Timeline / Reboot

There is a difference between you and me. We both looked into the abyss, but when it looked back at us, you blinked – Bruce Wayne, Crisis

There was a point in the history of Bradford City where the club took one turn, and could have taken another.

To be more accurate these points happen all the time but watching Stuart McCall take a Bradford City through pre-season at Guiseley I ended up thinking back to the days of January and February 2007 when Dean Windass was allowed to leave City and join Hull, and Colin Todd was sacked.

Todd’s contract was up at the end of the season and it was an open secret that Julian Rhodes wanted McCall to replace him. The need for totemic best player Windass seemed to be over with Rhodes convinced that the Bantams had enough points that David Wetherall could not possibly get them relegated in his time as manager (which he did) and had he not Rhodes might have used – not certainly not needed – an investment from then supporter Mark Lawn.

And had Rhodes excersized restraint and kept Todd, or Windass, or both, or taken another option then McCall may well have arrived in June 2007 to the very type of situation he found himself in some nine years later.

But these things happen all the time. Had Notts County’s one yarder in the first round of the League Cup 2011/2012 gone a foot lower then there would not be a Phil Parkinson legacy – such as it is – for McCall to adopt.

That legacy is not to be understated either. Parkinson has left City in rude health. The leanness of the squad in summer which caused so much consternation is purposeful and a feature of the majority of clubs outside the higher reaches of the game where lengthy deals on players are more often liabilities than assets. Only the foundations are secured in League One football these days.

And the foundations off the field are secured.

Parkinson – as far as the story is told – never walked into the boardroom and demanded money the club could not afford for players and given how easily led the boardroom seemed to be that is a good thing. That the squad last season was patched with loan players rather than panic purchases says a lot.

List the players from last season who City owned to still be at the club this season and names like Rory McArdle and Stephen Darby – both absent today and for the start of the season following operations – would be iterated through. Ben Williams and Jamie Proctor would not.

“The owl of Athena spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk” – as Hegel should have said – and it seems that dusk has not come yet for Parkinson.

Rather than a reboot of 2007/2008 and McCall’s first time as Bradford City manager in League Two it seemed that the manager was on the road not travelled, and playing in what could have been.

What was was an entertaining encounter. It would be wrong to talk about Guiseley as more than an extended and expensive training session and so to pick out specifics rather than trends seems to miss the point of the exercise.

Those trends though seemed positive.

The young players who stepped up from the lower ranks which Parkinson ignored and played with the élan of The Lisbon Girls allowed out to party for the first time. Daniel Devine’s name suggests itself.

The trialists looked lively in a way that seemed different to those Parkinson brought in. All looked capable and some looked impressive. The wheat from the chaff comes in spending time with the characters and seeing how they fit into a unit which is what games like this are all about.

It was good to see George Green make a long awaited debut. George Green and the subject of paths not taken is interesting assuming you remember the name.

And of the new signings Nathaniel Knight-Percival did not have much to do while Nicky Law Jnr set up an equalising goal for Tom Hateley (trialist) to score from. That moment when Hateley equalised revealed the game for what it was. The Bantams were happy to kick the ball around but would not go home in a defeat. The gears shifted up after falling behind showed a team working fitness rather than working to win.

And all seemed new. Parkinson has left something good at Bradford City but his exit seems to have taken with it some of the stolid tenancies which mired City’s thinking. All that was good seems good and all that was not seems new.

Which is not something that one would have expected.

Retained / Leave

Steve Davies has been released by Bradford City along with Christopher Routis, Billy Knott, Alan Sheehan, Dylan Mottley-Henry and Sam Wright. Greg Leigh, Nathan Clarke, Ben Williams, Jamie Proctor, Joe Cracknell and James King have been offered contracts.

Davies leaving the club seemed to be inevitable after a season which he failed to secure a place in the starting eleven. The same could be said for Billy Knott who was always individually impressive in games but played a kind of attacking midfield which Phil Parkinson seldom uses. Knott and Davies could both be retooled into the withdrawn striker role which Billy Clarke plays but Parkinson obviously has not seen enough from either in that position. Davies’ legacy is a late goal against Millwall in the league game at Valley Parade and any number of kicks and niggles that earned him the nickname “The wind-up footballer” so easy did it seem to be to get under his skin as seen at Coventry City.

Knott scored against Leeds United, and played against Chelsea, and shall always have a place in my heart and I suspect yours.

That Jamie Proctor has been offered a contract to stay – and the contract offers in situations where the player will be at the end of a deal always tend to be of the take-it-or-leave-it variety – says something about his usefulness in the squad. When Phil Parkinson is asked to choose between Proctor and James Hanson his decision seem to be given the weekly grind of a season – and the injuries that brings – he might as well have both if the money is right. Otherwise Proctor is free to look elsewhere.

One suspects that along with Proctor Nathan Clarke, Greg Leigh, Ben Williams have all been given an understanding of their position in the pecking order. Clarke might have thought he did enough at the end of the season to warrant a chance in the starting eleven but his similarity to, and inferiority to, Rory McArdle has allowed him to leave if the offer he has is not suitable. The younger Greg Leigh is in a similar situation as understudy to James Meredith.

That Parkinson is prepared to let record breaking goalkeeper Ben Williams reject a deal and exit the club says a lot about his position and – one suspects – the hunt being on for a new custodian with often loaned out Manchester United man Sam Johnstone supposedly of interest to City.

All of which leaves City with:

  • Perhaps Ben Williams
  • Perhaps Joe Cracknell
  • Stephen Darby
  • Perhaps Nathan Clarke
  • Rory McArdle
  • James Meredith
  • Perhaps Greg Leigh
  • Reece Webb-Foster
  • Mark Marshall
  • Filipe Morais
  • Tony McMahon
  • Josh Morris
  • Paul Anderson
  • Billy Clarke
  • James Hanson
  • Perhaps Jamie Proctor

End / End

All good things, it is often said, must come to an end and so it was that on the 48th game of a season that started with an unsettlingly easy 4-1 defeat at Swindon Town Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City acquiesced to remaining in League One for another season.

City lost a two legged game 4-2 to Millwall and while there was plenty to be said about those games: why was that wall lined up like that? Why was a handball to deny a goalscoring opportunity not the cause of a red card?; more needs to be said about how City got to the play-offs.

Parkinson’s team had been built to win promotion, but struggled badly, and what was built was rebuilt. 2015/2016 was the year of two the Bradford City teams. The first was a team with flying wingers – even in the inside midfielders were wingers at heart – and had a name goalkeeper and a pacey forward. The second was a nailed together collection of talented loan players, short term signings and making the best of what was there.

And to that extent the success of this Parkinson this season – his ability to forge a team from scraps – is also his failure in that the summer recruitment of 2015 has more than anything shaped the campaign. That failure is shared – very little at a modern football club is down to one man – but the lessons from it need to be understood for the club to make progress.

The success of this season was the return of Kyel Reid as Parkinson attempted in a reboot of his team. Lee Evans and Josh Cullen were better than anyone can expect a pair of loan players to be and Reece Burke showed no little ability but each of those successes is a retrofit to a mistake in the summer. Jamie Proctor, who others adore but I have reservations over, arrived a swap for Devante Cole.

Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall had campaigns which neither would like to remember. That Anderson’s was hampered by a broken leg was unfortunate but neither before or after did he look like he was going to prove as useful to the side as Reid has. Likewise Tony McMahon’s season leading number of assists is impressive but his place on the right hand side of midfield was a result of his failure in the holding midfield role Cullen would take.

It is impressive that Parkinson found a way to make McMahon work – he is certainly the City manager’s type of character – but had McMahon, Anderson, Marshall et al started the season as well the likes of Evans, Burke and Cullen finished it then the play-offs would have been a consolation in a failed promotion bid rather than a richly deserved reward after playing catch-up.

