but he gets involved unlike Petta who made the decisive decision to decide to not get his boots dirty. Two of Jones, Colbeck and Daley will play and while my money would be on it being the latter two I cannot say that I would mind seeing any of them. This says a lot for how a goal and a good performance can turn you around on someone.

Options at the back are more perm four from five but City look strong there too. Paul Arnison looks like being the man to miss out with Graeme Lee coming back in the middle and Zesh Rehman going to right back with Matt Clarke, Matt Clarke’s head that has had to be registered as a new player since its seperation from his body on Saturday and Luke O’Brien at left back. Rhys Evans in goal is an unsung hero.

I worry constantly about the strikers who used to score a hat-trick each, every week and had scored a million goals each at Christmas or at least that are what my memory tells me but it could just be playing tricks on me. I worry because Peter Thorne has not scored in ages but he set up one on Saturday and as long as we are not conceding then we can win games with the odd goal.

Darlington would like the odd game let alone goal. They used to play football matches but these days just turn up to see Referees call games off and as a result will be champions of the Premier League should they win all their games in hand. They last played on Saturday, 31 January and beat Dag & Red but who knows what they will be like after three call offs in a row. They could be a team lacking match fitness maybe? They were in good form before and the break is all very unfair on them to be honest. This is a league about points on the board and they have to come to City and go to Lincoln as well as play Wycombe so 27 games played with 47 points could easily become 30 with 47, or 56, probably not though.

A win for them shoves them back into the play-off picture. A win for us could put us second. All this gunning for promotion, exciting, innt?

The rule of thumb for loan players

Dean Furman’s display against Wycombe Wanderers was as close to being the complete midfield performance as I have seen at Valley Parade since Stuart McCall left for Sheffield United.

Furman was the exception in my rule of thumb – expressed often on this publication – that the club should favour players we own over players we are borrowing. Furman’s future is very much about bedding into the squad at Ibrox rather than staying at Valley Parade although there is little harm in asking if we can borrow him in 2009/2010.

Furman’s midfield partner Nicky Law Jnr I did not exempt from that loan player rule, nor Zesh Rehman, nor Steve Jones. All three were impressive in the Wycombe win, none of them belong to Bradford City.

However unlike Furman all three of those players are contracted to play for the Bantams until the end of the season and are then looking for new deals.

All of which embarrasses the rule of thumb which says that the wanderering loanee has no reason to put in the fabled 110% for City when he will be back at his home club in a month and Valley Parade will be a distant memory.

Remember names like Ian Moore, Kevin Wilson and Mike Newell? No, Neither do I and it is because while they put in some work they lacked the extra mile that the likes of Barry Conlon put in.

Conlon is out of contract with City at the end of the season as is Rhys Evans. Both are looking to impress Stuart McCall and have something on the table for next season and in a way they are in the same position as Jones, Rehman and Law Jnr. Not on loan but with playing for Bradford City and with three months to impress their way into a new deal.

Rehman and Law – as with Furman – are doing as much and putting in as much effort as Conlon (perhaps almost, who puts in more?) and Evans (I would argue that Jones is giving all he can too, although it is less evident owing ot the type of player he is) towards Bradford City winning matches.

Balancing the squad, building inclusion for the loan players and not putting the current squad’s nose out of joint, settling players who lack stability. All man management jobs failure in which shows on the field.

So perhaps the key to a good loan player is length of time they are at the club – I’m a firm believer that the longer someone is bedded into a club the better they will play – and the length they have left on their current contract but I suspect it is in equal parts about finding the right personalities.

It would seem that the current selection are just that and credit to that goes to the management team at Valley Parade.

All heart

It’s at moments such as these – with the clock showing 10 minutes to go, with the chant “City till I die’ emanating from all four sides and with those who run the club having put the books to one side to join 12,689 people in watching City ultimately triumph 1-0 over promotion rivals Wycombe – that you wonder why we’re even bothering to consider leaving Valley Parade at all.

This was an afternoon where I hope I wasn’t the only person to feel the hairs on the back of his/her neck stand up through been part of such a superb atmosphere. City have won a corner and I look fondly over to fans in the Kop climb out of their seats to help suck the ball into the net. Behind the opposite goal, supporters in the Bradford End are keeping up their non-stop chanting efforts which began before kick off. The final whistle was met with huge cheers and triumphant home players hugged each other. An important three points, a potentially pivotal moment of the season, another special afternoon in our home.

Sure I’m being sentimental and romantic, but then it is Valentines Day so why not? Of course the fantastic atmosphere could be replicated – who knows even bettered – in another ground a few miles up the hill. But just like our Claret and Amber colours, fanatical supporters who will even come to the game on their wedding day (hope you didn’t miss that at half time!) and players who aren’t the greatest but who we love in our own way – Valley Parade is a much a part of the Bradford City experience. We need to use our heads when considering the potential move, but yesterday we got to follow our hearts.

Heart that was apparent on the pitch too as both City and Wycombe gave their all to produce an absorbing contest. With Brentford, Bury and Rochdale all expected to and managing to win their games, for City this win was for self-preservation purposes in their interest of a top three finish. They started in the same confident manner which has characterised their previous two victories with Omar Daley and Steve Jones stretching Wycombe down the flanks and Dean Furman and Nicky Law again pulling the strings in the middle. Both look too good for this level with Law’s vision and ability to produce killer passes a huge asset and arguably something City have not had in their armoury since the manager himself was out on the pitch.

Wycombe, who lost central defender Mike Williamson to Watford in the transfer window, defended deeply but struggled to deal with crosses from which City came close to scoring a few times. Matt Clarke should have done better with a header from a corner and Peter Thorne – captain for the day – headed wide, Law’s long range shot was deflected wide and a Wycombe defender almost turned one cross into his own net.

Yet the Chairboys, who until Tuesday had led the table since November, got back into the game and showed what a good side they are. Their movement off the ball when on the attack was impressive with players marking late runs from deep and in the centre Tom Docherty was excelling by playing deep and pinging some probing passes forward. Furman excellently cleared off the line from striker Jon-Paul Pittman’s header, Matt Harrold air-kicked a great chance after which Matt Bloomfield wastefully fired wide and Chris Zebroski’s overhead kick attempt sailed narrowly over.

Arguably against the run of play, City struck the all important goal just before half time. It was yet another example of the devastating football this team can produce. First Jones did well to win possession before being tripped after releasing it to Furman. Referee Carl Boyeson allowed advantage and the ball was with Law to charge over half way. His pass to Daley lacked pace, but the Jamaican beat his man and cut inside before squaring to Luke O’Brien. The full back’s cross was intended for Michael Boulding but squirmed through to Thorne who beautifully laid off the ball to Jones to fire home on the half volley.

It continued to be end-to-end stuff in the second half with Wycombe inserting strong pressure in the early stages and Rhys Evans having to make some good saves. The defence in front of him was lacking their usual leader Graeme Lee and Zesh Rehman, switched over from left-back, struggled a little with his ball control though was generally solid. Clarke was outstanding and seemed to revel in the more senior responsibility while Paul Arnison’s performance could be best illustrated by the fact the usual full-back ‘experts’ in the crowd weren’t on his back. The clean sheet they would go onto earn was a seventh in ten games and only Evans and Clarke have figured in all of those; something which Clarke’s army of critics, who seem to be ignoring his recent upturn in form, might want to mull over.

Boyeson’s bizarre style of refereeing took more centre stage in the second half. He let a series of fouls from both sides go and at one stage left the impression he’d forgotten his cards – Arnison should have been booked – while displaying an anal-like determination to ensure all throw ins were taken from exactly the right spot. Frustration of the officials and from losing seemed to get the better of Wycombe players who began to self-destruct with a series of poor challenges. None more so than Docherty, who’s coolness in the first half had given way to recklessness and who should have been booked long before he eventually was.

Boiling point was reached after Zebroski’s ludicrous high challenge on Clarke which saw boot connect with face. The red card was quickly issued and the final 12 minutes were that little bit more comfortable for City. A second goal might have come before that with Boulding volleying over, but in the final stages Law and substitute Joe Colbeck went agonisingly close to ensuring Wycombe would not be able to produce a sucker punch at the other end.

It was close, but City just about edged the game and three wins in a row provide great confidence ahead of another vital encounter on Tuesday. The team is finding form in all areas – Thorne for example was outstanding leading the line and contributed more than he usually seems to – and one only has to look at who can’t get in the team to see how well the players in it are doing. Lee will presumably join Paul McLaren, Lee Bullock, Barry Conlon and Colbeck on the bench Tuesday with the clear message to those on the field that they must keep producing.

Or should Lee go back in and Arnison be dropped? Should Colbeck start on Tuesday and Daley be rested? Yesterday conversations on such matters will have filled the air instead of whether to pack up and do this all someplace else. Maybe we’re on the final chapter of Valley Parade’s history and such occasions will shortly be over, though as we listened to the radio on the journey home we heard of renewed hope that a deal to buy Valley Parade might be reached.

It was good timing, for yesterday at least the head had no chance of winning over the heart.

Back to the field of play – Bradford City vs Wycombe Wanderers League Two Preview

Much has happened since last Bradford City walked the grass of Valley Parade in the 2-0 win over Grimsby Town.

The Darlington game bit the dust – or the snow if you will – and City had to wait a week before recording an impressive 2-0 at Gillingham leaving people talking about promotion prospects again until distraction came in the news that the Bantams seem unable to find a replacement for Bradford and Bingley who will not be sponsoring the club next season and are able to find a replacement for VP in the shape of an Odsal Sporting Village after revealing that it cost £1.2m to play at home a year. The game with former league leaders Wycombe Wanderers seems small beer in context.

The move from Valley Parade will be debated elsewhere and is surely one of the most serious in the club’s history dwarfing the problems with sponsorship which have effected many clubs in football and seen Mark Lawn effectively begging the businesses of Bradford for the £60,000 asked for by Friday afternoon that would assure the shirts that went to the manufactures could feature something emblazoned upon them.

City have handled the sponsorship situation poorly. Bradford and Bingley’s problems were there for all to see and the assumption could have been made that they would not renew a long time ago. In that situation City could go looking for a backer on the quiet and – if one were not found – do as Aston Villa and Barcelona do and hand the ten square inch of real estate on the front of the shirt over to charity. Either that or decide that it was to be left blank claiming this was a deliberate decision as Leicester City have done.

The scrambling for cash from anyone who will give it and the naming of a base price the Bantams will accept serves to cheapen the product when interest in sponsorship picks up. £60,000 of sponsorship equates to two Sky TV games – an interesting piece of information that casts a different light on City’s attempts to get the Darlington game on – and illustrates the rather random nature of football finances at this level.

The Darlington game takes place on Tuesday night and promises to be equally as tough as the visit of Peter Taylor’s Wycombe Wanderers. The Chairboys were top – taking over from City in November – until the middle of this week but the two games in hand they have over Brentford, who went level on points with them, suggest they may return to summit. Nevertheless when they do get to play Taylor’s side are not in the greatest of form with recent draws with Macclesfield, Exeter City and Luton Town being coupled with defeats to Grimsby Town and at AFC Bournemouth and arguabily the Bantams are playing them at the right time.

Stuart McCall goes into the game with a grumbling keeper Rhys Evans wanting a new deal – he has earned one but timing is everything and Evans’s comments in public are ship rocking – but in good form. City concede few and are building another run of clean sheets with Evans not picking the ball out of the net for the last 180 minutes. Much of this is down to adding a third commanding aerial figure in recent weeks in the form of Zesh Rehman who will most likely switch to the central defensive role to cover Graeme Lee who is suspended. Matthew Clarke will partner and Luke O’Brien will hope to have recovered to play left back with Paul Arnison on the right.

The midfield of Nicky Law Jnr and Dean Furman seems set in stone although Paul McLaren’s set plays are missed greatly when he is not included and the Bantam number four would be in my starting eleven as would Joe Colbeck who builds up match fitness to the point where he seems as if he will explode. Steve Jones on the right hand side will make way for him this game or next. Omar Daley continues on the left and McCall tells us that we should not be so negative about him, which is strange because we are not and perhaps someone should tell City’s players and management to spend less time fixating on criticism or at least balance it up against the praise.

I illustrate this with the fact that BfB got a ratio of 3:1 in comments in support of Daley during the week so ending that week with a spirited defence of the player is – perhaps – giving undue credence to one side of the debate.

Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding continue up front.

The Odsal debate calls for steady debate in the conflict of hearts and heads

In football, as with any love, decisions are often made by not by a valuation of the choices but of the criteria which those choices are assessed by.

We know the merits of two sides of an argument but we evaluate the weight of those merits. We know that Omar Daley makes some poor decisions and be frustrating but also that he can scream through defences and can score breathtaking goals. Our decision is not on if a series of things occur but rather how important those things are to us when weighed against each other. In a way we do that when we declare our allegiance. We know wins are more likely watching Manchester United but we feel more connected to Bradford City and the feeling is more important than the knowledge.

These decisions are the interplay between the heart and the head, between logic and the soul, and they are the very core of why we follow the clubs we do, marry the people we marry, live the lives we lead.

So it is in this context that we frame the notion of moving Bradford City to the Odsal Sporting Village in the medium to long term.

The arguments are simple. In the white, black and red corner there is the idea that City pay out £1.2m a year to play at a stadium owned by a hostile landlord in a part of town that has problems and few amenities in the half mile around the stadium for fans while the players train at a school playing field five miles away from the stadium and its offices. In the claret and amber corner is the fact that Valley Parade is – as Jason so eloquently points out – our home, our memorial and our history at a ground that is connected to the community the club serves and is one of the finer stadiums in the country out of keeping with our lowly league position as anyone who went to Accrington Stanley would tell you while Odsal is a bowl away from the City Centre where one would turn up, watch and go home.

We all know the arguments and could probably throw a few more onto the pile. Perhaps we could even add further corner or two to the debate. I warm to the idea of creating a ground within the City Centre if it were possible and others have talked about new locations in the Aire Valley. The options are plentiful for discussion.

Nevertheless those options will always return to this same decision making process. The head vs the heart and how important one is compared to the other. Is it more important to give the players decent training facilities than it is to play near The Fighting Cock? Is it more important to have strong links to a community or to a motorway network? Is it more important for Bradford City to be at the physical location where our supporters died or is it more important – even as a tribute – to do what (would seem, and one assumes is designed to) move the club forward?

The weight of one over the other keeps me awake at night and this is a time for clarity. In this debate – a significant debate on the future of the club – that clarity needs to come from an honest and frank assessment of the two options involved rather than the sloganeering and ad hominemisms vs silence and high handedness which has marked BORG and the authorities in the debate over the Bradford Odeon.

Perhaps it is not too much to ask for two sides of an argument presented and positive without attack on the other and a good debate followed by a ballot of season ticket holders to decide this issue. The future of club’s under the elite level in football is in engaging supporters then – on this the largest question of all – the club need to engage now.

Should they engage then the onus falls on us – the City supporters – to hold that debate appropriately.

It’s our home

Whenever you start to believe that the financial problems which have blighted Bradford City during the last eight years are behind us, you remember about Valley Parade.

It was presented as good news when City’s stadium was bought by then-Chairman Gordon Gibb in the summer of 2003, because it got the pressure of a mortgage lender owed millions of pounds off our back. Sure, the owner’s pension fund held the ground’s deeds rather than the club, but no one was going to repossess and kick us out of it. We had a Chairman committed to a bright new future who was creating headlines by offering City’s then-squad a seven figure bonus if promotion to the Premiership could be achieved in the season ahead.

Not even six months later the new dawn had given away to dark clouds. Gibb left and a mud-slinging battle with the Rhodes’ ensued which threatened to spell the end of a club which was supposed to be celebrating its centenary. In July 2004 it looked like it really was over, but an 11th hour peace-deal was eventually brokered between the man who held the keys to the stadium and the family who held the keys to the club’s future. City carried on, but with hefty rent payments to meet from their no-longer friendly landlord.

When Mark Lawn was quizzed about the stadium ownership at the fans forum last year he spoke of attempts to buy back the stadium been met with an uninterested response from Gibb, who was apparently enjoying the money. Reports today suggest Gibb never received a formal approach. For sure there seems to be no threat of Gibb evicting City to build luxury flats in the near future, the credit crunch if nothing else has seen to that. But like for many people renting is not ideal, sees much-needed money sucked down a black hole and there persists a feeling that your home is never truly your own. I doubt City are allowed to redecorate, or keep pets.

Reports are circulating today that City are considering moving to play at Odsal when it is redeveloped. When should really be if because for years we’ve heard fanciful talk of a super stadium springing up on Odsal top and it seems no closer than ever. Maybe this time it’s different, maybe one day pigs really will learn to fly.

Who knows how true the reports of City’s interest really are, but they are certain to worry Gibb. Valley Parade is in far from the most beautiful of locations and there is no sporting team who’d be willing to move in and pay equivalent rent payments. The credit crunch makes it a foolish time to plan building flats on the site instead and, even when the economy returns to normal, who’s going to buy a high-rise pad overlooking the sex shops of Manningham Lane?

Perhaps that’s the point of these stories, a whiff that the Bradford City gravy train might be departing up the road surely weakens Gibb’s position at the bargaining table. Maybe City just want to force him into negotiation over rent payments or ownership.

As for the prospect of moving away from Valley Parade, it’s clearly an emotive subject for all fans. Personally I’d scream no, but if the rent payments from staying are so significant they can seriously hamper future progress then sacrificing tradition must at least be considered. I hate seeing these pop-up grounds like at Doncaster which have no character, and if that’s what a ‘community stadium’ in Bradford might look like then the pleasure of going to watch my team will be less.

But for me the efforts which have been undertaken during the last couple of years must continue. The Bradford City Supporters Trust has done much to lobby the Council to be more even-handed in its support of the district’s two largest professional clubs and it must continue. Sure I’m biased when I believe the Council should help more, but I don’t think tax-payers’ should subsidise what is ultimately a business – just for some equality with Bradford Bulls.

The credit crunch means less bank managers are going to be prepared to loan Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes the money to make Gibb an offer, but is a solution to suit both parties possible? Can’t the deal be restructured, for example, so that City’s rent payments become repayments and eventually Gibb receives back what he originally paid, plus interest, and we take back what belongs to us.

Maybe that’s naive, but at the very least good relations with Gibb must be built. There is probably still anger there between the Gibb and Rhodes families – but this isn’t just about boardrooms, it’s about 12,000+ people who watch Bradford City play every other fortnight from whom Valley Parade is home. We’ve been coming to our gaff for years and we even redecorated it before Gibb came along. It’s a place we expect to keep coming to for a long time, and then for our children to bring their children to.

Moving to Odsal might seem a tempting option, but let’s not give up on our home just yet.

More backing than barracking

This is my first article for BfB for a few years but I’m incensed after reading Omar Daley defending himself against criticism from fans.

The Telegraph and Argus website reports Omar Daley is not affected by recent criticism. The BBC reports the same with the City winger saying The fans pay their money to come and see me. The criticism hasn’t got to me, I’m just working hard.

I am baffled that Omar has to defend himself at all. What do we actually expect of Omar? As a player is what he is.

How much did we miss him earlier in the season when he was injured and when under the cosh we had no out ball at all? Are his performances not consistently better than those of last season? How many goals have City scored this season that have been down to him, his running and his pace?

I’m not suggesting he is our most prolific player of the season, but he has played a part? Yes. Why the hell is he getting criticised?

I’m so impressed with his character this year. He tracks back and tackles, he has helped his new mate Luke O’Brien out a few times when he breaks forward, he is always dangerous when running with the ball. Of course he loses the ball, makes the wrong pass or takes the wrong option from time to time, but he isn’t perfect but who is? You can not tell me that Manchester United’s Ronaldo takes the right option all the time, or that Fank Lampard should not always shoot for goal from long range when so many of Chelsea’s goals from from that.

Daley isn’t in the same class – no offence Omar – but thats why he is at the level he is at. Yes, he is an international player but for Jamaica, not Brazil – again no offence meant!

The bottom line is that some City fans are really starting to annoy me.

This season has been the best for at least six or seven yet some still find something to complain about, someone to pick fault with, someone to shoulder the blame and I think its completely out of order. We have had a mini blip, which all teams have, but the last 2 performances show that Stuart McCall has got tactics, performances, motivation levels right where they need to be coming up to some big games with Wycombe and Darlington and as we run in to the end of the season.

So I’ll ask something – as I prepare to be shot down – can we give the boys more backing than barracking please? We are five points of the top with two big teams coming to us in the next ten days, so lets get behind the boys and aim for six points which will put us firmly back in the automatic promotion hunt.

Hardy people

Less then two hundred Bradford City fans saw us beat Gillingham 2-0 thanks to goals from Omar Daley and Michael Boulding but it was one less, I guess.

Stuart Hardy (Recently deceased fan for whom there was a minutes applause for last weekend at Valley Parade – Ed) was the sort of City fan who came to games like this. Long trips away to Kent were the reason why people like the Shipley Bantams existed or so it seemed to me and while I was hardly a regard on any supporters coach and I probably couldn’t have pointed to any of the regulars you see every other week at City away games and said “That’s him” I know the sort and I like the sort.

And knowing the sort and liking the sort I think that this win is dedicated to Stuart and the people like Stuart who trudge up and down this country watching the Bantams in bad times and, like today, the good ones.

City were really good today with Gillingham who were a place above us at the start of the game left chasing shadows at the end and lucky not to have been beaten by more.

Everything started pretty level with the Gills looking to play the ball about but City and Dean Furman seemed to have the make of the home team who were a couple of regulars down and easily broken down. As the exchanges continued and City frustrated the home side more and more one could see the dishearted mood of the team in blue grow and the belief begin to drain. City are a different team away from home. They can hit on the break and use the space behind teams which is not there when those teams are sitting deep at Valley Parade to set faster lads like Omar Daley, Steve Jones and Michael Boulding away.

It was speed that got City the first goal when Boulding ran and ran and used his strength to keep the defender who was chasing him away before tucking it to Omar Daley for a tap in. This is the stuff that the people who have a go at Daley don’t see. Away from home he scares the sheds out of any team who try come out of their own half. Boulding too and in the second half City’s second striker got the goal he deserved for a great afternoon’s work.

There were great afternoons all around. Dean Furman stands head and shoulders above the rest of midfielders in League Two. He breaks up play, he puts it forward, he is a class act and while we have no chance of making him a Bradford City player we should enjoy him while we can and we could get promotion out of him. The strength of the City midfield is why we have a shout of promotion. Joe Colbeck is back in City colours and set up Peter Thorne for what should have been the third in the last minute which would have made the scoreline reflect the pattern of the game better.

In the meantime City played nice stuff. The second half was pretty much the Bantams having the ball and not doing anything silly with it. Everytime it was lost and it wasn’t often then Furman and, well, everyone, worked hard to get it back and when we had it we had danger in the widemen. Simone Jackson stuck an offside goal in but on the Rhys Evans has not very much to do and the defence of Zesh Rehman, Graeme Lee, Matt Clarke and Paul Arnison who filled in for Luke O’Brien looked solid but they do that at home so that is less impressive.

Because City on the road are impressive and some people at Valley Parade should get themselves on the road to the odd away game to see this. You don’t know why Omar Daley is in the side? You probably have not seen him eat up the pitch with the ball at his feet and the home side in terror. Who is the best City midfielder? It is the guy who gets the ball to stop us being under the cosh away from home.

So much is talked by so many people about Stuart McCall and City’s tactics and all these things but 187 people were here today and 12,000 come to home games so a big chunk of people who talk about City do it without seeing the full picture.

Not like these Hardy people who went to Gillingham in hope and got a big reward and dedicated it to another Stuart.

How much is game in hand worth? Gillingham vs Bradford City Preview

Snow.

The world is full of it and if this country had proper snow ploughs then we would not have a question mark over this weekend’s game with Gillingham. No, we would have a question over whether a vehicle used once every twenty years would start on a cold day.

If the game with Gillingham goes ahead then City look at playing off with the Kent side for a play-off place with them in seventh and the Bantams a place below and the right set of results – or postponements – could leave either fourth on Saturday evening.

Postponements being the challenge of logic in football. Inevitably they occur – City already have an away game at AFC Bournemouth to attempt to replay as well as Monday night’s cancelled Darlington home game – and unrealistically they twist the table leading to the question “how much is game in hand worth?”

