Clarke / Post Hoc / Life

When thirty four year old Billy Clarke signed for Bradford City over the summer there was some upset at the club’s perceived inability to find new targets.

New targets were to follow in the personage of Elliot Watt and Levi Sutton but by the time they did a narrative was set that for the want of a recruitment network City were scruffing around to bring in the manager’s mates ahead of what would be a terrible season.

Clarke

No club will look back on football in lockdown with less fondness than Brentford who seemed to have three gilt edged chances for promotion to the Premier League and missed them all. For them the time will come and perhaps they appreciate the distance they have travelled in the past ten years.

In April 2009 Brentford turned up at Valley Parade £10m in debt but spending freely as they tried – and succeeded – in beating Stuart McCall’s Bradford City to promotion. There is a celebrated match report on this very website one can read about it from back when I was good.

Amidst the three entwined narratives of Stuart McCall’s time at Bradford City is the peripheral figure who is on loan to, should be sent off for, and scores for Brentford: Billy Clarke.

Jacko

There is story about Peter Jackson saving Bradford City from relegation from League Two which is rarely heard and lacks any real veracity.

Jackson took over a team destined for a reversion to the mean and a mid-table finish, performed significantly worse, and managed to make a last minute goal from Ross Hannah at Morecambe into a showpiece triumph.

Jackson lasted less than a half dozen games as permanent manager of Bradford City and left among acrimony. Like Billy Clarke poking the ball away for Brentford he is a part of someone else’s history as the manager before Phil Parkinson took over.

Five

“Jon McLaughlin’s fifty yard run and punch on a Crawley Town player is – to me – the moment when Bradford City’s fortunes turned.

The brawl that saw five players sent off was the moment when Phil Parkinson’s team coalesced into being the team which would go onto Wembley twice and Chelsea 4-2.

Had Johnny Mac walked slowly to the dressing room after the dour defeat none of that would have happened.”

Life

In 1970 John Horton Conway devised a Mathematical simulation known as Game of Life in which cells were placed on a grid and be dent of their having or not having the correct number of neighbours they would thrive or not.

Cells follow rules and from that the interactions happen. When I was around eight or nine years old I was entranced watching Life creating stories of villages smashing together, narrating the rise and fall of these areas of blocks, enforcing a story onto what was entirely deterministic.

In Life one created a starting situation, and followed a predetermined set of rules, and the complexity which followed was not in any way random but seemed that way because of the massive compounding of simple factors into something which while deterministic seemed to be utterly random.

Looking at it long enough, focusing on it long enough, staring at it long enough, a story started to emerge.

2021

Bradford City may have a terrible 2020/2021 season or it may be glorious but probably it will be neither.

A lot of teams in League Two have had to lose a lot of players and bring in mostly new squads and one suspects that the League will be decided by how quickly and well those players mesh into a team rather than how good they are.

One thing that Bradford City have going for them is that Stuart McCall – left a half dozen players by Phil Parkinson when he last returned to the club – has some experience melding squads together.

Foucault

All of which presents something of a difficulty for the modernist grand narratives which the match report for the Brentford game, the footnote of Peter Jackson, the friends of friends recruitment of 2020, or the McLaughlan Brawl and how it led to Chelsea are trying to present.

The Parkinson era did not end with the departures of Phil Parkinson or owners Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes but continued for another year or so with McCall’s side being an offside call from Promotion. Likewise the Rahic era did not end when Rahic and Julian Rhodes returned.

The narratives we attempt to use to analyse football as it happens are anticipations of post-hoc appreciations of events which will be given context in relation to other events.

Right now we look at events as they unfold and we decide variously if we think that it is smart recruitment or it is wrong headed and we decide what that will mean for events to come writing a future history as we do that. Looking at events and unfolding information and trying to craft them into the story of the future of Bradford City.

Clarke (Again)

All these events are Billy Clarke appearing dotted through history with significance assigned arbitrarily.

Clarke is just the manager’s mate, unless the group coalesces into a team and wins promotion in which case he is a great senior pro.

We construct overarching narratives to explain events dotted through the past excluding what does not fit our narrative and we do the same for a future we know will only be contextualised by the playing out of those events.

We are all watching John Horton Conway’s Game of Life and assigning meaning to what we see hoping to make sense of seemingly random patterns.

Doyle / Vaughan / Wasteland

The match between Bradford City and Bolton Wanderers in the first round of the League Cup will occur before the first league game of the season and in front of empty seats as laws and guidelines around the COVID-19 pandemic prevent spectators from attending.

Bolton forward Eoin Doyle is pleased with this outcome allowing him to avoid chastisement from City supporters following his protracted exit from Valley Parade. Doyle was part of a team at Bradford City that failed and then was strong armed into returning only to leave again, and then this, and now this.

That Doyle wants to avoid the ire of City supporters on the occasion of his first game in six months is telling. Aged thirty two he – and thirty two year old James Vaughan who also left Valley Parade of late – must have wished they had not heard the news of Lee Cattermole’s retirement, or at least the subtext of that news.

Cattermole

A peer of Tony McMahon at Middlesbrough and playing in Dutch football Cattermole announced that he would be hanging up his boots. As a combative midfielder in his early thirties Cattermole is the type of player who could have been sought after at League One and Two level for another half a dozen years but Cattermole would rather not.

His statement oozes with subtext. At home with his young family for the last six months – locked into home with his young family – powerless as a Global Pandemic lays waste to the world a new framing of the reality of being a footballer seems to have taken his thoughts.

A world of fitness drills and running, and away trips to Eindhoven or Exeter, and being away from his family for days at a time, all seemed so unappealing. The greasepaint and the roar of the crowd so distant he looked at what would have been a future as a senior professional and saw nothing.

Vaughan

I do not know that that is Lee Cattermole’s view. He might think of the clubs he would play for or the security of being financially very well off with his family or if it was the feeling that after six months of atrophy he did not believe that his body could return to the fitness of his twenties to give someone a full season but I imagine James Vaughan has all those same thoughts too.

Vaughan’s exit from Valley Parade was predictable with the striker wanting to return to the Merseyside based club where he had spent time on loan and City acquiescing to those wishes in short order. City manager Stuart McCall was stinging in his criticism of the player wanting to be at home more rather than get into the challenge before him.

One wonders how a person like Stuart McCall goes about managing players so far from the player Stuart McCall was – all heart and dedication – as Vaughan is and then one recalls that when McCall got to thirty two he went home too. McCall played in different times when football was a verdant land of plenty.

One can imagine Vaughan wracked over months by the thought of driving over the M62 towards a failing team which is too accustomed to failing in front of an often hostile stadium with people in it who demand something which he cannot sate and seeing that stretch of motorway as a waste land to be navigated but never conquered. Tranmere Rovers offering him a chance to make the Potemkin existence more bearable and to try silence the thought wondering, all the time, if he should join Cattermole in excluding himself from the broken landscape.

Eliot

In The Waste Land T. S. Eliot describes a Britain recovering from The Great War and facing up to the rise of an organised Socialist movement that threatened revolution and from it creates a Fisher King narrative.