The failure to recruit a goalkeeper – remember Jussi Jääskeläinen in a City shirt – which concluding with a disinterested Brad Jones wandering away led to Ben Williams which in turn led to a team necessarily stacked towards defending. Williams deserves some credit for a record number of clean sheets this season but never had a City team been so committed to not allowing the opposition to cross the ball and that commitment to defence and mutated the team into a glass-jawed pugilist able to take nine our of ten blows but incapable of landing a knock-out blow and on the canvas when something gets through the guard.

The credit for Parkinson is that he recognised that he had to shape his team in this way and – after doing so – shaped that team superbly. The fix worked, and some, and the fact that City were in the play-offs at all is a success far outweighs the problems in the first half of the first leg, and the second half of the second, and for that matter in the summer of poor recruitment.

Without Parkinson everything that is good about Bradford City would be lost.

Change

Next season everything about Bradford City changes.

The game that Bradford City play is changing. The next time you watch Bradford City a player making a foul while trying to play the ball in the penalty area that denies a goalscoring opportunity will not be sent off with the penalty and a yellow card being punishment enough.

That player would be sent off were the foul outside the penalty area leading to the potential for a situation where a player in the first minute of a game might beg the referee to place the offence in the box, not outside it, thinking that one down with eleven is better than level with ten.

Also a dog can head the ball into the net now, and it can still be a goal.

The players Bradford City play the game with is changing. Obviously a large number of the current squad are either out of contract or were on loan. A retained list will come out which will probably reduce the squad by four or five – we may have seen the last of Billy Knott, and that is a shame – while Lee Evans has already bid farewell to be followed by the other loan players. We will miss you Reece Burke. We will not miss Wes Thomas.

Loans in the style of Wes Thomas will not be replaced. The FIFA laws of the game have long been out of sync with how loans work in the Football League and the Football League have finally had to comply. Loans will be made in transfer windows. The team at the end of August will be the team at the start of January – Paul Anderson broken leg or not – and so more pressure is put on clubs to get their summer recruitment right.

We will never see another Kevin Wilson month loan cameo at Valley Parade again.

The club or Bradford City is changing. You do not need me, dear reader, to tell you the rumours around the ownership of the club or how much credibility those rumours have gained. The Rhodes family – who own 66% of the club – have long since said they are prepared to sell.

Whatever the reasons why the sale has suddenly become motivated, and whomever the new owners are, the challenges for the club remain and were unconquered in the co-chairmanship of Juliand Rhodes and Mark Lawn. The story that Bradford City missed out on Leicester City’s en vogue Jamie Vardy caused some amusement earlier this season but City seem to spend the summer months missing out on targets. Andy Williams ended up at Doncaster Rovers when Parkinson wanted him, Mark Beevers reached the play-off final with Millwall having sat around a table with City.

This is not a new problem. Chris Brandon once stunned his manager Stuart McCall by revealing how much he had been able to negotiate as a weekly salary. The club missed out on the chance to sign Gary Jones 12 months before he actually arrived having shown him around Valley Parade. Just after that Parkinson told me and Jason (The WOAP man, when he was still of this Parish) than every club needed someone who could get a deal over the line.

Recruitment is identifying targets and acquiring them in the most efficient way. If it were Lawn and Rhodes, of Mr Palidini, or the Germans, or the contacts George Galloway had (who never seemed to materialise, like all of Galloway’s promises) the task would be the same. Find more players to choose from and then the choice is made, sign them for the right price.

And this is the final headline of length, and with sub clauses, about how change will happen

That Parkinson was able to make a superb season out of the wreckage of the Summer 2015 recruitment is testament to his abilities as a manager. He got it wrong, and then got it right, and his right was bigger than his wrong.

But as Bradford City as a whole woke up with a sad heart after play-off defeat its worth noting that any failures done did not happen on the field against Millwall but in the summer before.

Bradford City need to be better at recruitment or this season will happen again, which might be no bad thing because it has been a blast, but were we to get recruitment right then we have a manager peerless to get the best out of them.

Phil Parkinson and the team of tautology

The Team

Ben Williams | Stepgen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Lee Evans, Josh Cullen, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Filipe Morais | Billy Clarke, Jamie Proctor, Nathan Clarke

It seemed odd twenty minutes later but at half time I waxed lyrical about how good Walsall were.

Walsall were, after all, the first team to put the ball past Ben Williams in over eight games when they scored in what would be their manager Dean Smith’s final game in charge at the Bescot Stadium back in November and they had won that game.

At half time – defending City’s noisy North End – they had gnarled their way through the opening forty five minutes with the type of performance that City’s Phil Parkinson would have been proud of from his players.

Indeed Walsall’s James O’Connor typified the Saddlers approach to gutsy determination to not allow goalkeeper Neil Etheridge’s clean sheet to be dirtied. Away from Valley Parade during the transition period between City’s early season floundering and that eight games without concession it was exactly the sort of determination that O’Connor showed that Rory McArdle was dragging out every game.

But that was then, and this is now.

Transition

Turning this Bradford City team around this season ranks alongside Chelsea, Arsenal and Wembley twice in Phil Parkinson’s achievements as Bradford City manager.

So meek in surrender earlier in the season, and so aimless at times, this was to be a fallow year for Bradford City.

It was a season where signings did not work out – Paul Anderson watches from the bench, Mark Marshall nowhere, Brad Jones elsewhere – and where even the signings that did work didn’t work. How strange does Devante Cole’s decision to join a relegation battle in preference to staying at City look now?

Which is impressive is not just that Parkinson has spun this season into something when it threatened so often to be nothing but how he has done it.

Parkinson has created the team of tautology: A committed group of loan players.

Shut up Wesley!

Josh Cullen, Lee Evans, Reece Burke were a good chunk of the spine of Bradford City in the 4-0 win over Walsall and have been crucial in the transformation of the team. Indeed Cullen’s arrival allowed the much loved Gary Liddle to exit for Chesterfield and another relegation scrap and while one doubts Cullen (or Burke) will be starting next season in the Olympic Stadium with West Ham neither of them are committed to City in the long term.

But in the short term they are? And why is this? Loan players are as Wes Thomas has been. Oddly out of sorts perhaps, and stuck in their ways. Thomas was to the Bradford City support what Jamie Proctor became: The alternative to James Hanson;

Nevertheless Thomas’s unwillingness or inability to play a high pressing game – which resulted in opposition side’s getting an easy route out away from their own goal – has seen the player confronted with two choices: Parkinson’s way or no way at all. Being a loanee and able to ride out the rest of his deal Thomas seemingly did not care for the former and ended up with the latter.

Which has been City’s experience with loan players since their presence went from odd novelty to (apparently) a necessity in the last two decades of the game. If one includes Kyel Reid and Jamie Proctor as loan players (as they initially were) then half of City’s team could not be around next season.

So how are they not a team of Wes Thomas’s?

The fault is not with the stars

The answer to that question probably resides in Rory McArdle and James Hanson, who both returned to the side for the Walsall game, and with other long time servers like Stephen Darby, James Meredith and perhaps the aforementioned Reid.

There is an adage in football – which is attributed to Brian Clough but I’m sure pre-dates him – that a club is as good as its senior players. It seems that Parkinson believes that to be the case. There is a circle of players like Hanson, McArdle, Darby, Meredith, Reid, and perhaps extended to Ben Williams and Tony McMahon who create a tone and an atmosphere at the club which has in its way become a repeatable pattern of success.

To that circle – an inner circle perhaps – Parkinson trust everything. It is to those players who the manager turns when defeat to Coventry City and a draw at Shrewsbury Town has questioned the club’s play off credentials. And with rich reward too. Hanson scores his first professional hat-trick and remains the club’s top goalscorer while McArdle returns the club to clean sheets. The 24th of the season.