Shrewsbury are a place above Gillingham and two above City and a point ahead of the Bantams. Is it safe to assume that – that game played – we can adjust City above the men from Gay Meadow? Some – Bill Shankley for example – would say not and point to every point having to be earned. The grizzled Scot would say that you have nothing when you have nothing and dinne ye forget it.

Nevertheless with 45 point from 28 games City are picking up 1.7 points a game so extrapolating that average we could assume that we would get that point – and a bit more – at least. Taking an example Grimsby Town – 22nd on the league and a point and place below Barnet – score at 0.78 points per game and thus it is probably not safe to assume they will overhaul the club a place above them however the fact that they are one down in the played column – and no one in the league has the 30 games played that have been scheduled – gives them the optimism that they may collect all three points.

Indeed when City faced relegation from the First Division under Chris Kamara Grimsby Town looked at our game in hand against then high flying Charlton Athletic and could have worked out a similar logic with City as likely to collect three points at home on that Thursday night as they were at any other time during the season. We won that game and beat QPR to stay up with our game in hand counting for three points.

Countering that in 1988 West Ham United had five games in hand over Liverpool which – if they were all won – would have seen them snatch the league. They collected less than half of those points and one was left to reflect not that Frank McAvennie and co had blow a chance at the league just that it was a quirk of statistics that suggested they had one and had the games been played in their scheduled slots in the season they would have been the same unremarkable results and the Hammers would have ended up third in a less exciting way.

Games in hand create falseness. City pick up 1.87 points a home game and 1.31 from an away one but how one uses those stats to create an adjusted league table is no more an accurate reflection than assumption that every game not played will be won.

What we do know is that the Bantams beat Grimsby Town last weekend and Stuart McCall struggles with riches in the midfield – Joe Colbeck is expected to start the next City game be it this one or the game with Wycombe Wanderers on Valentines Day – and misfiring strikers up front.

The midfield of Colbeck, Dean Furman, Nicky Law Jnr and Omar Daley seems set to continue while Paul McLaren is injured – in my experience the people who suggest we do not need McLaren in the team also puzzle about our corners not beating the first man when he is not playing and I would yoke those two points together – but McCall has a liking for Steve Jones which could see him included somewhere. McCall had tried playing Jones as a forward having seen his own strikers notch but two in eight from free play.

Probable starter Michael Boulding believes both he and partner Peter Thorne can get to twenty by the season end and I am reminded of an old footballing adage about front men: How many goals does the front man of a winning team scored? Enough. City are a drawing team of late and the strikers need to improve, or at least have improvement visited on them with better service.

The defence at City is mean – almost as mean as its critics – and only seriously leaked when they lost the headed defensive clearances of Barry Conlon at Luton. Six foot plus Zesh Rahmen’s inclusion at right back was more to do with getting a third big man to mark at set plays than it was a reflection on Paul Arnison and Rahmen is expected to retain a place alongside Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke with Luke O’Brien at left back and Rhys Evans between the sticks.

Except, of course, they will all probably be at home, kicking their heels, talking about snow ploughs.

The game that was never going to be

This is not easy for me to say, but for once I actually support something the Football League have said. Worse still, I have to say that I don’t think that the club I have supported through thick and thin (mainly thin) for the better part of fifty years has given sufficient thought to its fans. I can get out of the second difficulty by blaming the ref. That usually works in any event. But the evidence also points to the club and I can’t ignore it.

Back on 6th January, under a heading ‘It’s Snow Joke for Travelling Fans’, the Football League said ‘It is important that clubs do everything they can to prevent supporters making wasted journeys to postponed fixtures.’ The League’s guidance was perhaps primarily intended to meet the needs of away fans, but even in the fourth division some home supporters travel quite a distance. Especially when your home ground is so near to The Pennines, a club must expect a number of fans to have to encounter steep hills in even local journeys.

The postponement of the Darlington game was announced somewhere after 6.20, less than an hour and a half before kick off. I say ‘announced’ because I saw it on Sky Sports News. Sky, of course, were on the spot, ready for a live broadcast. The club website a few minutes later still said nothing more than a further inspection would be held at 6.00 and that team news would be posted at 7.15.

As it happens, my decision had already been made. Even on a fine midweek evening I have to set off no later than 5.30 for a 7.45 kick off. Kind friends who live much nearer were sending weather updates from early morning. I was checking forecasts on the internet – wonderful tool, isn’t it? – and by 10.30, once I’d read that the club wanted volunteers to shovel snow, I’d sent an e mail to my mates saying this would be wasted effort, since the forecast for Bradford was heavy snow by 6.00 p.m. and for the rest of the night. Whichever site I looked at for the next few hours, I got the same message. I mention that specifically because the Football League guidance does indeed allow for ‘the unpredictability of the British weather’ and the prospect of late postponements.

This weather was entirely predicted. Whichever internet weather forecast you used, they all said the same. City, I gather, have two supporters who are actually weather forecasters for television stations of the terrestrial type. Maybe somebody should have asked them! But, whoever it was the ref consulted, Mr D’Urso explained in a pitch side interview that he had been told there would be a small amount of snow before 6.00 and then nothing until 10.00. With the customary vision some of us expect from referees, I could do a better job from 75 miles away!

What troubles me about the whole business is the lateness of the decision compared with several other matches, not due to be played for a further 24 hours, where postponements were announced hours earlier. None of these other games was due to be televised, but I’m sure that’s purely coincidental. One of my informants tells me that Mark Lawn was heard on local radio as late as 4.35 asking for more volunteers. Was that a live request or a pre-recorded interview that should never have been repeated at that time of day?

The whole affair smacks of insufficient regard for travelling fans. It ignores the fact that those fans have to get back home from a game scheduled to end at 9.40 or so and that, even on the ref’s laughable version of a weather forecast, by that time there would be heavy snow. Or perhaps the Football League’s guidance is meant only to prevent wasted journeys to games and does not take into account return trips. I do hope not. At this time of year it is often the return journey that is the more hazardous.

The Darlington game will have to be re-arranged, of course. It may well be that Sky will try again next time and the income will not be lost to the club. Whether it is or not, if Bradford City really wants to be seen to care about football’s fans, wherever they are travelling from and whichever side they are supporting, they will have the chance to sell tickets at no more than £10 a head to all fans. Those of us with our season tickets will gain nothing personally, but the club will gain the respect of thousands, especially those who do not live within easy travelling distance of Valley Parade.

Worry about it next season – Bradford City vs Darlington – League Two Preview

There is snow in Bradford so City’s game with Darlington might not even take place but let’s assume it is doing and look at the Bantams chances of winning on Sky tonight.

City lost the away version of this fixture 2-1 at Darlington in front of Sky’s cameras after a last minute goal cancelled out Omar Daley’s great equaliser and at the time it was said that City were not doing that well. Fast forward to now and the Bantams are rooted in the play-off and want to be back in the top three.

Darlington are in a similar position having gone from that game to a spell in the promotion places but now are fourth. A win for them would put them top three. A win for City would see them move about the Quakers into fourth.

City are fresh from a 2-0 win over Grimsby at the weekend in what was an odd game. A late goal gave City a score line that flattered them but great goalkeeping stopped it being a thrashing so perhaps 2-0 was the right result. Either way City never looked like not winning the game over the Marriers and Dean Furman’s return in the midfield had a lot to do with that.

Ah Furman. “He is our best player” someone told me on Saturday which isn’t true really cause he is not out player at all but while he is here he can play some commanding football and is good value for a place in the team. The same can be said about Nicky Law who scored and makes a good partnership with anyone really. What we do next season when these kids have gone and the likes of Paul McLaren and Lee Bullock are a year older who knows but I’m tempted to say that is next year’s problem and if these two bright young things want to take us to promotion then let them.

Joe Colbeck is back and he set up Barry for what should have been the second goal on Saturday which Steve Jones ended up with instead. Jones should step down for him although Omar Daley having a real stinker on Saturday doesn’t help his cause for staying in the side. What do you do about Daley? He scored the goal at Darlington he scored the goal against Rotherham last year, he does some brilliant stuff but when he isn’t on song he is frustrating to watch and sucks the ball away from the side.

He will probably get the nod tonight and that is a good thing. Heavy pitch, snow on the ground, Daley running at defenders who are falling on their backsides. Might work.

Peter Thorne? Where is Peter Thorne? What happened to him? He used to score and look dangerous. Now Barry Conlon gets more goals and on Saturday’s form more chances to miss. Thorne needs chances making to do much good but I worry. Both Thorne and Michael Boulding plays thier parts on Saturday but neither bagged goals or looked like doing and considering the dominance that worries me. I wasn’t that worried with Boulding put in Jones for the second of when Thorne pulled of the defender to give Nicky Law space to go through for the first but I’d like to see Peter Thorne doing more than pulling off defenders.

Stop tittering. This is serious. Peter Thorne is probably not an automatic choice any more but he and Boulding are still good for the front two places.

Also serious is Zesh Rahman who came in to add another big guy for heading away duty and should keep his place alongside Graeme Lee, Matt Clarke and Luke O’Brien. Rhys Evans was bored on Saturday. Probably won’t be tonight.

City on the way forward again

City bounced back from their Gigg Lane fiasco with a convincing, but nerve wrecking win over Grimsby Town in this crucial game at Valley Parade on Saturday.

Tuesday night’s heartless display in a promotion six pointer had seen the Bantams slip to 9th position – a couple of points outside the playoff places – which made a win in this home fixture absolutely essential to keep pace with the chasing pack, jostling for automatic promotion and playoff places.

Wholesale changes were made to the starting lineup, with top scorers Thorne and Boulding recalled up front, Law and Furman in centre midfield, with Jones reverting back to his right wing role, and O’Brien welcomed back from illness at left back with Rehman switching to right back.

And the players selected – very much in contrast with Tuesday night – did not disappoint with confidence, effort and excellent play in defence and attack all over the field.

City had numerous first half chances to break the deadlock. Zesh Rehman, on his home debut, was thwarted twice from set pieces by Grimsby keeper Barnes with two excellent saves from powerful headers.

After homing in on goal Omar Daley pulled back an excellent ball to Nicky Law who took a touch to bring him within 10 yards of the goal, and just as it looked like he was certain to score, Barnes excellently kept out his left foot strike. And Steve Jones once again was frustrated in front of goal when his strike hit the outside of the post, as another nail biting afternoon ensued.

A key moment happened on 20 when Thorne flicked on to send Boulding in the clear, but his run was abruptly ended by a rugby tackle from Grimsby defender Atkinson. The referee judged him to be the last defender and swiftly sent off the Mariner’s man.

There was then only one question on everyone’s minds. Would City be able to break the deadlock? and grab 3 points at home, ala Morecambe, or would they be massively frustrated by a side who clearly lacked the City team’s more skilful individual players, ala Chester and Acrrington Stanley.

The answer, thankfully, was that City did manage to get that crucial goal that set them up for three very important points. From the moment that Grimsby went down to 10 men, it was apparent that only one team were in the running to score goals. Town were toothless in attack, even with 11 men, but to give them credit they didn’t just park their team bus in front of their goal – they did try and get the ball down and play.

The second half was another tale of City struggling to break down a dogged defence. Omar Daley flashed a fierce shot just over, and Steve Jones was looking dangerous every time he picked up the ball, but once again his shooting and ability to deliver an end product let him down again. Nevertheless, he was a threat, and did not give up persisting and produced some exciting wing play. One moment saw Jones lay an excellent ball all the way across the line that just needed someone to tap in – but no City player was on hand to read the ball played.

City’s defence looked very secure with Matt Clarke particularly outstanding and Zesh Rehman produced a very promising display. He looks a very good acquisition.

The crucial goal arrived when Boulding layed the ball over to Nicky Law, who drove forward in trademark fashion towards goal, and released a shot that slipped under Barnes to send the Valley Parade crowd wild and put an enormous amount of relief in the air. Barnes had kept out trickier shots, but the power on the shot from the industrious Law beat him.

Funnily enough, despite having literally all the play in the second half, City’s goal triggered Grimsby to apply a small amount of pressure and force 3 corners which were all handled excellently by the defence.

15 shots on target for City told the story of this game, and as Grimsby again tried to sneak a point in the dying seconds, the ball was cleared and City were presented with a 3 on 1 chance.

Joe Colbeck, on as a late substitute, continued his recovery from injury by releasing Jones in the dying seconds who confidently rounded the keeper and tapped in with his left foot to wrap up the points in this important home game.

Too often this season have City been unable to win games at home that they should be winning. Having only lost one game at home all season is admirable, but as admitted afterwards by Stuart McCall, home draws (7) have been too common so far this season and have impeded our chances of pulling away from the teams around us.

And so to Darlington’s visit to Valley Parade on Monday (weather permitting). The Quakers won a big game away at Dagenham today, but that will no doubt have taken its toll physically, not to mention the long trip back from London up north. It would be a good time to play them with confidence high and the Sky cameras ready to take in the action. What better time to prove that we have what it takes to get promoted this season.

An interesting area of debate at this stage of the season is, would you settle for a guaranteed playoff place at this point, but not be allowed to go up automatically? I wouldn’t. I firmly believe we are one of the three best teams in this division if we play to our potential and we should not have to go through and take a chance in the lottery that is the playoffs. Looking at the remaining fixtures, Brentford and Wycombe both have to visit VP over the next few months, which will prove to be crucial games – but surely gaining maximum points against the likes of Macclesfield, Aldershot and Port Vale in games like today against Grimsby are what will determine whether we give ourselves a chance of finishing in the top three. Our away form doesn’t concern me too much at all as we have performed pretty well away from VP ( with the exception of Bury away), its all about the final eight home games for me. Win a high percentage of those instead of costly draws against defensive minded teams and promotion the easy way (automatic) should be assured.

Getting back on the bike – Bradford City vs Grimsby Town – League Two preview

Those of us at Kenilworth Road on Saturday and at Gigg Lane on Tuesday will fully appreciate the range of emotions which supporting a football team can inflict upon you.

We left Luton ecstatic after an action-packed afternoon of football – one of this writer’s best ever – which threw up the improbable plot twist of Barry Conlon’s late penalty that left us cheering wildly and hugging each other. Minutes earlier we were in despair as it appeared we were on the wrong end of football’s cruellest way of losing – the last minute winner. Barry made the journey home that little bit quicker and the manner of City’s second half performance left plenty of optimism for the rest of the season.

Then came Tuesday.

In recent years we’ve all had to become battled-hardened to the despair of defeat and the frustration when things go wrong – but consolations can be taken when the team was unlucky, the referee let us down or some players still gave us something to cheer. On Tuesday there was nothing as we suffered from the most galling way of watching your team lose – because they simply didn’t show desire, passion or commitment to the cause.

And that’s why Tuesday hurt so much.

It hurt to see players you’ve spent much of the season sticking up for when others have criticised appear unwilling to put their body on the line when the chips were down, such as Paul McLaren. It hurt to see players with unquestionable talent look disinterested, like Omar Daley. It hurt to see players you’d seen do a good job Saturday fail to repeat what was asked of them, like Steve Jones. It hurt, because other than Rhys Evans no-one should have walked off the Gigg Lane pitch with their head held high.

The arguments over what went wrong are wide-ranging and see many accused but unsurprisingly the guy in charge, Stuart McCall, is at the centre of the criticism. How could a man who would never have given anything but 100% when a City player, who if we cut open might just bleed claret and amber, allow such a shambles to happen? What about his coaching staff Wayne Jacobs and David Wetherall who, while not without their critics on occasions during their playing career, were never accused of lacking effort? 1,800 City fans packed the away end and backed the players ferociously for 90 minutes, and while that doesn’t mean we deserved to watch a winning team it should at least have been rewarded with a committed one.

But that was Tuesday and just as quickly as the mood turned from euphoria to exasperation it’s to be hoped it can be changed back tomorrow. There is nothing that Stuart and the players can do about what happened at Bury now, but they can at least begin to repair the damage. The recent good run of form of visitors Grimsby – unbeaten in three – may make this less of the home banker it looked a fortnight ago, but just like City’s one win in nine it ignores the bigger picture. This is a bunch of players which have lost 13 of their 26 league games so far, scoring fewer goals than anyone else in the division.

City simply must be targeting three points.

Team selection was a huge bone of contention on Tuesday night and the only thing which can be said with certainty about tomorrow’s team is that it will feature Evans in goal. Luke O’Brien missed Tuesday through illness and should reclaim his left back spot with loan defender Zesh Rehman eyeing up the place of either Graeme Lee, Matt Clarke or Paul Arnison but probably having to settle for a place on the bench for now.

In midfield Joe Colbeck is pushing for his first start since getting injured at Grimsby in October and looked more sharper when introduced on Tuesday than he did Saturday. That should mean Daley, outstanding in the second half at Luton, is switched back to the left and Law moved into the centre with either Dean Furman, McLaren or Lee Bullock alongside. My vote goes to Furman with a message sent to McLaren that one excellent performance should not be followed up by an average one.

Up front Stuart must play one of if not both Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding. Thorne was not great at Luton but is never going to recapture his form if he keeps been brought in then dropped again while Boulding, facing an old club, was unlucky to lose his place too. I’ve written several times over the last 18 months that Conlon’s biggest failing is his lack of consistency and relegation to the bench should be the only reward for such a sub-standard display at Bury. Many fans, and Stuart, have kept faith in the likeable Irishman and he has some making up to do. The fact Jones was hauled off at Bury adds doubts about his loan spell from Burnley been extended when it runs out on February 9, which few City fans would argue for.

Grimsby’s leading marksman only has four goals but we all remember Adam Proudlock’s hat trick at Valley Parade seven years ago. After a slow start to the season former City loanee Mike Newell took over as manager but his influence has been limited and the Mariners are one of a clutch of clubs grateful that Bournemouth and Newell’s former employers Luton aren’t making a better fist of overturning points deductions. A ‘real’ league table would show Grimsby propping up the rest.

In many ways 3pm Saturday cannot come quick enough as we get climb back on board the emotional rollercoaster. No one wants to feel as bad about their team as many of us City fans do right now and such hurt and anger needs heeling. It won’t automatically make everything right again in the world of Bradford City, but a home victory tomorrow would certainly be a good start.

We badly hope to experience that ultimate high of achieving promotion this season, it’s now down to the players to show they want it too.

Reboot, Reload, Rebuild? Should McCall take Championship Manager approach?

I’ve bemoaned to all the notion that Championship Manager is a blight on real football but Stuart McCall could do with learning the trick that used to save my seasons when I was a slave to the pixel hot seat.

When I was in a bad run – and that one “win in nine” talk has become McCall’s bad run – I’d be faced with three choices. The first was blindly tinkering with the team throwing in a player there and taking out someone here with the idea that the right combination would come.

This seems to be what Stuart McCall is doing now making ekes and tweaks to the eleven that finished the last game. Barry Conlon’s start on Tuesday recognised the need to win and hold the ball away from home and Steve Jones up next to the target man recognised the need for pace on the break that is so often the route to victory for away sides at Valley Parade.

Big man, little man. Brawn and speed. On paper it works until you look at the paper and realise you have just selected as your best two forwards Barry and a bloke out of Burnley reserves. The team becomes a version of a version of a version of what you started with.

Likewise the midfield becomes contorted around the players who were in it last week rather than the ones who were in it when you were doing well. Nicky Law Jnr or Dean Furman is the question but when City were winning games on a regular basis Lee Bullock and Paul McLaren were in the middle.

Which lead to McCall’s second option – and the one most often favoured after a re-load – which is to click down list of players in the side and pick the team again from scratch evaluating everyone again and ending up with what is your best eleven. In City’s case aside from a couple of options in the midfield this is obvious from results when they were in the side: Evans; Arnison, Lee, Clarke, O’Brien; Colbeck, McLaren, Bullock, Daley; M Boulding and Thorne;

One could argue about the two loan midfielders Law and Furman who both have been impressive but I have never believed in playing loanees over your own professionals. Certainly looking at the team who lost to Bury four of them – Zesh Rehman, Nicky Law Jnr, Dean Furman and Steve Jones – belong to other clubs and when the debate starts about why a team does not want it enough this factor cannot be ruled out.

I recall fondly that at Wolves on the day that City were promoted Paul Jewell entrusted the game to what was the definitive side of the season favouring Robbie Blake over Dean Windass, Jamie Lawrence over Lee Sharpe, John Dreyer over Andy O’Brien or Ashley Westwood. He favoured senior professionals with long term stake over new arrivals and young players and he was rewarded for it.

Which is the option that this writer would have McCall follow now. A couple of days on the training field and a decision as to who are the eleven players he would want to win a Wolves type game of which we have plenty if we want promotion at the end of this season.

That of he could go for option three. Turn off and go watch some TV.

Stuart McCall and the forty-five minute claim

“One win in nine.”

It started in the Telegraph & Argus – this collection of four words to represent a statistical truth – but it has taken a life of its own.

Stuart McCall’s Bradford City side have only a single win in the last nine games. Three points? Well, no. In fact City have ten points from the last twenty-seven which is no great return for sure. “Two defeats in nine games.” sounds a little different too.

“One win in nine” has become the forty-five minute claim against Stuart McCall. It is true while being misleading. It is the lie, the damned lie and the statistic.

“Two defeats in nine”, “six draws in nine”, “just over a point a game in the last nine.” All as relevant but paint a different picture.

What is this picture? Who has ever referenced a top nine before? Did Top of the Pops do a rundown of the nine top songs of the week? Do amps go all the way up to nine? Is there anything special about the last nine games for City?

Sadly the only thing that makes the last nine games relevant to City is that if you take them as a statistical sample Stuart McCall’s record looks worse. Why not say “two wins in ten” or “three wins in eleven”? Why not? Because they sound better for McCall? The nine game sample is all about picking out a period of time that makes the City manager look as bad a possible.

Why not say that City have lost four in the last eighteen? Why take a mid-season sample anyway? What does it matter? Take a sample of the last 27 games and City have won 11, drawn 9 and lost 7. The points/game is low but then again our division’s leaders Wycombe Wanderers have 1.85 points/game compared to Manchester United’s 2.27 which says much about how the wins are being shared out in this league. That statistic illustrates something and gives us a context for understanding the season. Picking out the last nine games with an arbitrary cut off point designed to make the subject of a point look as bad as possible is not representative it is spin.

Perhaps Alistair Campbell – a man from Keighley who has convinced the world that his local team is Burnley – has made spin doctors of us all. Many – although not Campbell himself – believe that spin was used to justify war. Why use such tactics against Stuart McCall?

Why anyone would want to spin facts against the current City manager only they know – Joe Kinnear had something to say about local journalists doing it which McCall might think but probably would not say – but let us not mistake those who would base an article or argument around this ad hoc spin for anything that deserves any credit or for anything ethical. It is selecting only the facts that support your argument and down-playing the others to make the point you want to make, to serve the agenda you serve.

If you think Stuart McCall is a bad manager, if you think he is doing things wrong, if you think that Stuart McCall is taking Bradford City to Hell in a handcart and want to write me an article saying so then I will publish it but only if you have the belief in the strength of your argument to attack the manager on the basis of his full record as it stands and not by twisting information until it reflects only the worst light.

Comments: Rules of the house: Talk football not politics. Nuff said.

Flickering faith follows Bury defeat

I am not one of those fans who has pretty much been criticising Stuart McCall all season and becoming more and more vocal and outspoken in recent weeks.

Neither am I writing this because I’ve just seen City undone by yet another sucker goal which could and should have been avoided.

At Bury in the 1-0 defeat however, like a candle when someone opens a nearby door, my confidence flickered briefly. Involuntarily I asked questions of City’s management team! The questions tumbled over each other in my mind.

Apart from the enforced change, why had Stuart changed the starting eleven yet again?

Why, if he was determined to make changes, were Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding warming the bench? Particularly as Barry Conlon and Steve Jones have scored precious few goals from open play (a goal is a goal I know, but, like most supporters I just don’t rate penalties as highly as those from open play or other set pieces). When Thorne and Boulding were fronting the team we were scoring goals (21 between them) and winning matches. Since Peter returned from injury they haven’t play a full match together.

Why, with Conlon being particularly ineffective (as City continued to lump the ball forward into the middle I saw him beat the cental defender and get the ball only twice all match) wasn’t Thorne or Boulding brought on as a direct replacement?

