The thrashing by Bristol City that taught us what we already knew

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Gary MacKenzie, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott, Mark Yeates | James Hanson, Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, Tony McMahon, Christopher Routis

The emotion

“Eight One.

Eight Bloody One!

Eight One To Brighouse. They are a team of old aged pensioners! The centre forward wears glasses. During the match!”

Eight goals! Four of them from back passes to the goalkeeper!

They were the worst.”

Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns

The substance

If the one goal defeat at Gillingham did not finalise Bradford City’s inability to make the League One play offs in 2015 then the goal sodden mess of a 6-0 home defeat to Bristol City did.

For those who had seen City only in the brightest moments: the Chelsea, the Sunderland, the Doncaster Rovers, the Millwall at home, the Preston away; then this result might not be able to be set in context. For those of us – and this is most of us – this represents the low watermark in a season which offered equally contrasting highs but was always due to tend to the middle.

That Bristol City looked like the all-stars of the bottom two divisions goes some way to explaining their success this year. The likes of Luke Freeman, Marlon Pack, Wade Elliott, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, and Aaron Wilbraham have been best players for different teams for the last few years. The Robins have put them together with devastating results for the Bantams.

Bradford City – on the other hand – endured a night of compounded mistakes passing through the team like a virus and starting from the dis-effective. There was something in the way that Mark Yeates kept playing James Meredith short that caused Meredith problems and those problems chipped into a decent display from the left back which became a very poor one.

From Meredith it spread. After the left back was beaten by the effervescent Freeman for a second goal which Stephen Darby was massively outjumped for it had passed to the opposite full back (credit Darby, he strode on manfully) but most crucially to the goalkeeper Ben Williams.

Williams’ command of his box was shot and the area behind Rory McArdle and Gary MacKenzie was freeland for the opposition where it should be an area for a all out keeper to come claim balls. This would be seen in the 4th goal, or perhaps the 5th, where Pack bent a ball behind the central defenders and in front of Williams and there was the freedom of the pitch to head home in.

It is horrible to write off a man’s career but Williams seemed a spent force. A technical goalkeeper who needs to show a command of his box which he does not he is like the minutes after a goal when Jon McLaughlin would sulk stretched out for entire games. Jordan Pickford’s mouth on style will take him to places Williams’ laconic ways will not, and are far more useful.

MacKenzie caught what was going around. His defending was average but his failure was in attempts to play controlled passes rather than clearances, and a strange choke that saw him trying to volley away things he would previously have headed.

The Choke – an interesting concept in Sports Psychology – I use to to describe a failure to win what was expected but to do what is normally done. MacKenzie – when under pressure and at three goals down – stops being the reliable clearance based replacement for Andrew Davies and starts trying to play the ball like Beckenbauer.

The midfield were out muscled – at times unfairly and Gary Liddle will wonder how his being elbowed in the closing stages is something that can be ignored – but at times by a Bristol City side who were more committed to winning the game. The 442 Phil Parkinson favoured for the evening badly needs a speedy winger to stop an opposition midfield sitting toe to toe knowing it will not be beaten for pace.

Parkinson switched to a 4312 for the second half. If the manager wants to maintain an ability to move between the two formations he needs at least one fast wide player who can make the flat four lass flat and he needs to rethink Billy Clarke’s ability in the playmaker role in a three man with one behind formation.

Clarke drifted out of the game at about fifty five minutes last out never to be seen again. Pack dealt with him well – one seldom comes up against such a player – but to highlight the problem Luke Freeman was offering a masterclass in playing the playmaker role for the opposition.

Freeman was a constant threat – the type of player you do not want to see on the ball – in a way that Clarke has not been. In truth Freeman offers a model the playmaker role – set out for Mark Yeates at the start of the season – to be filled by Billy Knott who does the job of constant annoyance better than Clarke.

As it was Clarke was ineffective as was Jon Stead. Stead fills the heart with joy – Chelsea and all that – and typifies City’s season. Sometimes he is Chelsea, sometimes he is this, and when negotiating with the forward (perhaps in Lira, so to speak) one hopes nights like this where he offered very little of note are remembered.

Which is not to criticise the former England u21 player but while he was an England u21 player James Hanson was working at the Co-op and on the night when he saw his team get battered Hanson emerged with credibility. His head did not go down, his levels did not drop, and he alone could be said to have earned his corn on this woeful evening.

What then for Parkinson and his squad. As obliquely referenced above takeover talk buzzed around Valley Parade with the idea of investment on the horizon. Often a double edged sword this investment may give Parkinson the wage budget to improve his side but Parkinson will look for characters to do that, and it is character that was lacking tonight.