For younger players who arrive on loan at the club the message is obvious. Take your cue from that inner circle in how you play, and how you train, and learn the lesson about how far that sort of attitude will take you in football.

What do you learn

One wonders what a young player gets from League One football. Dele Alli – named PFA Young Player of the Year – started last year scoring against City for MK Dons. The intelligentsia have it that it is his blooding as a child in the lower leagues that maketh the man. As if the sort of cold Tuesday night in Crewe that the football media so often sneer at is actually of crucial importance in some way or other.

If it is then Cullen, Evans and Burke have those lessons which are attributed to Alli, and to his partner Harry Kane who wandered the lower leagues as a part of the loan system. Parkinson’s approach to the game involves making sure you are never out of a game – never cast adrift two or three goals behind – and keeping the competitiveness for ninety minutes.

To not lose easily perhaps sums it up best and contrasts with a Walsall side who saw the tide turn away from them on Saturday and did not want to get their feet wet in it. From dogs of war to puppies in the space of fifteen minutes and incapable of stopping the game from going away from them. Parkinson’s approach would have been to close the game down at 0-1, and he has been criticised for that, but only once or twice have City been out of matches all season.

That approach has become the season and there is something about Parkinson’s approach – about following Parkinson’s approach – that is instructive to young footballers. Certainly they show the trappings of players who understand the nature of league football. Burke is committed against Walsall ensuring nothing goes past him. Evans has a poor first half but Cullen carries his team mate through a bad forty five minutes and the pair emerge imperious at the end.

Cullen carries his team mate. A 20 year old loan player prepared to put some of his performance into making sure his team mate’s performance can recover. If that does not tell you the scale of Parkinson’s achievement with this group of players nothing will.

And the achievement is in the approach and the approach relies on the inner circle of players who maintain an attitude throughout the club.

After all these years City have finally got good at loans.

Do you remember the last time?

Just as City start to master loan signings then loan signings disappear. The loan system as we are used to it in the Football League is changing and next season loans are restricted to transfer windows. No emergency bringing in Kyel Reid after an injury to Paul Anderson, no drafting in Lee Evans because things are not going how you want them.

Next season’s summer recruitment has to be more fruitful than this year or the club face a long slog to Christmas but the same was true this season and when Hanson wandered off with the match ball – two headed goals and a powerful right foot finish – one might have wondered if Parkinson were forced to work with the players he had would he have been able to get them to the play-offs this season? If Paul Anderson had not had his leg broken would he be doing what Kyel Reid is now?

In this case retrospect does not have to provide an answer.

The character of Bradford City’s goalscoring problems

To understand the problems Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City are having scoring goals at the end of the League One season – a season which has gone far better than one would have thought for much of it – one has to go back to the problems that marked the start of the season.

By August 2015 Parkinson had put the final nail into the coffin of his 4312 playmaker formation by signing Paul Anderson to add to other recruit Mark Marshall to give his team two out and out wingers.

Marshall and Anderson would be Jamie Lawrence and Peter Beagrie for the 2015 generation and City would rampage through the division with an attractiveness which joint chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes have asked for previously.

However in the opening week trips to Swindon Town and York City, and the game at home to Gillingham, Parkinson’s plans faltered and they faltered because his team were vulnerable to counter-attacks and crosses and these vulnerabilities were caused by a hole in City’s defence.

Joke Hole

That hole was an key. The hole was a gap between goalkeeper Ben Williams and the centre of the defensive line. Whenever a ball would come into the City box Williams and the defenders would struggle with one being too far from the other and as a result opposition strikers being given the freedom of the penalty spot to exploit City again and again.

This coupled with the counter-attacking problem in that Swindon Town exploited ruthlessly. When a City attack broke down the opposition recycled the ball past the wingers and brought the ball into dangerous wide positions challenged by only the City full back, or took it past the central midfielders.

Parkinson’s first solution to this problem did not work.

Brad Jones came and left very quickly and is widely considered to have been a failure at the club. After Jones’ exit a kind of media spin was given to the remaining keeper Ben Williams – that he had “seen off” the more experienced Jones – and so could be considered solid number one material. Williams bought into that and his grown since.

Williams’ record breaking run of clean sheets has written him a paragraph in the history of Bradford City and he deserves credit for it. But how those clean sheets came about is the root of the current goalscoring problem.

Because as Jones left and Williams stayed Parkinson changed City’s approach to games, or their tactics if you will.

Mints

(Brian Clough used to say there is a lot of nonsense talked about tactics by people who could not win a game of dominoes and I’m very aware that I may add to that but I’m not a believer in the reductionist view of tactics which had taken hold at all clubs in modern football where tactics can be boiled down to how the ball is delivered to the final third of the field: long pass or series of short passes; and I’m not a fan of making the word synonymous with the word formation which is also too inexact for our uses. For the word tactics to be of use it has to be nuanced, else it is a nuisance.)

Staying with his philosophies on the game Parkinson changed how City played to stop them conceding goals. His five years at the club have shown us that Parkinson works from a solid defence forward. To this effect the midfielders would take a step back in the course of play and not commit to attacking in forward positions when City had the ball.

Flash your mind back to 1999 and Jamie Lawrence crossing from the right. In the box Lee Mills would be in the six yard box, Robbie Blake would dally at the penalty spot and Peter Beagrie would be just past the far post, just out from the touchline. That season Mills, Blake and Beagrie scored 75% of City’s goals. In addition Stuart McCall and Gareth Whalley – one forward one back – would offer short options and there would be a full back in attendance.

attacking-1999

Consider last night at Coventry City when Kyel Reid had the ball and in the box was Jamie Proctor, and that was it.

Billy Clarke offered a short option but staying outside the box and both Josh Cullen and Lee Evans were back down field. The support from the full back was there but on the opposite side of the field Tony McMahon was not in the box looking to add to the forwards, or forward if one were more honest. Instead McMahon is stepped back making sure that if the keeper catches and throws the ball out City are not exposed.

attacking-2015

Reverse the wings and the story is the same. This is not an issue with personnel it is a part of the way that City are playing. Everyone is a step further back than they could be, and the are further back because when they stepped forward at the start of the season they left holes which were exploited and results were terrible.

That Williams and the back four can claim a record number of clean sheets is a function of the fact that they are not fielding as many crosses, or taking on as many shots, because the midfield is balanced towards making sure that defensive holes are plugged.

Being Reice Charles-Cook

zones-on-a-field

When Reice Charles-Cook – the Coventry City goalkeeper – caught the ball on Tuesday night he looked to get play started quickly for the Sky Blue team that make a fetish of possession but the quick throw to a midfielder on the wing or a player in central position in zones 4-6 are not possible because Reid, McMahon and Clarke are already in zones 4-6 getting back to zones 7-9 while – by contrast – Blake, Lawrence and Beagrie would be in zones 1-3.

Likewise when City attack Cullen and Evans do not need to venture to zone 14 – Billy Clarke lives there – so they stay in zones 8 and 11 making sure that any breakdown of play does not leave the defence exposed. No counter attacks through zone 8/11, no wide attacks leading to crosses through 4/7 and 6/9.

This approach has done wonderful things for City in the last few months – the move from struggling in lower mid-table to third in League One is a result of this approach – but were Parkinson to alter it now for more of an attacking focus then the defensive issues that mandated the approach would no doubt reappear, or at least Parkinson might worry they would.

The defence – and specifically the control gap between Williams and the defensive line – has not been solved just been filled up with players sitting back. It is control through numbers. Shrewsbury Town’s equaliser will remind you that that issue between Williams and his defensive line has not gone away.