Why, with Lee Bullock still returning to full match fitness and not being at his effective best, wasn’t Dean Furman brought on after the hour?

Why have we stopped playing football? Hoofing the ball into the middle in the hope of Barry getting his head on it is not only terrible to watch, it’s proving to be completely ineffective in matches.

Based on all the chopping and changing in recent matches I do get the distinct impression that Stuart doesn’t know what his best eleven is. Either that or he’s too nice trying to keep everyone happy by giving them all a game or part of one.

The manager has to have a ruthless streak! Deciding on his best starting line up and (injuries and suspensions permitting) sticking to it no matter who in the squad this might upset. Having differing opinions on the best starting line up is a luxury for fans, not for managers!

Stuart, I haven’t lost confidence but, much more baffling team tinkering and performances like last night and this might change. I definitely hope not because if not, that would mean we’d got back to a settled side playing football and winning matches again.

Where is it going wrong?

On an evening when there was much to trouble manager Stuart McCall, the immediate reaction of his players to going behind to Bury striker Andy Morrell’s 76th minute strike will surely have worried him the most.

Having allowed a game to drift from been in a position of relative control to one they were losing, the City players collectively appeared to lack the determination and drive to make the best use of the remaining 14 minutes and get back into the game. There were some golden chances created – and spurned – right at the end, but it was a case of too little too late. Like the game, City are now in danger of allowing their promotion hopes to drift away.

Through November and December City were guilty of been unable to use the advantage of a strong league position to drive forward from the chasing pack, but as that run of form now stretches to just one win in nine they are struggling to even keep up. The season-worst position of ninth now occupied was not in mind at the start of the season, where ambitions of going up as champions appeared realistic.

It would be premature to panic, but the negatives of the evening require urgent addressing. City came into this promotion six-pointer on the back of an excellent second half display at Luton and the elation of Barry Conlon’s late penalty equaliser, but any intentions to carry on where they left off were undermined by some questionable selections from Stuart which saw Dean Furman, excellent on his return Saturday, and Peter Thorne relegated to the bench. On Saturday Stuart had made his intentions of seeking to freshen the team clear, but even allowing for strong options these two players particularly need a run in the side.

Conlon was recalled ahead of Thorne and while memories of his excellent performance at Gigg Lane last season might have been in Stuart’s thoughts, the strike partnership with Steve Jones failed miserably. At times they were too isolated from each other and the Irishman badly needed Jones nearer to him to flick the ball towards. Launching long balls to Jones was especially futile and the on-loan Burnley forward was almost completely anonymous.

Lee Bullock was brought in to replace Furman and had a quietly effective game in the middle, with City at times passing the ball around neatly but without the pace and creativity we’d seen on Saturday. Once again too many direct balls were played forward from the back and one is left to wonder how a team who began the season playing some excellent football has lost its way in recent weeks. Resting Furman, who had provided energy and dominated the midfield alongside Paul McLaren at Kenilworth Road, clearly did not help matters and, while playing Law out-wide had been effective on Saturday justifying trying it again with Jones up front, Stuart’s failure to adequately address the fact it wasn’t replicated this evening leave concerns about his tactical acumen.

When City weren’t struggling to work out what to in possession they were been asked plenty of questions by a dangerous Bury forward line. Andy Bishop is well known and provided Matt Clarke with a tough night while Elliott Bennett and Mick Jones also caught the eye. Jones and Morrell both missed some good opportunities in the first half as City had to deal with plenty of dangerous balls into the box. Morrell in particular wasted one guilt-edged chance while Rhys Evans, easily City’s best performer on the night, made a couple of decent saves. The best City chances fell to Clarke and Conlon, but efforts flew wastefully wide. Omar Daley looked a threat on the right and was clearly singled out as the danger man by the home side. Zeshan Rehman enjoyed a decent debut in the left-back spot with Luke O’Brien ill, though no-one will want to see the impressive youngster lose his place to an on-loan defender no matter how good his pedigree.

Stuart must have had words at half time as the Bantams came out much stronger after the interval and had Bury begged back in their own half for the first 15 minutes. There were lots of throw-ins and a few corners, but crucially a lack of chances. The ball wasn’t whipped in with the same urgency as the home side and, with the strike partnership still struggling, the deadlock rarely looked like been broken. A couple of decent crosses should have been better attacked by Conlon, while slack marking from a free kick presented Bullock with the chance to prod the ball home, but it trickled tamely wide of the post.

But here was the time when managers need to be making a difference and those who believe Stuart isn’t able to make effective changes were given further ammunition tonight. Taking off Jones for Joe Colbeck was a good move though it was questionable whether Daley, who’d drifted out of the game, should have been moved up front in Jones’ place when there were two strikers who’ve shared 21 goals this season kicking their heels on the bench. It’s also curious as to why Conlon was kept on given how limited his influence on the game had been and the impression he was not giving 100%. Barry is of course loved for giving everything he has, which often make up for some of his failings – without that work-rate tonight he just looked a poor player.

By the time the first change was made Bury had reclaimed the ascendency but the major difference between their good spell and City’s was how often they came close to scoring. Evans made two brilliant saves and Morrell missed another sitter, but City’s luck did not hold out after a brilliant run from Bennett resulted in Morrell firing the ball into the net. Stuart quickly reacted by bringing on Furman and Boulding,but it took too long for decent pressure to be exerted on Bury’s goal.

As the clock ticked Boulding forced an excellent save from Mark Tyler and a scrambled effort from Law appeared to be blocked by a combination of a defender and Conlon on the line, who then had the opportunity to fire it home but turned and volleyed well wide. Evans came up from a corner and from it Colbeck had a chance on goal, but the rustiness of such a long injury lay-off may be partly to blame for the scuffed effort which rolled wide. On another day one of these chances would have been taken and a draw wouldn’t have been unfair, but over the 90 minutes City didn’t do enough and only had themselves to blame.

When City were picking up better results a few weeks ago they were doing so with half a team on the treatment table which won plenty of admiration, despite the fact performances weren’t convincing. Now Stuart has the majority of his injured players back and one of the most talented squads in the league to choose from, and with it the expectation levels are rising once more. Performances have been marginally better but getting the results to go with it are probably only going to happen if Stuart worries less about pleasing everyone and picks his best team as often as possible.

Because the season cannot be allowed to drift any further and, while it might not be fair to put too much pressure on the team, they have now fallen into a position which makes obtaining six points from the two home games this weekend essential. The tools are largely all there, now Stuart must show himself to be a good workman.

The points adding up as Rehman signs – Bury vs Bradford City – League Two Preview

The Barry Conlon penalty at Luton Town was scant reward for City’s second half endeavours when Stuart McCall unveiled what I’m sure his critics will be calling Plan B.

McCall – sent to the stands for complaining about a decision to award a free kick on an afternoon that saw many a bizarre refereeing decisions – enjoyed the best and worst of times facing criticism for abandoning his FourFourTwo principals for forty-five minutes and then seeing his side utterly dominant in the second half thanks in no small part to the ball winning of Dean Furman.

Furman’s display added to an impressive set of midfielders with Nicky Law spoken of as undroppable, Paul McLaren making significant contributions including the first goal on Saturday and Joe Colbeck returning for the last fifteen minutes adding to the already impressive Omar Daley. McCall struggles to make a best fit of those five names without the additions of Steve Jones, Chris Brandon and Lee Bullock. His selection for the middle is an embarrassment of riches of his own making and should he return to the four in the middle on Tuesday night for the trip go Gigg Lane then one can only guess who will be excluded. For my part Colbeck, Furman, McLaren and Daley would be my four but every City fan will twist that Rubik’s Cube in different ways.

A different sort of puzzle is the reason why the mean defence of City on Saturday suddenly started to leak goals – or a goal rather – a specific cross in and head in which the Bantams have not seemed so venerable to since Gary Shaw and his two and a half minute hat-trick.

What caused the Bantams to go from unit to untied is not known although the presence of Zesh Rehman – a central defender signed on loan from QPR on Monday – in the directors box might not have been the most settling sight for Matthew Clarke to see although in all likelihood the three goals from balls lumped into the box and the absence of Barry Conlon’s clearing head were not unconnected.

Coming out of contract at the end of the year Rehman looks to impress in his loan until the end of the season. The Birmingham born Rehman has played six times for the Pakistani International side and become captain in the 7-0 reversal by Egil Olsen’s Iraq side – if our path since we relegated his Wimbledon side has been winding imagine what road has led the Norwegian to be manager of a nation which in the time since we were in the Premiership tortured its players for poor results.

Rehman – who has played right back but favours the middle has his potential debut at Bury for Bradford City which is interesting in many ways much beyond football, and for that matter politics. Simon Schama would call it the future of the British Empire but – for the moment – we shall call it an interesting signing when one considers how stable the back two have been over the last month.

Mark Bower exits to Luton as Rehman arrives and BfB never favours playing loanees over our own players with one feeling sorry for City’s longest serving player. Rehman’s signing made sense if he plays and does well and makes sense if he adds to the right back berth uncovered since TJ Moncur’s return to Fulham but there is a nervousness that City’s second Asian player and first Pakistani is something of the Beckham of Bradford designed to get bums on seats from the locals of BD8 rather than cheat sheets.

Perhaps it might be nice to do both. Certainly it cannot do much harm and Rehman need only prove as useful as TJ Moncur or Steve Jones to be justified in the context of the season. If he proves to be in the bracket of Nicky Law and Dean Furman then he is available at the end of the season.

One might suspect that City needed not to strengthen at the back but bolstering up front with goals hard to come by over Christmas and January – until the second half on Saturday – but still Peter Thorne struggles to find the net and Michael Boulding and Barry Conlon were left cooling their heels. With chances created will follow goals and considering the options in midfield those chances should be created.

Bury for their part are in reasonable form sneaking to third in the table with the kind of mix of draws and the odd win that City get. The Shakers still possess the highly rated Andy Bishop whom Stuart McCall was impressed by and boss Alan Knill informs all that he has yet to have a firm bid for the player. They sit a point above the Bantams but have a poor record against promotion rivals – recent losses to Shrewsbury and Wycombe and a draw with Darlington – all of which points to an interesting game and a telling one.

Should the Bantams win then we will – at least – slip above Bury and could end the night second while a defeat could leave us tenth but with Rehman’s incoming and Bower departing being – seemingly – the last movement of the transfer window after McCall declared himself happy with striking resources then it would seem that they City manager has the squad in place that he wants – or at least can have at this point – leaving the players to get the results to back up such faith.

City leave with a point and much more for the journey ahead

How to make sense of this one?

Six goals, two red cards and the frustration of a poor referee were shared out between Luton Town and Bradford City on an afternoon of unpredictable twist and turns. City were feeble but also fantastic, woeful and wonderful at the back, slow then scintillating going forward and, though the point gained makes it six draws in eight, the players and management should have taken far more from it than they have from any game so far this season.

Twice the match seemed to have been lost by City. They couldn’t have made a worse start after going behind on three minutes when Asa Hall headed home a corner which had as much to do with clever off-the-ball running from Chris Martin (not that one) as it did poor marking. That had been Luton’s first attack after City started well with Steve Jones, moved up front to partner Peter Thorne with last week’s strike partnership of Barry Conlon and Michael Boulding relegated to the bench, causing problems and Nicky Law and Thorne going close.

The pattern of play continued after the goal with City pressing forward but not threatening enough with their attacks. The best chance fell to Matt Clarke – who never scores and rarely even threatens to – when dismal marking from a corner left him with a free header which he sent well over. Thorne and Jones also had attempts saved but the slow and laboured build up to City’s play and failure of Omar Daley and Jones to make an impact left players unsure at times over what to do. This was emphasised when Graeme Lee attempted a wild shot from distance with almost his entire team in front of him, which flew well over.

But then it kicked off. City were again on the attack when the ball was cleared to Ian Henderson who charged down the flank only to be stopped level with the edge of the area by a superb tackle from Luke O’Brien. Unfortunately a linesman with a perfect view begged to differ and flagged for a free kick which provoked an angry response from City players and led to the referee Trevor Kettle issuing a warning to substitute Mark Bower for yelling at the linesman. O’Brien was booked with the linesman trying to persuade Kettle he was the last man and the resulting free kick was met by Akanni-Sunday Wasiu who tapped home. Not good marking from a defence distracted by the falling out over the decision, but it should also be noted it was poor goalkeeping from Rhys Evans who was upset enough with his first half performance to spend the interval on the pitch practising.

By then his manager had been sent to the stands, not for arguing with Kettle about the decision to award a free kick, as angry as he was about it, but from encroaching out of his technical area in an effort to speak to him. I read and hear lots about the Respect campaign and have tried not to believe, like others, that it’s simply a load of PR buzzwords with no substance; but if officials are confident enough in their decisions why shouldn’t they be prepared to talk them through with those who question them? As City trooped off at half time 2-0 down without having done a lot wrong, concerns about which direction the season was heading were raised. City had done okay, as they have all season, but now they had to find that extra something and show their credentials.

Which they did.

A quick goal was essential and came when a Law corner caused panic and Paul McLaren, former Hatter, was on hand to prod the ball over the line. What followed was near total dominance from the Bantams with Lee forcing a great save from Conrad Logan after a trademark thunderbolt free kick. The pressure told when Law received the ball on the edge of the area and rolled it back to the recalled Dean Furman, who took a touch and then fired home a crisp shot for his first ever senior goal.

There was no letting up as City, well in control, produced wave after wave of attack. Jones came alive up front with some clever runs, Daley was back to his blistering form and left a trail of defenders in his wake as he cut inside and set up attacks and Law, occupying Daley’s usual left wing spot, was a revelation out wide. Free from the defensive responsibilities of playing in the centre, he stretched Luton by taking up some excellent positions to be fed the ball to and had the vision and confidence to set up chances for others. Furman and McLaren were easily winning the midfield battle and Luton were reduced to sporadic attacks on the break, which were mostly mopped up by a much-improved defensive effort superbly led by Lee. The only time Luton got through saw Evans make a brilliant save, the half time training session appeared worthwhile.

And the chances created. Daley went on a magnificent run from inside his own half beating players for fun before shooting just over, Thorne nodded just wide, Law flashed an effort just wide, Furman went for goal again and was just over, sub Conlon headed just over, Jones’ half volley just saved. The only thing that wasn’t just was the scoreline as City deserved to be out of sight.

They also missed two easy chances when first Daley’s brilliant attempt to steal the ball off the full back and quickly cross left Conlon with the sort of chance Harry Redknapp’s missus could have scored and then a great run from Jones saw the on-loan winger get to the byeline before shooting from a difficult angle when pulling the ball back would have left City players queuing up to tap it in. Such profligacy appeared to have come back to bite when, as the 4th official held up the board to reveal how much injury time was to be played, Clarke gave away a stupid free kick on the edge of the area from which Kevin Nicholls whipped the ball onto Hall’s head to send into the far corner. Absolute heartbreak.

As many City fans streamed out of the grotty away end there were still further twists to come. First Luton keeper Logan decided to celebrate his team’s ‘winner’ by running up and gesturing towards City fans before going into a dance routine that was not so much provocative as embarrassing. Cue many fans rushing to the stewards to complain. Personally I have no problem with a player making gestures to us as long as we can do it back, so I’ll take this opportunity, having missed it at the time, to insult and pick on his personal features in a way which will upset him the most – Logan is terrible dancer.

The game restarted. City tried an attack which was cleared and the ball went up to a Luton player, who was offside. Cue a long wait for the free kick to be taken as Kettle lectured a home player and when Arnison finally pumped the ball into the box you stood there believing you’ve seen this sort of moment at the end of the game so often before and ultimately it will end up in Logan’s hands and he’ll probably wiggle his backside at us as he lies on the ground clutching the ball for five minutes. But it squirmed into the area and as Jones went for it he was faintly clipped from behind and rolled over and Kettle pointed to the spot.

Cue massive protests and a sort-of-brawl between both sets of players which ended with Martin receiving a red card. Meanwhile Logan was all over penalty taker Conlon whispering sweet nothings into his ear about how the Irishman was going to miss. Four minutes later Conlon finally got the chance and showed remarkable coolness to convert the penalty and prompt wild scenes of celebration. Don’t let any of Conlon’s critics tell you his 10th goal of the season was “only a penalty.”

The final whistle blew and as we struggled to get out breath back Stuart came over to applaud us and gestured towards the players to signal they deserve our appreciation, which we did. Meanwhile the referee and his officials had to run a gauntlet of abuse from home fans as they leave the pitch and it was distressing to see them try to protect themselves from a shower of objects thrown at them. Some arrests were made and outside there was also trouble. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the 30-point penalty such a response was shameful and any Luton fan who didn’t throw an object but disagrees is just as bad. If the Respect campaign is going to work the FA must not be shy in punishing Luton Town Football Club.

I received a text just before the end of the game from a Leeds fan saying he had sympathy for Luton’s plight and we often hear how it wasn’t the fans fault, so why should they be punished? The actions of a minority of their supporters yesterday, not to mention their behaviour at Valley Parade earlier in the season, leaves me waving them cheerfully goodbye on their route to the Blue Square – and I hope they take their dancing keeper with them.

But the focus of this report is on City and what a fantastic game of football, easily the best since that afternoon at Prenton Park in October 2004. They looked down and out at stages but showed tremendous character to keep coming back – character which needs to be bottled up and used during the second half of the season.

In keeping with the craziness of the afternoon, City have dropped from fourth to seventh while moving a point closer to second and first. There was much which didn’t make sense yesterday, but one thing I do know is that if City can reach the heights of their second half performance for the rest of the campaign they will be celebrating promotion come May.

Joe Colbeck is Barack Obama – Luton Town vs Bradford City – League Two Preview

I didn’t hear the snap of Joe Colbeck’s foot over at Grimsby and I could not tell who was down at first but I know he is coming back.

My mate Russ came back to City last year some time. He has been off in Siberia or somewhere and was not a massive follower of City anyway but we had a ticket free and along he came and during this game he looked out at City’s ginger right winger who became player of the season later that year but wasn’t then and he said “Is that that piece of [something] Colbeck.”

Russ was filled in with what had happened in his absence and that Colbeck was now considered to be something of a tidy player and I pointed out that some of us thought he was all along that day the lad had a stormer and all was good in the world.

So if during Russ’s absence Joe Colbeck went from popular boo boy to glorious hero what has happened during Colbeck’s break? Well he has become so important to City that you could be excused for mistaking him for a second coming.

Colbeck is great and everyone cannot wait for his return to Valley Parade and that surge of good feeling is important just as all the Obamamania is great just because it makes everyone so damn happy but unlike Barack Obama Colbeck faces a trip to Luton and a game with Bury before his inauguration [But who is to say the American political process would be worse if all candidates had a final hurdle of having to impress on a Tuesday night at Gigg Lane before being sworn in? – Ed]

Colbeck will probably be on bench duty for the Luton game and return for Bury on Tuesday night leaving Steve Jones to carry on his weird wing play where he never seems to do enough, tackle enough, get stuck in enough but seems to have played well at the end. The Burnley winger started his City career as Stevie, Jonesey or Jonesio and now is just Jones which says a lot about him. He flatters to deceive.

Jonesinho will play right wing to Omar Daley’s left and Paul McLaren, who used to play for Luton and feels some sympathy for them apparently, and Nicky Law will play in the middle. Now stay with me on this one but I think that Law should be dropped for Dean Furman who wins the ball better and winning the ball gives us more possession and that leads to more chances. I know Law has some of the same magic as Colbeck about him but tough calls have got to be made to get four or six points on the road before we get back to Drawey Parade and it is time for a change and that would be the one I make.

That said Lee Bullock might get back in the side. Why not? We won all the time when he was playing.

Paul Arnison, Graeme Lee, Matt Clarke and Luke O’Brien are a mean defence and Rhys Evans tends to look bored during most games so little has he to do so that end of the park is going well. Up front City need to give Chris O’Grady a try out.

Just kidding.

O’Grady is in the last week of his loan and it looks like Leeds are not going to be giving us tonnes of money so either the Oldham man will be going back to be one half of this scrap or Stuart McCall will confound us all by giving him a longer contract. Until that he is a not that important bench sitter.

Being fair to O’Grady he has hardly had a chance at City featuring off the bench for fifteen minutes at a time but then again Billy Topp never got a chance and that was cause he did knackers all in training to impress the boss. If the mark of a striker out the door at City is that they do nothing when coming off the bench Toppy style then O’Grady is not around for long and Stuart will be looking at signing a new loan player until the end of the season. In a way O’Grady has been the perfect replacement for Topp. The net effect of having him on the field is the same but he has none of the thrills of Toppy because he is not from Temuco City hes from Roverrum.

That or Rory Boulding will get a chance to do nothing from the bench, but probably not. The only player in the last few years to do anything from the bench is Barry Conlon who will probably be back to sitting on his backside to watch Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding. City’s strikers are my worry at the moment. All three of them score goals but at the moment I find myself lacking confidence that any of them will find the net.

It is not that logical I know cause only two years ago we had one source of goals in Deano Windass and nothing else but at the moment we are lacking the fox in the box who scores with every touch or we are lacking Peter Thorne firing on all cylinders.

Luton have zero points but should have thirty apparently. Either way they are a mid-table outfit who think that they have been hard done to and have great vengeance and furious anger which they aim at anyone who doesn’t feel they have been badly treated. If Leeds last season is anything to go by the slog to zero points will signal a general foot off the gas-ness and last week’s 5-1 drubbling by Darlington could have been just that. They have Lewis Emanuel, who I always liked as left back, but he is out injured.

It doesn’t matter anyway cause whoever is right back I hear will be torn apart by Joe Colbeck anyway, just for a change.

Watch the videos to see where Bradford City went right

I missed the Christmas games through illness and I was never likely to be able to make the Brentford trip. So at kick-off against Accrington I hadn’t seen City score a goal since Dagenham. I thought that was one of the best footballing goals we’d scored all season. And the Accrington goal was of similar quality.

I said after the Dagenham game that, despite all the possession and chances our opponents had, they could never have scored the goal that Michael Boulding finished off.

They were just not a good enough footballing side. Accrington were not as good as Dagenham, by a distance. I don’t think they would claim to be the best footballing side in this league. I hope I’m not doing them an injustice and, if they feel aggrieved, then I’m sorry.

But yet again City failed to win at home against a team that, whether you look at their style of play, their technical ability, their league record or any other reliable guide, ought to be beaten by serious promotion candidates. That Accrington joined the long list of teams who have come away from Valley Parade this season with a point (or three points in AFC Bournemouth’s case) was attributed after the game by our manager to too many players having an off day at the same time. I wondered if this collective ‘off day’ explained why I considered going home at half time, when I would have at least made it on time to meet my wife’s 5.35 arrival at Liverpool airport.

Within a few minutes of the restart I was glad I’d stayed, because this time it was Conlon’s turn to finish off another fine example of what City do better than virtually every team in this league. Another sweeping move, end to end, side to side, at pace, ball on the ground, with Nicky Law an essential component, brought the equaliser that should have given City every reason to say ‘That’s how you beat time-wasting, defensive-minded teams on your own pitch.’

Instead of repeating the medicine, City looked more and more like they’d found the cure and didn’t need to apply another dose. Possession was given away – and I do mean given – far too easily yet again. Any complaint about the wind making things difficult would most easily have been answered by looking at the goal we’d scored. The ball never got high enough for the wind to play any part in that brief glimpse of football worthy of a higher league.

Not for the first time this season, such excitement as there was came not from the players, but the referee and his assistants. I don’t go in for the ‘corruption’ theory of referees; I’m prepared to allow for the ‘bias’ theory, although most of the time I reckon it’s subconscious, at worst an unnecessary resolve not to be swayed by the unaccustomed size of the home crowd; as in many other areas of life, I prefer the cock-up theory to the conspiracy. That I can recall half a dozen quite dreadful decisions, going against both sides in fairly equal measure, supports my view that referees no longer understand the game. Sadly, that I can recall these crass mistakes rather than some moments of excitement from the team leaves me thinking about what is going wrong.

