Back to football as City take on Barnsley

The season, or should that be the open season, started early this year with Stuart McCall and Mark Lawn facing City fans in a forum leaving them happy on the way out but foaming at the mouth when typing.

It was one of those weeks where one is happy to get to the football as we do with the pre-season visit of Barnsley on Saturday.

City face the South Yorkshiremen in good pre-season form with the XI loss to Manchester City being largely forgotten about and McCall is able to further shape a squad that tellingly is numbered for the season but lacks a 1 and a 4.

Andy Holdsworth was to be that four before he jumped on the midfielder pile at Oldham. Some say that as a decent ball player with League One experience Holdsworth should have had the boat pushed out for him – the HMS Infinite Money one assumes – because he was obviously the missing piece in the puzzle.

These people have heard of Paul McLaren and, one assumes, know the concept of irony but these two things do not link.

Holdsworth joins Joe Keehan in exiting with the tanned man not making the grade and going home. Jordan Hadfield and Grant Smith have much work to do before being considered the man for the four but one recalls how Dean Furman did not sign for the club until August and wonders if similar might be in the works.

Hadfield, Smith and Estonian Jevgeni Novikov will have a run about alongside Lee Bullock for City against the Tykes. Joe Colbeck gears up down one flank, Chris Brandon the other although Rory Boulding and Luke Sharry will get runs out.

Behind Colbeck will not be Paul Arnison who formally ended his Bantams career as his contract was cancelled by mutual consent. Arnison and Mark Bower look set to join Darlington and while any miss Bower – I believe that that as good as a player as he is the team needed Matthew Clarke in it in League Two – we will miss Arni who was never massively popular.

As a full back I liked Arnison. He supported his winger going forward better than almost any right back player since Brian Mitchell left the club in the early 1990s which I thought made up for his failings at the back which saw him often too advanced but tellingly played in the City sides that performed well last season. Judging his performances on the field I would say that McCall made a mistake letting him go but the rumours dogging the North Easterner are that he is not a good character to have around the dressing room and so he exits.

Simon Ramsden takes the number two shirt from him and will – with Jonathan Bateson backing up – play alongside the pairing of (Perm two from) Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Matthew Clarke. Luke O’Brien and Louis Horne are the left backs and both will feature.

The number one shirt is up for grabs. Jon McLaughlin may take the gloves but with McCall stating his desire to bring in a loan keeper City might have a new man signed to play between the sticks by the time the teams run out on Saturday.

At the other end of the field James Hanson celebrates his professional contract he signed this week and is looking to continue his good form. Gareth Evans, Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding complete what looks to be a stronger striking line up than last season.

City kick off the season in two weeks – Sven is waiting – and already the season long debate over management has started. The best answers for all are victories.

Good early habits

It’s typically the earlier rather than latter stages of pre-season friendlies where the stronger conclusions can be made, and so it was at the Kit Kat Crescent where Bradford City’s encouraging 45 minutes of dominance was followed by a half played at the sort of pedestrian pace commonly displayed by the thousands of tourists York’s city centre is witness to.

City were comfortably in control throughout. We’re told the outcome of friendlies means nothing, but it’s worth noting Leeds United only managed a 3-3 with York the previous week and, for the first half at least, there was a competitive spirit to the match that offers heart for the season ahead given the outcome. Purpose and determination were behind a performance that could have seen more goals than the early strikes by Steve Williams and Michael Boulding. If, as we saw with the end of season collapse last year, losing quickly becomes habit; the level of professionalism displayed in clocking up three wins from three friendlies is a worthwhile addiction to develop ahead of the big kick off.

As with the previous two wins, for manager Stuart McCall one of the main tasks was judging whether a clutch of trialists could cut it in the competitive environment of League Two football and it was fitting that Williams, the first deemed good enough for a contract, fired City in front after heading home still-trialist Andy Holdsworth’s corner. There have been numerous central midfielders in particular auditioning for the number 4 shirt this pre-season and the former Town midfielder, who looked intelligent and industrious for the 63 minutes he played, would get my vote for a deal. Shortly afterwards Luke O’Brien again set up Boulding to slot home his third goal in three. Tucking away chances so regularly can only aid Boulding’s confidence and his success this season may be judged by how reliant City are on the ageing but still classy Peter Thorne.

