The development squad and a plan to improve the club

Blame it on Silvio Berlusconi. Back in the early 1990s the man who would bring the term bunga bunga into common usage was the flamboyant chairman of an AC Milan team which sported Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard as the allowed three non-Italian players.

UEFA and Serie A rules mandated that a club could only have three non-Italians and so the practice was that the Lira went to a chosen trio of outsiders. Clubs were defined by the foreign players they had and Milan were the Dutchmen, across the City Inter were German with Jürgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthäus and Andreas Brehme. It was a simpler time to watch football, and to be Silvio Berlusconi.

The future Italian PM announced though that Milan would be signing three more World Class non-Italians and – starting with the unfortunate Gianluigi Lentini – eight more Italians to create a second team which would play in European competition in the week. The one would be fresh for the weekend, the other fresh for midweek, and players would swap between the two teams.

And so modern squad football was born.

Bradford City’s own Phil Babb was a part of the emergence of the squad in the English game. in 1994 Babb and John Scales joined a Liverpool side managed by Roy Evans who already had the beloved Neil Ruddock at the heart of the back four and the maths did not match. Was Ruddock for the chop? Would Babb be out at left back (or up front, as he was at City)? What was Evans doing signing more than two top quality central defenders?

“Moving to a back three and wing backs” turned out to be the answer to the question poised by the question itself was illustrative. Growing up in the eighties my brother and myself could name the one to eleven of every team in Division One and that one to eleven was set in stone, seemingly unaffected as today’s line ups are by loss of form, injury and failing super-injunctions.

A team like Liverpool seemingly had no need for a spare defender – one sub, four four two and all – but soon the idea verbalised by Berlusconi would make the sort of questions that Evans face irrelevant. Within two years and in the run up to Euro ’96 Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United were signing Tino Asprilla when they already had Les Ferdinand, Andy Cole, Peter Beardsley, Alan Shearer, Super Mac, Wor Jackie Milburn et al.

In 1981 Aston Villa won the League using only fourteen players all season. The modern football squad demands eighteen per match and a host of others to insure that even the League Two player is not required to take the field with the sort of injury which was played through in earlier eras after which players retired at thirty, and could not walk.

So we have a situation where Manchester City have over forty players in their first team squad as an extreme example and most teams could put out something approaching Berlusconi’s two teams a week. If you are on the edges of one of those huge squad – and Bradford City’s is 21 strong at current assessment – then you seem a long way from the first team. Unless you get to do something special from the bench you are a long way from the first team.

So while the dozen and some who regularly feature in the first team focus on getting from game to game the players on the edges – especially the younger ones – should be focusing on improvement. Enter the development squad.

It seems to have come from Archie Christie who came to Bradford with John Still when the Bantams interviewed the entire Dagenham and Redbridge backroom staff for roles at Valley Parade. Something had powered the Essex club’s rise from non-league compound to League One club and it seems that Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes believe that Christie is it.

Chief scout and he brings in some young lads from Falkirk which seems a sensible move but not an unexpected one but as Head of Football Development Christie’s Development Squad offers something new.

Wayne Allison approves and has been recruited to coach “The Developments” as they shall be hamfistedly dubbed with his aim on taking players who have signed professional contracts after their two year apprenticeships but are not in the first team picture week in week out, or who are falling in the limbo between young player and first teamer, and concentrate on improving them as players over getting them ready for matches as the first team squad do.

Squad sizes have increased massively in the last fifteen years, but the focus of training is on preparing a group of players for the next game leaving those who play ready, and those who do not having wasted that time. The Development Squad offers a chance to make better use of those players allowing the first team to focus on preparation, and the fringe on improvement.

Of course the idea could be a failure. Dag & Red’s success might be down to something else entirely, Christie’s ideas might not be relocatable, it all just might not work but for once Bradford City have come up with a plan to improve the quality of the footballers at the club rather than trying the tried and failed method of trying to buy in promotions or assemble squads on a season by season basis.

A plan on improving footballers is a plan to improve the football club and, in effect, the first time since the Premier League that Bradford City have had a plan to improve the club that might work.

Bad Ref Afternoon

I’m becoming increasingly fed up with paying my money to watch games refereed by officials so one-sided you have to wonder whether they are cheating.

There is a problem in football and Andy Utley’s comment on the BfB report on the Rotherham United game sums it up. Tired from asking the question “bias or bloody rubbish?” supporters such as Andy – and myself – are frustrated at the inaction of the game’s authorities to these Bad Ref Afternoons are voting with their wallets.

Andy’s comments about contacting the Football League about a Referee’s performance are far from unique in the BfB post bag and a good few City fans after the Oldham/Blackpool/Southend/Shrewsbury games a few years ago wrote to the football authorities to complain about what they saw as bias in the officials and all got the same response of “say what you like about the Refs but never say they are cheating.”

Not that Andy’s comments – or my thoughts on the subject – are the only voice to be heard. Chris Barlow on BfB – late on an evening – added

To talk of conspiracy between referees against BCFC due to SM’s attitude even defies my current drunken state.

Chris has a valid point too and one which Tony Pulis the Stoke manager would agree with – he would not see Referees as against City but rather suggest that Lee Probert is just not giving the right decisions. The flaw in the idea that Referees are blighted by a bias against Bradford City is that they have seemingly been for Bradford City and while aspersion are not to be cast our chairmen are no whiter than any others.