In the end I shot off as quickly as I could after the final whistle to make that airport pick-up. When Herself asked how the game had gone, she soon wished she hadn’t bothered. The depression that usually fades during the 75 mile trip back home hadn’t dimmed enough for me to create the façade of cheerfulness. Her account of a severely windswept landing couldn’t match the disappointment of wondering yet again what our promotion prospects really are if we don’t work hard against teams that are working hard; if we give away the ball and don’t fight hard enough to get it back; and if we don’t learn, not just from our mistakes, but from our achievements.

Yes, watch the videos to see where it went wrong. See how that wall disintegrated; see how often we pumped the ball up from back to front; see how little impact our wingers had; and see how many loose balls went to a hard-working opposition. But watch those goals against Dagenham and Accrington to see where it went right. See how, when we pass the ball along the ground, at pace and using the width of the pitch, we can outplay any team in this league and score quality goals. Remind ourselves what we achieved early in the season when our wide players frightened the opposition by running at them with the ball at their feet – and let’s hope that Joe Colbeck can return soon and reproduce the work rate and form he was in before his injury.

If we want to be convincing when we talk about a team worthy of promotion, let’s point to the best football we play and keep playing like that. No team plays like that for all ninety minutes, but, even when too many players are having an ‘off day’, the team will be forgiven if they display the one commodity that ought to be seen even in the fourth division – commitment. At our best, we are truly better than this league. When we’re not at our best, we need to work hard just to match most of our opponents. And no matter how good we may be at times, that work ethic should always be obvious, if only because a crowd loves a trier. A trier with ability is even more appreciated. Just ask Joe Colbeck. Equally, even the most able players will suffer the wrath of the crowd if they appear not to be working hard. No names, no pack drill, eh?

McCall needs to find the belief in basics

Bradford City circa 1999 had a trait rare in the club’s history and rare in football – they could win ugly.

Winning ugly – which is to say ended up with the three points in the sort of games that City are taking one from – is often the key to success. Manchester United did it on Saturday, Liverpool did not on Monday and on such differences are championships won.

The thirty-eight game Premiership with its longer rest periods and more significant – or perhaps just more well known – opponents is different from the cut and thrust of the lower leagues and in League Two the elusive crucial goal that makes the difference is less likely to come from a pre-knowledge of the opponents weakness or a tactical master stroke and more likely to be ground out by a consistency of high performance. In League Two the team that prospers is the team that plays well week in week out, that does the same things well week in week out, that can be relied upon week in week out.

In other words a team unlike City’s weak last half hour showing at the weekend which did little other than allow Accrington Stanley to glide through the second half of the second half relatively untroubled. While the Bantams were enjoying the lion’s share of the possession there seemed to be a feeling that other than shoving the ball in the direction of Omar Daley on the half way line there was not much of an understanding of what to do to cause the visitors problems.

All of which is troubling. This Bantams team are far from clueless and have – in the opening third of the season – known exactly how to win games. Recall the start of the season and the danger that came from cross after cross by Paul Arnison, Joe Colbeck, Daley, Paul McLaren and Paul Heckingbottom and then the gaps in the middle that could be exploited by Peter Thorne and Lee Bullock as opponents strengthened on the flanks through fear and suddenly what City are doing wrong now becomes all too apparent.

The Bantams have become one dimensional. Perhaps it is the battle of Barry Conlon which has led the players to believe that a long ball is not a wasted ball or perhaps it is the loss of Colbeck and – for a strange time – Arnison which has altered the way the Bantams perceive their abilities to bang the ball over but at the moment when the ball goes wide – and it does because the middle of every visiting side is thick with players – the results are all too predictable. Both Daley and Steve Jones favour running at players and low crosses and the best way for the opposition to defend this is to pile yet more men into the middle keeping full backs tight to the edge of the box.

Contrast this to Colbeck and Arnison both capable of whipping a ball in and a full back and winger having to go wide and stay wide to try stop them and one can see why Thorne and Boulding are finding goals hard to come by in the box – it is because space is hard to come by. This is not to say that City should only be crossing high but rather that we have allowed our entire arsenal to be reduced to a single trick of trying to beat men on the flanks and while that has worked with devastating effect it is too infrequent.

Stuart McCall has a level of basics that he needs to steer his City side back towards but his path is beset with bad advice and the chance to make poor decisions. Talk brews about Paul McLaren’s abilities but – as with Arnison – the best judge of the City number four is to look at the results since his return City have only a single loss – the last minute travesty at Brentford – and a tightening up at the back that as City’s most defensive minded midfielder he takes some credit for. The same could be said of Paul Arnison. Arnison has never been popular at City but simple facts show that the defence concedes fewer goals with him in it.

McCall must look to the basics of his team and what works well when done well because that is the way to win ugly in League Two. City need to get back to establish patterns – patterns of being able to cross from different angles in full-backs and wingers and to exploit the space that creates when defences are stretched – and settle on a group of players who can do that with consistency and belief.

City stumble as fingers are pointed – Bradford City 1 Accrington Stanley 1 Match Report

City stumbled through their 7th home draw of the season against lowly Accrington Stanley.

It was the kind of game and result that we have seen too often this season at Valley Parade and we all know might well prove very costly when the promotion run winds up at the end of the season.

Stanley took an early lead on 5 minutes when a free kick was awarded dead centre, 20 yards from goal. The City wall seemed to move out of the way of the ball that Ryan stuck thumping straight through and beyond Rhys Evans to put visitors ahead.

Then the referee and his officiating team proceeded in trying to ruin the game. City had at least three decent penalty shouts in the first half, all strongly turned away by Mr David Webb. The one that holds most strongly in the memory was approaching half time when the ball was drifting towards Boulding and a blatant left hand was stuck out by a Stanley defender to stop the course of the ball – and with Mr Webb 10 yards away he failed to see what 12,000 others did and waived play on which resulted in Boulding being denied by a save from close range.

Just to prove further his inept decision making skills (demonstrated at home to Bournemouth earlier this season) – Stanley were also victims early in the second half. A strong run by Paul Mulin looked to have him racing clear one on one with Evans. Matt Clarke shot back and made a very heavy challenge on Mulin to deny him a shot. It was such a strong challenge it was a borderline penalty – but Clarke did get the ball – it was an excellent tackle. But this good piece of play was interrupted by Webb who proceeded to book Mulin, seemingly for diving or simulation. Utterly astonishing. I have never felt the need to write to the FA regarding the standards of officiating (and that really is saying something given the standard seen at Valley Parade over the last decade) but Mr Webb’s performance on Saturday was so incomprehensible that I will be spending Sunday night drawing up a letter of complaint that I am sure would be backed by 12,000 others.

City drew level early in the second half thanks to an exciting and very strong run by Nicky Law who crossed from the right to leave Barry Conlon with a tap in at the far post to restore parity.

The equaliser should have proved the catalyst to set up a City victory – but, in truth, Stanley keeper was not tested nearly enough as the game drew to a disappointing close.

Not many City players came out of this game with much credit. Conlon did well to convert his chance, but was too often beaten aerially and failed to have much of an impact. The defence held fairly firm and they passed the ball among each other pretty well.

The midfield was full of also rans, Nicky Law withstanding. Steve Jones is an experienced pro who has good pace but fails to deliver an end product, cross or shot. Omar Daley played ok in patches, but wasn’t always the inspiration that we needed him to be. Paul McLaren seemed to take quite a few steps back in terms of performance level – after a few good games recently. He just didn’t influence the game. And one of his main strengths – set pieces – seem to be left to Nicky Law which I really cannot understand. If McLaren is not going to take dead balls then why is he in the team?

The signing and player that annoys me most at the moment is Chris O’Grady. Was he a panic buy? I cannot see what Stuart sees in him. Admittedly, I have only seen him in action for 30 minutes in a City shirt. But I have watched him closely in the warm up’s twice and he just doesn’t seem like he has anything special or talented to offer whatsoever. McCall revealed afterwards that O’Grady didn’t train on Friday due to illness. Then why play him on Saturday? He came on to absolutely no affect with enough time on the pitch to make an impact. Is he capable of making an impact? I really don’t think so.

The idea of a loan signing is to improve on the squad that we currently have but I honestly would rather give young Rory Boulding or Leon Osbourne a run out instead of this mis-fit. And stories about him not wanting to take a wage deferral during his at Rotherham really leaves a sour taste in the mouth – give someone else a chance. I am not one to ever jump on Stuart’s back over any signing – I have liked the vast majority of players he has brought and has faith in – but O’Grady playing and being given a chance at Bradford City really doesn’t make sense to me.

A glance at the other results from League Two on the day show all have slipped up apart from Darlington. It would have been a perfect time to grab three points and move up into equal second place. The rest of the promotion contenders in this League are all stuttering – all failing to break from the pack (with the slight exception of Wycombe) , which has ensured that the top three is still a realistic target.

However, many more displays at home like this and we surely cannot expect to stay where we are.

Hopes now are pinned on the return of the influential Colbeck and the long anticipated debut of the possibly crucial Chris Brandon. What is for sure is that we do need something extra in this team to ensure promotion this season. The key to any successful promotion push is winning your home games, especially those against “lesser opposition” – something that this current City team is not delivering on.

Fingers of blame are pointed at McCall and his management team, which does morale no good, but the frustrations are understandable. Stuart will be and should only be judged in May but in the next few crucial months lets hope he can find within his team that little bit extra that make ambitious and talented teams successful in the long run at winning games and grinding out three points when they are needed most.

The midfield cup runneth over – Bradford City vs Accrington Stanley – League Two Preview

Stuart McCall must look back to the start of December and find it hard to recall how he struggled when Tom Clarke was recalled by Huddersfield Town to find midfielders for his Bradford City team that bobbed along in the promotion hunt – never falling below the play-off, never being able to cement a top three place – with injuries and suspensions robbing him of that favoured phrase of the commentary “six first team midfielders”.

With the return of Joe Colbeck to the training squad – if not to the team – and Lee Bullock to contention then McCall could field a six man middle should he wish. Certainly with great form from Paul McLaren and Nicky Law Jnr the central two positions are covered and Bullock – along with Dean Furman – are sidelined. Steve Jones has not played since extending his loan deal at the club and is likely to start on the right hand side with Colbeck looking for a gap to return.

Omar Daley is set for the left side of midfield and behind him is Luke O’Brien who is not only becoming talked about as a player of the season candidate but is also developing a good relationship with Daley in front of him.

On the opposite side Paul Arnison will look forward to playing with the more thorough Colbeck than the attacking minded Jones while Graeme Lee, Matthew Clarke and Rhys Evans stand on a record of four consecutive clean sheets.

Looking to continue the last ten minutes at Accrington are the perm two from three of City’s strike force with Peter Thorne fit once more and Barry Conlon expected to step down. Michael Boulding will play alongside. Stuart McCall talked this week about the need to keep the number of strikers at the club down to a reasonable level and playing two up front leaves – in my estimation – five slots for players so as to avoid the demotivation of being too far from the first team. The main three City strikers are augmented by Chris O’Grady and Rory Boulding and it would seem that – unless he has an eye on a replacement for the loanee O’Grady – McCall has as many forwards as he wants.

He certainly has the firepower from those forwards should they be fed as evidenced by the last ten minutes at Accrington when Conlon, Thorne and M Boulding all added their names to the scoresheet to turn around the thought lost game. The onus is on the midfield – so full of options – to create chances.

The P comes before R

As the weekend’s game between City and Accrington comes closer into focus, a term likely to crop up on several occasions will be revenge.

Revenge for Stanley, who in October suffered from the most painful way of losing after what would have been an excellent victory over the Bantams was snatched from their grasp during the final minutes. Out fought and out thought, City came back from 2-0 down to win improbably after 88th and 89th minute strikes from Barry Conlon and Peter Thorne completed a comeback begun by Michael Boulding. It left home manager John Coleman cancelling a planned anniversary meal out with his wife and keeper Kenny Arthur revealing in a national football magazine earlier this month that it was, “an all-time low, the biggest kick in the teeth ever and I felt for a while I can’t do this anymore.”

Revenge too for City, who the October before went down 3-0 at home to Accrington in arguably the most depressing and dismal defeat of its modern history. It was 1-0 inside two minutes, 2-0 after 30 and 3-0 just past the interval. City were chasing shadows on route to a third loss of a five game sequence. The pain may have been far worse at Morecambe – the fifth defeat – a week later, but been humiliated at home by a team who not long ago were scrapping around in non-league obscurity was something of a fitting way for a club which had recently been part of the Premiership elite to hit rock bottom. Things didn’t get worse, though it’s admittedly difficult to imagine how they could have, but that autumn evening has retained a haunting presence as the club looks to go forward. In it’s own way, it’s a game as unlikely to be forgotten as beating Liverpool 1-0 to stay in the Premiership.

And in many ways that’s for the best. The manner in which the club had slumped since beating the Reds has largely been down to mismanagement of finances and the near-impossible struggle for stability, but its affects have included an ever-quickening decline in standards. Over recent years so many teams who shouldn’t be winning at Valley Parade have done precisely that and any aspirations of reversing the club’s fortunes has been undermined by weak and avoidable defeats. The Accrington embarrassment wasn’t a surprise, it was just another dismal episode for a club which has on occasions hidden behind the excuse of poor finances to deflect underachievement.

The next time City played at Valley Parade they drew 0-0 with Darlington and though there have been some disappointing home defeats since, the path of recovery finally began. Promotion may have proved beyond the club last season but building blocks were put in place. During this campaign we fear visiting teams will keep men behind the ball, time-waste even during the first half and cheer at earning a draw, but only one visiting team has so far executed a game plan which worked well enough to take the three points after 13 home games. Problems remain of course and some opposition sides, such as Barnet and Dagenham, have enjoyed too much of the game; but even when not at their best this City side has on many occasions demonstrated strong character and resilience to dig something from the game – just ask Accrington.

For this and much more manager Stuart McCall deserves credit for he has been able to shrug off the mediocre mentality and drive up standards at the club. A new contract offer is his just reward and though his desire to postpone such talks until later may leave some worried, his desire to put all his available energy into delivering promotion should not. News of Stuart’s new deal has predictably triggered another round of some fans complaining that his coaching staff are too inexperienced. The argument goes along the lines of Stuart needing an experienced number two for the decisions he isn’t strong enough to make, which is not so much naive but idiotic. If Stuart isn’t able to make tough decisions then Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes would be advised to tear up any contract offer they have begun drafting. They won’t need to because it’s not the case of course, just as much as to believe Stuart would tolerate weak coaching staff when so much of his energy and effort is being consumed by the goal of delivering promotion.

A quick glance at City’s starting line up from that October night shows just two are still first team regulars, which gives a strong indication of progress, but it won’t be the R word on Stuart’s mind come Saturday. City could thump Accrington 3-0, they could thump Accrington 10-0 for that matter, but any vengeance would feel hollow and short-lived, and anyway we need the three points to stay in the automatic promotion places and that’s what really matters.

Changing teams – AFC Bournemouth vs Bradford City preview

This game has been called off because of a frozen pitch.

A pitch inspection at 12:00 today will tell Stuart McCall, Bradford City’s players and the supporters if a trip to AFC Bournemouth will be needed this weekend and while weather on the South Coast is questionable City’s desire to put right the only home defeat of the season is not.

The Bantams were bested by Darren Anderton’s inspired display for the Cherries as they had new manager Jimmy Quinn installed. Since that day both Quinn and Anderton have left the club and with them seems to have gone the form that saw them win 3-1 that day. They have suffered three defeats in the last three games and previous to that were knocked out of the FA Cup by Blyth Spartans. Struggling with a deduction it is hard to see where the points will come from to keep them in the Football League.

All of which is demoralising and something that – when the game is played – City will hope ot take advantage of. The Bantams are looking more in race trim of late but with a 4-0 and three no score draws in the last four are obviously struggling to find the net. News that Peter Thorne is back in training is heartening as is the word that Joe Colbeck will play a reserve friendly game next week. Thorne’s finishing is always welcome but the added thrust from the flank that Colbeck added in games like the 4-1 defeat of Exeter has been missed and should the trip South be called off then Colbeck’s presence in the rearranged game could be significant. Certainly the team are more dangerous with the young winger in than with Steve Jones whom McCall is said to be signing from Burnley once his loan deal expires.

Thorne is not expected to return to the starting eleven – the hard pitch and a bad back being a poor combination – leaving Barry Conlon and Michael Boulding up front. Omar Daley and Steve Jones take the flanks alongside Paul McLaren and Nicky Law Jnr with Dean Furman cooling his heels. One must feel sorry for the impressive Furman who has much to suggest him for a place in the side however the form of McLaren and especially Law is such that McCall has to stick with them.

Also impressive in the run of four games without conceding is Matthew Clarke who continues to be underrated as a presence in the City side and has given the Bantams a commanding edge. Also underrated is Graeme Lee’s organsational abilities which while never getting to the level of the Master – Noel Blake – are certainly better than the majority of defenders who have worn claret and amber including the man who preceded him as skipper and central defender David Wetherall. Paul Arnison is rated by fewer than he should be put clean sheet for defensive players should be impressive and he will look forward to the return of Colbeck and renewing the combination they had developed. Luke O’Brien has come on a million miles from the day he was skinned by Gareth Grant at Farsley Celtic and is being talked about as a player of the season.

No one’s player of the season is Rhys Evans but in the last month the goalkeeper has found his bit shouting voice – something Gary Walsh had over Matt Clarke and the reason the former was a better keeper than the latter – and the defence looks all the better for it.

McCall’s reward of a new contract is armour for Lawn and Rhodes

As far as signals of intent go Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes offering Stuart McCall a new contract could not be clearer.

As far as statements of fact go Mark Lawn’s unequivocal comments on the club he has been at for eighteen months could not be truer

“Bradford City have had enough turmoil and non-stability at this club.”

Lawn, Rhodes and McCall will sit around a table this weekend and start talking about a new contract for the Gaffer that will improve his deal and give a seal of approval to his first year and a half as a manager and as manager at Bradford City. It is Lawn cutting dead the talk of if McCall The Boss will work out and declaring that it has worked out. It is Lawn saying to every Bradford City fan that Stuart McCall is the man to get behind to put a line under – once and for all – debates about his aptitude for the job.

Lawn is no one’s fool and in a typically Bradfordian way knows the value of a pound. He trust McCall to make good on the investment in Bradford City he has made and with good reason. McCall looked at Jon Shaw of Halifax on a free but would not match Rochdale’s £70,000 bid for him. Six months later McCall is getting the best out of Barry Conlon and Shaw – £70,000 and all – is being loaned out to Crawley. Oh but if every Bradford City manager had had such concern over the chairman’s money.

Anyone watching the Bantams this year should have noticed an improvement in the quality – if not the skill – of the football. Stuart McCall’s midfield controller Paul McLaren might not have the passing touch of Colin Todd’s Marc Bridge-Wilkinson (although some would say he does) but he certainly fits into a team with more ease.

The same is true all over the park. McCall’s players are on the whole less able than those who played in any of the teams since relegation from the Premiership but they play far better as a unit and have a greater team understanding. These talents – ascribed to McCall – are scalable and Lawn/Rhodes have recognised that.

Some may suggest that without midfield injuries Stuart McCall’s side would sit where Wycombe Wanderers do now – a debatable point if ever one was presented – but more importantly with the crippling treatment room McCall’s team maintained robust results which says much about how well embedded McCall’s ideas are within the club and the way the team plays. One of the more impressive wins on paper at least – 2-1 over Milton Keynes Dons was done with a rag-tag collection of players in the middle of the park.

McCall’s future at City – once contract is signed – can only be bright. With promotion this season not the deciding factor in his employment he has the security of not having to race for the finishing line at all costs during this transfer window and should the worst happen and the Bantams be lining up for more League Two next year then one doubts we would be less competitive. I believe that come May a top three place will be assured and McCall – like Paul Ince, Paul Simpson and Peter Taylor – will be being talked about as a manager for move up (Ince did – with little success) with this extended contract as armour to defend the man who has – along with Lawn – restored stability to the club.

Bully returns but faces long arm of the Law

After completing 90 minutes for the reserves tonight, City midfielder Lee Bullock should be back in contention for the first team’s trip to Bournemouth this Saturday – coincidently the last opponents he completed a full game against.

A week later he was stretchered off at Shrewsbury and though then-colleague TJ Moncur’s collapse on the pitch attracted the headlines that day, the long term absence of Bullock was felt harder. City have at times struggled to compensate for his loss in the middle with first Dean Furman coming in and taking time to settle before showing some form, only to be injured too and another loanee, Nicky Law, be drafted in. The Sheffield United man, at Valley Parade the season before, was able to find his feet quicker, but with team performances not always as good as results suggested the wait for Bullock to regain fitness appeared to carry increasing urgency.

Then, during the last few weeks, Law has found another level to his game producing two of the finest individual performances of a season where many have excelled. He was simply sensational against Morecambe, his superb goal towards the end capping a performance where he seemed to be all over the pitch instigating attacks and delivering some glorious passes. This level of performance continued against Shrewsbury, where Paul McLaren alongside him was a close rival for man of the match, and what were previously faint calls for Law’s loan spell to be extended became increasingly vocal. Today Stuart agreed a deal with the Blades for Nicky to stay until the summer at least.

Which leaves Bullock in particular facing an uncertain future. Out of contract at the end of the season, the 27-year-old has only managed 20 appearances for City since signing a year ago having suffered two serious injuries. In the early weeks of the season the qualities of Bullock – a regular starter – were the focus of debate from some fans in the way that Paul Arnison, McLaren, Matt Clarke and recently Steve Jones have been at differing times. A couple of trademark late surges into the box saw him deliver goals against Aldershot and Port Vale and, as the team began the season in excellent form, the degree of coincidence between his later absence through injury and some stuttering autumn results was questioned. Bullock may not be a headline-grabber, but he quietly performed an effective job for the team.

Now he finds not one, but two rivals for the midfield jersey alongside McLaren – Furman a little ahead of him in the recovery stakes having impressed when starting against Morecambe – and his chances of a regular run in the team during the remainder of the campaign appear to be decreasing. If Law can maintain his form he will be undroppable and, as McLaren continues to improve, a settled central midfield is increasingly the driving force behind City’s promotion bid. There may be opportunities still of course; the 4-3-3 formation which worked to a point against Morecambe would include room for Bullock or Furman. The rotten luck with injuries is unlikely to be over just yet either.

In many ways Bullock is a loser of the loan system which lower league clubs increasingly rely upon; though it shouldn’t be forgotten he was initially signed on such a temporary deal by City, pushing Paul Evans and Scott Phelan closer to the exit door. Another midfielder who might have hoped for a bigger chance this season, Luke Sharry, has been loaned out almost unnoticed. Playing in the Blue Square Premier for Barrow will be a great opportunity for the highly-rated teenager to gain some experience, though a quote from Barrow joint-manager Dave Bayliss says much about City’s predicament, “Their manager (Stuart McCall) is a bit reluctant to play young lads in his first team because of the pressure at such a big club.”

The pressure of ensuring City do not fail in the quest for achieving promotion this season, of course. The return of Bullock will aid that particular cause, though the team’s evolution in his absence means he is likely to become back-up for the Law.

The finishing, finishing touch – Bradford City 0 Shrewsbury Town 0 – League Two Match Report

Having suggested that City were lucky to beat his side 4-0 Morecambe manager Sammy McIlroy would have come away from Valley Parade after the 0-0 draw with Shrewsbury with the impression that the Bantams are strangers to fortune.

From start to finish the Bantams bested the visitors from Shropshire all over the field coming within an inch of the post from Barry Conlon’s fierce volley from taking three richly deserved points.

Alas Conlon’s volley on the half hour pinged back and Michael Boulding’s tidy sweep over the shoulder of keeper Luke Daniels proved too close to the custodian and was saved as City looked to cut through the Shrews with tidy, fast paced and inventive play.

The midfield central duo of Paul McLaren and Nicky Law Jnr were busy out of possession and commanding in it with Dean Furman benched and only able to watch a pair of middle men working together and working well. Omar Daley’s battle on the left wing with Darren Moss was the clash of the season thus far with Moss struggling to keep pace with Daley and Daley trying to burst past the right back. In the second half Moss and Daley clashed with the right back lucky not to be booked and Daley leaving an arm in on the defender which saw Stuart McCall fling him to the right hand side to cool down ended the fascinating clash.

Steve Jones on the alternative wing was less enthralling and looks something of a one trick pony. He is dangerous for sure but too often playing his own game leaving Paul Arnison with few options.