The King is wounded and the country is broken and rendered into a barren, fruitless waste land where small people have taken the place of large characters. “He, the young man carbuncular, arrives, A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare, One of the low on whom assurance sits as a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.”

To repair the landscape The King needs to be fixed and to fix The King, The King needs to hear and to understand the three words repeated in the thunder that cracks the sky above the waste land: “Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata.”

In English: Give, Compassion, Control.

Clarke

The last time the League Cup’s first game preceded the League Season Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City should have gone out of the competition in the first round when Notts County missed an open goal in the 90th minute but went through, and again, and ended up at Wembley Stadium in the final.

That season for Phil Parkinson’s side was remarkable and is talked about almost as much as the win over Chelsea that followed it two years later is. They were halcyon times – for some – but when mentioned now are as likely to bring the sharp rebuke of allowing one’s self to wander in the past as much as they are the feeling of nostalgia.

The afternoon at Stamford Bridge saw two a brief cameos. Mohammed Salah went on to be of awe at Liverpool. Billy Clarke returned to Bradford City this summer slightly older than Vaughan and also keen to move closer to his home in West Yorkshire as his career winds down. Clarke knows that in a few years he will see football as a thing he once did.

To draw the map of football is to see huge constructs of wealth, prosperity, and greatness towering over a broken British football landscape. There is wealth and there is absence and the absence stretches for miles beyond the clubs in Liverpool and Manchester that Vaughan passes on his linear navigation.

In that barren rock there are farmers arguing over which crops to plant in the ash and there are people who would construct monuments and people who would pull those monuments down.

Doyle

Eoin Doyle has been in the waste land too long.

His move from Chesterfield to Bradford City was a good one but went bad and after eighteen months he was sent away only to find some form at Swindon. That form irked the club and the supporters who had cared very little on his exit and so he returned only to leave again, and then leave again and end up at Bolton.

Cattermole, Vaughan, Clarke, Doyle and the thought of playing in an empty stadium having had one’s body atrophy over six months cocooned with a family one seldom gets to enjoy. As younger men Vaughan, Clarke, Doyle having seen the broken players at the end of their careers and knowing that they are those players now.

Stepping into the waste land once again, driving the length of the M62 past the clubs of Liverpool and Manchester and past the farmers arguing about what crops to plant in the ash, and verbalising relief that they will be afforded the privacy – the dignity – of being able to perform in front of no one.

No sound of thunder or whimper of an ending and no supporters to look down at Vaughan, Clarke, Doyle and to shout as they do, and to swear as they do, and to vitriolise as they do.

And to sing the one chant which is heard at all football grounds in this the year of our Lord two thousand and twenty:

“Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata.”

Inefficient / Attitude / Passing

Nothing useless can be truly beautiful – William Morris

Long after the final whistle of Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Oldham Athletic came the revelation that City have scored without reply in the closing stages of the game then the Bantams would have been top of League One.

Bolton Wanderers – under former City boss Phil Parkinson – drew on his return to another former haunt Charlton Athletic and Scunthorpe United lost at a Port Vale side who have carried on whatever promise they showed on the first day of the season to nestle forth in the five o’clock league table.

For the want of a goal the Bantams were thwarted on an afternoon which was more interesting than it was exhilarating.

The Stuart McCall brand Bradford City are a strange team to watch as they find their feet. For sure they are possessed of some determination having gone behind to an early Peter Clarke goal when the former Huddersfield Town skipper targeted Daniel Devine at a set piece and beat the youngster in the air.

Devine typified the team in shrugging off anything like a set-back and carrying on the afternoon. Following Tony McMahon’s injury Devine switched to right back where aside from avoiding crossing the ball he looked for all the world like a seasoned veteran of the utility man variety.

So determination and no little craft in that as a team the role of the midfield – and one could make an argument that City played six, perhaps eight, players in midfield against Oldham Athletic – is fetishised beyond what seems necessary or useful.

The ball was caressed around the field with élan and possession was retained for long periods of time. When the equaliser came – a Billy Clarke penalty – it seemed to come because that possession had wandered into the box as it continued a scenic tour around Valley Parade. Ousmane Fane – excellent in holding midfield for the visitors – pulled down Josh Cullen in a moment of undue rashness and the game was level.

It is easy to laud this new Bradford City for the contrast that it presents with the five years that came before it. The term hoofball is banded about freely to describe Parkinson’s City as if one could sum up an entire approach in a single word.

Alt

There is something to be said for looking at Oldham vs Bradford City through the eyes of Phil Parkinson. Imagine one of those away trips that took an hour to get over the Pennines to watch Parkinson’s City take an early lead. Imagine watching Rory McArdle and Reece Burke swamp a tricky little centre forward, deny him possession, and snuff him out as Clarke and Cameron Burgess did to Jordy Hiwula.

Imagine watching a wide midfielder capable of laser guided shots gradually minimised through the game. He troubles the goalkeeper from long range on occasion but that is more acceptable than cutting through the defence.

Imagine the satisfaction that would have come watching their Billy Clarke withdraw from pressing the forward to hunt deeper for the ball in increasing frustration. Imagine how one would phrase the summation of the game to anyone asking. “Yes they had possession but they just passed it around midfield and never really broke us down.”

There is much talk about how with a different centre forward for Bradford City – and City have fielded five already this season with Vincent Rabiega making his debut off the bench today – would score goals and this could be true but thinking back on the game with Oldham Athletic one struggles to recall a plethora of chances missed.

Billy Clarke and Jordy Hiwula can both be accused of having missed the sort of chances one would expect them to score but saying that leaves twenty of the twenty two shots on goal in an impressive statistic unaccounted for.

I would suggest that against Oldham Athletic as with Coventry City most of the chances are of the half, or not clear cut, variety. That (around) twenty two chances that create just (about) two moments where one might expect the striker to score suggest the problem is not in finishing chances but in creating better ones.

Which returns to the question of the creators and where they are failing to convert the possession into chances with the implied understanding that possession is not equal to chances. Clarke and Mark Marshall – who faded into anonymity after a good opening – are chiefly accused here but creation is a shared aim which is not being served at the moment.

Addressing that – and with Paul Anderson ready to leave the club this week there is scope to address it – is the prime concern and bringing in a forward secondary.

It could be that there is a forward out there who can make the runs and command the space in a way that allows for more possession to be converted into chances which could then be converted into goals. It could be that a new creator is able to do that. There could be a solution found in the current squad which – after all – is not second in the League One table for no reason.

How that is addressed is something Stuart McCall has time to work on and may not need to work on at all. That City are inefficient is less important than that the are successful and they are successful at the moment.

However as the collective at Valley Parade congratulate themselves for being less like they were under Parkinson it is worth remembering that there was more to the last five years than just how the ball arrived into the final third of the pitch.

Away

Away games such as Oldham Athletic enjoyed today – where a great passing team passed itself out and Parkinson’s City went back to Bradford with something – were a part of the success of those teams. Stuart McCall has transformed City into a team of would be promotion passers from the team that frustrated would be promotion passers.