This is countered by the idea that it is rare for a team who wins a game to have a lasting memory of any referee. Think back now to the last time City got what you could call a favour from an official. It is a much harder task than recalling the last time you stomped away in anger.

There is an attitude in football that any cheating in the game is always detected and thus the suggestion of cheating is always wrong. This is often and obviously untrue. In League Two Accrington players have been banned for betting on their own team to lose while at the other end of professional football the likes of Juventus were relegated for fixing matches.

We see that cheating is commonplace – certainly more commonplace than the Football League’s terse replies to genuine concerns suggest – with the Italian example being a very high profile collection of games in which teams had favourable Referees. One wonders if any Inter supporter trooping away from a game with Juve, AC Milan et al complaining about the offside goal that the Ref “just got wrong” was told that “referee’s don’t cheat.”

The word “cheat” has a strange set of connotations in football. It is a given that players cheat all the time – when Thierry Henry did it in the World Cup play-offs the reaction was a condemnation not for the player for blatantly abusing the rules but for the officials for not spotting the abuse – and in some cases plaudits are expected when players show any honesty at all. I recall being invited to admire Cristiano Ronaldo by a work mate because he had “cut diving out of his game” as if the fact that he no longer cheated was something to be celebrated rather than the fact he had condemned.

Managers tend to avoid the “cheat” word for fear of the FA sanction it brings although Stockport County’s Jim Gannon feared it not – and fell foul of it not – when he stated that he believed that having kicked up a fuss over one Referee’s poor performance officials were penalising County as a result. Gannon was never charged by the FA and the comments fizzled out after his move to Motherwell. He was last seen in colourful debate with Hugh Dallas about the standard of Scots officials.

The manager’s secret language though contains a number of phrases the heart of which is the asserting that the Referees have shown a bias. From “FIFA will be pleased” to “You don’t get those decisions at Old Trafford” they say meaning that bias has been shown against their side but stopping short of airing the words. Stuart McCall employed some Referee code saying that a recent official would find the decision embarrassing meaning simply that the man in the middle was wrong. As a result the people of Carlisle grew angry suggesting once again that anyone who questions the officials should be made to shut up.

McCall’s comments after the Carlisle United game echoed Andy’s as the City manager added that he felt sorry for Bantams supporters who had paid to come North on a Tuesday night only to see a game ruined by an official and his decision making. Tellingly in the spat between McCall, his old mate Greg Abbott and the local Carlisle newspaper the referee of the day – Tony Bates – kept his mouth shut.

Therein is the problem – and perhaps the solution – in Refereeing. For ninety minutes a week officials issue edicts to players which ripple through to managers and to supporters but once that ninety minutes is up they walk away from the ground never to utter a word about the game again (stopping only, perhaps, to summarily judge that someone has sworn at them in the car park).

Managers talk about games, players talk about games, fans talk about games but referees will not. Indeed it is in the Laws of the Game that officials are not to use body language as signals inform supporters of the reasons for decisions so the generous Ref who points to his palm to signal handball is risking the wrath of his superiors who would have him make, but never explain, decisions.

With that in mind Bates could not mime a second tug to show all why Simon Ramsden was sent off at Carlisle and Lee Probert could not make the dive motion he obviously though the Bantams defenders were doing when the Rotherham’s Broughton’s elbows were flying around. Perhaps this is for the best. Referees already seem to be falling into Pantomime, we do not want it to be mime.

Referee do make a detailed report for the FA after every game but trying to get a look at that report is out of the question. A polite mail to the authorities, a raging demand as a consumer of the football product, a pleasing begging letter. No matter what you are not seeing why the man who ruined your trip to Cumbria did what he did. It is a policy which is supercilious to the point of an insult.

Supercilious and utterly unnecessary. It is well within possibilities that a referee could fill in his report online with the ability to add a note on every yellow card or goal given, to make general comments on the game and give reasons that on a Monday morning every fan who had spent good money going to a match could log on and read.

So if Lee Probert had made a couple of notes on his match report: “44 mins – I felt that Ramsden was injured not the contact from the player and not by an elbow” and “3-2 Rotherham – I thought the Free Kick was taken from within an acceptable area of the offence penalised” then at least supporters would have a reason for the decisions. Communication is important in increasing respect and trust. It is good to talk, I know I heard it on an advert.

Sadly though the line from officials is not that they want respect – as the campaign is titled – but rather fealty and this is a problem for football. Supporters have past being tired with this position and have moved into an action of inaction.

Me, Andy and many others are fed up with paying money (and spending a day of the weekend) watching referees that behave in the way we so often see and knowing genuine worries will be summarily dismissed out of hand by the FL simply which only serves to thumb the nose of the footballing authorities at the supporters. The outcome seems to be that more and more supporters decide against a trip to Barnet or Exeter because of the risk of one of these “bad ref afternoons”.

There are other reasons why football trips are less enjoyable now that they were ten or fifteen years ago but no matter what list one draws up the quality of refereeing is a significant reason why a fan can’t justify spending the thick end of £50 on an away trip.

The culture of secrecy that officials live under not only leaves supporters asking the “bent or bloody rubbish” question but also creates a set of conditions in which cheating referees would be allowed to prosper. Start to address the issue with refereeing by creating a feedback loop in which fans can at least find out why decisions are made and one shines a cleansing light into the world of officials.

Failure to address this issue and the game carries on turning off supporters by tiny, significant and avoidable increments.

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