Arnison was a part of a flawless five man defence which has not conceded in the four games over Christmas. Graeme Lee was outstanding pocketing Grant Holt – who in typical Grant Holt tried to rip that pocket with kicks and studs – and making enough sturdy interceptions to remind one of David Wetherall at his best. Matt Clarke also get mentioned – the days of City being muscled out by big blokes is over – and Rhys Evans has engaged mouth and commands the back four superbly.

Luke O’Brien’s form has seen him inherit the title “Ohbee” from Andy and today should have been rewarded with a penalty for an enterprising surge past Omar Daley and into the box only to be shoved to the floor. Arnison – on the other side of the field – was left holding his face after an untidy jump saw him hit with a flailing arm. Conlon was lunged at after the ball, Boulding was upended. If these tackles has been in midfield they would have been free kicks. Referee Russel J Booth using the Wild West school of officialdom. Anything that keeps the game flowing is allowed and when Holt lunged through a defender then walked away waving a hand dismissively ignoring the Ref’s call over you had to wonder what happened to that whole “Respect” thing.

None of which is to take anything away from the Shrews who played a part in an exciting game but looked second best and but for a slice of that luck that Sammy McIlroy credits us with or the finish of a Peter Thorne – missing injured and seemingly replaceable – the Bantams would have won.

As it is City sit third again at the top of a pile of clubs who will be fighting out for the play offs and without putting too fine a point on it should the Bantams play as we did today and not go up then football is broken – play like this and we will go up – but the worry remains that despite possessing the leading striker in the division last season, one of the better ones this and Barry who never gives up City do not score enough goals – or rather we score them in gluts of fours and not odd ones and that the six home draws could have been wins with a deadlier finisher. Chris O’Grady held the ball after coming ensuring that the remaining fifteen minutes would be played in the Shrews half but is no one’s finisher.

Shrewsbury spent their lottery win on Holt and he was not able to nick the odd goal today. City look at events at Leeds with Delph and prepare a with and without shopping list looking for the thirty goal finisher who would thrive in a team that plays this well.

The finisher who would be the finishing touch.

O’Grady in the holding pattern of City history

Hands up, dear reader, if you recall Bradford City striker Kevin Wilson.

Wilson signed on loan for the Bantams in 1994 for a month just as Chris O’Grady has joined for a month from Oldham today and with a couple of games under his belt for Frank Stapleton’s side the ground he stood on shifted significantly.

That day, enter Geoffrey Richmond and the promise of £500,000 and soon after enter Lee Power. A month after signing Wilson left a much different club to the one he joined.

The Sun are reporting this morning that Manchester United will bid £10m for Leeds United’s former City kid Fabian Delph. Tipped off by his arrest Sir Ferguson wants tighter control on the talent and won’t leave him in the hands of Simon Grayson much longer and – courtesy of a 20% sell on clause – City could be £2m richer within the week, or the month, or within O’Grady’s time at the club.

All of which would leave the striker in a similar position to Wilson – at a club with suddenly heavy pockets and eyes for name players – unless the former Rotherham United striker can regain his form for the Millers and start scoring goals. His 13 in 51 games at Millmoor represents something like one in four. Up that rate and he could be sitting pretty at a club with cash to spend.

The first acid test – Bradford City vs Shrewsbury Town preview

Let’s put Sunday’s thumping 4-0 win over Morecambe into perspective – the last time the Bantams won a league game at Valley Parade more convincingly Benito Carbone was playing a starring role and David Wetherall, Wayne Jacobs and Stuart McCall were all important first team players.

The 5-1 thrashing of Gillingham on Friday 14 September was preceded by a rendition of stars and stripes, given it was just days after the 9/11 attacks. The vast majority of the 14,101 at the game that evening would probably have been struggled to competently answer what ‘Administration’ meant and around the pitch were adverts for something called ‘ITV Digital’.

Much has changed – at Valley Parade, in English football and across the wider world itself – and though City have played better on many occasions since, the emphatic success over Morecambe which signalled the end of 2008 deserved more appreciation and credit than it received from some quarters.

I must admit I didn’t enjoy the game as much as I should have, though the reason why was because of the spectators who sit near me. I suddenly seemed to have been lumbered with a ‘McCall out’ bunch of people far more interested in looking for fault on the pitch than offering praise. Another 90 minutes was spent berating everything Paul Arnison and Barry Conlon tried, as though they know what makes a good full back and target man better than the man paid to select them. Without fail the opening few minutes of the second half are spent screaming for a substitution to be made before another bout of criticising Stuart for not been able to change games. Booing when the ball is passed backwards, when minutes earlier they’d complained City play too much direct football. And though I was pleased when most left before the whistle I was also angry that these boo boys – many of who normally stay until the end – couldn’t bring themselves to wait for full time to offer the players and management their applause.

Of course it doesn’t matter, City won easily and the support around the rest of the ground was good I’m sure. The acid test when come in harder games when City won’t be able to dominate in the way many expect and will need the crowd’s support to earn the three points. The first of a series of promotion ‘six-pointer’ games at Valley Parade in 2009 sees Shrewsbury in town tomorrow for a game which, though we have only just passed the half way stage of the season, could prove significant when the table is finalised in May.

The Shrews, who let us not forget spent more money than anyone else during the summer, will arrive without a win on their travels since August 16 but very much in the promotion race because of a formidable home record – City one of their conquests. The majority of manager Paul Simpson’s budget went on Grant Holt and the £170k man has already netted 20 goals – 12 in the league. Other than midfielder Ben Davies, however, the rest of the team have struggled to find the net. They are sure to be provide tough test, though after recent weeks Stuart will probably be pleased to be facing opposition unlikely to keep men behind the ball and play for a draw.

In the home dressing room the evolution of a squad good enough to at least stay in the 3rd automatic promotion spot it currently resides is reaching a crucial phase with the January transfer window opening up. Willy Topp and TJ Moncur have departed, freeing up wages and while Dean Furman – impressive on his return against Morecambe on Sunday – is on board for the rest of the season question marks remain over other loanees Nicky Law and Steve Jones.

The latter seems set to stay for January at least, after which it would be questionable whether he will be needed given Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon should be fit, although rumours linking Omar Daley with a move away may make him worth hanging onto. Another striker is Stuart’s top target and with names like Andy Bishop, Chris O’Grady and Karl Hawley linked, not to mention a certain out of favour Hull forward, it’s a case of watching this space with interest.

For now Conlon and Michael Boulding will lead the line with Peter Thorne rested up to get over another niggling injury. The pair’s understanding was much-improved against Morecambe and, were it another player, Conlon’s delightful through ball to set Boulding on his way to 2-0 would have been drooled over. Like against Morecambe, there may be a third striker with Jones employed further up the park, the 4-3-3 formation working reasonably well but omitting Daley. A switch back to 4-4-2 would see one of Jones, Law, Furman and Paul McLaren moved out of midfield onto the bench to make way for the Jamaican. Such dilemmas will be welcomed by Stuart given the lack of options he had during November and December.

City’s defence has not been breached for 270 minutes of football which, given the amount of criticism they’ve endured from some fans, deserves much credit. Matt Clarke is a great example of why managers don’t simply “get rid” when performances dip, but shouldn’t be relaxing just yet. Graeme Lee has been outstanding lately while Arnison and Luke O’Brien continue to impress. Rhys Evans had little to do against Morecambe because of the form of those ahead of him.

The 23 points City have picked up at home so far this season may not be as impressive as the 28 the Shrews have recorded at New Meadow, but with only one defeat it’s mightily improved on recent seasons. Darlington and Wycombe are also due in the next few weeks and if a decent points haul can be achieved from these fixtures the prospect of promotion will move ever closer.

To do that everyone will need to be on their game and give it everything they’ve got, and that includes those supporters who seemingly want to indulge in petty criticism while ignoring the positives.

McCall’s resolution should be to claim an ebullience

Perhaps you could have had some sympathy with Sammy McIlroy when the Morecambe manager moaned “I’ve been in football a long time and I cannot believe that scoreline. I thought we played some fantastic stuff sometimes.”

His team had not shown signs of being liable for the stuffing they got and the former Manchester United winger’s plan to keep the goals down had been good enough for many other clubs who have frustrated at Valley Parade. McIlroy’s continuation was telling “Stuart McCall was man enough to admit to me afterwards that it was the wrong scoreline, though obviously it’s easier to say when you’ve come out on top.”

Across from McCall’s dug out at Valley Parade in the Midland Road stand four or five supporters spend most of the game grumbling about the City manager and seem affronted when his team starts to score. Post-Christmas football attracts all sorts and in this case it is a collection of agitators playing on a lingering notion that the Bantam’s manager is mis-firing. That City could be doing more, one assumes, although no one will say in what way, or how.

This vagueness of criticism is best illuminated in the comments levelled at Wayne Jacobs – McCall’s assistant – for not being able to “sort out” City defence (The one that has not conceded on 270 minutes). The comment is defined enough to sound expert to the naive but fuzzy enough to not require any analysis to make.

It is ludicrous and cowardly. Cowardly because the speakers are not man enough to comment on McCall for fear of going against his popularity, ludicrous because to assume that Jacobs is in charge of the defending at Valley Parade is no more sensible than to assume that Sir Alex, a midfielder sharp elbowed centre-forward in his day, leaves Mike Phelan to deal with Rio Ferdinand and concentrates on what Michael Carrick is up to when he is going forward.

Nevertheless as McIlroy’s comment signify McCall seems ready to allow the vagaries of criticism to swirl around him. He tells McIlroy that his Morecambe team did not deserve to be spanked but which of the four City goals was not well earned? Which of the chances that City defended should have gone in? When McIlroy says his team did not deserve to be beaten 4-0 it would be out of character and slightly obnoxious for McCall to tell his opposite that a team that puts four past someone without reply does not need to look at percentage on the ball stats and has clearly stuffed them like the festive turkey but it might be more useful in cementing the City manager’s reputation.

After all what is McIlroy doing other than protecting his reputation at McCall’s expense? Did Mark Wright come to McCall’s defence after the 0-0 draw with Chester and say how City had deserved the win? McCall’s tendency to allow grace for his defeated rivals is part of the character that makes him popular with City fans as a magnanimous player but as a manager a section of that support are hearing that every City win was a lucky one – even a 4-0 tonking – while every Bantams draw or defeat is a huge failure.

The Bantams sit in the top three of a tight division. We score from more sources than we have since the days of Lee Mills/Robbie Blake/Peter Beagrie and we play good football and when things click together as they did against Morecambe McCall should take a curtain call of celebration. He needs to be ebullient and tell those people who suggest that his team – or Wayne Jacobs’s part of it – is a shambles at the back that City are keeping clean sheets.

Because in a lack of ebullience from McCall the void is filled by managers like McIlroy casting the impression that City are drifting in luck and vague whispers.

McCall’s new year resolution should be to shout more and give less time for opportunists to steal his microphone.

Where now for Paul Jewell?

It all fit so well.

Paul Jewell would return to glory at Brian Clough’s first Championship club and the comparisons between the two strikers who retired early and inspired smaller teams to great things would be further cemented. Jewell’s exit came amid chants for his job from the Pride Park South Stand, admissions of contrition from the chairman Adam Pearson and Burton Albion – home of the actual successor to Clough – rising towards the Football League. Both East Midlands clubs are looking at the same manager.

Jewell has left Chris Hutchings in charge – again – and has suffered a significant dent in his reputation having taking on the Pride Park job with a remit not to keep the Rams in the Premiership but to launch a return the season after. The fact that he made such a poor fist of even attempting to stay in the top flight was put down to the players, the failure for a replaced squad to start a promotion campaign falls on Jewell – at least in the eyes of most.

Damning for Jewell were Pearson’s words on his exit – that he was a manager with a proven track record of getting teams out of the Championship – which risk ghettoising the former City and Wigan boss into the Neil Warnock position where he is trusted to get you to the big leagues but no further.

It is unlikely his next role will be at a club higher than the role he has just left leaving him looking at his record – something of a 2:4 with City and the Latics as successes and Sheffield Wednesday and Derby as failures – and hoping that if he is to be considered a promotion expert his next role does not tip the odds against him.

The former City boss is stuck between the limits of being a promotion specialist and the hardship of maintaining a positive role in modern football – even after keeping Wigan in the Premiership the grumbles had started at the Latics who wanted the club “moving to the next level”

Jewell’s next level seems frustratingly out of reach.

What kind of year has it been?

Statistics please me not, dear reader, so I have no record for you of how Bradford City have done this calendar year that ends with the Bantams beating Morecambe 4-0 at Valley Parade with goals by Paul McLaren, Michael Boulding, Nicky Law Jnr and Barry Conlon.

I could not tell you how many games have been won or lost or how many goals have gone in one end or another – I’m all about the mood, people – but I can tell you that the spectre of the common home defeat has been banished in 2008. Last time on this turf City were incapable of breaking down a defensive Chester City side while today the Bantams got the breakthrough that is so often needed against negative sides and went on to win the match.

That crucial first goal came when Barry Conlon jostled in the air with former Town man Danny Adams and all were looking at the Referee save Paul McLaren who wandered nonchalantly – showing a head as cool as the air that Conlon’s hands were still in – into the area with ball to poke past advancing keeper Barry Roche.

McLaren’s role at the back of any attack that had Conlon on the floor was a result of Stuart McCall’s 433 formation which – in turn – was a result of the combination of return to fitness of Dean Furman and the fact that, well, it just suited the opposition so well.

Morecambe’s plan was not unique – the close down City’s defenders and sit deep themselves – but it was countered with confidence from McCall who placed faith in the back four to have the ball played short to draw out the opposition and make gaps where they were none for the last few years in the sides who come to Valley Parade with two lines of defenders. This is a difference between the start of 2008 and the end in that Stuart McCall has devised this plan but the fact that it sees the player accused of “pissing about” is slightly curious. McCall’s teams play some lovely football at times but none of it comes from Rhys Evans putting his laces through it and hoping Barry Conlon can be under it.

Much of that lovely stuff, any plans and the options that saw Stuart capable of playing a three man midfield comes from the midfield’s return to fitness with Furman quickly back into the fray and McLaren now fully up to speed. Combined with Nicky Law – who is certainly worth bringing in if Sheffield United will allow him to leave during the transfer window – the three did not enjoy dominance but created the chances that made this win.

The stats will tell you that City and Morecambe had similar shot counts but as I say I do not do stats because they do not tell the difference between Conlon striking the bar and a throw your cap on it dribbler. Morecambe might be worried about having lost 4-0 and they might curse their luck that they had one cleared off the line at the end of the first half but spawn many great chances they did not and the fact that City’s creation was finished off is another curio of 2008.

Michael Boulding’s run to meet up the end of Barry Conlon’s intelligent take down and through ball deserved the kind of quality finish which the striker provided cooly putting over Roche’s shoulder as if he had the freedom of Valley Parade rather than a couple of bruisers from the Bay breathing down his neck.

On exit of Dean Windass – chased off to the Premiership – City spent 2007 without a scorer worthy or the name. Peter Thorne’s return to fitness has seen him bag an Indian Summer’s worth of goals and Boulding’s first half a season has seen him get ten goals while Barry Conlon had a half dozen. 2008 seems to have been the year when City’s strikers started scoring.

What good is scoring goals though, if your defence is a shambles? City’s defence is a shambles though – it must be cause I read it on the Internet – but it is also three games since we conceded a goal and as a rule we do tend to concede fewer than we score. One thing that has not changed in 2008 is the level of expectation which have gone over the border of ludicrous.

A third goal came from Nicky Law Jnr who drove forward with the ball and lobbed Roche from range and sealed the victory for City. A fourth came when Steve Jones tried to finish off a ball to the back post by Omar Daley – a late sub – and Danny Adams got his hand between ball and goal to lead to a penalty.

One thing that changed in 2008 was the addition of the word “Deliberate” to the handball law (Law 12 – Direct Free Kick). If Adams handled the ball to have a penalty given against him then he did it deliberately – otherwise the Referee should not give an offence against him – so he has to send the player off for deliberately stopping a shot from going into the net with his hands.

Barry Conlon slammed in the penalty and still had time to set up further chances for Daley and Jones erasing what had been a quiet first half for the Irishman and all departed the field in the knowledge of a job well done and probably a year well spent.

Stuart McCall looks at his squad – we have a chance of keeping Nicky Law but little of signing Furman, Steve Jones is not the fourth goalscorer the Bantams are looking for, Luke O’Brien stands up in the first team – and perhaps tinkers in the days leading up to the Shrewsbury game when the transfer window opens but the return of players like Joe Colbeck to fitness will allow the manager more of a palette.

For it was options – options to shape a team on a game by game basis – that brought about a good win at the end of 2008 and a good 2008.

Finding that something extra

The biggest worry for Bradford City manager Stuart McCall is that these are the sort of games promotion-earning sides win.

It’s not always pretty and a fair amount of luck is involved, the home side will play well and carve out some good chances which are either wasted or foiled by excellent defending. All that was missing for the Bantams was a late winner to turn one point into three. Instead a winless run stretches to five games and the chasing pack climbs that little bit closer.

Not that anyone should be panicking. This was a decent performance against a Lincoln side who have improved considerably since the last time they locked horns with City a year ago to the day. A recent come-back win against Accrington prompted manager Peter Jackson to revert to 4-4-2 and they matched City in most departments quickly closing down the ball and knocking it around confidently themselves.

Dany N’Guessan impressed on their right providing Luke O’Brien with a difficult afternoon where the defensive support from Omar Daley – who we’ll come back to – was lacking. The other three of City’s back four were outstanding with Matt Clarke continuing to rediscover form and Graeme Lee getting his head on almost every ball launched into the area. Paul Arnison had surely his best game in a Bantams shirt yet and was hugely impressive in shutting down the threat from Lincoln’s left and getting forward. With Rhys Evans also solid, home chances were limited.

Further up the pitch things were more patchy with Paul McLaren and Nicky Law involved in a hard-fought midfield battle which they just about edged. It doesn’t always look pretty and sometimes the simple ball must be played rather than the defence-splitting 40-yard pass some fans demanded, but both had good shifts. Steve Jones too was a menace on the right and his pace is blistering at times, though his final ball did sometimes disappoint.

As for Daley, it didn’t start well and got worse. We know the Jamaican is better than cutting inside and looking to pass the ball almost every time, instead of charging at the full back and enabling others the opportunity to get into the box. We know he is better than standing half-interested when the ball is been fought over just in front of him and may suddenly land at his feet. We know he is better than falling over easily and rolling on the ground long after the referee has dismissed his appeals for a foul and his team mates are having to deal with a Lincoln breakaway. Jackson had called upon the Premiership experience of Frank Sinclair to tame Daley and the former Chelsea man was the clear winner of a heated battle.

But still Daley was involved in much of City’s best moves. After ten minutes he’d burst thrilling into the area only to be seemingly tripped just as he rose his right leg to shoot, but referee Neil Swarbrick waved away the penalty appeals. Shortly afterwards Michael Boulding broke forward well and was pulled back inside the box, only to receive the same verdict from the Lancashire official. Boulding had done much to keep the scores level at that point having headed a Lincoln effort off the line and later dragging a shot wide. Law took free kick duties after Lee had been forced off for treatment and flashed a curling effort just wide.

In the second half Lincoln spurned two great opportunities with midfielder Lee Frecklington guilty of blasting over with an empty net the easier target and then forcing Evans into a stunning block. Boulding too should have done better after a superb charge forward by Jones saw the on-loan man whip a great cross onto his head. Rob Burch did well to tip his header onto the post, but a little more power from Boulding would surely have resulted in the net bulging.

With both sides looking even Stuart made changes to try and force the winner; Peter Thorne was brought on for a disappointing Barry Conlon and then Dean Furman – back from injury – for Boulding with Daley moved up front. Some of the physical presence was lost, although Daley saw a long range effort superbly tipped over by Burch. Daley was then involved with the game’s moment of controversy moments earlier after latching onto Burch’s weak clearance and charging through, only to be hauled down by a defender who appeared to be the last man but who got away with only a yellow card. Like last week City had a referee keen to let things go – Lee Beevers, who had already been booked in the first half, deserved a yellow card for a nasty high challenge on Jones just after the break – but the hope was, like when City had been on the wrong end of a similar incident against the MK Dons last month – the resulting free kick from Lee would sail in. Instead it smacked against the wall and the chance was wasted, it was that sort of afternoon.

As with last week’s blank against Chester, a goal could easily have come but just as the defence seems to looking stronger the attack isn’t looking as sharp. Boulding was a willing runner, but Conlon needs to show more and was once again caught offside and gave away free kicks too often. It doesn’t currently look a good strike partnership, but then it did earlier in the season. Thorne is certain to start against Morecambe on Sunday – Stuart rotating his strikers with two games in three days – and a return to goalscoring form for City’s top scorer is badly needed.

The problem for Stuart is the lack of options he currently has. Daley was poor but it would have been mad to haul off a player who can be such a threat even when not on top form – a Chris Brandon or Joe Colbeck waiting on the bench and the situation is different. Kyle Nix can play out wide but doesn’t have the pace which is needed on the break in tight away games such as this. It will also be interesting to see if Stuart succeeds with his plan to capture a fourth striker and what sort of different option they will present. Jones can play up front and, with him playing so well right now, a permanent move could give the City boss those additional options. Such thoughts will occupy his mind with the January transfer window due to re-open next week.

For some supporters, debates about his own capabilities seem to be all the rage. Astonishingly the final whistle was met with a smattering of boos from some City fans and I had the ‘pleasure’ of listening to one supporter rant that “he has to go”. Go online and you’ll find some fans argue we should sack him and appoint Jackson. No, there’s no punchline to follow – they are being serious. No doubt such arguments will continue but it should be remembered it’s very much a minority making a disproportionate amount of noise.

This was a disappointing result and slightly disappointing performance, but the game itself was great to watch and the atmosphere largely fantastic. I’m tired of people spoiling games by booing and screaming abuse and I’m tired of these people having more of a say over how this club should progress than they deserve.

The half way point of the season will be reached after Sunday’s game and City should end 2008 in a great position to make 2009 its year. Finding that extra is the immediate challenge and Stuart will look for the answers in January – from both the transfer market and the treatment room.

Barry signs up and the boos go quieter

“More hoof ball to look forward to!”, “I’m amazed we kept him for his hold up play”, “Waste of money and results won’t improve due to his presence”, “My nose runs faster than he does”, “What sickens me too, is the fact that some of my hard earned money goes towards his wage bill”, “That’s all I hope for, an injury that would rule him out for the rest of the season.” Just some of the early comments posted by Bradford City fans on the Telegraph & Argus’ website after Barry Conlon revealed he was ready to sign the new contract offered to him for the rest of the season.

Barry is the type of player who will never be universally liked at this club. He can look ungainly, miss easy chances and launching balls up to him to win and hold up is never going to result in a 100% successful ratio. Yet it is to Conlon’s credit that the number of people who think he’s not good enough to play for this football club has drastically decreased; not just during the last few weeks when he has enjoyed his best run of form and goals in a City shirt, but since the day his signing was announced to underwhelmed supporters.

Barry was Stuart’s first signing as manager and as he and Peter Thorne drove up to the club they reflected on the more illustrious names of Carbone, Petrescu and Collymore who were signing Bradford City-headed contracts not so long ago. Conlon was known to some City fans, a preverbal lower league player with as many clubs as hot dinners; he’d played at Valley Parade for Barnsley in October 2004 and his goals could be seen on local news when York City were in the Football League. A quick glance at his career record hinted that another Non Scoring Forward (NSF) was on board to frustrate us all and, when he woefully missed a headed chance in a debut friendly appearance at Harrogate it was already enough for some to question Stuart’s judgement.

There was nothing in those first two months of competitive action to suggest anything different. He missed a penalty on his debut and, though he started the first few games, he looked slow and clumsy. Guylian Ndumbu-Nsungu was looking better alongside him and there was Thorne recovering from injury. A promotion challenge would not be achieved with the number 9 in the starting eleven it was felt.