That frustration was not a function of the style of play but rather of the team’s attitude and that attitude was about grinding out results through a kind of bravery which centred around a managed risk on the field.

Watching Bradford City pass the ball around a lot but create a little it remains to be seen if City have that bravery within them bursting to get out or if the side pass that retains the ball is a soft option. It is that part of the Parkinson attitude – not signing players – which will define if City are promoted this season or if they are another of the pretty teams who populate the middle of League One.

Changes / Institutional / Retention

There has been much talk since his return to Bradford City that Stuart McCall had changed as a manager and that talk was manifested for the first time as his team came from a goal down against Coventry City to win 3-1 at Valley Parade.

A goal down and not playing well one worried at half time that whatever the City manager was to say to his players it would make matters worse. This, after all, was the criticism most fairly applied to McCall in his first spell as City manager. That he has the capacity to take a disadvantage and turn it into an eight game losing run.

That was the McCall way. McCall created teams that played not just with passion but were fuelled by it. When that passion was applied the result was a team of flair and verve that – like some Hendrix lead guitar riff – worked not because it had passion but because it was passion. When it did not work one ended up with two month sulks.

Which contrasted with Phil Parkinson’s five years at City were the Bantams were bass guitar perfect in their rhythm never to be put off balance. McCall had – in his previous time at the club – sent out teams transformed from bad (or average at least) to good after the fifteen minute break but too often it was the other way around.

City trailed Coventry City to a debut goal from on loan forward Burnley Daniel Agyei who had turned Romain Vincelot and finished well following a frustrated attempt to clear the ball up the left hand side of a lopsided Bantams team.

McCall had sent out a three man central midfield with Mark Marshall given a single winger role that overstates his ability to have an influence on the game. Marshall provided an outlet on the right for attacking play but there was no mirror to that the left leading to the singular problem with clearing before Agyei’s goal and a general problem all first half that City were predictable in dysfunction.

Coventry knew what the Bantams would do and that when they did it it would not work.

Coventry City’s Tony Mowbray deployed his Sky Blues team – still looking for a first win – to press high up the field and lock on City player to player. They played at an intensity which was not sustainable for ninety minutes – legs would tired and tired soon – but that one worried at half time would have broken the home team’s resolve and need only continue to keep the Bantams at arm’s length.

But at half time McCall addressed the problem down the left by pushing Billy Clarke – rancid in the first half, much better in the second – alongside Jordy Hiwula and having one or the other break left when the Bantams had the ball.

This tactical tweak had two effects: It balanced the width of the midfield giving an outlet on the left and it stopped Clarke dropping deep and – as a result – allowed the three man midfield to push forward into the last third. It was the opposite of the charge of tactical naivety but I never bought into that charge anyway.

That the change worked was down to metronomically good displays from the likes of Vincelot, Josh Cullen, Nicky Law Jnr, and Daniel Devine. Players who were able to maintain a level of performance and – by doing so – provide a platform for those who were playing poorly to turn their performances around on on.

This was the hallmark of the Parkinson era and the thing one was most worried about losing when Parkinson left. No matter who took over the knowledge Parkinson grafted into his teams of maintaining a level of performance when performances around you after going bad had to be lost.

How that knowledge has been retained is a mystery or perhaps it has just been recreated. Vincelot’s clean through ball to Clarke after an hour came when the visitor’s legs were too tired to press but the Frenchman had not fatigued physically or mentally. Clarke went for goal but was pulled down and Tony McMahon’s penalty pulled the score level. It was simultaneously reassuringly familiar and entirely new.

Coventry City’s approach of going man-to-man on the Bantams failed following the dismissal of Jordan Turnbull for conceding the penalty and within minutes Mark Marshall arrowed in a diagonal long range strike which is as good as any seen at Valley Parade in recent years.

Marshall’s performance was still a problem though and one which may become pressing as City progress. He spoke following the game about how previous managers had not allowed him to play with freedom and there may be good reason for that. Marshall unleashed is as liable to land a 25 yard screamer into J block of the Kop as he is the back of the goal.

That Marshall is allowed a platform at all is a balance created by the metronomic midfield. My worry is that he does not create enough to provide weight in that balance. His improvement is slow but this goal and this game showed a step in it.

A second McMahon penalty came after Cullen was hauled down in the box – that the midfielders were getting in the box showed the turnaround caused by the switch McCall made with Clarke at half time – and the stand in skipper stepped up to score again before hobbling off injured.

McMahon will miss four to six weeks after history maker Kyel Reid trolled into him leaving him with a dead leg he pushed too far. Reid had a very Kyel Reid type of game. He ran a lot, fell over too much, and should have scored a couple of times but did not and on each occasion recognised his failure with a big smile.

But Reid looked different from a distance and playing for another team: more dangerous sometimes, more cynical sometimes, more desirable maybe too;

Which is enough to make one think on a wet summer August afternoon where what one worried about losing with Parkinson and regaining with McCall began to evanish.

Opening / Generative / Failings

One day after the last game of last term Bradford City was sold to new owners starting a close season which felt like nothing of the sort. Managers went and came, players followed or did not and and so the opening day 0-0 draw with Port Vale which marked a new era beginning felt oddly like a remnant of the old.

Oddly because while the faces had changed the problems remained the same. Stuart McCall replaced Phil Parkinson as City manager and will have been pleased not only with his team’s clean sheet but with how untroubled his goalkeeper was. Colin Doyle’s opening day did not see him seriously tested.

That the defence played as well as it did denied its rapid construction with Romain Vincelot dropping in along Nathaniel Knight-Percival and both putting in fine first ninety minutes. In training in the week Nathan Clarke joined Rory McArdle (injured) and Matthew Kilgallon (to fit) on the sidelines but the famously niggard Parkinson would have been proud of how few chances the City back four gave up today.

The midfield saw Timothée Dieng injured too – that last week in training must have been very exciting – and with Vincelot dropped back Daniel Devine came into make his début as Nicky Law Jnr made his second, or is it third, first appearance for City.

Devine’s first game answered a problem for McCall. As an eighteen year old he was largely able to stand up to the cut and thrust of a physical Port Vale who anchored the midfield with the impressive and tough Anthony Grant but looked confident enough to play on a level with the more senior players around him. He was good in the way that eighteen year old midfielders should be good.

There is a desire to bring in another midfielder to the club and one hopes that that desire is sated by Devine’s performance. It certainly should be. New chairman Edin Rahic has talked about wanting to develop young players and here is the first opportunity. The virtues of development are seen alongside Devine in Nicky Law Jnr who left Bradford City some six years ago as the kind of flimsy attacking midfielder who needed the steel of a holding man alongside him and returned cast in iron.

That may over-dramatise his changes but his usefulness at collecting the ball and taking responsibility for it was a revelation in the truest sense of the word. Law spent much of the first half setting the midfield line and controlling the distance between himself and wingers Filipe Morais and Mark Marshall. He plundered the occasional shot at goal too as did Vincelot who saw a shot just go over the bar, Billy Clarke watched Vale keeper Jak Alnwick push his effort onto the bar too, and there was a slash off the line to keep Alnwick’s goal intact.