The squad – at the moment – seems to break into three groups. There are players who lead and who have the character needed for success: Hanson, McArdle, Davies, Darby and more; and there are players who when led will show the character to create a great group and team: Morais, Knott, Meredith, MacKenzie and more; and there are players who seem to have failed a test of character or of usefulness: Yeates, Routis, Zoko, Williams and more; who the manager has taken a look at must have found wanting.

The ability to process the side to sift the one from the other is the test that Parkinson faces every year. It seems more pressing when one throws a carriage clock out of a window but it is not.

Promotion this year was an optical illusion based on the curvature of a win over Chelsea and ignoring the displays where City came up short mentally, and in character, and was a practice in confirmation bias.

The 6-0 home defeat to Bristol City confirmed promotion for them but told us what we already knew – that Bradford City were not going to be promoted this season – and so we move onto next.

The Dutch score but they are no masters

The technical debate – the reasons why a decision has been given or not – I love. I got my teeth into Aaron Wilbraham’s almost goal against City at the end of the season loved the debate between fans. The reasons why. The knowing the rules. The knowing football.

So when The Dutch squared a ball to Ruud van Nistelrooy who stabbed in I though offside. My attention was drawn to a player on the floor behind the goal, the replay showed that he would technically still be involved in play – according to rule 14, got to love rule 14 – and thus the goal should stand.

A remarkable bit of refereeing. The correct decision. Justice is done.

Yet something does not ring true and for a while I change the Blue shirts to Claret and Amber in my head and try empathy and it comes to me. Last season City were forced to defend with a man down in our own six yard box – technically the Referee should have stopped the game because playing on was dangerous – and that player played all onside.

I recall at the time talking of the technicalities of the decision that should have been but was not made then and were I Italian I’d no doubt be speaking of the same today. Of course Rudd van Nistelrooy – the master of offside – is allowed to stab the ball home and is rendered onside by a prone Christian Panucci but should he have?

Morality has little sway in football but using an injured player to gain an advantage – while legal – is hardly fair and certainly not laudable. Van Nistelrooy is technically right but wrong in so many other senses.

The pain of football is that were Ruud to ignore the chance he is equally likely to have seen his team suffer from similar. Least we forget that the Italian team that claims the crown as World Champions represents a League and an FA which allows AC Milan to represent it in the Champions League the season after they have found them guilty of match fixing and hands out punishments to Juventus that would hardly prevent a repetition of the systematic and persisting cheating of the Old Lady of Turin.

The woe of football is that rules have to be constructed around the idea that cheating them will become inevitable and that no one expects fair play. Should Ruud pass that goal up because Pannuci is injured? Pannuci played on.

The tragedy of football is that we expect so little from it.

Not fit to referee

I shall be clear, dear reader, from the offset.

Joe Colbeck deserved the red card after 37 minutes for a violent tackle on Dean Lewington which saw the 2-0 down City’s performance against the Champions of League Two but aside from ordering the Bantams player of the season off the field Karl Evans put in a shameful, disgraceful, unfit for purpose refereeing display.

All of which stops the match report I would like to have written about City’s man of the hour and about the prospects for next season and forces me to write once more about the appalling state of officials.

First things first though this afternoon – the final home game of the season – saw David Wetherall’s last match at Valley Parade and the penultimate of his career. Wetherall led City’s players in the minute’s silence in memory of the victims of the fire of 1985 and as he did my mind drifted back to May 2000 when Wetherall’s header kept City in the top flight and relegated our opponents the Dons. I recall that on that day the Liverpool supporters observed the silence with not a decibel before joining the Bantams fans in roaring through a pulsating game of football. The visitors today paid similar respects and held a banner to commemorate. They are much criticised – these Milton Keynes Dons – but as supporters they did themselves credit today.

Paul Ince’s team deserve some credit too and obviously can play a bit. They go up as champions largely on the strength of the away form that make this the eighteenth win on the road of the season but the Dons win at all costs attitude is best summed up with a casual phrase thrown around in the second half. “Paul Ince will make a good Arsenal manager one day.”

The Dons took a lead early on with after City had started the brighter and Barry Conlon should have given City the lead but Willy Gurrett loomed large the in the goal after good work had put the Irishman through and Conlon hit the ball wide. The Dons lead came from a ball crossed from the left – Darren Williams did not have a good game and left Colbeck out wide to cope with Lloyd Dyer – which travelled too far untouched by Bantams to be not considered a mistake by the back four when Jude Stirling headed home. Ince fielded a 352 which was effective while the Bantams soft pedalled.