Then he started at Morecambe during that dreadful autumn run of form and looked outstanding, holding the ball up effectively and bringing others into play. He carried that on in the next match against Darlington, though easy chances were spurned. He was less impressive at Grimsby the following week but still kept his place for the Brentford game. When he missed two easy chances in a matter of minutes, with City trailing 2-0, the boos rang down and Stuart took the sensible option of quickly subbing him. The team improved without him over the next few weeks and other League Two clubs came in offering loan deals. He was allowed to go, but opted to fight for his place.

There have been others at City with apparently more skill and ability who have not possessed such mental strength to cope with problems, but Conlon showed he carried bucket loads of it with a stoppage time winner against Lincoln on Boxing Day – his first City goal from open play – and then a good run in the team where his partnership with Thorne blossomed. During away games at least, Conlon was a cult hero with “Barry Barry” regularly chanted. Others kept their arms folded, frowned and thought it was all a joke to show him any support. A missed penalty at home to Dagenham, despite the fact he’d scored his last three spot kicks, meant the knives were out and he was on borrowed time.

But Stuart kept him on during the summer and though his popularity sunk to new depths when he was harshly singled out as scapegoat for the Huddersfield debacle (he was terrible that night, in fairness) some took to booing him when he came on as sub. That manifested itself most publicly at home to Luton when he came on at 0-0, yet with his first touch he’d put the ball in the net and another upturn in form followed. This time, the goals came too and Conlon took the mantle as the main man for scoring during autumn as City kept pace with the early runners. With Michael Boulding also on board, competition for places is fierce, but there never seemed any doubt Conlon would be offered another six months – and an increasingly number of people feel he deserves it.

Conlon is not going to go down as an all-time City great and there will be some who will stubbornly hold onto their views that he is ‘garbage’ long after he’s departed, but the fact he’s won over so many – including his manager – is testament to work rate and commitment. Imagine if other recent players at Valley Parade, with twice the ability, had possessed such desire to play for this club, would we be in League Two right now? Barry said on signing until the summer, “There were a few sniffs here and there but it was Bradford City all the way for me. I had no doubts at all. I just feel at home. I love being around the place, the lads are a great bunch and there’s no way I wanted to leave.”

The biggest question with Barry has always been his consistency. If he could sustain the sort of form he showed in October and November over a full season he would have played at a higher level for longer. It’s partly because of this that he has only been offered short-term deals and, if City gain promotion this season, he is likely to become surplus to requirements. Nevertheless he will find no shortage of clubs willing to take him on, with a lot of their fans no doubt taking an instant disliking to him and dubbing him a “pub footballer.” Yet when he does eventually go he will leave with the best wishes of a significant proportion of City fans because he gave everything he had and proven a lot of us wrong.

Why is the Refereeing that saw Adebayor sent off not applied at Valley Parade when Bradford City play Chester?

The inevitability of a stern defence when Arsenal get a man sent off is only matched by the unease at which Emmanuel Adebayor uses a topical reference to knife crime in his paper thin defence of the challange which strode in with a dangerous foot and followed with a reckless arm and saw him sent off on Sunday in the game against Liverpool.

The Togo forward suggests that the Liverpool player was play acting – he may not have been as hurt as he made out – but that is the jurisdiction of the Referee Howard Webb and not something that should influence the correct decision to send off for a challange which was at best reckless and at worst dangerous. One has to wonder if he would be happy to have the two dozen or so challenges a forward takes during the average game to be in the style he used.

However Adebayor’s defence – that his aggression should not be penalised by Referee Howard Webb – would be strengthened were he not to make light of fatalities but to point the media who were so quick to give him a platform to a video of Bradford City vs Chester City on Saturday.

In that game – which is played under the same rules of football that Adebayor was sent off under – Referee Andy Haines was able to turn a blind eye to a similarly reckless challenge by Damien Mozika which left Paul McLaren holding his face having been on the wrong end of an arm above the neck. Haines watched Mozika’s put in two footed lunges from distance as Chester – under the guidance of not the brightest manager in football – used what can only be described as rough-housing to grind out a scoreless draw at Valley Parade.

For the record I thought Chester were a loathsome team who would have to take sportsmanship lessons in order to qualify as a team of shits but my opinion is not important in this – Andy Haines’ is.

Haines saw nothing wrong in Mark Hughes, Anthony Barry and Mozika sliding in with two feet raised on defenders clearing the ball nor did he view the aggressive tackling of the visiting side in the same as Howard Webb viewed Adebayor’s tackle. Within twenty minutes of the start of the League Two game on Saturday Webb would have had no fewer than six occasions to pull out his yellow card judging by the standard he showed on Sunday and – one assumes – were Haines to be “trusted” with Arsenal vs Liverpool then Adebayor would not have been booked for his over the ball lunge with following arm and that sort of tackle would have been common place.

My point is not that Chester City were an overtly aggressive team or a dirty team but that one of Andy Haines and Howard Webb must have used a different set of rules to govern games in the same sport. Either one is allowed to tackle in the Adebayor/Mozika manner or you are not – the rules of football make no distinction on the type or level of game being played.

Arsenal vs Liverpool was an entertaining and flowing game while Bradford City vs Chester City a was muscle match where play was broken up frequently. Had Webb Refereed Saturday’s game then would it have been different? Had Hughes’s first two footed block been seen as dangerous play and got him a yellow or Mozika’s raised arm have received the same punishment as Adebayor’s then would we had a more flowing, better game of football? Considering that the visitors employed those tactics to avoid that it is hard to argue we would not.

Arsenal, Chester City, Liverpool, Bradford City. We all go into matches on the understanding that we are playing under the same set of rules yet clearly at the weekend that was not the case. What is a foul and a yellow card in the Premiership should also be in League Two – end of story.

When it is not you get dour, negative, aggressive sides like Mark Wright’s Chester City taking a lap of honour when they spoilt their way to a point.

A bad day at the office

Straight after witnessing Bradford City’s 1-1 draw with Dagenham a fortnight ago I watched Manchester United overcome Sunderland 1-0 on Setanta. After Nemanja Vidic struck a 94th minute winner for the Champions, the co-commentator described it as a “victory for football”. I thought it was perhaps a harsh statement to make after Sunderland had done its best to gain an unlikely point by setting out the stall to defend for it.

As the ball fell to Graeme Lee six yards out from goal in the 4th minute of stoppage time yesterday, I was ready to utter similar thoughts if the back of the net had been found. Instead Chester keeper Jon Darby was the unjustified hero by making a miracle block with his legs to keep the score 0-0. No one exemplified the visitors’ negative, time-wasting style more than a man who took an age pondering and taking his goal kicks. His save was less a victory for football, more one for pushing 12,000 supporters to the limit.

Of course Chester, like Sunderland, is entitled to take whatever approach it likes. The Bantams may not be Man United but is the biggest club in the division and currently sits joint second in it. For a side who’s start to the season was bad enough to prompt a managerial change and who will end it grateful that Football League punishments administered to others left it largely free of relegation troubles, this draw will be considered a bright spot. At the final whistle cheers could be heard from their hearty followers and some players punched the air in delight. Home fans booed off their team but if this was bad at least we’ve not stooped to such depths as considering a 0-0 away draw to be a proud achievement.

But after many of us have let out our frustrations to friends or online over the weekend and we begin to calm down, it should be agreed that booing our players off was grossly unfair. Yes, City did not play brilliantly. They lacked the guile and craftiness to break down a side who, it should be noted, defended extremely well. They didn’t make Darby work hard enough and, just occasionally, the level of desire from some was questionable. Yet they huffed and puffed and battled to the end and though it leaves some question marks over their ability to gain promotion this season, they are hardly major ones.

City began the match with a good tempo and took the game to the visitors. Paul McLaren and Nicky Law were busy in the middle, Steve Jones was a threat with his pace on the right. Luke O’Brien was again in confident mood, tackling well and effectively getting forward. City varied the approach between working the ball out wide for crossing opportunities and balls up to Barry Conlon – preferred to Peter Thorne – to flick onto others. With a new contract waiting to be signed, Conlon might consider he’s achieved much this season. However he endured a frustrating afternoon where his partnership with Michael Boulding didn’t quite click, to serve as a reminder why short-term deals are being offered instead of longer ones.

Omar Daley too was off the pace, though having only just returned from injury there is perhaps a degree of explanation. Twice in the opening 20 minutes he received the ball in excellent positions to set up attacks, but twice his pass was uncharacteristically poor and the move broke down. A familiar theme for the day.

As the first half progressed it became more obvious the visitors liked the fact it was 0-0. They took their time over every throw-in and goal kick and, on a few occasions, kicked the ball away when play was stopped to slow things down further. All of this was aimed at hindering City’s ability to build up attacking momentum and keep the game scrappy. Kevin Ellison went close three times, but two of them were wildly-ambitious long range efforts from just inside the Bantams’ half. It was notable that for both he was the furthest Chester player forward and, when City attacked, a sea of blue-and-white shirts stood between them and Danby.

Ellison did create one major scare when the ball was played through to him out wide with O’Brien caught up the pitch. The balding wideman had a clear route to goal and set off with great pace, but just as he was about to fire the ball past Rhys Evans he was superbly tackled by Matt Clarke. It was a brilliant recovery from the much-maligned defender and, for all the merits of dropping him for Mark Bower which others talk up, no other City defender has the pace to have got back like that. Clarke may have struggled with the conditions at times – he was not the only one – and still needs to watch his concentration, but this was a performance more like the Clarke of early season. Something to build on.

The second half continued much like the first with City probing but struggling to break down a spirited Chester rearguard. There are comparisons to be made to how Luton played at Valley Parade in October. Stuart again tried to combat it by getting Evans to take short goal kicks to the back four, who had plenty of space, in an effort to encourage Chester forwards to push out and close them down, resulting in space being created further up the park. It worked to a certain degree but was often wasted by long balls towards Conlon instead of passing into midfield. Predictable and, with the Irishman not at his best, defendable. However as the game progressed Chester forwards began to close down the defenders on goal kicks more often and the chance to take advantage was there.

But there lied City’s biggest failing of the afternoon. The ball was often worked well out wide to Jones and Law – Daley taking a more central attacking role in an effort to break the deadlock – but wasn’t crossed in quickly enough and they were quickly closed down. On occasions crosses were made there was a lack of City players in the penalty area to aim for. Perhaps understandable with the threat of a Chester break, but more of a gamble could have paid off especially as visitors’ clearances became more panicky in the closing stages. Late surges into the box are very much Lee Bullock’s game.

Stuart too could have gambled by throwing on another striker with top scorer Thorne sat in the dugout and fans chanting his name. However it’s worth noting that creating chances – not putting them away – was the issue and Thorne’s strength is the latter. Stuart McCall also revealed Thorne wasn’t fully fit and didn’t want to risk him.

Some chances were created, with shots by Jones and Daley blocked by Darnby. At the end there was a scramble in the penalty area, with City players stabbing the ball towards goal and Chester players desperately throwing themselves in front of it. Unkind it may be, but a comparison with a non-league club defending for their lives in an FA Cup tie could easily be drawn. They held out and City at least climb to 4th despite clearly dropping two points. Chester won’t be the last to take such a negative approach and it’s something which needs to be overcome.

On another day City could have easily won and, as Stuart said after the game, claims players didn’t try enough are “a load of tosh”. Perhaps the biggest disappointment was how much the frustration got the better of the crowd. What a contrast to Bury at home, who themselves played for a draw and kept men behind the ball. On that night everyone stayed behind the team and helped them overcome the Shakers’ resistance.

When reflecting on a disappointing performance, it’s perhaps worth questioning whether we should have been booing ourselves.

The decision on City comes at Christmas – Bradford City vs Chester City Preview

Recall this time last year – dear reader – and remember the questions about Stuart McCall and his team which had broken out of a losing run that would put Paul Ince to shame but were a long way from impressing with a scrappy team culled together from free transfers and loan players showing few signs of becoming a capable side.

Peter Thorne was a malingerer, Willy Topp the great hope and Joe Colbeck a guy you send out on loan. How times have changed and how last year’s festive period changed them.

The Boxing Day 2-1 win over Lincoln City – Barry Conlon scuffing the winner in the last minute – built on a good performance in the rain at Chesterfield – and showed a City team with Omar Daley starting to find form and Colbeck energised that could compete with the spirited teams in the division.

A Referee cost City in the 3-1 defeat to Hereford but the impressive display cemented the feeling that City could now start a run for bigger and better things which has continued to this day. In the last 365 days the Bantams have not been as lowly as we were at the start of December 2007.

So a year on and the Bantams – unarguably in a better position – face similar questions and have a similar need for a thrust of improvement although while twelve months ago the impetuous was to move away from mid-table and relegation to flirtatious play-off lower reaches now it is impressed upon Stuart McCall and his charges that with more than the play-off team what is Bradford City will be a promotion side.

Such comments are – in the opinion of this writer – unduly harsh on a Bantams side that has suffered at the hands of footballing fatalism more than most this season. Not a team in the land could survive the loss of the entire midfield and two replacements: Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren, Lee Bullock, Dean Furman, Omar Daley and Joe Colbeck have been simultaneously out of action; without a dip in results and while some suggest that Stuart McCall’s inability to have his team hang into the top three places on a weekly basis is a criticism of the manager I would suggest that it is credit to him.

The injury situation at City should have crippled the team – Steve Jones, Nicky Law Jnr, Tom Clarke and Kyle Nix is no one’s dream midfield – but each week the Gaffer has sent out a team that while bettered was never battered and the kind of excuses that formed under the likes of Jim Jefferies were never allowed to take route. McCall’s nemesis spent much of the Premiership talking about injuries to David Wetherall and Andrew O’Brien yet Stuart’s red cross list has been worse and concentrated in an area of the field position but never been allowed to become a self-perpetuating reason for defeat.

The jury – one could say – is out on McCall but one suspects in modern football the jury never returns – or only does so retroactively as it did on Paul Jewell who like McCall build a side with character that competed but was criticised for being commensurate rather than dominant. I would suggest that the improvement of the last year suggests that McCall is performing well and that if someone were to try ascribe this to the injection of funds in the summer as a suggestion that anyone could perform as well give the cash I would point them to 17th place Manchester City. Resources are only useful once marshal and marshalling of resources are perhaps best seen in the fullness of a season – injuries and all.

The midfield of woe is returning to fitness with Lee Bullock and Dean Furman both playing forty five minutes in the reserves. Both are looking at this weekend’s game with Chester as a way back before the Christmas break and one may suspect that McCall will give them the same type of “a half each” run out for the first team as they received on Tuesday afternoon for the stiffs. Doing so would allow Paul McLaren to retain his place and let Nicky Law Jnr shift right to the flank which he delivered such a sweet ball to Michael Boulding from last time at Valley Parade. Omar Daley’s return on the left last week at Brentford shows how important he has become to the team – a contrast to fifteen months ago and a change he credits McCall with.

McCall though credits Daley, Colbeck and his attacking three of Peter Thorne, Michael Boulding and Barry Conlon as being his entertainers and driving his City team on this term. He looks for another forward in the transfer window – reports that he was interested in Chesterfield’s out of contract Jamie Ward would seem to be wishful now Jewell’s Derby are interested – and sees strong attacking as the way forward. Thorne and Boulding are expected to start against Chester.

With this Keegan-esque mindset the defence that causes problems to some would seem to be less of an issue to the manager. Paul Arnison’s long awaited return for TJ Moncur should see the more attacking – or at least better crossing – full back in opposite Luke O’Brien who continues to perform well at left back. Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke – along with keeper Rhys Evans – will look on the McCall’s philosophy with the attitude that they aim if not for clean sheets then for one fewer concession than the other team and while statistics suggest that they could improve the Dagenham game showed that while it conceded in a mistake the back line did not buckle under the pressure.

Pressure that is not expected to be as great against a Chester City side who have scored only nine on the road this season and will no doubt end the season thankful of the deductions other clubs have suffered. A win over Chester precedes another Boxing Day game with Lincoln, a home tie with Morecambe and the visit of Shrewsbury. All tough in their own ways but all winnable for the Bantams who recall players to fitness and look to the sturdy first half of the season to set up a run for promotion in the second.

The decision on City – and most probably on Stuart McCall the manager – comes this Christmas.

The mid-point report questions the defence

As we approach the mid point of our season and the turn of the year heralding the opening of the transfer window, it might be a good idea to look at the story so far…..

Things are beginning to sort themselves out just a little bit. The top 10 teams are, well, the top 10 teams.

Wycombe are clear with a game in hand but the chasing bunch are pretty fluid. City are established in the top seven, which is good, but not in the top 3, which is not so good.

Stuart’s determination to bring in a first team striker is great news. A replacement for Willy Topp who, even his biggest fans should admit, wasn’t going to be a regular first team frontman this season.

We should get a player who is not just competition for Thorne, Boulding and Conlon but could fit seamlessly into the side if one or more of them is injured.

The goals should then keep flowing.

In midfield we should finally have everybody fit. competition right across the park can only be a good thing and, when you throw Furman (and possibly Law) into the mix as well, it will be really intriguing to see who become the regulars. Each fan probably names a different midfield four.

Now to the back four. Their school report would read “must try harder” as, a quick look at the top seven’s goals against reveals. We’ve conceded quite few more than the rest and this has definitely cost us points… games drawn we should have won and defeats which should have been draws.

To me personally this is the most mystifying fact – that the defence isn’t as solid as it should be. Our assistant manager Wayne Jacobs is a former premiership experienced fullback and our chief coach David Wetherall a Premiership experienced central defender. Between them they should have been able to sort out the current back four or, if they thought any player/players weren’t up to the task we should have got someone else in by now probably on loan at first to have a look at them.

Just a quick word about the keeper Rhys Evans. He is solid if not spectacular he’s made few mistakes and pulled off some great stops. while I had my doubts when he came in he’s certainly got me convinced.

To sum up, I can’t do better than echo John Hendrie’s comment of a few weeks ago that City are currently a top seven side but if we can tighten up the defence on a permanent basis a top three berth is there for the taking.

Just a quick word to those few people I’ve already heard in their darker moments saying “Well, I’d settle for the playoffs”. What rubbish! No team in the top half should be settling for a playoff position now or any time soon!

Only if – perish the thought! – it eventually becomes mathematically impossible to finish in the top 3 should any fan be even talking about the playoffs and the lottery they entail.

Good, but…

For sure we have being good this season, but to ultimately succeed we may need to be better.

Bradford City kicked off the season as promotion favourites and started in exhilarating fashion. Performances then stuttered as autumn leaves began falling but improved after the clocks turned back. In recent weeks results have been better than performances but surely the former won’t continue unless the latter improves.

For sure we have a good team, but one we hope can be better. Goals have been plentiful though we seem to have the usual City jinx of only one striker consistently scoring at a time. Early season Peter Thorne couldn’t miss and then Barry Conlon took over the mantle as the regular scorer. Now it’s Michael Boulding with four in four games and though there are concerns over how long it is since Thorne last scored – Barnet home – it shouldn’t be forgotten that was also the last time Conlon netted from open play. Get two of the three in a run of form at the same time and surely City will climb up the league.

For sure we’ve improved defensively and in the middle of the park in recent games, but we still need to be better. Some have tried to blame all the defensive shortcomings on TJ Moncur and Matt Clarke and have at least had half their wish – Paul Arnison reinstated ahead of Moncur – granted. Clarke isn’t playing as badly as some tell us but needs to maintain a higher level of concentration and rediscover confidence, otherwise his run in the team will come to an end. We saw a dip in form from Graeme Lee which he has recovered from and Stuart will be hoping Clarke can too. Meanwhile in midfield Paul McLaren is winning over the doubters and we wait for four injured players to come back and provide stronger competition for those alongside him.

For sure Stuart McCall has done well as manager this season, but we still hope he can be better. Every poor result has been greeted by a blast of criticism from some fans and much of it is as unjustified as it is ludicrous. Go online to the and you’ll be able to read serious debates about whether we should sack Stuart if promotion is not achieved this season and you begin to wonder whether some believe we’re the Real Madrid of League Two. We don’t have a god-given right to get promoted and debating Stuart’s future now is as pointless as it could be a hindrance.

Not that Stuart has been flawless. It is worrying to watch your team outplayed at home by opposition adopting crude long ball tactics, as we saw against Dagenham last week, and it’s hard to shake off the feeling City were there for the taking and Stuart did not know how to prevent it. There’s seemingly being a reluctance to change around a defence which has made too many mistakes.Rightly or wrongly there’s a lack of confidence that Stuart possesses the ability to address problem areas during games, though sometimes doing so increases the risk of making mistakes and receiving more criticism.

Yet for sure City’s support this season has being good, but could be much better. We can get a cracking atmosphere going home and away but invariably only when things are going well. When they’re not to many people adopt a negative mindset and look for fault. Straight after listening to the Brentford defeat I visited the club’s official message board. The first two posts I read were to blame Clarke and then Stuart for the loss and I was left wondering how people can be so quick to criticise when it’s not even backed up by having seen the game.

Even when City are doing well many fans are guilty of sitting in silence or still finding fault. Blind faith may be both unrealistic and undesirable but there is no justification for exaggerating failures. Against Dagenham the team struggled but received some great backing from the crowd in the second half which helped inspire them into the lead, but as soon as it was lost the noise level dropped and boos were soon filling the air. We wouldn’t expect players to stop making effort and letting things get them down during adversity, so why do we act this way ourselves?

What’s the solution? City have three winnable looking fixtures to end 2008 with and a good points haul is vital to push clear of the pack. Much has been made of the fact we’ve lost to four of the top eight on our travels, but they have all to visit Valley Parade in the New Year, a venue from which the other three top eight sides – Rochdale, Exeter and Bury – have all returned pointless. Indeed home games in 2009 appear to be a fascinating mixture of promotion six-pointers and teams near the bottom of the table. Our record of only one home defeat will probably get worse, but come May we should still be looking at our best home points tally in years.

Injuries will all have cleared up as we get into January and the prospect of a bulkier squad battling for starting places should guarantee those who make it do so because they truly deserve it. With Stuart in the market for a new striker the goals should continue to flow. Lee Bullock back in midfield will also do much for the defence and though Nicky Law and Steve Jones may be bidding farewell it’s not unrealistic to expect Dean Furman and TJ Moncur to stay on, possibly even permanently.

What of Stuart? Before the Brentford game an Omar Daley interview was played on the radio where he praised his manager for improving his confidence and helping him discover top form. Remember Barnet home last season where the Jamaican was subbed at half time following a poor performance which attracted heavy abuse? Stuart stood by him at his lowest ebb and has coached Daley into the player he’s always threatened to be. This is just one example which shows Stuart is a manager of patience willing to work with players rather than follow the supporters’ cry of ‘get rid’. If Clarke plays as many games in the second half of the season as he has in the first it is likely to be because the management stood by and saw him improve through this rough patch.

Stuart is accused of playing too direct, not having a ‘plan B’ and the crime that has apparently befallen every City manager in history – not bringing his subs on soon enough. But as he keeps learning from mistakes while still guiding City forward we should remember he’s still a rookie manager doing a good job. Better? Of course in time, and we should not underestimate that desire. Stuart is not Colin Todd, a man who, for all the unfair criticism he got in the Valley Parade hotseat, was ultimately earning a living he’d happily have made elsewhere. Stuart took a risk by starting with City; his managerial career could be defined at the club where he was such a magnificent player.

And what of us fans? When City take to the field against Chester this Saturday will we merely sit back and wait for the expected win, or will we get behind the players from kick off, ten minutes in, half time – even if it’s 0-0 or worse? We face opposition every fortnight who aren’t used to playing in front of a fraction of the support we enjoy. Surely it can be more advantageous, surely passionately cheering on our players is a better route to them succeeding?

For sure this season has being good, but everyone has a role to play in making it better.

Puddings

Brentford 2 Bradford City 1- League Two 2008/2009

Like my mum’s Christmas pudding this defeat was hardest to swallow because it came late and followed a good meal.

City had played well during what seemed to be a 0-0 draw at Brentford and looked capable of doing to the home side what teams do to us. Frustrating and nicking a win.

With Omar Daley back and Paul McLaren having more say in the game the Bantams had the better of the early exchanges but despite Michael Boulding’s hard work the chances that came never seemed to sit up right. At the other end Paul Arnison was back at right back and the back four that went on to concede two goals looked solid as anything with Matthew Clarke especially impressive.