And Parkinson knows this.

Character and confidence

He knows that if he were to add – for example – Filipe Morais to the right flank over McMahon with instructions to get into zone 17-18 then the team would return to the same concession problem it had at the start of the season. He knows that if he had Billy Clarke (or someone else) press alongside Proctor in zone 17 rather than staying in zone 14 then the result without be that Cullen and Evans came forward, making the entire defensive unit harder to control, and the concession problem would emerge again.

Parkinson might try beat opposition sides in a scoring contest a la Kevin Keegan trying to win games 4-3 but considering the statistic talked about about City’s forwards scoring one goal in thirty shots over the last two games – which I would argue were low quality shots, because of the options in the zone 17 mentioned above – one doubts that the manager will change his approach so drastically.

And why should he? That approach has taken a team which struggled badly at the start of the season into genuine contenders for the play-offs. That prospect did not look likely at Gillingham when the third goal without reply went in back on the 2nd of January. Parkinson has shown that he can build confidence from teams that do not concede, and that is what he has done this time.

The arguments over Billy Clarke’s missed goal at Coventry – it never looks any better – or his goal should have stood goal at Shrewsbury – it never looks offside – can continue but on a longer timeline City’s goalscoring is not about players missing the target but rather about decisions made to patch defensive weaknesses and to give the team the chance to build confidence by not being beaten.

Like it or not that is the character of Bradford City 2015/2016.

The Neville Southall problem returns to Bury as City draw a blank in the FA Cup third round

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Christopher Routis, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Lee Evans, Gary Liddle, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Billy Clarke | Luke James, John Morris, Mark Marshall

Bradford City fans saw the end of Neville Southall’s career, Bury fans saw the start. Southall – who many regard the best goalkeeper of his era – played 39 games at Gigg Lane and presented manager Jim Iley with a problem.

Southall’s predecessor John Forrest had kept goal for the Shakers for twenty four years but such was the new goalkeepers nascent ability was such that that Iley’s strikers – who included future PFA chairman Gordon Taylor – were struggling to beat the him in training.

So much so that Taylor and his team mates got used to spending training sessions putting their best efforts at Southall and seeing them saved.

They got used to not scoring. And they lost confidence.

The Phil Parkinson era

Southall had been gone seven years, Iley four, when Phil Parkinson made his debut for Bury. City manager Parkinson played 145 games at Gigg Lane most of them as the position of midfield spoiler that he would make his hallmark at Reading.

There is an adage that one can trust a manager to know his own position. The suspension of Nathan Clarke following a sending off at Gillingham that also saw Reece Burke injured and then returned to West Ham United had given Parkinson a problem in the middle of his back four. Rory McArdle needed a partner and while Christopher Routis had returned to fitness Parkinson had previously dropped Gary Liddle back from the holding midfield berth to he him in the role.

And that approach had failed. It had failed at the end of last season and failed at the start of this and – to my estimation – it had failed not because Liddle can not play the position (he spent a season in central defence at Notts County before arriving at Valley Parade) but rather because he was missing from the middle of midfield.

Phil Parkinson decided he would not be without his Phil Parkinson.

The best from the worst

Liddle in central midfield presented the problem of using Christopher Routis in the heart of the defence – a role he has not played since Joe Garner spent fourteen minutes ripping him apart before he was sent off – in front of a keeper in Ben Williams with whom there is a direct correlation between McArdle and Burke being in front of him and him keeping a clean sheet.

One recalls with horror Williams struggling to set the defensive line at the start of the season and the number and type of goals conceded as a result.

Looking over the field and almost half the City players: Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Kyel Ried, James Hanson and James Meredith; had joined the club as it struggled in the bottom half of League Two. Bury are a peer at of City in the top half of League One and all those five players are worth their places a league and a half above where they were when they first got on a training pitch with Parkinson.

Which is something to describe in assessing the skills of Phil Parkinson. He picked up the players signed when CIty were (arguably) at their worst and got the best out of them.

And so it proved with Routis, and so it proved with Williams, who both performed superbly. I would have written off Williams as not worth the work to improve but when Andrew Tutte got behind McArdle in the first half and was in a one on one situation with the City keeper my heart was not in my mouth as Williams narrowed angles, made himself large, and ended up pushing the ball away.

Likewise Routis kept le coeur from la bouche most of the afternoon matching McArdle for vigour and showing the physical strength that was missing from his game previously. He went too far and one two footed tackle in the second half should have seen him sent off.

Parkinson had decided that the way to battle Bury was to battle Bury and City were physically robust bullying the Shakers into the playing the game as the away team in the own stadium a fact made easier by the decision to put Bantams fans behind both goals. They do not like it when you suggest away fans outnumbered the home around these parts but that seemed to be the case from my corner of Gigg Lane.

What did John Iley do about that problem?

Having been bullied onto the back foot by a City team pressing high Bury struggled to create a tempo to their play and while they had two chance to snatch a lead it would have been snatched. The Shakers best moment ended with Darby and McArdle taking control of the ball between them in a six yard box scrum and wandering away with it as if it were a training game.

But at the other end of the field the Bantams struggled to convert chances. Tony McMahon hit the post with a free kick, Liddle headed wide when everyone expected him to score, and Hanson scooped over from inside the six yard box in the last minutes of stoppage time. Confidence is obviously low and shows with all City’s players.

Difficult to score against but labouring at the other end with strikers. What did John Iley do about that problem?

The Iley way

Iley effectively banned Southall from training – albeit with a smile – and in doing so allowed the 1981 vintage Bury strikers to get used to scoring in practice again. Southall’s rise was inexorably unaffected.

The Shakers ended the season blasting in fours and sixes, clearly with confidence recovered, and finished above City in the 1981 Division Four table. Southall left for Everton and glory at the end of the 1981 season and so the problem solved itself the next season having been fixed on the training pitch before.

And one suspect that it is on the training pitch that Parkinson will solve his team’s goalscoring problems. The team are defending well, are creating chances, are controlling games. The ball will not go in and confidence has suffered as a result but Parkinson (and I) believe that it is easier to add goals to a team that defends well that stop a free scoring team conceding.

This is Parkinson’s way. He builds teams that are hard to beat and capitalises on what can build the confidence. Sixth choice striker off the bench against Rochdale blasts it in and he becomes Nahki Wells. Middling League Two team beats Arsenal and Parkinson galvanises the club around it. City bob along in League One, beat Chelsea, and end up a a place outside the play-offs.

Parkinson takes a clink of the light of confidence and bathes the players in it. How that is done will probably not become a part of football folklore like Iley and Southall have but everything we have seen from Parkinson in the last five years suggests it will.

Getting back to a better bad as City lose 2-1 to Walsall

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Nathan Clarke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Billy Knott, Lee Evans, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Billy Clarke | Devante Cole, Mark Marshall, Jordan Bowery

Football, in the end, is a zero sum game. If a game if going to have a winner then – in a very real sense – it has to have a loser.

Between that starkness lays an admission that performance in football match can be anything other than zero sum. It is possible, and not uncommon, for both sides to have played well in a game one lost. Players can put in good performances against other players who put in good performances.

And so when Bradford City surrendered the seemingly endless clean sheet that had meant not conceding a goal in the previous two months it seemed hard to accept that the Bantams might have – in a first half which many grumbled through – that City had played well.

Played well but not as well as the host Walsall.

Walsall are an interesting team managed by the very impressive Dean Smith. Half beautifier/half pragmatist Smith sends a team which likes to pass the ball but does not marry themselves to passing football. That plays an open game but closes matches off with (frankly shocking) time wasting. That has room for flair players but takes care to take care of the oppositions.