But to iterate chances oversells City as an attacking force. Marshall, Morais and Anderson toiled without much return or sign of return. Morais involves himself in much and performed best of the three but never managed to find a cross or through ball or piece of play that created the chances the play up to the final third merited.

Morais on corners seemed a curious thing when one watches this video of all seventeen of Tony McMahon’s assists last season and notes how many of them were corner kicks. McMahon was at right back today, James Meredith at left back, and neither combined on the flanks with the wide men in front of them as well as one might have hope. The season is early and there is work to be done on understanding players patterns but all five fullbacks and wingers used were at the club last season yet seemed more adrift that then players in the heart of the team who were making first appearances.

Marshall followed on from last season with a performance which left one wondering what his aims on the field are. Is he to supply the ball quickly to James Hanson before the defence is formed up or is he to take his time and why – assuming he has one or the other of those instructions – does he not do it nearly half the time?

He is frustrating to the point of bringing down expectation levels when the ball comes to him. His delivery – which I would have argued was the best part of his game when he arrived at City – is so seldom seen that he borders on making himself redundant.

Which is a good word for Paul Anderson who has – in August 2016 – mislocated anything that made him a player to get excited about when he arrived from Ipswich Town. Anderson is a spectator to his own abilities with seemingly no sense of position – he comes forward when the ball goes beyond him, he drops back when James Meredith wants an option – and no output. I’m reminded of Irvine Welsh’s take on the unified theory of life: “At some point you have it, and then you lose it.”

McCall could persist with both Anderson and Marshall and in the hope that the pair will rediscover whatever it was that attracted Phil Parkinson to them and one suspects he will. One of the better parts of McCall the manager was his warm hearted work with players to try improve them. It might be that one longs for the ruthlessness of Parkinson who sliced Gary Liddle out of his team eight months ago having had him as a core member of the team previously.

Perhaps McCall might ring The Macron Stadium and tell Parkinson that he left a couple of things behind? But that is not McCall’s style and it is a real test of the manager who is praised for his man-management that he might manage these two (or three) men into something much more impressive than they showed today.

Football was – for a time – not wanting for attacking midfielders who could play in wide positions. The decline in wing play seems to have altered this and now every player who does not have a position is a number ten rather than an eleven. I’m not a man of faith and faith is required to believe that Paul Anderson will do in his second season what Peter Beagrie did in his.

As it is McCall is stuck with a generative unit which adds too little to be worth the shirts they take up. Add Billy Clarke to the mix and one ends up with a Bradford City team that can defend well, takes the odd pot-shot, but does not create good enough chances. Plus ça change.

Neither James Hanson nor Billy Clarke are the twenty a season striker that are bayed for but I’d argue that with a generative unit that fails to create no player would score twenty in this team. Which is not to say a further forward is not needed but that the real problem lays in creating rather than converting.

Port Vale were happy with their point at five o’clock and the aforementioned Anthony Grant will have impressed the watching scouts but City should not be wondering how this draw was not a win.

Preview / Players

It’s just words I assure them. But they will not have it – Simon Armitage

Something unique at Bradford City as one of the goalkeepers is the only player in British Football to have his transfer fee on his back as a squad number. Number one, and costing just one pound, is Colin Doyle arrived from Blackpool and looks to be starting on the first day of the season.

A commanding figure at six foot five Doyle has had the kind of career that seems to engulf goalkeepers who get used to the bench. He is thirty one and has played less than one hundred games.

Steve Banks – who arrived as keeper coach from Blackpool alongside Doyle – has the faith that the Irishman can step up to the duties of a starting keeper and should he fail then Rouven Sattelmaier gets a chance.

Sattelmaier – City’s first European number twelve goalkeeper – has played more first team games than Doyle, albeit at a lower level, and is three years his junior. The German talks confidently about challenging Doyle for his position.

It will be interesting to see at what point Stuart McCall opts for change – if he does – but the relative levels of experience afford an odd unbalance in confidence levels in Sattelmaier’s favour.

Joe Cracknell is third choice. He wears number thirty. The lesson he might learn is to not to get to thirty having been anything other than a first choice goalkeeper.

Of the five candidates for the central defensive roles Stuart McCall is spoilt for choice. Rory McArdle is initially unfit having had an operation in the summer and Matthew Kilgallon has had not pre-season following his release from Blackburn Rovers and so may not figure in the opening games but Nathan Clarke is able enough in the short term and Nathaniel Knight-Percival impressed on previous visits to and from Shrewsbury Town.

Kilgallon seems to be too high profile a signing to be anything other than McCall’s long term choice in one of the two central defensive positions and Knight-Percival has probably not moved to West Yorkshire with now expectations. McArdle has proved himself to be as close to undroppable as a player could be and there is little reason to imagine he will not carry on at such a high standard.

Which leaves McCall with – when fitness comes – the sort of headache any manager might want of having too many good players. There is the option of playing three central defenders which the new manager did experiment with when he was the old manager but failing that it seems that Kilgallon, McArdle and Knight-Percival have got reasons to perform in a fight for their places.

Which damns Nathan Clarke and youngster James King to a season picking up scraps.

On the left side of the two full backs James Meredith has no competition for his position following Gregg Leigh’s departure although there are moves, we are told, to bring in cover for the Australian. Meredith could be employed further forward should McCall play a three man central defence with wing backs. Should Meredith miss out then someone in the squad will be press ganged to left back.

And that someone is probably Tony McMahon who has played in most positions at Bradford City in his one and a half years at the club and after being – some may argue – the best player last season on the right hand side of midfield he has been officially announced as now being a right back.

A stranger move it is hard to imagine considering Stephen Darby’s position not only as right back and captain but consistent performer over the last few years. It is not accident that Darby’s name – as with McArdle – appears alongside the better moments of Bradford City’s recent history. An acid test of McCall’s second/forth spell at Bradford City is his ability to see this.

Again as with McArdle Darby starts the season injured and is two to three months away from full fitness. McMahon has the position for now.

Darby is important – very important – but McMahon’s abilities are not to be underestimated either. He led League One on assists last season and performed the wide midfield role far better than players who were signed with much more flourish. Finding a place for McMahon in the side is important but to replace Darby is to cut out the heart to add an extra hand – or foot – where it should not be.

Daniel Devine can also play right back, but he can do anything, read on.

Stuart McCall’s situation with midfielders is similar to his central defensive proposition in that he has at least three players who one might argue should have places and two places to play them.

Romain Vincelot continues the Brexit baiting European-ness of not only being French but also wearing number six and playing in midfield – does he believe he is Luis Fernández? – and seems assured a place in McCall’s side while Timothée Dieng who wears a more respectable eight jersey has done enough in pre-season to suggest that the two might combine into a dogs of war midfield. Or should that be chiens de guerre or perhaps coeur de guerre which sounds much more romantic.

However Nicky Law Jnr’s return – the first summer signing of what can justifiably be called a new era – suggested that he was likely to be favoured in a central midfield role. The aforementioned McMahon and Filipe Morais can also play the role and Devine has impressed too.