Boulding linked up well with summer signing Gareth Evans, who looked sharp and might have opened his City account but for two good saves by York keeper Josh Mimms and a wasteful effort wide of goal following a promising counter attack. Evans is quietly impressing and looks able to take on the target man role Barry Conlon was inconsistently effective at. He probably won’t score the number of goals Thorne and Boulding will, but both are likely to prefer playing alongside a player who can do much of the uglier stuff for them.

City could have had more with the back four accomplished – Williams slotted in well alongside Zesh Rehman and Simon Ramsden looks impressive at right back – and the midfield comfortably in command. Joe Colbeck continued to receive abuse from a minority of fans, but by pre-season standards his performance was electric.

Alongside Holdsworth was Estonian trialist Jevegeni Novikov, who built on a slow start by showing some useful touches and passing the ball around confidently, he was also not afraid to go in for a tackle. As promising as he looked, a longer examination is surely needed as the pace of competitive football means he would have less time on the ball than he appeared to need at times. Something about his display reminded me of Robert Wolleston and a run out against Barnsley next week will offer more conclusive evidence of whether a contract should be offered.

For those trialists given time in the second half – Jack Pelter, James O’Brien, Joe Keehan and James Hanson – the opportunity for Stuart to make a solid judgement was less. The game became slow and low key with only a flurry of York corners headed well over to count as noteworthy action. Alan Mannus was kept in City’s goal for the full 90 minutes and Stuart must have been keen for him to be truly tested in order to assess him better. He was finally called into action when York substitute Simon Russell’s long range curler required a tip over and generally commanded his penalty area reasonably well. Whether he is good enough to be City’s number 1 remains a question to be answered.

But after a summer of much uncertainty, questions about City’s chances this season can be answered more positively on the evidence of pre-season. Of course winning at York means nothing compared to winning at Notts County, but there’s been a quiet level of professionalism about City so far that suggests the focus for the battles ahead is already building up nicely. Compare to last year’s pre-season that was littered with defeats, which preceded a campaign where good work was too often undermined by how casually City would allow themselves to be beaten. Or contrast it to three years ago, where a number of heavy losses to teams in a division below led to a campaign that would end with City joining them.

Whether the route back can be made this season will be better answered in the opening weeks of the season proper, but as we filed out of the Bootham Crescent into streets filled with tourists taking pictures while Stuart talked to his players about the game in the centre circle it increasingly feels as though City are not taking this period of the year lightly and are making the most of what pre-season can provide.

Some roles in the team are still to be decided, but those that take them will need to exhibit the same good habits the rest of the team is starting to regularly show.

Bantams weigh up the options as they head to York and beyond

As with anyone forced to confront big spending in these tough times the Bantams return to the possibilities of having a positive income refreshed after a rumage through the bargain bins.

Paul McLaren joined Graeme Lee in leaving the club, Michael Boulding started talking reduced terms and suddenly the likes of Andy Holdsworth – one of the best hundred players to take the field for Huddersfield apparently and player of the season the year before last – turns up for a game just as people start talking about Lee Hughes.

Such shopping is far from Harrods but it is not Lidl either which seemed as if it was going to be the shape of the City squad to come.

That bargain basement rumage seems to have turned up two players for now with the possibility of more to follow.

Steve Williams and James Hansom both suggest themselves immediately while a clutch of midfielders race to be most impressive with Joe Keehan adding himself to the list of James O’Brien and Jordan Hadfield.

It is sometime since City so clearly trawled the non-league market to pull in Williams, Hanson and Keehan and one wonders if the qualities that make someone a very good part-time player can be transferred to League Two level.

While the step from League Two to the Championship is one of class then that from non-league to League Two is of lifestyle.

As League Two players the new signings will be on around £25,000 a year which is not just a long way from the money being offered to John Terry but is comparable with the full-time jobs non-league players hold down now.

I’m no expert in how much a hairdresser in Bamber Bridge takes home but anything over £25,000 gives someone like Steve Williams a genuine decision to make.

League Two’s rank and file players are professionals earning in some cases less than non-league counterparts may get from the day job.

Such roughness of figures aside the point emerges that the non-league amateur or semi-pro might not be in professional football for financial rather than playing reasons and the step up to League Two level is less one of fitness and training rather than pure ability.

