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.

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.

Le Foiled

So that’s it, thank you very much, goodnight. After this reverse there will be no more debate about where City will be playing next season.

When Rochdale sub Adam Le Fondre struck a late winner at Valley Parade six weeks ago it was seen by many City fans as the end to any Play Off chances. The more optimistic, or foolish, amongst us have kept some hope, borne from some subsequent excellent wins, but Le Fondre’s latest substitute cameo has ensured a City top seven finish is as likely as a relaxed passport official at Heathrow Airport.

As the final whistle was blown on the game and on City’s frail promotion hopes last night, the players received warm applause from the away fans as they accepted their team’s fate. It was an unfortunate defeat in many ways and worth noting it is only the second on the road in 2008. It may have been the night where lingering dreams were put to bed, but it was in costly home defeats to the likes of Mansfield, Dagenham and Bury that such ambitions were truly thwarted.

For the home side they can still dream of only the second promotion in their 100-year history. Needing the win just as badly but with more credible chances, Rochdale got off to a flyer by taking the lead inside 30 seconds. Eddie Johnson tried to keep hold of the ball for too long on the edge of the area and was robbed by David Perkin, the man who ran the show in the February Valley Parade meeting, who then charged through and scored with a low finish. As the home players celebrated several City players angrily confronted the linesman, though it wasn’t obvious what they were complaining about. It would not be the last argument between some very poor officials and those in Claret and Amber during the game.

Stunned by such a bad start, it took a while for City to get going as Rochdale passed the ball around well and created a few half chances. At Valley Parade they surprised with their all out attacking way of playing, which saw them dominate large periods, and they again proceeded to play with a high defensive line last night. Barry Conlon and Peter Thorne were both caught offside on numerous occasions. Johnson and Penford worked hard in midfield but lacked the presence and authority to truly win control over Rochdale’s. It was a night where the continuing absence of Lee Bullock was particularly felt.

A cleverly worked free kick saw Johnson hit the post after Paul Heckingbottom chipped the ball into his path and Penford also went close but, just like the first half at Darlington on Saturday, the home side enjoyed more possession and looked the bigger threat. Ben Muirhead, curiously booed by some City fans, almost struck a second but his low shot from distance fizzled wide. Yet for all the chances Rochdale created, just like at Valley Parade, you sensed they were lacking a decent striker to put them away and truly make them a force.

Someone like Thorne perhaps. As the ink dries on a newly signed contract, City’s top scorer added a 13th goal of the season on the hour by equalising from the spot. A good pass picked out Joe Colbeck, starved of the ball all evening and not the threat he can be, who ran into the area only to be bundled over. This was the first time since his penalty miss against Dagenham that Conlon has been on the pitch when City have won a spot kick, but the Irish striker would have been a brave man to try and take the ball off Thorne who dispatched the penalty confidently.

On Saturday City’s equaliser inspired the team onto better things, but it was Rochdale who roared back strongly. While this writer has yet to see the MK Dons this season and only saw Peterborough defeated at Valley Parade when they were yet to hit the subsequent heights they’ve achieved, the Dale have been the most impressive League Two opposition so far. With Perkin at the hub of everything, they continued to pass the ball around well and created some good chances. It was a night City’s defence needed to play well and there were some good performances from David Wetherall, Mark Bower and Heckingbottom. Recalled at right back, Ben Starosta struggled all evening and Rochdale particularly threatened down his side.

Alex Rhodes and Luke Medley came on as sub in an effort to turn the tide, but City were their own worst enemies by frequently giving the ball away whenever they won it back. What was needed was some calm and to play a few passes around to take the sting out of the game and control the tempo, instead efforts were blighted by hurried passes and stupidly ambitious balls out wide which just saw the pressure straight back on the defence. Clearances were often wayward; particularly Loach’s kicking which was woeful. Rochdale continued to create chances with Perkin almost netting from a spectacular strike, City were hanging on.