So it was that when Rory McArdle would get the ball he would have the nuisance Tom Bradshaw closing him down in a way that central defenders seldom get closed down. That the midfield allowed Billy Clarke to drop back as far as he wanted and effectively ensnared the striker into the middle and pushed the Bantams pair of Lee Evans and Billy Knott deep. That the home side played the ball across the back to pull City one way when attacking having compressed them when defending.

Bradshaw took the first goal well after a long range shot got caught in McArdle’s feet and the striker enjoyed the spoils. A good finish but without the type of long range effort that Ben Williams has been gathering with ease for the last half a dozen games taking a ricochet it was hard to see how Walsall were going to score.

Which perhaps speaks to the general improvement that has been seen in City since the last defeat. After the loss at Colchester the idea of the first half at Walsall representing a low tide mark of form would have been considered surprising.

A bad half at Swindon saw City ship four goals and a summer of confidence. If the first forty five minutes against Walsall represent bad then one can reflect that it was only 1-0, and that Walsall had not dominated possession, nor squandered chances, nor had City not been in the game.

City cold have scored through a James Hanson lunging header, and lived with the home side who were fourth at kick off to such an extent that for Phil Parkinson’s side to come back into the game after half time there was little in the way of wholesale changes needed.

Evans and Knott pushed forward pushing Clarke forward and it was the Irish striker who headed on for Evans to hit a well placed drive across the Walsall keeper Neil Etheridge which nestled delicately into the low corner.

Tony McMahon – ineffective for a large part today – lashed a chance over. James Hanson had a mobile and burly game and saw one header pushed away by Etheridge. City looked secure in at least a draw but a poor exchange between Evans and Kyel Reid saw Romaine Sawyers quickly pass to Milan Lalkovic who beat Williams with a low, hard drive past him.

The speed from the ball being given away to it nestling in the goal was reminiscent of the early season woes but the character of the game – and of the players – could hardly be more different.

A bad – if you want to call it that – first half recovered from and in the end Parkinson’s side would have been left believing they could have had more even if they did not. Contrast that to the aforementioned season opener at Swindon when a good first half was so quickly undone and players so quickly surrendered.

If this is the new bad, it is better than before.

But football performance, to the wider world, is that zero sum game and the display gets little credit. Had Referee Mark Brown – who gave a handball decision against Bradshaw for jumping at Williams and having a flailing arm redirect the ball, and one against Hanson when the striker missed with a leap and saw his trailing arm carry the ball – decided that Devante Cole’s injury time effort that was blocked with two raised hands was of the same nature as those offences then we may well have been looking at today as a hard battled for draw.

As it is it is a hard battled for defeat. Which is zero. In the zero sum game.

Parkinson’s best ever Bantams keep their eyes on a further prize beating Aldershot 2-0 in the FA Cup First Round

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Nathan Clarke, Greg Leigh | Tony McMahon, Billy Knott, Gary Liddle, Mark Marshall | James Hanson, Devante Cole | Billy Clarke, Luke James, Christopher Routis

Phil Parkinson ventured the opinion that the current Bradford City team who progressed to the Second Round of the FA Cup with a 2-0 victory over Aldershot Town was the best the manager has assembled in his time at Valley Parade.

Indeed many of the statistics which jump out from the game support Parkinson’s supposition. Ben Williams connected a fifth clean-sheet in a row on a night where he was never seriously tested and Rory McArdle looked comfortable alongside Nathan Clarke at the heart of the defence in a way that one could only have dreamed of after the opening day defeat to Swindon Town.

Indeed Billy Knott who was a passenger on the road to nowhere at at The County Ground on the first day has taken massive strides to where he should be as the type of take responsibility midfielder which is needed in League One promotion teams. It was Knott who flighted a fine long pass wide to Greg Leigh who burst into the box and deftly finished to end the game and three quarters deadlock between these two sides.

The quality of Leigh’s goal was something to observe but while Parkinson talks in glowing terms about his team that idea – of quality – is not often heard connected to the Bantams. It is interesting that while supporters may talk about City as necessarily hard working at best the manager is prepared to be proud and state that this win – a 2-0 over Aldershot – was the result of the best team he has put together.

Move back some five years or so and Peter Taylor’s Bradford City were beating Aldershot – then a league side – by a similar score and not pleasing chairman Mark Lawn. Lawn had recalled how Taylor’s side were less entertaining in only dispatching The Shots by this score rather than the more entertaining 5-0 that Stuart McCall’s side beat them. Indeed the City co-chairman said tellingly about the McCall side that “it was a different type of football but I believed it was a type of football which would get us out of this league.”

Now it would seem that the manager is confident enough in his positions – and why should he not be – that he is able to declare that it is this team, and this style, that will bring promotion again rather than bowing to the idea that his City side would be more atheistically pleasing.

More power to Parkinson’s elbow. Who knows what the viewer at home thought of the FA Cup tie that was featured on BT Sport but in the lashing rain of Valley Parade one could not help but admire the determination which the team put to the cause.

Determination in staying with a game plan and the game plan was to edge this game as it is all games. Keeping chances at a premium one end costs them at the other. Injury to James Hanson is a worry – Aldershot were given a Refereeing pass by man in the middle Keith Hill for some rustic tackling – but Tony McMahon’s penalty after Luke James was felled in the box put that worry back to being Saturday’s problem.

The next round promises Chesham United at Valley Parade – a team lower in the pyramid than Aldershot but equally deserving of the respect that Parkinson paid his first round opponents that manifests itself in taking the same approach to Cup games against the non-league as League games against rivals – and the hint of more to follow.

Last year Parkinson’s team beat Chelsea on its way to a quarter final. Parkinson thinks this team is better.

The Ben Williams season continues with City facing Aldershot Town in the FA Cup

Williams from Williams

The first time Ben Williams became known to Bradford City supporters was during the first round of the FA Cup when – minutes into the game with Halifax Town – he was picking the ball out of the back of his own goal.

An inauspicious start to a campaign that would see Williams keeping goal at Stamford Bridge but his afternoon at The Shay better when Phil Parkinson switched formation and Filipe Morais and Billy Clarke turned the match and the season around.

Jon Stead scored – he always scored in the FA Cup – and Williams’ role was largely forgotten but he did make a very good save from a Williams’ close range header. I’d describe it as memorable but it seems that not a lot of people remember it.

Ben Williams save from Steve Williams. Steve Williams is a former Bantam who exited Valley Parade around the time of the change from Peter Taylor, to Peter Jackson, to Phil Parkinson . In the words for former Chief Scout Archie Christie when asked why the talented Williams had left said that the player “did not want it enough.”

Wanting it enough was big for Christie, and is big for Phil Parkinson.

Wanting it

The last three weeks of Bradford City have been the definition of “wanting it”. A trip to Millwall, a visit from Blackpool, a trip to Aldershot for the 0-0 draw that brings about this reply, and a 2-0 win over Crewe Parkinson’s team had dug in hard to turn a few good wins into an impressive unbeaten run.

Parkinson’s has taken his Bradford City back to the most simple of building blocks creating a team which fetishises not conceding in the same way Barcelona lust for possession. Parkinson’s City will not concede – so the thought goes – and as a result the result will take after itself.

One has to go back to 24th of October when Wigan Athletic took the lead past Ben Williams for City’s last concession. Williams could have done better with that strike, and he got lucky with a shot from Crewe on Saturday that slipped greasy off his body and flew back into play but Williams has earned his luck with his graft.

My issue with Williams’ goalkeeping style – that he allows too much of a gap between the defensive line and himself – is addressed by Parkinson compressing his defensive unit at the expense of his forward line leaving the forward line lacking numbers. It is meat and potatoes and City are criticised for a negative approach to the game.

Criticism is always relative though, and relative to the criticism one gets for losing.