Devine, King and Reece Webb-Foster who we shall come to later have an interesting position in the 2016/2017 Bradford City squad. Where previously injuries in the Football League were on the whole covered by loan players new regulations mean that such moves can only happen within transfer windows.

This sets a requirement for players like Devine to be kept near the first team squad as cover rather than being sent out on loan, or isolated from the first team squad because the intention is to send them out on loan.

As the aim is to have a Devine, or a Webb-Foster, or a King ready to be dropped into first team action in the way that Wes Thomas or Tom Thorpe was last season then there is an opportunity to have those players blended into the first team squad. And in that context should Webb-Foster show day in day out in training that he can score then his path to the first team is highlighted.

This was not the case under Phil Parkinson where young players would complain about a lack of development – there was no reserve team some of the time – and there was an obvious preference to loan signings over development players. News that McCall is interested in Liverpool’s Cameron Brannagan and is trying to bring back Josh Cullen is interesting in this context.

It would seem that Vincelot and Dieng will start the season in the centre of midfield for City and that Law Jnr, and Devine, will cool their heels waiting for an opportunity or for McCall to try a three man midfield that would take Dieng holding and Vincelot and Law alongside him.

It would be odd if McCall – an advocate of the FourFourTwo – abandoned that formation just as its resurgence post Euro 2016 took hold. His willingness to do that perhaps depends on Brannagan or Cullen signing or the performance of the most disappointing group of players last season.

We shall dub these the creators if only because repeating the words “wingers, attacking midfielder and and drop off strikers” over and over will get tiresome. Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall’s failure to fulfil these roles last season deformed City’s season and to expect both to improve is an act of faith.

Anderson’s first season was interrupted by injury but when fit his play was not especially useful. He is fast and able to send a ball into the box at a ninety degree angle to his running path but as previously mentioned crossing is football’s overrated virtue and not only would Anderson have to play better this season to impress he would have to play differently.

Which means that Anderson – who enjoys a seniority at the club and is expected to perform – needs to not take the easier options he so often did in his performances at the start and the end of last season where he went wide hugging the touchline and hit the ball into the box and to nobody. His delivery was poor and considering the lack of numbers City got into the box that was a problem.

Anderson needs a reinvention. He needs to be the player who uses possession much better than he has done previously. He needs to be the player who can effectively cut inside as well as go outside of a full back and when he does he needs to have more presence of mind to find a target more often or to choose to do something else such as a surge into the area.

It might be that Anderson does not have these attributes to his game but if that is the case then he condemns himself as a very easy player to play against and one which will struggle. Even at League One level football has no time for the player who has but one way to achieve his aim and persistence is only admirable when a player carries on doing something effective.

Which brings us to Mark Marshall who has a similar situation albeit one he has shown more capacity to address. Marshall’s delivery is better than Anderson’s and he shows a willingness to vary his play which makes him genuinely difficult to play against but he is troublingly negligent in the defensive side of his game.

Marshall too often could be accused in his appearances last season with exposing the full back behind him and not working well in the defensive unit. A coeur de guerre midfield might give Marshall more licence to idle in this regard but he is simply not a good enough winger to set up a team to carry him if he does not track back.

Unlike Filipe Morais who offers McCall the type of endeavour that the previous manager loved but not the creative output which the team needs. Morais is being considered more of a drop off striker to play in what is now called the number ten position but was the hole although his effectiveness there seems to be a result of his randomness rather than the teams ability to blend him into a style.

Morais, as with Marshall and Anderson, is a creator who does not create enough and this is where the worries about Stuart McCall’s planning for the season start. The back six players provide a superb platform – arguably better than the one that Parkinson’s side had – but there seems to be a dearth of creators to stand on that platform.

Which leads back to McMahon who – like it or not – created a lot last season and should Anderson, Marshall and Morais not step up their contributions significantly then one suspects that McMahon will need to be taken out of whatever hole he would like to fit into and bashed back into one of the wide midfield positions.

Creation, assists, and defensive ability to not leave the team undermanned this should not be a difficult choice to make but one worries that McCall will have to learn this lesson the hard way. As it stands McCall is putting a lot of faith in players who have done little to merit it.

Should McCall favour a three man midfield then one might see Anderson and/or Marshall deployed further forward as part of an attacking three but that does not seem to solve the problems so much as make them less relevant by shifting the creation to the three midfielders. If McCall opts to play Vincelot and Dieng deep and a row of three creators behind a front man then one might worry about the effectiveness of such an approach but still these players would have to step up their performance.

McCall seems to be prepared to put that faith into Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall and one hopes that his faith is rewarded – much depends on it being – and one expects to see both starting against Port Vale for the opening game of the season and hopes to see the two players who were promised twelve months ago.

Which leads us to the subject of Billy Clarke and the strikers. Clarke’s promise at the start of last season evaporated leaving the top scorer of the year before idling towards the end of Parkinson’s time at City.

As with Anderson and Marshall the problem Clarke presents is that he does not scorer enough to be considered a goalscorer nor does he create enough to be thought of in that role and unless there is a drastic change in either of those qualities then there are problems when he is in the team.

One can try play a passing game routed through Clarke the number ten but to do so is to put undue faith in the Irishman’s sporadic ability to unlock a defence. This is a distinct contrast to James Hanson who one can rely on to beat defenders to high passes on a regular basis.

This was always the unsaid – or perhaps unheard – quantity in the debates over how Phil Parkinson’s side played football. Hanson would reliably win high balls, Clarke would not reliably unlock defences through craft. The argument was more pragmatics than cosmetics and the nature of that argument has not changed with the change of manager.

Get the ball to Hanson and there will be flick ons more often then there will be through balls from working the ball through Clarke. The two can play together with Clarke playing off Hanson but to do that Clarke needs to remain close to the man they call Big Unit and not wander off on esoteric crusades for the ball deep in the midfield.

Likewise to play the ball through Clarke and look for craft to open defences Hanson would need to be more mobile than he is and make the sort of runs which have not been a staple of his career.

Which is where Jordy Hiwula and Webb-Foster present options that are valued if only because they are unknown.

The problem that Stuart McCall has is that Bradford City do not score enough goals. I would argue that they do not create enough chances and the reason for that is that the team was set up defensively after a recruitment issue left the team with a goalkeeper and back four who could not deal with crosses.

The solution to not creating enough chances is in the creative players: the Andersons and Marshalls; and in the strikers: Clarke and Hanson; and the onus on them to make more chances to allow a reasonable conversion rate to result in more goals.

It is not impossible that this situation will have been addressed by a general step forward by the entire team – the defensive posture of last season prized not conceding over everything else – but unless it has or unless the players perform then the strikers will spend the season once more trying to convert a high percentage of fewer chances.

One can expect to see Hanson and Clarke start the season and one can expect before August closes the strikers and the creators to have been augmented. At the moment City and Stuart McCall seem to have a team that his half right which at least is not a step backwards.


This preview might get out of date quickly and if it does it will be updated. Just so you know.

Unfamiliar / Preview

Matthew Kilgallon joined Bradford City on a one year deal from Blackburn Rovers bringing a level of excitement to some supporters at the end of a summer where things at Bradford City fell apart and were put back together again.