Which they failed to manage as substitute Le Fondre once again struck with a well placed low shot from just inside the penalty area, with just three minutes to go. There were groans from some City fans as TJ Moncur was thrown on to play up front, but his presence almost helped City to snatch an equaliser as Rochdale became nervous. Bower and Conlon both saw efforts come back off the bar and Penford’s stab attempt at goal was cleared off the line. On another night one of these chances would have gone in and City left the field at the end rueing their luck.

Such was the unlikeliness of the Play Offs, even if City had won, that the disappointment of being ruled out does not feel so bad at the moment. In many people’s eyes, this season will go down as a disappointment and this is understandable if not entirely accurate. When considering where City were five months ago and how much ground needed to be made up following the dreadful first third to the season, it was always going to be a tall order. 2008 has largely being good and, while there has been some poor performances, they have been outnumbered by some decent ones.

We may not be visiting Spotland next year as Rochdale look a good bet to finish and go up through the Play Offs, but City will be back next season a much wiser, smarter and hopefully better team. There’s now six games left to enjoy and a busy summer of ins and outs to follow. The makings of a decent side are here and there should be confidence in the management team that the summer strengthening can turn us into a stronger force next season.

Hopes of promotion over, but it won’t be long until we’re dreaming again.

Ben, Muirhead Leave City

Ben Muirhead has been released by Bradford City bringing to an end a turbulent five year connection between player and club that say him signed, released, signed again and go from favourite to failure to favourite to great white hope before his career with the club petered out.

Muirhead was signed from Manchester United and wasted no time in impressing with his right wing play that recalled the buccaneering style of Jamie Lawrence. At Turf Moor he ripped Burnley apart in a 2-1 win and he looked a huge threat for Nicky Law’s team.

However for all his exciting front foot play Ben had a number of flaws in his game – he would give the ball away when charging forward rather than win continued possession, he would try the impossible cross rather than winning the odd throw in – and these problems soon saw him benched as Law’s team struggled and Nicky Summerbee offered more crossing.

Nevertheless his flair cameos made sure he stayed popular and under Bryan Robson one Manchester United number seven told another how to play and he returned a Ben all about the end product.

He was the Ben Muirhead of forcing corners and tidy football and for a while that seemed to impress some however as his game improved the tide seemed to turn and – as famously identified by The City Gent’s John Watmough – “Ben” left and was replaced by “Muirhead”.

“Muirhead” was released as the club’s money problem mounted and Bryan Robson exited – he seemed to show most improvement under the famously good coach/bad manager that was Robson – only to be signed again as the club exited administration and start the next season well loved for his loyalty.

However while Muirhead was a better player for the team he seemed to lack the excitement of the flying winger Ben and he was not a regular feature in Colin Todd’s teams. By the time Jermaine Johnson and Omar Daley – both of whom could stand accused of all the worst and best points of Ben’s early play – arrived at the club the sun had set on Ben’s career at City and he was loaned to Rochdale.

His release from Bradford City comes at the end of that season and no doubt Rochdale will be interested in signing him – he scored three in nine games – after which we will no doubt see him again next year.

At such point – with the distance of opposition – we may discover if that winger is “Muirhead” or “Ben” after all.

Ben Back As Wetherall Looks For the Answer In The Most Obvious Place

The answer to all football’s problems is the next manager away.

Either that or it is the guy on the bench, or the guy coming back from injury, from suspension or – in the case of Bradford City at the moment – the guy coming back from loan.

Ben Muirhead is returning from Rochdale to cover the suspended Joe Colbeck and immediately the hopes of a City – well 1% of a City – are heaped on his shoulders.