The work

The work which Phil Parkinson’s team have put into the last two months is transformative. Players have developed pairings where previously there was confusion. Stephen Darby has found an unlikely partner in Tony McMahon while James Meredith probably thought reuniting with Kyel Ried was unlikely too.

The central midfield pair are of two of Lee Evans, Gary Liddle and the much improved Billy Knott are a product of days at Apperley Bridge. Knott would be the poster boy for improvement with his push back from the Ghetto of being an “attacking midfielder” into a genuinely useful box to box player.

Would be if it were not for the backline of Rory McArdle, Reece Burke and Williams himself. Calm has replaced barked blasts. Control has replaced scrambles. Stern has replaced soft when running at the heart of the Bantams team.

There is a significant need for a collective improvement. It has happened.

A Ben Williams sort of season

Bradford City’s season has become a Ben Williams sort of season. Capable of slips, and at times doing things wrong, but improved with hard work and no better/no worse as is shown on the field.

I’ve always found this aspect of football as – perhaps – the most understated joy in football.

To support a Liverpool in the 1980s, a Manchester United in the 1990s, a Manchester City now is to experience football top down where expectation is winning and winning is everything. Bristol City supporters last season – with a team outspending its league – expected the same. It is rare to have that in football, I’m sure most at City never will have had it.

For the rest the drama is in watching teams which are – and I struggle to find a better description – only as good as they are on the field. City are in a morass of teams in League One who are in a similar situation. The FA Cup against Aldershot Town offers the kind of assumption which the Bantams seldom get, and can never enjoy.

Aldershot Town are struggling for form in the National League but so were City when City rolled up at Chelsea last year – everything in the FA Cup is set in the Chelsea context for a while at least – and while the Bantams should win they will only do so with the same hard graft that has turned the season around.

Hard work, and hoping the mistakes go unpunished. A year on from his debut and we are all having a Ben Williams sort of season.

Bury, Wigan Athletic, styles of play and the reductionism coming to Bradford City

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Billy Knott, Lee Evans, Kyel Reid | (James Hanson || Steve Davies), Devante Cole | James Hanson, Mark Marshall, Luke James

Constructionism

Three ways of playing football in a week on show at Valley Parade, and three different outcomes.

Foremost was Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City who – revitalised after a poor start to the season – play a direct game and press high looking to force mistakes from an opposition.

Parkinson’s side look to make the most of set plays and do. Both goals against Bury and the single strike against Wigan Athletic were the result of corners. That this will be the case was obvious as Wigan put eleven men into the penalty area every time Tony McMahon or Lee Evans crossed. It worked on fourteen occasions. On the other James Hanson headed past Jussi Jääskeläinen for an equaliser.

Wigan’s response to City’s strengths was to try counter them – naturally enough – while trying to play to what they believe are their own better qualities. Gary Caldwell’s Wigan side are quixotic in a belief that every move must be built from the goalkeeper to defender and forward and Jääskeläinen never once kicks from his hands. The try pull the compressed Bradford City side forward because Caldwell – as well as Parkinson – knows the need to counter the opposition.

David Flitcroft at Bury falls somewhere between. As the second goal – a deflection from former City man Reece Brown – bounces into the Bury goal Flitcroft forgoes his attempt to pass the ball and ends up with four players across the forward line. They will score in the dying seconds of the game when a long punt from the keeper is flicked on and then over shoulder volleyed past Ben Williams without having touched the floor from keeper’s hands to the back of the goal.

Flitcroft’s five man midfield met Parkinson’s strong banks of four in a first half in which both teams tried to make sure that there would not concede. Rory McArdle headed in just before half time from another well delivered corner. Bury hope to control games, to shut down games, away from home and as with Wigan they successfully identified Parkinson’s plan and looked to counter it. Bury are a burly side – more so than City – and at the end of the game Steve Davies run in the side would be ended as he begins three months on the sidelines.

This physical approach is also seen when Wigan Athletic score having felled the oak of James Hanson with a high tackle. This was not illegal – at least not illegal today for this referee – but City always seem much worse at dishing out this kind of physical play than they are at receiving it. The likes of Billy Knott might put in the odd sliding tackle and deserve the odd card (although not Knott today who is booked for being pushed over) but City seem incapable of making a tactic out of this.

The strategic physical approach is all over Wigan’s play. They are beasts one minute brittle the next and Chris McCann earns the ire of the crowd for faking a foul every time a striker goes near him. McCann is not injured, he will not miss three months, but he successfully stops City from pressing high as they fear more bookings.

This behaviour is effective and not isolated to the left back. You will not read about it in the morning papers when you read that Wigan Athletic try play the game in a better way than Bradford City but Gary Caldwell’s Latics gamify the Referee’s decision making process. Any Referee will book a player for persistent misconduct after five fouls and most players commit at most four in a game. An act of fabrication – be it in foul or reaction – adds to the natural attrition of discipline and scares back players pressing high.

To their credit Flitcroft’s Bury do not react in the same way and battle man for man with a City team which is getting used to hunting in packs. Knott starts to look capable as he did before his dalliance with the footballing graveyard of the “Attacking Midfielder”. He runs down players alongside Evans who provides a more than useful pass. Bury’s struggle to contain City as they leave defensive duties in search of two goals and Mark Marshall is criminally profligate in front of goal.

City miss enough chances to win the game against a Bury team which is aptly described as free-spending by four or five goals ending instead with a seemingly slim 2-1 victory. The response to the game is muted – the late goal took a gloss off the match – and needlessly so.

The draw with Wigan results in Tony McMahon punching the air as if in victory. McMahon was persona non gratis at City a month ago but having come into the bolstering right wing role his delivery and attitude have found a place and a balance with Kyel Reid on the wing opposite. McMahon is the spirit of the new City that emerged four games ago and has not lost since. His energy allows for a high pressing game and his delivery is useful. More over though what he does is working, and often that is all that is needed.

Neither Wigan nor Bury will adapt their games to exploit City’s most significant weakness of the season. Wigan artfully try to pass through Rory McArdle and Reece Burke while Bury look to play into a single striker. Neither cross to exploit the gap between Ben Williams and his defensive line and the goalkeeper has two good games to build confidence right up until Michael Jacobs hits a shot from the edge of the area that the keeper gets to but does not keep out.

For Caldwell it seems to be a matter of principal that players like Yanic Wildschut – too expensive for Bury who tried to bring him in from Middlesbrough – be able to dribble through the opposition. Later in the game Grant Holt is on the field but the service to him is not apt and he struggles. Caldwell can be proud of how rarely his team resorted to playing crosses directly to strikers if that was his aim but his aim counter-acted what often works against Bradford City.

And so City win and Wigan draw and Bury lose. The approaches to the game are different in many ways. Bury want to stop the home side playing but fail to do so and then become more direct than any team could imagine. City look to maximise set-plays and deliver the ball early and direct while Wigan Athletic want to play on the floor and take as long as they can about it. If Wigan cannot play how they want they will not play – simulating imagined offences – while Bury will be burly and too much so as they try claw back into the game.

Reductionism

The increasing level coverage of football has not increased the depth of that coverage and unnecessarily there is a reduction of the complex to try to be more digestible than it is. Ockum’s razor asks you to make things simpler but not more simple than they should be.

And so the way a team plays football is reduced from the multitude of variables to a single almost aesthetic consideration. How the ball arrives in the final third of the field. Is it lofted in from a defender, played from a winger, passed from a midfielder. Pick a variable and label a team forgetting anything else that most obviously is involved. Colin Todd called Phil Parkinson “the enemy of football” on the basis of such a reduction.

That reductionism has started a train of thought amongst Bradford City supporters which normally one could ignore – this is about the football and not about supporting the football – were it not to do more than form a significant part of the discussion around the pitch and start to impact what is on it.

With Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes already declaring that for City to prosper in football it would be necessary (in their opinion) for an injection of funds and perhaps their exit there is little prospect of City taking the approach that either Wigan or Bury have of trying to spend more than the rest of League One to escape it. It is possible – and I would say preferable – to be promoted without this sort of financial investment but as most teams are attempting the same that becomes hard to ensure. Would City with – as was wanted – the odd Doncaster Rovers player here and Jussi Jääskeläinen there be guaranteed promotion. No.

So without success – or perhaps guaranteed success – the questions become not about if something will be achieved then how it will be. It is not if City will finish in the upper-middle of League One it is how will that happen.

And so the suggestion is that without guaranteed success then the way that the status quo is maintained becomes important. If we are not going to be promoted then – the thought goes – can we at least be entertained? Do we deserve what oft sacked Steven Pressley described as “dark ages football

And of course this assumes one is not entertained already.

There is a school of thought – one that I subscribe to – that entertainment in football is not synonymous with passing football and that how the ball is delivered into the final third is but one of a number of things all of which can be entertaining. I have long since recognised in myself that I do not go to Bradford City games to watch Barcelona’s passing style. Indeed if I wanted to see that I would go to Barcelona – or at least watch the disturbing last bastion of acceptable nationalism on Sky TV – which I do not and will not do.

I would consider this to be symptom of a footballing culture which has allowed television to reshape it and is currently in the process of letting new media complete the mutilation. Highlight TV shows like Match of the Day sold the public the idea that one did not have to watch a full game to understand it, one could just watch a slice of it. It is garnished with a uncritical critical media who for largely commercial reasons repeat this same trope that watching football matches is of the waste of time that is the difference between ninety minutes and the highlight clips. To hear Robbie Savage blindly reading out appearance, league position and goal statistics to support his idea that a single incident can be extrapolated into the entire make up of a player is to commit suicide of the intellect.

This of highlight slice is further shrunk into clips of the highlights of the highlights which are distributed on YouTube creating a contextless football which is all about a series of ten seconds slowed down and repeated until one is convinced. One has never really appreciated the difference between the types of football supporter if one has not had to break up a work conversation with someone else who ventured to a Millwall, or a Walsall, or a Torquay to hear the progress of YouTube scouting on the latest player linked to a high up Premier League team.

At that point one can almost certainly guarantee that what you enjoy as a regular watching a League One team is not the same as what someone who has the mediated top flight football experience enjoys. It really matters to those people what pace EA Sports assign a player in FIFA 16. Really matters.

And it is for those people that football has contorted itself and continues to do so. The mindset that is rife in football – the middle ground – is one which suggests that only the things which make a good highlight reel are of value.

One is tempted to suggest that every person in a stadium has a set of elements they enjoy in the context of a football game and that while it will be true for some of them that they have haphazardly wandered into Valley Parade having mistaken it for Nou Camp BD8 for many, if not most others it will not be. For one person football might be about community, another it might be about victory and nothing else, and another might want to watch wingers beating men (one of the most exciting sights the game has to offer) and very little else.

It became obvious to me that I watched football to watch the narratives created around a set of players. To watch a boy become a man and a man accept – or not – the responsibility for how he plays his own games and then for his team’s performance. This arc is – to me – endlessly fascinating in its differences. Some players thrive, others do not, and watching a team over a series of weeks and seasons is watching the progression of that narrative. That Stephen Darby went from skinning kid to captain was a thing to be seen and to be enjoyed, that James Hanson went from the man who worked at the Co-op to a League Cup final was enjoyable in itself and that enjoyment had little to do with the type of football played.

(This contrasts sharply with the Mercenary team of Colin Todd where the likes of Bobby Petta, or Steven Schumacher, or Marc Bridge-Wilkinson were lauded for failing to take responsibility for the general performance of the team field and singled out for praise for individual displays. There was no need – under Todd – to make sure all your team mates played well, just yourself, and that attitude which Todd allowed was – to me – the enemy of football. Likewise at the moment Phil Parkinson’s neglect of the youth set up and disinterest in bringing through players is not something I enjoy.)

Yet the mix of reductionism and a belief that there is a single criteria of enjoyment is pervasive in discussions on the game to a point where it starts to be a metric to criticise a manager as if he had failed. The less one plays in this way which is perceived as what everybody wants the more a manager should be called to account. And at Bradford City we talk often about how we have “fans as chairmen” (I would argue we abuse that phrase) but by virtue of Mark Lawn/Julian Rhodes being fans they can be assumed to be vulnerable to the same moods as fans.

There is a constant background noise against Phil Parkinson for his way of player (“bilge“) but will anyone be critical of Gary Caldwell for trying to pass through the middle of a team who are so obviously vulnerable to crosses? Will anyone – other than the odd City fan – be critical of him for ostensibly allowing his players to fake fouls and injury to avoid having to cope with Phil Parkinson’s high pressing team?

One doubts it. Aside from not winning the reductionism in football criticism has it that only the way the ball arrives into the final third of the field is a subject of debate and criticism. Were I to watch City players behaving as Wigan’s were yesterday – “tactical simulation” might cover the charge very well – I would enjoy the game less regardless of result but factors like Parkinson’s unwillingness (for whatever reason) to “tactically simulate” are not brought into the discussion about the aesthetics of managers performances.

All other factors are filtered out until one returns to this idea that if the team is not to be successful it should play the game in a specific way regardless of the issue that maintaining a way of playing as dogma can be – and was in the case of Wigan – counter-productive.

Assuming Parkinson does not continue his trend of upward movement at City – and that is not a safe assumption to make – then he will increasingly be called to account for his approach to the game. Bolton Wanderers under Sam Allardyce, Charlton Athletic under Alan Curbishley, Manchester City under Peter Reid, West Ham United every other manager it seems that football is littered with clubs that believed that they should be playing the reduced, different, “better” type of football and slumped as a result.

This will be the discussion at Bradford City – if not in League One now then in The Championship later over the course of the manager’s three year deal – and the people who assume that all share their view that Parkinson’s approach to the game which is direct but is also honest is inherently worse than (for example) Caldwell’s passing and faking or Flitcroft’s controlled midfield and less controlled aggression. They will assume it is commonly held that a team that passes the ball into a striker’s feet is inherently better than a team of character, or a team of players who test and surpass their limitations, and they will demand it.

And you may agree with that, dear reader, but if you do not and if you believe that there are many thing about Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City you would not change then you had better prepare to take a corner and argue for what you want.

The reductionists are shaping the middle ground of football to be a bland nausea of highlights and YouTube clips. They want to take Bradford City and shrink it to the three clips that will look good on Football League Tonight.

If you do not want that you had better get used to tools of opposition against this reductionist mindset and get good at making your arguments.

City need to learn from the 2-1 defeat by Barnsley

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Nathan Clarke, Greg Leigh | Tony McMahon, Billy Knott, Gary Liddle, Mark Marshall | Luke James, James Hanson | Devante Cole, Steve Davies, Lee Evans

With just few enough changes to his Bradford City team in this rain delayed Football League Trophy game with Barnsley Phil Parkinson used nobody’s favourite Cup Competition as a proving ground.

A proving ground for Billy Knott who was given a role in central midfield alongside Gary Liddle given the job of showing all that he could operate from box to box around the ball winning Liddle.

Forty five minutes into the game – for I write at half time – the midfielder has shown a willingness to chase the ball that was rewarded with a chance to finish for the opening goal.

Knott hit the ball low across the box following the best approach play the Bantams showed perhaps all season – Sheffield United aside – when on his first appearance Greg Leigh surged forward and Mark Marshall took a wide position. Options up field brought the reward for Knott after a cross was battered down.