The usefulness of Kilgallon’s recruitment will be seen in time. He and Nathaniel Knight-Percival joi in the central defensive position and Nathan Clarke and Rory McArdle remain. This gives Stuart McCall’s Bradford City three or four – depending on your view on Clarke – strong choices to start in the middle of the defence.

At the other end of the pitch things are different and attacking options are thin on the ground. McCall arrived in June to find James Hanson still at the club he had left five years ago but one could argue that Hanson and his colleagues players in attacking positions: Mark Marshall, Paul Anderson, Billy Clarke; need improvements on last season’s performances to be significant.

Teams score goals, not players and while four of those mentioned above could be more creative than converting – the flick down from McArdle’s diagonal ball is an act of creation – none could be said to have created enough.

Tony McMahon’s withdrawal to right back form the right wing – where he spent a season under Phil Parkinson – is a curious move from McCall exactly because it removes the one player in the Bradford City team who excelled in creation last season.

Drop

His name dropped into the preview it is worth acknowledging that Phil Parkinson is going to have more of of an impact on Bradford City 2016/2017 than Stuart McCall will. Parkinson – who of course exited for Bolton Wanderers in June – built as much of a monolith as football allows a manager to create in the modern game at Valley Parade.

Parkinson took his backroom team with him to Bolton and his backroom team – it is reported – took everything they had worked on with them. Once again – just as with the situation a few months prior to Parkinson’s arrival at Valley Parade – the file cabinets that contained scout reports were empty and the structures around a football club were scant.

And it is this way because Parkinson wanted it this way. The former Bradford City manager had had experiences sharing out the power at a football club previously – most notability at Hull City – and found it wanting. Parkinson fought a hard fight against unspecified directors with unspecified roles to make sure that he had some control in every aspect of the footballing side of Valley Parade and he won those fights.

There was no pressure on Parkinson to develop young players and so Stuart McCall arrived to find no young players with first team experience. There was no pressure on Parkinson to create a squad which was sustainable from one season to the next. There was no pressure on Parkinson to develop a squad with resale value until new owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp arrived at the club and – within a few weeks – Parkinson was gone.

Rahic and Rupp arrived to replace Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes as Bradford City owners and began to talk about a future in which the squad was shaped around recycling the waste product of Premier League academies.

That last statement sounds needlessly dismissive and should not. If one looks at the example of The Chelsea Academy of the last fifteen years one can only think of a single player – John Terry – who was not waste. Millions are spent on players who are discarded for not reaching and elite standard but are able to be turned around and made into useful footballers.

A production line of turnaround players is as close to a business model as the game at lower levels has ever had and one which Rahic and Rupp believe they can benefit from. Clearly the club they bought was an ill fit to achieve that.

Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes freely admitted that they could see no other way of the club going forward than someone arriving and injecting more money and, as the ultimate result of that paucity of thinking, they were prepared to give Parkinson total control of all football matters.

Which is not to say that Parkinson should not have enjoyed carte blanche to do any or all these things as he sees fit. Parkinson’s methods showed constant year-on-year improvement and perhaps would have continued to do so but without the manager ceding some control they would not have aligned with the owners.

Parkinson used many short term contracts, and Parkinson used many loan signings, and Parkinson was not entirely interested in developing young players, and if the club are now interested in long term permanent signings of young players then it starts from a negative position.

Which is a long way of saying that the 2016/17 season – the first post-Parkinson season – is defined by the decision taken by Rhodes and Lawn to allow Parkinson to be the entire centre of the footballing side of Bradford City. There was no institutional retention of knowledge – the scouting cupboard was bare – and that is the result of choices made before June 2016, not after.

Five

Phil Parkinson’s final finish for Bradford City was fifth in League One and it is that which – rightly or wrongly – Stuart McCall will be measured against in the next twelve months as will Parkinson at Bolton Wanderers.

Both measurements could be unfair. For Parkinson his record of first season success is thin and the Trotters would be better to be prepared to wait.

For McCall he is a manager who started late and without structures which are necessary. McCall has not walked into a Southampton where the manager is an appendage to a well run system. He is at a club which – both rightly and wrongly – allowed itself to be defined by its manager and who has now gone.

There is much work to do to replace Parkinson and while Rahic has an idea of the shape that he would like the club to take in the long term there is no reason at all to believe that any of the work ahead of McCall, Chief Scout Greg Abbott, James Mason or Edin Rahic can be achieved without any negative effect on performance.

That Bradford City that finished fifth last season is gone and progress must now be judged anew.

These are unfamiliar times.

Goalscorers / Conversions

Nothing in football is as overrated as a goalscorer.

This is a truism within the game but something which supporters – and the pundits who pander to them – steadfastly refuse to acknowledge. In short: Goalscorers do not score goals, teams do.

A goalscorer is a part of that team for sure but not one who is more valuable than the other parts in the process of scoring goals. The centre forward could not head the cross in were the cross not made by the winger who needed the through ball from the central midfielder. A classic economic mistake is to overvalue towards the end of a production chain and football excels in doing that.

We can all recall the goalscorer who filled his boots at one club, moved, and found that goals dried up. The idea that signing a goalscorer will add thirty to the Goals Scored column is an obvious myth.

This leads us to one of footballers darkly comic stories. Manchester United manager Dave Sexton signed Nottingham Forest’s Garry Birtles for £1.25m in the early 1980s after Birtles had started the season with six goals in nine games for Clough’s side.

Sexton played Birtles twenty five times for the remainder of the season and Birtles did not score once which was an embarrassment for Sexton that got worse when – following their release from six months captivity at the hands of Radical Islamists in Tehran – one released former captivee started his statement to the world’s media with the words “Has Garry Birtles scored yet?”

He had not. But he would do. In Birtles first season United scored fifty-one. The season after Birtles got eleven of fifty-nine but ended up back at Forest the season after.

Sexton’s assumption – that he could buy Birtles the finisher of Nottingham Forest’s play and get Birtles’ goals – is both wrong and regnant. The team creates goals which the score’s name is (sometimes more than others) arbitrarily attached to.

Premier League 2015/2016 scorers ordered by percentage of teams goals.

  1. Ighalo – 15 goals of 40 – 37.50%
  2. Kane – 25 goals of 69 – 36.23%
  3. Vardy – 24 goals of 68 – 35.29%
  4. Agüero – 24 goals of 71 – 33.80%
  5. Deeney – 13 goals of 40 – 32.50%
  6. Defoe – 15 goals of 48 – 31.25%
  7. Lukaku – 18 goals of 59 – 30.51%
  8. Ayew – 12 goals of 42 – 28.57%
  9. Arnautovic – 11 goals of 41 – 26.83%
  10. Sigurdsson – 11 goals of 42 – 26.19%

Consider in the above how Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney both features in the top five for percentage of goals scored by their team. Watford scored forty goals last season, Spurs sixty-nine, but while everyone would expect that Ighalo would score more if he were in the Spurs team few would suggest that if you moved Harry Kane to Watford he would be or should be happy to score few goals (or take fewer corners)

Likewise Jermaine Defoe rightly gets tremendous credit for being a goalscorer for putting in 31% of Sunderland’s goals where as Lukaku is considered to have levelled out having claimed a similar percentage. It seems obvious to suggest that if you put Defoe in the Everton side he would not improve on a personal level (at least in the short term) but he would be expected to score more commensurate with the team scoring more.