Dyer scored the Dons second after powerfully converting a long throw which bounced over Wetherall’s head and it would be tempted to chalk that goal off as being a mistake by the man who is a little too long in the tooth but Williams once again allowed Dyer free reign to come in from the flank and Eddie Johnson simply watched the winger run past him to score. Johnson seems set to be a good twelfth man for the Bantams should he stay but one suspects that promotions are not made of displays as he puts in all too often. His inclusion at the expense of Tom Penford seemed unjust and up until the sending of off Colbeck which was to follow Johnson did not show enough desire. Not enough by half and he was not alone in that.

Colbeck’s sending off on 37 minutes was just. He trolled into Lewington who he had tormented with his pace earlier in the game as he steamed in anger. That Colbeck’s fury was caused by Dons skipper Keith Andrews elbowing him in the face in the pattern of play that preceded it is no excuse just as those managers who moaned that Dean Windass had squeezed testicles or niggled their players before retaliation had followed. The likes of Cheltenham’s John Finnegan painted themselves as wronged heroes following retaliation against Windass and were allowed to do but to be they were over angry and needed to allow the referee to take control rather than giving out what justice they saw fit as should Colbeck. That Karl Evans was a pathetic referee is not a reason why you should be allowed to take your anger out on another player so violently and Colbeck blotted and impressive copybook.

Nevertheless a strange fury surrounded the deserved red card and City to a man increased the levels of performance. Wronged – supposedly – the Bantams roared into the Dons and began to create sustained spells of pressure with Kyle Nix prompting in the midfield and Barry Conlon making himself a nuisance up front. Omar Daley’s dazzling run and left footed finish gave City a glimmer of hope at half time and the half ended in farce. A visitors corner ended up in disgusting two footed smash tackle on Kyle Nix by Jordan Hadfield which was much worse than the attack that had seen Colbeck sent off and went unpunished as Evans called a halt to the first half with former Bantam Aaron Wilbraham holding Scott Loach in a headlock and trying to shake him to retrieve the ball.

Colbeck deserved sending off. Football has no room for retribution being taken out in that way but it has no room for players grabbing each other in headlocks – the thin end of a wedge that ends with violence – and it certainly has no room for the type of two footed lunge that sent Nix spinning from Hadfield. The Bantams went in at half time 2-1 down to a chorus of boos for Referee Evans who would come out to perform so much worse in the second half with the words “You’re not fit to referee” ringing in his ears and such a phrase is true. Referees have a duty of care to the players written into the rules of the game in in ducking the decision to punish Hadfield or Wilbraham Evans hid from that responsibility. I would not like to have been a player on the field in such a lawless environment.

Evans made a litter of mistakes small and large in the second half missing the most obvious corner seen in football, allowing a waist high wrestling move on Darren Williams when he came through, giving a random set of decisions against Barry Conlon and Dons man Danny Swailes as the tussled all afternoon and at one point allowing Wilbraham to sneak back onto the field of play after going behind the touchline and rob Loach of the ball which he pinged off the bar of an open goal.

Your average football fan can be forgiven for not knowing that player who leave the field – go over the white line – have to ask permission to come back onto the field and that it is only a convince to allow them not to return to the pitch at the halfway line (as substitutes do) but Karl Evans is paid to know the rules of football and rather than stopping play and booked Wilbraham he allowed play to continue. It is Law 12.6 if you want to grab your copy of the rules and check it out and it is right above the rule that he used to send Colbeck off.

What can you say about a situation where the Referee knows or applies on the rules he decides at that time? I hope he is just a pathetic referee rather than a bent one but I can not accept that he is neither.

The frustration with Evans’s display was matched by that of City’s knocking on but never breaking through the MK Dons defence – David Wetherall’s header wide went in in a more romantic world – and in the end a ten man Bradford City were better than the eleven of the champions. Paul Ince had four months at StockportMacclesfield (an impressive five months) before he started at the Dons and one cannot help but wonder if after four months of learning at City Stuart McCall had have been able to start the season at the beginning of January would the Bantams be in the position that Ince’s men are?

McCall has got a City team that try play a bit, that can play a bit, that are naive in places but very exciting to watch. The team needs a tweak here and there but not wholesale change and one hopes that Colbeck will have put off potential suitors today and that should he start for the year long loan that seems to hang on Watford getting promoted then Scott Loach does not have to many games as he did today but the Bantams should be considered serious promotion contender next season.

This season though is full of what ifs. What if Peter Thorne had been fit at the start of the season? What if Joe Colbeck had found such scintillating form earlier? What if that run of not winning all through Autumn had not come? What if? The Dons take the championship but one cannot help but be reminded and paraphase of the famed comment of John Bradford – there, but for the grace of God, goes Bradford City.

The grace of God and a better referees maybe.

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