31 games, and impossible to dislike

Also on the proving ground alongside James Hanson in the forward line was (or is) Luke James who approaches football as a fly approaches the job of exiting via a window. James is everywhere he should and should not be and as a result often looks like he could achieve his aims were he not to buzz away.

He went 31 games at Peterborough without scoring but was described as impossible to dislike. His enthusiasm is admirable.

Also admirable, and also attempting to prove himself, is Nathan Clarke who suffered in the Liddle-less team at the start of the season when the acre in front of the defender was unpoliced.

A solid midfield in front of him and Clarke begins to look more secure and even manages some impressive moments but – like Knott – having lost his place to a loan signing there is an onus on the player to push his borrowed rival and that pressing is not helped when a free kick is swung over just before half time and headed softly past Ben Williams.

Williams stays on his line – obviously – but does nothing to keep the ball out. Clarke and Williams dart eyes at each other and forty five minutes work goes into the dressing room undone.

Half time.

A new tactic

Barnsley’s second half approach was as obvious as it was effective and resulted in a 2-1 victory for the visitors. Lee Johnson’s side played the ball on the flanks and crossed into the area between goalkeeper and defenders which it is increasingly obvious opposition teams have seen as the Bantams weakness.

And it is not my place to say how Phil Parkinson should be solving that problem. It might be – and I suspect it is – a facet of Ben Williams’ game which is not going to be changed and Brad Jones is a better option because of this but it may be that with work on Rory McArdle and Clarke/Reece Burke that gap can be plugged.

It might be that goalkeeping coach Lee Butler can fix the hole in the Bantams defence with hard work on the training pitch. It might be that Williams (or Jones) can fix the problem by working extra sessions with the defenders although if there is the scope for that one would have thought it would have happened by now.

But when Barnsley – once again – scored by placing a cross into the area which goalkeepers never come it became obvious that that gap needs to be addressed and that Parkinson is failing to address it. The changing of goalkeepers on the basis of the errors they have made rather than their approaches to organising a defence has brought us to this situation.

2-1 down Devante Cole and Steve Davies toiled up front as replacements for James Hanson and Luke James little changed. Knott’s attempts to control midfield was a qualified success only without the drive from the middle of the pitch to provide a counter option to the wide players especially when MaMahon – as a wide player – is supporting the two players in the centre of the field.

The evening ebbed away from City and Barnsley progress reflecting that while they could hardly be said to have controlled the game, they created the type of chances that would be easier to take, and took them.

A lesson or sorts.

Colchester United and the Crawley Brawl

As far as match reports go few are more erudite than Damien Wilkinson’s comment on Bradford City’s 2-0 defeat in Essex at Colechester United.

Colchester will probably have harder training sessions than that.

The names may have changed but the problems remain for Bradford City. A goalkeeper making a mistake, a team playing without character, a ninety minutes where there were not enough threats to the opposition goal. A replay of Saturday but one could pick a dozen games since City returned to League One where the same could be said.

It has become manager Phil Parkinson’s nadir. The manager who builds teams – including one at Layer Road at the start of his career – based on players who will play for each other turning out teams who do not play for each other.

Original sin

Brad Jones – signed with fanfare – may step down as goalkeeper for the weekend trip to Rochdale after his mistake led to Colchester’s first goal.

Jones’ mistake does nothing for Ben Williams’ ability to control the space between where he can reach and where he positions his central defenders which is more Williams’ problem than his occasional mistake. Goalkeeper – more than any other position on the field – is a judgement made and stuck to. It is worrying that Parkinson believes in a fluidity between his custodians.

Worrying but not unprecedented. The City manager moved between Matt Duke and Jon McLaughlin when they were sharing goalkeeping responsibilities. Only Jordan Pickford – probably as a product of his loan arrangement – has been cemented into the City goal.

Street fighting man

McLaughlin’s exit plays heavy on the mind.

In Jon McLaughlin – who is keeping goal for League One leaders Burton Albion – City had a keeper who some still recall as making more than his fair share of mistakes but was vocal enough and improving to a point where he holds down a spot in the team at the top of City’s division.

McLaughlin’s play aside when considering the character problem in the team which City put out I cannot help but recall the sight of the City goalkeeper sprinting fifty yards to punch Crawley Town players after they had started to fight with City, and City’s Andrew Davies.

And while I’m not suggesting that there is a nobility in scrapping on the field I think back to The Crawley Brawl as a galvanising point for that City team.

I cannot – with all my powers of imagination – see many of the current City squad prepared to do what McLaughlin did that night. I cannot picture Williams or Jones or many of the current team sprinting fifty yards to stick up for their team mates in a fight.

Character study

As City warmed up against Colchester United Radio Five Live hosted a debate where they bemoaned the lack of leadership within the current Arsenal team. Arsene Wenger stood accused of inheriting leaders like Tony Adams and not being able to create anyone to replace them once they had passed into memory.

Journalist Henry Winter suggested that Wenger’s problems were the problems of all football. That in an era of squad players who understand that they will not be in the side every game, and in the era of increased player movement between clubs that can see someone like Mikeal Arteta leave Everton for Arsenal having seemingly become a part of the Goodison Park furniture, that the sort of leadership and character of a Tony Adams was not appropriate.

Expanding on Winter’s hypothesis would seem that managers have pursued players who can be used sparingly, and who understand that they are not essential to a team and can be rotated out, and so they do not grow the characteristics of the ever-present leader.

League One football is not Arsenal’s concern but the hypothesis may hold true.

It is hard to have players who could be described as leaders when those players after often at clubs over relatively short terms. Not every player had it in them to concern themselves with the general performance. Most look after their own game and – if you are lucky – that of the player next to them in a partnership.

Leadership – the type that promotes character in the team – seems an increasingly rare commodity and one which is not suited to being rotate or traded. For a player who has arrived on a two year deal as most do the point in which he starts to grow into a role at the club seems to be the point where the club start to look beyond him.

Take – as an example – Lee Bullock who in 2010 was the player’s player of the year but having spent eighteen months at VP. He signed a new contract that summer but changes of manager and focus saw Bullock play less and move on. While not wanting to comment on Bullock’s skills as a player it seems uncontroversial to suggest that no sooner had Bullock settled in then he was being marginalised in the number of games he played, and ultimately in his position at the club.

With players coming and going in this way it it hard to imagine how a player will establish themselves as leaders in the group of players to have the effect on the field we talk about. After six months you know everyone’s name, after eighteen months you might have everyone’s respect, but if you are marginalised after that how do you lead?

It has always been thus.

Stuart McCall was made, not bought, and both Andrew Davies and Gary Jones who also typified the trait were rehabilitated having started their role at the club as curios and ended them as key men.

Parkinson needs to grow leadership from within the squad – and perhaps allow the squad to promote their own leader – and that is a process which takes time if it happens at all.

Right now we are waiting for that before the club can progress.

A side note, for the foolish only

There is no question of another manager being best suited to carry out that process.

Perish that thought.

History

Until leadership emerges within the squad City are subject to defeats and bad performances as befits any team. Two defeats – marked out because of their lifeless performances – are set in the context of a season which is in turn set in the wider context of the club’s history.

Just like the display against Gillingham in September 2001 – a 5-1 win which represents the best I’ve ever seen City play in a season which had little else of skill – the highs and lows are modulated to fit in with the overall view of the season.

The good are forgotten in bad seasons. The bad in good ones.

Much of what came before the Crawley Brawl is not remembered now. The brawl itself though – the way the squad stood literally shoulder to shoulder in the fight – seemed to jump start the team spirit of 2013 and beyond.

Colchester United 2-0 away will sink into that context too, providing Phil Parkinson can find another way to galvanise Bradford City, to create team spirit where there is none, and to enable the team to create its own leaders and character.

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