Twenty

There is a near obsession with the idea of signing a twenty goal a year striker and not just at Bradford City and this misses the point of what a manager should be looking for in his recruitment. Ighalo scored fifteen goals of forty last season and my contention is that had he been at Spurs he would have got twenty-five of their sixty-nine. These are very good strikers and a very good striker gets 33% of his teams goals. James Hanson – not a goal getter by anyone’s imagination – got 20% of City’s goals last year. Billy Clarke got 7%, Devante Cole 9%, Jamie Proctor 11%. To put this in the context of successful teams with shared out goals Dimitri Payet was West Ham’s top scorer with nine of sixty-five goals which is 14%.

To have a 20 goal a year striker based on last year’s fifty-five goals is to look for someone between Kane and Ighalo on the list above. It is to hope for the extra-ordinary. If we pitch ourselves somewhere between where City were under Parkinson and the performance of Jamie Vardy when we might look at a striker who converts 25% of his teams goals as being a good level of performance then the onus is not on any of the forwards to score more goals but rather on the team as a whole to create more goals. Twenty-five more goals in fact, to take City’s return from fifty-five to eighty.

Teams that score eighty goals or more tend to win leagues which is the conclusion of the lust for a twenty goal a year striker. Twenty goal a year strikers emerge at teams that have exceptional seasons. They are the result of good goalscoring rather than the cause of good goalscoring. Put Harry Kane in a team which is not creating goals and his return will suffer, we all saw that.

If the team creates enough goals then – if they are commensurately good enough – the strikers will score enough goals and teams would be much better looking for ways to increase the total number of goals scored rather than trying to buy in goals Dave Sexton/Garry Birtles style.

Holes / Fit

Stuart McCall gets to the business of building a squad to compete in League One next season and he does so starting with a compliment of ten outfield players and no goalkeepers.

The goalkeeping situation offers most scope for change. Ben Williams – who is considering a new deal – would not suit McCall’s style of play at all. Williams’ weakness on crosses forced deep sitting defensive lines in Phil Parkinson’s final season. McCall needs a keeper who can control the defensive line, keep it high, and clear out any cross that comes behind it.

And then he needs another of these keepers as back up, and perhaps a third considering the changes to loan rules.

Across the back four Parkinson has left three solid players: Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle and James Meredith; and certainly Meredith seems to be exactly the type of attacking left back which McCall fielded all through his management career. Darby offers a balance on the right and – unless Parkinson is able to call either of both like some crazed Boltonian head of the herd – McCall would be best advised to keep both in position.

Rory McArdle seems a player to build any defence around and McCall’s fondness for a big central defender was personified in Marius Žali?kas at Rangers a year ago. During his first spell at the club McCall inherited David Wetherall and Mark Bower and ended up struggling to work out what he wanted from his central defensive pairing.

The new City manager often preferred two commanding central defenders and McArdle fits that bill but he has played his best football last season with a faster, clean up player alongside him and McCall might be advised to find one of that type of player as well as cover.

Considering Phil Parkinson’s sit deep team Stuart McCall might be surprised to find he has two wingers in his dressing room. Both Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson need to perform significantly better to be considered League One standard – which for Anderson is a bold statement considering his pedigree and remunerations – but the new manager has shown a commitment to wide play which affords an opportunity.

Filipe Morais and Tony McMahon are not McCall’s definition of a wide player but both could prove useful if in the merits of a better balanced midfield are to the fore. This all assumes that McCall will play the 442 formation he did at Valley Parade in 2010.

McMahon proved last season his ill-fit in a central midfield role being to weak in the tackle to hold the middle of the pitch. McCall needs an entire new engine room for his team. Last time he favoured one robust midfielder and one more attacking player while fielding two who could still be considered box to box players. It will be interesting to see if in the intervening time he has gained any faith in specialist defensive midfielders.

He has four players to bring in for that area. It will be interesting to see who they are and what roles they will take. McCall needs to find character and leadership in those positions and those things are seldom going free in a summer. It is easy to say that McCall needs to find his McCall, and is not untrue.

One midfielder is expected to be returning is Nicky Law Jnr. The Junior being increasingly humorous in a man who, like your author, has inherited his father’s hairline.

Up front McCall finds familiar face James Hanson. Discussion on Hanson will always be split and split along an ideological line. Hanson is the only player City have who could clearly be said to be the best at an aspect of the game in the division. People can cross a ball better, and shoot better, and defend better but no one in League One is as commanding in the air as Hanson.

This has massive implications for the opposition going into game. If a manager ignores Hanson he faces the prospect of watching his team be dominated from corners and crosses. If he takes special measure for Hanson he surrenders more space to other City forwards. That two men are marking Hanson at set plays affords space to someone else.

Ideologically though some are unable, unwilling or uninterested in this sort of dynamic between teams and are of the school of the thought that suggests it is for a team to dominate and dictate their way of playing onto the opposition. McCall was of this mindset too, far more than Phil Parkinson, and it will be interesting to see if he has changed.

The aforementioned Clarke seems very much McCall’s new Michael Boulding and while one can expect the manager to look at bringing in strikers one doubts Clarke will be hurried out of the door. Reece Webb-Foster will probably be given a chance – McCall’s record on untried players is a stark contrast with Parkinson’s – and another rumour reunites McCall with brief Rangers loanee Haris Vu?ki?.

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

Ultimate / Reasoning

The news that Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle will miss the first month and two months of the season respectively following operations leaves Bradford City in a position of having five players for the opening day of the season.

Of the entire City squad – stripped of those on loan or on contracts that run out at the end of June – Phil Parkinson has James Meredith, Mark Marshall, James Hanson, Josh Morris, Filipe Morais, Paul Anderson and Tony McMahon remaining (see comments below). With recruitment over the summer a problem for the City boss but with investment having arrived one wonders if things were not meant to be this way.

Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp had declared an interest in buying City twelve months ago. One can assume that that interest became more concrete as the season went on. One wonders how much impact the German pair’s arrival had on Parkinson’s winter spending. Had the previous regime known they were selling the club would they have authorised signing players on deals that went beyond the end of the season? Would Parkinson have wanted them to?

Devante Cole – a square peg at Bradford City – left for around £45,000 and a loan deal for Jamie Proctor that became a short term contract. The money – one imagines – went into the books for negotiation making the club look healthier and Parkinson was not saddled with an eighteen month contract for a player (Proctor) who he probably would not want if he had improved resources.

The reported £85,000 for Gary Liddle caused a lot of upset and head scratching at the time but perhaps makes more sense now. The player is sold, the money goes onto the bottom line of the club, and Liddle is replaced with a loan player in Cullen improved the team. Again knowing that the club would be being invested in one might speculate that Parkinson would have been looking to replace Liddle with some Bradley Dack-a-like.