If the ranks of the non-professionals do offer fruit for the picking then City are in prime position to offer attractive terms being still one of the top half of spenders in League Two but having holes in the squad to fill.

The likes of Williams, Hanson or Keehan look to claim those rich pickings. Keehan’s half on Wednesday night showed a combative midfielder built like a tank and coloured like a tomato but the role he auditions for alongside Lee Bullock is of paramount importance to the Bantams side and one wonders if it could be handed to a rookie.

With financial pressures eased Stuart McCall may look to bring in a name such as Andy Holdsworth to replay and hopefully improve on McLaren last term. Certainly there is no position on the field worthy of more attention.

Nevertheless Alan Mannus has yet to be tested in goal but was worryingly quiet and punchy at Park Avenue.

The defence for Notts County is more or less picked with Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Matthew Clarke who will miss the York game through injury and Luke O’Brien lining up. Likewise Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding will open the season with the likes of Brother Rory, Gareth Evans and Hanson looking to be in the seven subs City will keep on the bench next season.

Joe Colbeck seems pencilled in for that first game but with the player on week to week deals and Oldham reportedly interested one wonders for how long he will be at the club. Replacement Luke Sharry looks more of a central player when replacing Colbeck but shows talent. Leon Osbourn seems to have much work to do before he is able to stand up in League Two but is warmly backed by supporters in a way that Colbeck or Omar Daley could only dream of.

The middle of the midfield is a mix at the moment with many players looking for a place next to Bullock.

McCall must be heartened by the names that have suggested themselves so far in pre-season but as he watches City take in York he will note that the team has requirements for the goalkeeper, the holding midfielder, one if not both wingers, and after plugging holes continue to build for the season ahead.

Names suggest themselves as pre-season continues with City win over Park Avenue

Having already established that beating teams way above you is meaningless one wonders how defeating the local non-league side should be viewed following Bradford City’s 2-0 win over Park Avenue.

The Bantams bested their City rivals with two second half goals and a clean sheet that made strong cases for two of the trialists who are looking to make the step up from the Avenue level to League Two.

The first half saw the Barber from Bamber Bridge Steve Williams look impressive at the heart of a defence alongside Grant Smith in a side led up front and as captain by Peter Thorne. Thorne’s partnership with Gareth Evans looked promising with the new young striker linking up well with the senior man climaxing late on in the half when a move that featured the thrusting play of Joe Colbeck – Colbeck is coming back to form – and a strong header that from the skipper which keeper Steve Dickinson did well to save.

Nevertheless more of the play seemed to be given to the back and to Williams who looked strong. That Williams and his defensive partners were involved so much – and that City broke down the right often and the centre and left less so – was down to a performance from the central two midfielders Jordan Hadfield and Lee Bullock which did not control the game well enough.

Which is not to say that City were overrun but that to win games at League Two and above is to win midfield battles and for the opening three quarters of the first half the Bantams middle two did not.

Half time parity was deserved but on the balance of the second half the Bantams were deserved winners – although of course that does not mean anything – following the entry of James Hanson who has gone a long way to securing himself a move from Guiseley to Bradford City.

Within a minute of the re-start Hanson had risen to head long pass into the path of Michael Boulding who took the ball and slotted home with confidence. Five minutes later a free kick was centred and Hanson – who scored two against Avenue on New Years Day last season – headed home firmly.

Boulding and Hanson could have both had more and Dickinson kept the score down as the Bantams middle two of former Huddersfield Town man Andy Holdsworth and Lewes young – and tanned – midfielder Joe Keehan grabbed the game.

The Bantams kept the game on the whole in the Avenue half although some late flurries forward saw keeper Alan Mannus – a keeper who had an unsettling tendency to punch – called into make a single save and watch a few go wide. Former City man Harpel Singh was ineffectual as ever on the left flank. Simon Ainge – who snuck out of City in recent months – was on the bench.

Hanson won aerial battles for the evening and Zesh Rehman and Matthew Clarke looked solid with a special note for Louis Horne who continues to look able at left back. Keehan was especially impressive but joins a list of midfielders trying out for the number four shirt. Keehan, Holdsworth, Hadfield, James O’Brien. Pre-season is for sorting such things out.

In Williams and Hanson it would seem that two names are suggesting themselves already.

Recent Posts