But, depressingly, the result of 2-1 came from a 94 minute header after City had clawed back from conceding a late goal. Boulding finished off to give City a draw that vanished not long after with the overriding fear being that if last week City drew the sort of game we would have won then this week we lost it and that without a change of luck or skill or whatever City will have a faltering challenge for promotion.

Next week at home to Chester we might see Dean Furman or Lee Bullock again but I’m worried that for all the skill of the returning players the spirit of the team has suffered.

Christmas will be telling. City need to avoid the pudding.

The four corners – Brentford vs Bradford City preview

The Bantams travel to the football ground with a pub on each of the four corners looking at the four corners of the midfield as the return to fitness begins.

Paul McLaren was back for last week ahead of time and the extra week should see the playmaker building up match fitness. The number four’s impact has been lessened by injury since his arrival in the summer and an unbroken period from now to May could go a long way to seeing City promoted.

Lee Bullock – McLaren’s partner has been missed more than he was appreciated and is back in training with a return expected for the Christmas games. Dean Furman is further away but is also expected to be starting 2009 fit. When all three are in the running for places – should it happen – it will be interesting to see which two are considered corners of the City midfield. McLaren and Bullock is the accepted wisdom but Furman impressed.

Such a problem exists on the flanks too with Omar Daley returning to the side for this weekend’s clash while Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon wait until the new year to be back in contention. Daley’s performances this season – in the face of a criticism which would see him “got rid of” despite his obvious advantages – have belied the fact that in the dream City midfield on paper in August he was on the bench and Brandon and Colbeck were in.

As with Furman, Daley’s performances have made him undroppable and away from home watching the winger sprint puts the fear of God into the opposition. His return is anticipated.

No return to date for Paul Arnison who was not popular in the position where no player is every popular – right back – but since losing his place to TJ Moncur the momentum has build behind him. Moncur’s mistake last week added to his critics but no calls for his exit owing to that will come from this quarter rather a belief that Arison supported his winger better than Moncur and was a route to goals and that is why we prefer the one over the other. Moncur, however, is expected to take right back opposite Luke O’Brien – roasted a little last week – at left back and Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke in the middle.

A point on last week is that Dagenham celebrate the game as their best performance in recent years if not – truly – ever and look at the 66% possession stat with glee. In this context the defending of Lee and Clarke with the full backs and the goalkeeping of Rhys Evans was exceptional and did not get enough credit. Yes, the mistake cost a goal but the draw was saved by some sturdy backline duties.

And the draw came from some impressive attacking play by Nicky Law Jnr and Michael Boulding both of whom are to feature in a team that should read Evans, Moncur, Lee, Clarke, O’Brien, Steve Jones, McLaren, Law Jnr, Daley, Boulding and Peter Thorne. They face a Brentford team doing well in the league in 8th position but coming off the back of a 2-1 defeat to Barrow in the FA Cup and in the midst of a goalkeeping crisis.

Reduced choices – Bradford City vs Dagenham and Redbridge – League Two 2008/2009 preview

There may not have been any further injuries to emerge from last weekend’s FA Cup defeat to Leyton Orient, but Bradford City manager Stuart McCall has still found himself with two less players to choose from for tomorrow’s important league encounter.

Willy Topp and Tom Clarke have both departed Valley Parade during the week and, while each leave with most fans best wishes, it’s the latter one which causes the most immediate concern. Clarke looked an excellent proposition in the middle of the park and has been growing in confidence after a long spell out injured, but was recalled back to Huddersfield in time to face Walsall. He was initially signed to provide defensive cover, but leaves having successfully performed a role in the team it previously did without.

There’s been much debate at City in recent years about the merits of using a holding midfielder and, for much of this season, Stuart’s preferred to line up minus one. Lee Bullock and Paul McLaren started the season in the centre, largely sharing the defensive and attacking responsibilities. That continued when Dean Furman and then Nicky Law came in when injuries struck. After McLaren limped off at Rotherham, Clarke was brought in and the effect was a more balanced looking midfield and licence for Law to roam further forward.

It won’t work in every game, but the benefits of having a defensive midfielder on the books was shown in Clarke’s excellent showings against Chesterfield and Leyton Orient. Compare the more solid platform provided with the home games against Gillingham and Barnet, where the lack of protection provided by those in front of the back four played a huge part in the amount of pressure City wase put under. Clarke maybe gone but, with a new manager with new ideas set to take charge at the Galpharm, Stuart might be keeping tabs on how much he figures during the next few weeks with the January transfer window approaching.

Until then City will go back to a central midfield pairing sharing the roles. McLaren is expected to be fit enough to return and, though question marks over his start with City remain, his calm passing and dead ball skills will be welcomed back. Law will be reined in slightly but still expected to put his high energy levels to good use in the final third. They will sit between two widemen with much to prove. For a spell on Saturday Kyle Nix sparked City and it’s to be hoped he can recapture last season’s form as we wait for Omar Daley, Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon to regain fitness. Steve Jones makes his home league debut having impressed in patches against Orient. More will be expected of him as he finds his feet.

Up front the competition for places is fierce with Barry Conlon expected to be fit enough and Michael Boulding looking more like a player worth all that effort pursuing during the summer. Peter Thorne has been benched partly because of fitness but also partly on merit. It’s fair to say that the early season spark has been absent from his game recently, but it’s testament to the relative ability of City’s squad that, unlike two years ago when an out of form Dean Windass was still too good to be dropped, Thorne is kicking his heels on the bench. How it can be argued Topp deserved a run in the side at the expense of two of these three is beyond me.

Defensive failings still occupy many minds and last weekend’s showing was only marginally improved. There are calls for Mark Bower to return at the expense of Matt Clarke – who actually played okay last week. I can see the argument, but when some fans go to the extremes of listing Bower as our best defender and slate Stuart for ignoring him one is left wondering why it’s been so quickly forgotten that a year ago many were demanding Bower be dropped for Clarke. Lee will certainly start alongside one of them, with TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien taking the full back roles in front of Rhys Evans.

Valley Parade is joint top with the New Meadow in League Two in terms of how many goals have been scored this season – and a visit from League Two’s top scorers is unlikely to slow that. England C international Paul Benson has led Dagenham’s surprise promotion challenge with 10 goals, though strike partner Ben Strevens isn’t far behind on eight. Twice they’ve hit someone for six but they’ve lost almost as often as they’ve won. Last year they triumphed at Valley Parade on route to avoiding relegation.

It will mean another tough afternoon for a back four which has lost some of its protection, though for much of this season Stuart has chosen attack as the best form of defence.

The luck of the draw

Watching the Bantams go out of the FA Cup 2-1 to Leyton Orient two frustrations of this 2008/2009 season struck me but only one left me surprised.

The Bantams interest in knock out competitions ended after a header former Leeds man Danny Granville headed home a well placed corner leaving City – who had got back into the game following going behind in the first half – tired and heading for the exit.

City had started slowly – a problem of late – and Graeme Lee’s continuing problems with TJ Moncur maintaining a position to his right hand side saw the skipper foolishly following the wrong man leaving time and space for Jason Demetriou to turn and pick out a fine shot to beat Rhys Evans from range. It was a deserved reward for the team from the division above having the better of the opening exchanges and there was a worry that as with Tranmere Rovers 3-0 win in a previous FA Cup tie that League One would just have too much quality.

Credit then City for clawing back into the game to such an extent that the first half ended with the Bantams in the ascendency much of which had to do with the Bantams midfield – second choice and second best – adding a needed steel to proceedings.

The quartet of Nicky Law Jnr being anchored by Tom Clarke with Kyle Nix on the right and debut loan winger Steve Jones replacing the injured Omar Daley were bullied out of the opening exchanges but added perhaps a little too much of the tough stuff with Clarke picking up a booking and Nix pushing in two challenges that had they connected could have resulted in red cards.

Nevertheless the muscle matched the visitors from the league above who’s robust style of play had seen a heavy challenge on Barry Conlon in the first ten minutes result in the in form 100 goal man coming off after twenty minutes with a back injury and considering that none of the midfield four would be in Stuart McCall’s all squad fit team then credit is due for the resurgence that bore fruit after an hour when a smart through ball allowed Michael Boulding – who ran tirelessly all afternoon – to get behind the immense Alton Thirwell who had a superb game for the visitors and equalise for the Bantams.

At that point City looked the team most likely but the goal galvanised the visitors who stepped up and within ten had taken the decisive lead. The Bantams had chances to equalise – Peter Thorne uncharacteristically heading the best of them wide – but Thirwell, Jordan Spence and midfielder Adam Chambers kept a strong spine to restrict City who lost by an edge, but just an edge.

Curious then that a decent turn out despite pricing villainy by the Londoner’s boardroom did not get behind City more. The Bantams battled with a team a league above and battled well. A nicer drop of the ball or a slice of luck and City could have been through yet the atmosphere was once again strangely muted. Hardly a surprise but whatever a crowd can do to push a team through we do not seem to do it, at least not at Valley Parade.

Surprising and disappointing has been the rumbling of balls around Bradford City this season. Four times the Bantams have been drawn out of hats and every time we have faced a team in the highest division possible. Huddersfield Town, Leeds United and Milton Keynes Dons have previously faced City in the cup this season all from League One.

With the Bantams doing well in League Two we could assume that a draw against anyone below us – and in every draw we have been in most of the teams have been below us in the league structure – would have been more beatable but rather than Grimsby Town away in the Johnsons Paint we end up with Leeds and rather than Chester in the League Cup we went to Huddersfield. Of course there is no guarantee we would have won those hypothetical games but City should not be down hearted about being out of all the cups but rather surprised at the bad luck that saw us get four tough games.

Leyton Orient was a winnable game – both in theory and during the match – but it was not Histon Town 1 Leeds United 0 and as we look to the league now and the next five months of trying to ensure promotion we should do so knowing that in all four of those games – save the second half against Huddersfield – the Bantams gave as good as they got against the teams we want to be playing week in week out.

Four times we played league one clubs. Once we learned a lesson, once we got an apology, once we played and won and once we played and lost. We are ready for that league.

Overcoming the margins – Bradford City vs Leyton Orient – FA Cup 2nd Round preview

We remember Ben Murihead stupidly running down a blind alley with 10 minutes to go, losing possession and Barnsley racing up the other end to crucially equalise. We remember Jermaine Johnson’s incredible dribble from his own half before shooting wide when reaching the penalty area, then a Nathan Doyle own goal gifting Millwall an undeserved win. We remember David Wetherall hitting the crossbar with a header before, erm, Tranmere proceeded to play us off the park and win 3-0.

The previous three Bradford City seasons have featured progress past the First Round of the FA Cup, before each time falling at the Second. We’ve allowed ourselves to dream of City’s name being included in that illusive 3rd Round Draw with the opportunity of a lucrative tie. On Saturday we dream again that this could our year as Leyton Orient rock up to Valley Parade – will it be fourth time lucky?

The so-called “magic of the FA Cup” will be duly hyped all weekend and City could, by some stretch of the imagination, be considered one of the giant killers of the last round after the impressive win at MK Dons – a result which looks more impressive each week as the Buckinghamshire club climb League One.

It’s doubtful whether the magic really will touch Bradford this weekend though, the stadium will be barely a fifth full and there’s a convincing argument that, unlike the last three seasons, an FA Cup run is an unnecessary distraction. Nevertheless as memories of recent disappointments remind us of the often thin line between success and failure it’s worth noting that City have twice this week been on the right side of such margins – Rhys Evans’ wonder save at Rotherham and Jack Lester’s miss at 2-2 on Tuesday – and it’s the sign of a good side when they’re the ones regularly benefiting from such fortune.

A good side. Worth emphasising to some of our supporters who still can’t manage to do anything but criticise and moan. Tuesday’s comeback win against Chesterfield was a fantastic game of football – arguably the most entertaining of our season so far. Yet still all some can do is focus on the disappointing first 25 minutes, pick on a couple of players who didn’t reach the heights of others and, perhaps most stupidly of all, moan that City we’re hanging on during the final 10 minutes. Let’s imagine our team had fallen 3-2 behind and had a man sent off with 10 minutes to go, wouldn’t we still expect our players to force pressure in the closing stages? Why shouldn’t Chesterfield fans expect any less of their side?

We witness an injury hit City side show tremendous character and commitment to recover from an awful start and win against an impressive visiting side, why can’t we enjoy it? All some people can do is look for negatives; there’s been some over-the-top moaning about Matt Clarke (who apparently was booed by some ‘fans’ in the Kop whenever he touched the ball on Tuesday), the medical experts amongst us have managed to blame Omar Daley’s injury on Stuart McCall and there’s a certain balding Irish striker who some attempted to argue was one of our worst players. I am staggered how any City supporter could have left Valley Parade on Tuesday feeling unhappy. As Alan Hansen would say, “it’s unbelievable.”

Of course there were things which didn’t go so well and Stuart will look to address these on Saturday. I’m full of admiration for the way he stuck to his guns with the line up on Tuesday. At 2-0 the diamond formation he’d employed did not look a clever decision but, rather than panic, he got the players doing the right things and the improvement was vast. It won’t work every game and may not be used tomorrow with no Daley, but Stuart has a lot more faith in his team than many of us supporters do and surely it’s time more of us got behind them, particuarly when they’re struggling.

Stuart is unlikely to make many changes for this tie. Nicky Law and Tom Clarke have both had their loan spells extended and both arguably enjoyed their best games in Claret and Amber so far on Tuesday. They will make up the centre of the midfield with new loan arrival Steve Jones, taking Daley’s place, on the right. Kyle Nix, who did reasonably well Tuesday considering it was his first game back from injury, will push his claims for a regular spot on the left.

The back five will be unchanged with Matt Clarke still causing concern but Graeme Lee winning fans over. At 2-0 down and in real trouble on Tuesday, strong leadership was needed and Lee stepped up to the mark in more ways than just his impressive free kick. TJ Moncur must improve on his recent showings while Luke O’Brien will reflect that it was a year ago this weekend he made his debut and how far he has come. Rhys Evans keeps goal.

Up front Stuart has a real dilemma. At last Valley Parade got to see what a talent Michael Boulding can be and it would be difficult to rest him with confidence improving. Same with Barry Conlon, who’s popularity is surpassing the ‘cult hero’ status of last season into genuine ‘fans favourite’. That could mean Peter Thorne is left out again, which might not be a bad thing with a busy Christmas coming and injury niggles. FA Cup rules allow Stuart to name seven substitutes, which will give some fringe players a chance – will Willy Topp be one of them?

Of course the last time Leyton Orient were in town they cruelly smashed our hopes of avoiding the drop with a two-goal burst which had people around me crying and the boo boys curiously gloating. That day City battered Orient and wasted a hatful of chances to be out of sight by half time.

It’s those margins of success and failure that good teams invariably benefit from and poor sides are left cursing about. If City are the beneficiaries on Saturday we supporters just might start to believe in magic again.

Battling back

City produced a fine comeback from 2-0 down to grab all three points and ascend into 2nd place in League Two.

It was a game full of incident and open play, and City’s superb resolve and spirit was highly commendable against dangerous attacking opposition.

McCall sprung a surprise in naming the starting eleven by leaving top scorer Peter Thorne on the bench. His troublesome back problems that have developed over the last few weeks is likely to be the reasoning behind not risking him from the start. With so many injuries to contend with, McCall tinkered with a diamond formation in the first half, with Tom Clarke playing the anchor role in midfield protecting the back four, and Omar Daley getting a free role to roam with menace.

Things could not have got off to a worse start when a long throw into the area was not dealt with, and Jack Lester rifled in a left foot strike beyond Rhys Evans to put Chesterfield ahead.

The game opened up and City had two good chances to level via Omar Daley – in particular when he seemed to have got clean through and just before he was about to shoot, an excellent last ditch challenge was produced by Chesterfield defender Downes, to deny the pacy Jamaican.

Things went from bad to worse when Chesterfield doubled their advantage on 23. A loose ball floated around the penalty area that City failed to clear and it was left to Darren Currie to produce a rasping left foot strike that took a deflection and flew into the roof of the net, prompting jubilant celebrations from the scorer.

To their credit, City never let their heads drop and really began to play with more purpose despite being 2-0 down. There was some nice interplay and with Michael Boulding a willing runner all night, City began asking questions of Robert Page’s Chesterfield backline. When Barry Conlon was fouled just outside the box, the resultant free kick was left to skipper Graeme Lee who smashed the ball directly into the net with a thunderbolt that threw City a lifeline.

And just before halftime a short corner produced a left wing cross that was headed firmly down by Boulding that drew City level.

The second half began with City in the ascendancy and should have taken the lead twice through Boulding. First, he was unlucky to see his strike bounce wide following an excellent cross from the left from O’Brien. Then he really should have scored when one on one with Page, but he dragged his shot wide of the target.

Chesterfield were still having a fair amount of attacking play though, and Jack Lester missed a very presentable chance when clean through on goal to the left of the box. But Evans did a brilliant job, making himself big, and only providing Lester with an acute angle left to shoot which he sliced into the side netting.

The penalty that was awarded in City’s favour that won them the game seemed to be a fairly harsh one from my viewpoint. Nicky Law did brilliantly to take on his man and dribble inside the box, but seemed to go to ground too easily (I haven’t seen the replay yet) and initially I thought Law was going to be booked for diving. But the referee pointed to the spot, and served as some compensation for the terrible offside decisions that were given against us attacking wise.

Battling Barry Conlon grabbed the ball and confidently stepped up to take the penalty (I must admit I wanted either Boulding or Thorne to take it!). What followed was an audacious chip (Dwight Yorke style in his heyday) that went straight down the middle for the Burly Irishman’s 100th League Goal highlighted by his flash of his undershirt in the goal celebration, which was rewarded with a booking.

City held on for the last 20 minutes against ten men (Goodall was sent off for a second bookable – his foul on Law inside the penalty area) largely thanks to an excellent save from Evans from a Jamie Ward effort, and TJ Moncur made a vital interception at the back at the death – nipping the ball away from Lester with the goal gaping inside the area.

Whilst they made it very hard for themselves, its hard to find anything to criticise about City’s under strength side tonight. Yes they started slowly – but their battling back from adversion is promotion form (demonstrated also away at Accrington to grab all three points).

Boulding had a productive night and never stopped running. Tom Clarke produced an effective display protecting his back four, as was his brief. And Lee really is producing “Captain Fantastic” performances consistently now – a really worthy replacement for David Wetherall. His strikes from set pieces are now something of a secret weapon ( 30 yards out against Bury, The winner away at MK Dons in the FA Cup and now tonight).

My only grip about tonight were my fellow supporters in the Midland Road stand. With 2 – 3 minutes remaining there was an exodus of people making their way to the exit. Having just seen their team produce a stunning comeback against a very strong side, surely the team are worthy of a standing ovation. Or at least a round of a applause from the over 11,000 home fans? No, some people want to leave early to “ miss the traffic”. It’s pathetic.

You either commit to supporting the team or you are simply a spectator with no heart in caring about the team when they deserve some support or a pat on the back. People would be quick to boo the entire game if the team lost but to not reward a winning team who have dug really deep to deliver an excellent result is really not on.

At the rate that people were leaving the ground before the final whistle it was like we had lost 4-0.
Anyway, well done to Stuart and the lads. Our position in the table is very encouraging. And what is more encouraging is that I don’t think we have even hit top gear yet. From the way things look tonight, a top three finish is very achievable by this team, who like to do things the hard way.

Part two of four – Bradford City vs Chesterfield – League Two preview

There’s little doubt this is an important week in Bradford City’s season.

On Saturday it began with the low-thrills win at Rotherham and tonight’s game is a great opportunity to increase pressure on those near the top and move further clear from the chasing pack, which includes visitors Chesterfield. Saturday’s FA Cup clash with Leyton Orient carries the possibility of a lucrative 3rd round tie for the winners, while events in the days before it will also be far from insignificant.

Thursday is deadline day for loan deals until January and, with five league games in December, manager Stuart McCall has much to do to ensure he has sufficient options. After tonight, Tom Clarke and Nicky Law’s loan deals expire and, while Stuart appears keen to retain them both, it appears likely only Law will be allowed to extend his stay. With Huddersfield caretaker manager Gerry Murphy keen to give those players who he nurtured through Town’s youth academy the opportunity, Clarke is expected back at the Galpharm.

Murphy’s philosophy may lead to his on-loan option Steve Jones making the opposite journey on the M62 and former Leeds winger Seb Carole remains a possibility Clearly a right-sided midfielder is badly needed by Thursday, even if it’s just the retention of Law. Stuart may be running up a large phone bill over the next couple of days in pursuit of targets.

Clarke and Law will feature from the start tonight as City look to continue in the manner they finished at the Don Valley on Saturday. Paul McLaren’s injury isn’t expected to be serious enough to see him missing for long, but in his absence Clarke’s more defensive-minded approach should allow Law to get forward more regularly in the way he did for the final half hour on Saturday.

On the flanks Kyle Nix is back in contention after injury and made a 10-minute cameo on Saturday. He may replace Leon Osborne, who Stuart revealed was disappointed in his own performance at Rotherham. The youngster has apparently been playing well in the reserves and will look to inspiration from the likes of Luke O’Brien and Joe Colbeck as he tries to cross that psychological barrier of doing it in the first team. Whether he is ready for the test of a five-figure Valley Parade crowd remains to be seen.

Omar Daley will remain on the right wing. Many fans on Saturday were frustrated to see the Jamaican switched over from his usual spot on the left and it was fair to say he was less effective. Stuart might allow himself to feel a little smug after persisting with Daley on the left last season and receiving criticism from some supporters for playing him ‘out of position’.

What is clear is the service to City’s forwards needs to improve. Stuart may wish to chop about after Saturday and recall Barry Conlon after his introduction indirectly saw the team score two quick-fire goals. Michael Boulding would be favourite to be left out with Peter Thorne possibly taking his turn for a rest on Saturday.

At the back Rhys Evans and O’Brien will be in high spirits while Matt Clarke and Graeme Lee will be hoping for their first back-to-back clean sheets since August. TJ Moncur will be looking to get forward in the same effective manner as O’Brien, though has the added defensive responsibility of playing behind Daley.

The last time Chesterfield were at Valley Parade their supporters taunted their manager Lee Richardson with the chant “you don’t know what you’re doing”. The former Halifax and Huddersfield midfielder is still in charge, with his team unbeaten in seven and climbing the table after a slow start. Having been injured for both meetings last season, Jack Lester (35 goals for The Spireites from 53 appearances) will line up against City and scored for Nottingham Forest on his last visit to Valley Parade. Jamie Ward, who had a superb game on that horrible afternoon 19 months ago is winning plaudits and attracting attention.

He will be with Chesterfield until January at least but who will be lining up for the Bantams over the same period isn’t fully clear. We wait for Chris Brandon, Colbeck, Lee Bullock, Dean Furman and now McLaren to return from injury and, while it leaves a larger reliance on loan players than Stuart would probably like in the short-term, it’s nothing on the situation two seasons ago where so much of Colin Todd’s long-term plans depended on them.

If it’s to be good bye from Clarke and Law tonight, let’s hope it ends in the same way their loan periods started.

What’s next?

It wasn’t pretty, it was far from convincing and it will be quickly forgotten – but the most relevant description of Bradford City’s 2-0 win at Rotherham would be ‘job done’.

The open manner of attacking football which manager Stuart McCall is largely pinning City’s promotion hopes on was rarely exhibited, but some of the other equally important qualities that any side with promotion aspirations was. It may have been played out in the unusual and somewhat soulless setting of Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium, but Rotherham provided that familiar awkward test and the Bantams had to display steeliness, grit and determination. Ultimately the three points earned by Luke O’Brien and Nicky Law’s second half strikes will be all that matter come May.

Not that it was a bad performance from the pre-season League Two favourites. Rotherham United supporters might consider that their entire home crowd can be dumped into one stand of their temporary home as an indicator of their place in the world, but they will also know their team would be battling with City for promotion were it not for that 17 point deduction. For 70 minutes the Millers dominated possession and posed plenty of questions of a defensive line which has being needing to provide answers.

Rhys Evans made an early low save and the City stopper had a busy afternoon. With widemen Jamie Green and Dale Tonge causing plenty of problems, numerous balls were fired into the box and Matt Clarke – who appears to have heeded the wake-up call from losing his place in the last home game against Barnet – and Graeme Lee stood up to the battle.