I find Muirhead a curious player. Initially his brand of blind alley run with no end product drove me mad but everyone else seemed to love Ben!!. When Bryan Robson and Colin Todd had had a word with the former Manchester United winger he seemed to rid his game of some of the more wasteful parts and began to realise that charging at the full back and losing the ball might look good but winning a throw seventy yards from goal with infinitely preferable and so he did that.
Ben Muirhead got some end product to his game and was all the better for it but at this time Ben!! was replaced to Grrr Ben and finally Muirhead and his popularity wained. Loan at Rochdale was assumed to be the last we would see of the quiet Doncaster lad.

But now he is back and charged with the job of contending with the hot and cold blowing Omar Daley for the right wing role in four games that could shape the future of the club. Absence has made the heart grow fonder of Muirhead and big things are expected.

And at once one recalls the player ripping through defences a league above and looking oh so impressive. When Chris Waddle left Valley Parade City were in relegation trouble despite his entertaining play but it was Shaun Murray – the oft forgotten mid-1990s midfielder – who took the role that Waddle enjoyed and made it matter to the team. Sometimes – and David Wetherall will hope this time – it is about the shape of the peg rather than quality.

What happened to white boots?

Considering the anticipation I had at his every touch two years ago Tom Penford’s sudden and effective re-emergence blindsided me at Valley Parade on Saturday. Sure TP was on the bench but I had assumed that Colin Todd was engaged in more of a shirt filling exercise and that the player I saw so much potential in before would carry on as a reserve until he exited in the summer.

Penford arrived on the field and then arrived with his perfectly floated cross to Dean Windass and the rest is the future and at the moment that looks bright. Back in August Colin Todd had had the chance to release Penford but kept him on saying he saw something there but making it clear that something needed shaping.

Back when Penford made his debut against West Brom in 2003 blooding players was very much the order of the day. I was impressed by the languid style Penford has and his way of moving slowly with the ball to give himself more time on it. In a game crammed with players and managers who believe pace is the answer to all situations it was refreshing to see Penford style. Refreshing and reminiscent of Chris Waddle’s days at Valley Parade. Penford – born in Leeds but a childhood Bantams – had watched the former England man and learned.

However somewhat conversely to the problems with administration Penford and many of his peers found themselves further from the first team squad as the club rebuilt. Kevin Sanasy was exiled at Farsley Celtic in a kind of swap deal for 18 year old forward Nick Smith and the sense was that Penford would go in a similar direction. He still might – football is a game that punishes the player who rests on his laurels – but the chances of him leaving VP in the summer now seems greatly reduced.

So what has happened in the past few years to Penford. The one cross aside Penford’s contribution to the 1-1 draw with Swansea was significant and effective. It had the end product which Colin Todd used to talk to Ben Muirhead about and showed a talent, not a promise, for the future.

One can only guess. The work Colin Todd and Bobby Davison put in on the training ground has had hand in the development of Penford and who are being presented with chances at Valley Parade at the moment for sure but one suspects that they couple of months of league football when 17 which TP got has given him an understanding of what is required to make it in the game.

After a few months playing the men’s game a 16/17/18 player gets more focused on what will be required of them when they are older and the exceptions made for being a kid are peeled back for the player to be revealed. David Wetherall believes that Penford needs to build up his body and he is no doubt right but that point was probably apparent to the player back in 2004 and is something he has worked on. The 2006 Tom Penford got stuck in enough for my liking and looks like a guy who is serious about getting on in football. The white boots of two years ago were gone and replaced with businesslike black. The early blooding means that we are not fielding a 20 year old fresh face to be kicked about by senior professionals but a player who understands the requirements of league football.

The future for Penford is open now – one good performance needs to be built on – but that future could be bright because at the age of 20 City are producing a player not a prospect. Note that all this applies in equal measure to Danny Forrest who is loaned out at Halifax Town at present but like Penford will be hoping to have a future at the club he supports.

So to Yeovil and Penford hopes to maintain a place in the team. The haircut might be a bit Chris Martin but the attitude in his play and the play on the field is obviously more aimed at producing an end product and that is in no small part thanks to a early blooding in the City team.

A template for the future, so to speak.

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