Not that Stuart would have been happy with how much they had to do. In the middle of the park City were second best for much of the game and possession was too easily squandered. There’s seemingly been a learning curve all season about the best way to play, with many players often taking the direct option of launching the ball forward as quickly as possible. While it’s effective at times – some of City’s better first half opportunities coming this way – it needs to be used in the right way. In the early stages there was a reluctance to slow the tempo and pass it around, instead the ball quickly sent forward and invariably returned just as fast.

Questions continue to be asked of Paul McLaren, who it’s felt can do more. This is the sort of game where a midfield leader, a Stuart if you like, is badly needed and McLaren is the closest we have. His manager must be looking to McLaren to demand the ball off others to then deliver sensible and, when the opportunity arises, killer passes which set City on their way. McLaren was guilty of taking the wrong option too often in the first half and moves broke down. Like with other City players who’ve struggled, the management is capable of coaching more out of him. Should Stuart succeed, McLaren will be a better player for it.

Two widemen were employed, with Leon Osborne brought in on the left and Omar Daley switched to the right. It was unusual to see Daley on this side and served to only remind us that, while his pace and dribbling skills are such a potent weapon, his final ball into the box can sometimes be poor. Daley was City’s best attacking outlet but Osborne too was a willing worker.

The second half became a fascinating battle as Rotherham continued to exert strong pressure and waste some good chances, but City slowly began to play in the right way. Possession wasn’t feebly squandered seconds after been won. There was some impressive passing with some moves agonisingly breaking down when one pass wasn’t quite good enough. City also seemed to work out when to go direct and when to slow it down. In short – they began to play like a good away side.

So while heavy pressure in City’s box continued, more and more gaps began to emerge at the other end and the counter attack was on. The ball was played quickly to Osborne or Daley, who used their pace and the space to get City on the attack. Nothing was to come of it at first, but as Rotherham showed a degree of naivety in how far forward some of their players went, the opportunities were increasing. After Tom Clarke was brought on for the injured McLaren, Law suddenly had the licence to get forward even more and this made a difference.

Seconds after Barry Conlon also joined the action, City got their counter attack spot on. A Rotherham corner saw plenty of red shirts forward, but the was played towards a galloping O’Brien, who burst forward to the edge of the area and hit a low shot which appeared to leave Rotherham keeper David Stockdale unsighted as it flew into the bottom corner.

Two minutes later Rotherham fans thought their side had equalised as Drew Broughton’s header from close range was magnificently pushed onto the bar by Evans, but then another counter-attack delivered a killer second goal as Law’s shot from distance flew past Stockdale into the same corner of the net as O’Brien’s.

With the game effectively won City were able to slow the tempo and pass the ball around in a calmer manner. An O’Brien dribble forward was illegally stopped and the resulting free kick fired over, while a great passing move resulted in TJ Moncur wastefully stabbing the ball well wide of the goal. A third would undoubtedly have flattered City.

Those sat near this writer will have to excuse my over-exuberant celebrations for both goals, particularly the first. For most of the game the cold air around me was polluted by one supporter who’s non-stop moaning about his team was not only moronic and largely unrealistic (they are League Two players, but I doubt even Premiership players could manage what he expected our players to do), but his choice of players to ‘target’ was ludicrous. All game long I watched an excellent performance from our young left back, O’Brien, and all game long I listened to irrational abuse about how rubbish he was, with this fan often calling him a four letter term beginning with T. That was when he wasn’t yelling equally ridiculous abuse about Osborne and demanding Stuart sub him.

Is this the way we should be encouraging our younger players? No one says we should gloss over if they fail to reach the standards required for first team football, but when they’re not even having bad games it was hard to listen to this fan’s clueless rants. So when O’Brien struck the first I had to fight every urge to turn around and call my fellow supporter a four letter term beginning with T, though my mouth dropped to the floor in astonishment as he joined in when others later started a chant praising O’Brien.

But in some ways it was that sort of afternoon. The Don Valley stadium is a horrible place to watch football and the freezing conditions had us longing for the final whistle well before it was due. Any attempt to build an atmosphere by the 1,600 City fans was largely lost in the wide open space and, for those of us with limited eyesight, it was difficult to see the ball at the opposite end of the pitch when it got darker. It can’t have been much fun for the players either, with three sides of the ground completely empty. It was a matter of getting the win and moving onto the next game.

Rotherham’s 17 point deduction should mean the Don Valley stays on the fixture list for League Two sides next season – another incentive for City to get the ultimate ‘job done’ and earn promotion.

Unfamiliar familiarity – Rotherham United v Bradford City – League Two preview

This is the seventh season out of eight to feature Rotherham away on Bradford City’s fixture list, though there will be nothing familiar about Saturday’s trip.

The financial difficulties which the Millers have struggled to overcome during the last few years has resulted in a temporary move to Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium. With a running track around the pitch and the stands – of which for only one side is there a roof – positioned well back, it will certainly be a contrast from the intimacy of Millmoor.

For Rotherham the move was born out of necessity as Millmoor’s landlord, former Chairman Ken Booth, demanded too much rent and not enough access to its facilities for it to be financially viable. Attendances have slightly dipped through the six-mile relocation, though with only two home defeats so far it’s clear the players have adapted to new surroundings quickly.

For us Bradford City supporters, it should be a case of being thankful for our lot. Clearly the Bantams have suffered from financial troubles in recent years and the two relegations since leaving the Premier League can be blamed on it to varying degrees. Yet both City’s spells in administration came before the sort of point deductions which have been inflicted on Rotherham for three consecutive seasons. As for a former chairman owning the ground and the struggle to make rent payments, a move to Odsal looked a possibility back in February 2004.

Which goes to show that, if there can be positives to take from what this club went through, it’s the timing of it. Pity the marketing men at Rotherham, who this summer had to work out how to sell season tickets for a club which had moved to a nearby city, which wasn’t fully guaranteed to be allowed to continue by the Football League and who even then started with a 17 point deduction. The self-righteous whining from Leeds United supporters last season has ensured many of us hold little sympathy for clubs who break the rules by getting in such debt, but things could have been much worse for us during those dark days and at the time that didn’t seem possible.

For City at least, such difficult times are now part of the history books and they approach the only proper League Two Yorkshire Derby of the season with strong promotion aspirations. Last week’s defeat to Wycombe may have tempered confidence among supporters, but manager Stuart McCall will know the true quality of a good side is how it responds to set backs. So far this season the players have made a good fist of it.

The team is likely to be similar after Stuart’s attempts to bring in a right winger on loan drew a blank. Rhys Evans keeps goal behind a back four slowly recapturing its early season solidness. Paul Heckingbottom came through the reserves unscathed midweek and Stuart may consider giving Luke O’Brien a breather. TJ Moncur seems to be comfortably first choice ahead of Paul Arnison on the right and Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke continue in the centre.

The other Clarke will continue in midfield. City’s line ups this season have largely not featured an out and out holding midfielder and the hope has to be that Paul McClaren, alongside Tom, can get forward more than he has been afforded to. Lee Bullock is close to a return to fitness and McClaren may be aware he needs to show more in order to keep his starting place. Nicky Law will play on the right with Omar Daley likely to provide the team’s main source of attacking inspiration from the left.

Up front Michael Boulding will be hoping to get the nod over Barry Conlon, with the latter still sweating over a new contract offer in the new year. There are some concerns over Peter Thorne’s recent performances, but there’s no one you’d rather have on the end of any decent chances the rest of the team can create during the game.

Rotherham are not without their problems having lost experienced keeper Andy Warrington to injury and with only Steven Cann, who played his first senior game midweek and was on the end of a 3-0 defeat, to call upon between the sticks. Manager Mark Robins too has been left frustrated by the loan market and, unless any late attempts prove successful, it will be a big day for the 20-year-old South African. They also have their own Omar, who is perhaps more Willy Topp.

One familiar face will be Alex Rhodes, who joined the Millers from City during the summer. The winger was an excellent proposition on his day, as Rotherham themselves know only too well, but lacked consistency. Had Stuart kept him on it’s likely he’d have barely figured for City this season up until Joe Colbeck’s injury, so his regularity for Rotherham suggests City would be finishing above them even if they’d not suffered that heavy points deduction.

Like City, Rotherham will be aiming to put their financial troubles behind them but the impact which the credit crunch has had on so many parts of UK life has yet to be realised in football. With the UK heading for recession tough times may be ahead and typically its lower league clubs who will suffer.

If United had trouble with season tickets this season what about the next, when people’s spending will become even tighter? This week Rotherham announced half-year season ticket prices which are still more expensive than it cost for a full City season ticket. If levels of support are to be maintained in 2009/10 season clubs are going to have to consider the sort of innovate pricing approach which has succeeded at Valley Parade, though that might be difficult for clubs like Rotherham to implement with money in short supply.

If City can march onto promotion this season they should have few problems retaining their support should they keep similar prices, which would once again leave us pleased with our timing and thankful for our lot.

Only the usual conclusion can be made

Just like video goalline technology, winter breaks and the declining tradition of the FA Cup – the opinion “it’s a poor league” is one uttered on an annual basis.

In City’s case, it doesn’t seem to matter which division we are in – even during our second season of the Premiership the national media spent a few concentrated weeks deriding the standard of the top flight – or how well we are doing, the opposition are always poor and City firmly part of such mediocrity. It’s a viewpoint the vast majority of supporters also hold no matter who their team is, every league is always poor.

When looking at this season’s League Two table it can be tempting to trot out such well-worn phrases. Discount the points deductions of Luton, Bournemouth and Rotherham and the gap between top and bottom would be a measly 22 points after a third of the season. Everyone can beat everyone and, while that makes for an exciting and unpredictable league, it also leaves the playing standards open to accusations of poorness.

It’s been said that, unlike last season, there are no outstanding teams going to runaway with it like MK Dons and Peterborough; though a look at the League Two table this time last year offers few clues that was going to be the case. MK Dons had its noses in front, but Peterborough was back among traffic. This year Darlington and Wycombe hold the same advantage of the Dons, though the chasing pack remain closely on their tails. The six-point advantage both enjoy over ninth-place Bury is in contrast to a year ago where fifth-place Peterborough was seven behind MK Dons. Meanwhile the eventual Play Off Finalists, Stockport and Rochdale, were 15th and 17th respectively, a fact which will give Aldershot, Port Vale and Notts County inspiration this season.

Above those three are 12 clubs which retain credible aspirations of promotion, which illustrates just how competitive a league it is. That Wycombe remain unbeaten is a great achievement and the Buckinghamshire club will be hoping to turn a few more draws into wins to build on its impressive start. It remains to be seen how they will react to that eventual first defeat, but Peter Taylor has clearly been able to take the club forward after the good work of Paul Lambert last season.

Like Wycombe, Darlington lost in the play off semi finals last year but have responded strongly. Dave Penney is rumoured to be interesting Huddersfield and isn’t universally popular with Quakers fans, but on the evidence of games against the Bantams they look stronger this season. Much depends on if they can keep the impressive on-loan Billy Clarke, who’s Ipswich contract expires in January and is seemingly surplus to requirements.

Currently top of the of the six clubs on 27 points is Shrewsbury. Having spent big money on Grant Holt during the summer the Shrews are looking particularly strong at home and have a manager experienced enough to guide the club in lasting the distance. Rochdale has climbed after a slow start, though don’t quite appear as strong as last season. Brentford’s Andy Scott is cementing a reputation as one of the game’s bright young managers and Gillingham, relegated last season, are improving. The biggest surprise is Exeter still being up there, though the newly-promoted Grecians have suffered heavy defeats to City and Chesterfield suggesting they aren’t strong enough to last the pace.

Doubts which were also raised at Bury and Dagenham, which seem to be coming true as both fade away following impressive starts. Chesterfield and Lincoln, who both started slowly, are closing in and have the expectation and quality to force themselves into the top seven above.

Which just leaves the Bantams. Predictably Saturday’s defeat has lead to some fans writing off our chances of achieving anything better than a play off spot, but the injury situation which Stuart McCall is currently contending with is clearly going to slow things. Omar Daley is the only out-and-out winger fit and, while the Jamaican’s performances are remaining highly consistent, the lack of a similar threat on the other flank for a team which bases much of its style of play on the widemen is reducing chances for the forwards.

There are question marks still over the defence but, in general, the team has been able to respond to weakness at the back with potency going forward. The next few games may be a battle and not wield as higher a number of points as we’d like, but if City can approach Christmas in a similar position to now, with Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon due to come back, the prospects of a good run of form at the turn of the year are good.

It would take a brave man to bet on who will finish in the top three spots come May right now, but clearly the next segment of the season will be vital in reducing the number of possibilities. Next Saturday Lincoln entertain Shrewsbury; the Tuesday after Gillingham face Rochdale, who’s game after is Darlington away; City travel to Brentford the following Saturday; the Saturday after sees Shrewsbury host Wycombe. With the Christmas fixtures including Rochdale v Shrewsbury, Darlington v Chesterfield and Gillingham v Wycombe, the chances of anyone running away with it seem unlikely.

It’s a league where you don’t want to take your eyes off anyone, even if we are all ‘poor’.

More of the same from less – Wycombe Wanderers vs Bradford City preview

Dean Furman is still injured and Paul McLaren is still carrying a knock. Joe Colbeck and Lee Bullock still cannot run about and Chris Brandon is not coming back until next year. The Bantams are still as threadbare as they were going into the game with MK Dons last weekend but after that win the City have hope.

Hope that is that Stuart McCall’s side which he this week declared he was happy with the progress of is more than just the eleven players on the field and that there is strength in the squad.

Barry Conlon showed that strength coming off the bench and scoring goals and being part of last week’s winning side but the Irishman is expected to step down for a biting at the bit Peter Thorne. Michael Boulding’s intelligent play and pace away from home rather than Conlon’s battering ram approach will be favoured alongside.

At the back Matthew Clarke’s return to the team and to form seems set to leave his Huddersfield name sake Tom cooling his heels with Graeme Lee partnering him at the back. TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien are expected to continue at full back with Rhys Evans behind them.

The midfield continues to be a black hole of injury. Omar Daley has continued good form on his return on the right hand side and Leon Osbourn did enough on the left to suggest his continued presence in the side. Certainly Stuart McCall seems more impressed with the youngster’s attitude than he is with Willy Topp’s. Topp – an option in midfield – seems to be a long way from the side.

Wycombe go into the game having led League Two but now on a dip in much the same way City were. They have drawn four of their last five fixtures and have needed 90th and 98th minute goals to maintain the stream of points. They are – for sure – a good side but City’s one defeat in seven suggests that we are too and that this is a game between teams who will be battling for the chance of automatic promotion and the championship rather than play-off places.

Thorne leads where we should follow

Bradford City’s top scorer Peter Thorne is looking forward to facing promotion rivals Wycombe this Saturday. It’s not just that the striker, rested for the FA Cup win at MK Dons on Saturday, is hoping his team can win the ‘six-pointer’ against a team yet to lose in the league, but the challenge and battle he will face from the Football League’s meanest defence.

Thorne said, “I look at it as a big challenge. I’m not the sort of person who thinks ‘oh no, this will be a hard battle’. It would be great to score against them…If I do play, I’ll expect a bit more special attention as well, being the top goal-scorer at the moment. The defenders will know they have to raise their game but that’s football and is why I love it.”

It’s the last part of Thorne’s comments which really stand out. He love’s football? Might seem like an obvious thing to say for someone paid to do just that, but in age where footballers are widely viewed as money-grabbing, mercenary folk with little grasp of reality, his views seem somehow refreshing.

This is a man who admitted he’d fallen out of love with The Game a couple of years ago and took a pay cut to remain a Bantam during the summer after rediscovering it during a superb season – and it’s the sort of attitude you’d want from your players on the eve of a tough match. Wycombe’s defence has only been breached four times at Adams Park, but they’ve yet to face a clearly-excited top scorer of League Two…

Such views also stand out given how little it seems to be reflected among City supporters. Of course we all love football, why else would we bother spending so much money and travel so many miles in support of City? Yet the negative mood which has hung around Valley Parade for the last few disappointing years has been curiously hard to shift this season.

At the end of City’s last home game, against Barnet, they were booed off the pitch by some – despite the draw leaving the Bantams only a point from top of the league. Of course it had been a disappointing second half performance and its not the first time the team had struggled this campaign; but City are third in the league and it’s a long time since we’ve been able to say that in November, shouldn’t we be enjoying this a bit more?

There seems to be such an extreme range of emotions and comments expressed about City from many supporters this season, often during the same game. The opening goal against Barnet was described as some as one of the finest goals we’ve seen at Valley Parade for years, but then howls of derision are heaped on those same players when goals go in the other end. Is TJ Moncur a good player? He set up two goals and was widely praised, but then makes a mistake at the other end and is ridiculed. It may not be like watching Brazil, but we’re not watching East Timor either.

Sunday’s news that City would face Leyton Orient in the next round of the FA Cup has brought back some sore memories, following the 2-0 defeat to them 19 months ago which proved critical in the failed attempt to beat the drop. City could just have easily been drawn to face Chesterfield, Accrington, Luton, Scunthorpe, Stockport or Bournemouth – opposition which can also prompt flashbacks of previous disappointments. There’s been so little to celebrate in recent years, which would only accentuate how happy we’d be if promotion is achieved this season.

But there’s a long way to go yet, so can’t we try to enjoy things a bit more? Apart from those in the Bradford End, the atmosphere at Valley Parade this season has been disappointing. I’m tired of people around me sitting in silence when things are going well, only coming alive when the team is struggling to moan and criticise. I’m tired of fans making pointless digs at Stuart’s management while failing to provide reasoning; no one should be immune and he’s made mistakes, but half of the complaints are embarrassingly stupid and unnecessary. I’m tired of hearing what’s wrong with the team when I see them sitting high up in the league and wonder if people really do believe we should win every game. I’m tired of hearing booing, so very tired.

There are no guarantees this season and there’s every chance we could be discussing where it went wrong come May, but what we should know is we have a bunch of honest and hardworking players giving their all, managed by someone who wouldn’t tolerate anything less. They will make mistakes because they’re League Two players competing in a league where those near the bottom are capable of beating those near the top. They will lose games, give away bad goals and miss easy chances. Yet the evidence shows they will win more games, score many great goals and maintain their promotion challenge throughout the season. When was the last time we played a match in May which meant something?

And that’s what we should love about football, right? Up there near the top of the league, competing with other teams and going through all those ups and downs. The nervousness before the big games, the hours studying the league table and remaining fixtures and, hopefully, one night sinking many pints in celebration as it all comes together.

Nothing is settled in November, but we can still enjoy the ride now.

The no pressure game as City beat MK Dons in the FA Cup

Who wants to go to Stadium:MK? Who even knows where it is? Or what it is? “Is it a hockey stadium” Ian asks and then we have a debate over if hockey is a big enough game to have stadiums anyway. “It is something you do down the park” says Dawn, “or at school. It isn’t a grown ups game.”

This argument rages over the team news which sees City without a load of players and without Peter Thorne. “Perhaps we can lend his stick to Barry” says Noel breaking from shouting at us for not being able to stop arguing about having a colon in the middle of a phrase and find this stadium:mk thing. We are going to be late and we are. We get into the ground to see footballer:od (Omar Daley) messing around in the box and hitting a shot that sneaks in past Lewis Price in the home goal. “F*ck Barrack Obama! We’ve got Barrack O. Daley” is both idiotic and hilarious and as we look over the pitch to see how isn’t playing rather than who is. Michael Boulding and Barry Conlon in front of a midfield with Daley, and Leon Osbourn on the wings and Paul McLaren and Nicky Law in the middle. Law got off to a good start setting up the goal.

And City had a good start. Away games have long since been better than home for atmosphere and sure enough the Bantams fans buoyed by an early goal were in good voice. WimbleMKDons most dangerous man Dean Lewington started to warm up and I remember how he smacked Joe Colbeck over the back of the head in the second to last game of the season which resulted in Colbeck being sent off for a horrible tackle back. Colbeck, like Conlon, has come out of the other side of the tunnel of booing and Barry running about this afternoon is proof that while it is pretty stupid the players that come out of the other side tend to do so as better players.

Not that that is a good reason or anything.

Matt Clarke and Graeme Lee had the throats warming up but stuck back together today they were impressing in the first half blocking MK Dons as they tried to drive through the middle of City. If Roberto Di Matteo had had City watched they came back with the wrong info because City looked stronger in the middle today. Away from home and leading we could park a bus in front of the goal but we need to be careful on the flanks were TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien still amazingly keep out the Paul Arnison and Paul Heckingbottom combination.

Able to sit deep City enjoyed a good share of possession against the Champions of League Two who look less of a team than they were last term. Lewington still looks like the best player in the Galaxy when he faces City and manages to get above Graeme Lee as it looks like the City skipper could put in number two. Some Bantams make a decent shout for a penalty but of course it is given the other way. I wonder if I’ll live long enough that City ever get one of those games where we are the underdogs and everyone loves us and we get let off with two footed tackles and the News of the World want to talk to us but then I remember how much I hate clubs like that and the managers who play up to it like last week’s Barnet manager Paul Fairclough when he was manager of Stevenage when they played Newcastle ages ago. As I’m thinking about this I start to worry about how often Ali Gerba is getting caught offside cause at some point the linesman will let him go and he will equalise. He doesn’t but Jemal Johnson does hitting the ball in from miles away from the goal.

“That was a great goal” Ian offered at half time, “You couldn’t do that in hockey. The ball never leaves the ground.” Sometimes you wonder especially when it is really clear that you are nowhere near the National Hockey Stadium but it does turn out that stadium:mk is next to arena:mk where the Milton Keynes BasketBall team who they might have nicked off Chicago but probably didn’t play. “Rory Delap would be great at that, he should play for them” says Noel.

Half time is a different mood. What can Stuart McCall do? He is without a load of quality players in the midfield and almost every option that is suggested seems to be taking a punt on a player in the hope that while he might not do much most of the time he will be stunning today. Oddly enough this is not just applied to Billy Topp but Luke Sharry and Rory Boulding who as far as I can tell have done nothing to say they are the guys you play when you want to beat a team in the league above you.

Then again they have done nothing to say they are not. Sharry is a big lad and fills a midfield hole but we seem solid enough and have a good chance of taking these back to Valley Parade if we don’t throw Rory, Toppy and Sharry up front and take off everyone who is ever in our half.

The second half started in our half with Omar Daley’s long runs and Barry Conlon’s head being the only way that City could find to get out from the cosh. The home team won corners that were cleaned out by Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke who were both having great games. “The second corner should be a short corner” Dawn said and we all agreed that was a good idea really and that football could learn a lot from Hockey. “You could get two goals for shots from outside the box” which was a Basketball thing and could have had City losing at this point so probably wasn’t a good idea. “Imagine what Deano would have done with the stick, heads would have rolled.”

The Milky Dons started to use the flanks more with former Town flop Kevin Gallen running the channels for them and Michael Boulding starting to do the same for City. The defence which is never lauded of late did not buckle and Stuart McCall seemed to have settled for whatever this stiff rear guard and occasional counter-attack football would produce be it replay at Valley Parade or narrow defeat. We were all surprised when what was produced turned out to be a goal from Graeme Lee.

Boulding was fouled on one of his enterprising runs and while had Lee not blasted the free kick in then we would probably be asking why the fouler was not sent off but the free kick saw Lee step up like Marco Flaming Sas and belt the ball in hard and low to the back of the Dons goal. Like Marco Flaming Sas. I mean, who was expecting that? “He slam dunked that with his chuffing stick!”

Then it was attack and defence with Lewington wandering around the field trying to do everything and Matt Clarke looking as strong as he ever has. The Referee blew his whistle and we were through to the second round six fielders out and no Peter Thorne and everything.

Which says something about Stuart. Belief was thin on the ground today for us all and most of us who had come expected very little and chattered through the game about nothing much like the management team enjoying a trip with no expectation to win. Following City this year is about getting three points every week and the two cup games have been local derbies. We came here with hardly any midfielders against a team that beat us twice last year. This is the least pressure of the season and probably the most fun.

Stuart always clenches is fists and punches the air after a win but today he did so without that feeling that he had stuck it to his doubters but with a smile that he might have not expected it either.

The second round awaits. I doubt it will be as much fun.