So Parkinson goes into the recruitment phase with a near clean slate which – if the James Hanson to Sheffield United talk come to fruition – could be even cleaner because of the approach to signing players adopted in the last transfer window.

As Alan Sheehan – who departed yesterday to Luton Town – might have been tempted to say. There is just an inner circle left at the club now and that seems to be the way it is supposed to be.

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.

When to start pressing your palms together as Bradford City beat Oldham Athletic 1-0 at Valley Parade

Bradford City ground out a win against an Oldham Athletic team who played most of the match with ten men after Connor Brown was sent off for a late and long lunge at Kyel Reid and were defeated when James Meredith’s deep cross was lob headed in by Tony McMahon.

City had chances to add to the lead which were squandered – strikers James Hanson and Billy Clarke both were guilty of missing the target in the final third – but it seemed that there was little commitment from City boss Phil Parkinson that his team would add a second, or third, goal against a team in the bottom four and playing with one fewer men.

Parkinson was happy with a one goal win. Parkinson is always happy with a one goal win. Parkinson has been Bradford City boss for around 250 games and we know that he approaches football like this. He likes clean sheets and takes a geological (“Geology is the study of pressure and time“) approach to winning matches.

This approach was in evidence at Parkinson’s finest hour and in many other fine hours before and since.

The game this time last year against Millwall which saw the visitors fold after an early sending off was the game that everyone wanted once Brown was sent off but it did not happen. Oldham under new manager John Sheridan were more robust than that Millwall team and approached the game trying to not be beaten rather knowing they needed to trying to win.

Wedded to that was City’s struggle to make play. James Meredith had one of his better games but most of the other players have had more fruitful afternoons. None of the players have got more points on an afternoon – there is no four points for an entertaining win – and so City continue to occupy a place in League One where with games in hand and a good wind the Bantams would trouble the play-offs.

Pressing palms

After around eighty minutes of the win over Oldham Athletic a cross from Mark Marshall was headed wide by James Hanson. It was a bad miss and received only a smattering of applause from the Valley Parade crowd of 18,522. I did, and was (in a roundabout way) ticked off for a friend who sits nearby at VP.

“I’m not clapping that” he remarked with what could be described as a cheery grump, before asking me why I was. The exchange was good natured with fifteen minutes of him turning to ask if it was acceptable to clap now and me telling him that he could not.

This exchange culminated with (and I shall let you, dear reader, judge if this is a high bar to clear) my point which encapsulates the argument crisply.

“You can clap when the fourth goal goes in against Chelsea, or you can start before then, its up to you.”

It all comes back to Chelsea in the end.

Gnomic

What is supporting a football team? A disinterested friend of mine calls it “cheering laundry” while a friend of his defines his life by the fact that he has a season ticket at Old Trafford. One suspects that there is a type of support for every supporter.

But there does seem to be an Isthmus of Suez between those who believe that supporting is an active participation in creating a better football team and those who believe it is appreciating the endeavours of that team. The former see supporting as an active process of involvement in a community while the latter look at it as a reactive experience in which their involvement is largely immaterial.

To start to characterise the two groups the latter group Hanson’s miss has nothing to applaud. It is a failed attempt to produce an aim. To the former group Hanson’s miss is a subject to improvement and that that improvement is made through hard work by the players and that hard work comes as the result of encouragement. It is not hard to imagine what the latter group would think about that.

The latter group look on a miss like Hanson’s as being similar to a duff album track, or Star Wars Episode One, as something that could be done better but was not. Why get excited about something like that? Why clap Jar Jar Binks as a good attempt that went wrong?

The former would reply that the heights of achievement are only possible because of the support at the bottom and that when teams are playing poorly, or when players miss headers, it is the role of supporters to rehabilitate and return to the heights.

When to start and when to finish

The classic Chicken or Egg situation exists here. Are Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United et al popular because they are successful or successful because they are – or were – popular? Is there a symbiosis of the two?

The Chelsea game gives a case in point. The cheer for the fourth goal – the footballing cherry on the top – was so much full-voiced than that for the first which seemed a consolation at the time, or the second which equalised. Instinctively I know why this is but it would be better to have cause and effect explicit.

I clapped Mark Marshall’s cross, and James Hanson’s effort to get to the ball, and Jon Stead’s 1-2 goal and the effort which created the single chance City mustered at Accrington in a Peter Jackson inspired 1-0 defeat which represents the lowest ebb of City’s play I’ve seen.

Hanson’s header went a long way wide but his header against Aston Villa put the club into a Cup Final. The approach, losing a man, getting in front of a defender, the effort required, everything to the finish was the same. Is only one admirable?

Perhaps I should have saved my applause for the moment Yeates had put the ball past Cech or some other rung on a ladder between there and here and somewhere lower. I did not and I cannot help but wonder what football would be like if people did that.

How Football is ploughing fields without planting seeds

An away trip through South Yorkshire

Chesterfield away is a classic of the genre. A one goal victory that came when Bradford City ground the ambition out of the home side leaving only struggle.

Every pass forward was marshalled and pushed away by an imperious defensive line. Every easy clearance was made hard by strikers and midfielders who chased down what would have been the routine were it not for the attitude that manager Phil Parkinson has drummed into his team.

The goal came when Tony McMahon finished off a mazy run and low cross by Billy Clarke. Clarke enjoyed his best game in claret and amber and tormented the Chesterfield backline dropping into the hole between James Hanson and the midfield and exploiting it.

Chesterfield’s response – to bring on the aging Richie Humphrey – showed a team stepping back on their home turf. McMahon’s goal finished off the home team.

Parkinson would say after the game that City could have had four – indeed the post was pinged a number of times – but really the City manager oversells his policies. A one goal away win excites Parkinson – and excites me – because of the grind that has seen wins come Scunthorpe United, Rochdale, Doncaster Rovers, Oldham Athletic.

Those days are Parkinson at his best.

Playing away to teams that want to win mirrors the visits of Sunderland, or Arsenal, or Aston Villa, or the trip to Chelsea. When the opposition commits to victory Parkinson uses Hanson the battering ram occupying multiple defenders, and soaks up pressure with a mean back four.

The City manager’s problems come at home when teams sit back and defend the Bantams attack which is sporadic as shown by the third fewest goals scored total in League One. When City are forced to make the play in a game then games slip away from Parkinson.

Or sometimes things do not work.

An away trip to South Yorkshire

Text message before the game with Sheffield United: “Upper or lower?”

Reply: “Neither.”

Going to a football match should not cost more than going to the cinema. I’ve said this in the past and I believe it.

I think that Bradford City’s home pricing is a rare oasis of sense in a madness of a game in which this generation sells the game from the next and does so with a great deal of support from those getting fleeced.

Bradford City’s away pricing – and walk up pricing – is equally toxic to the game as a whole. Last time I checked it cost £25 to go to Valley Parade as an away fan. It cost £22 at Chesterfield, it cost similar at Walsall, it cost similar at Doncaster, or at Scunthorpe and so on.

The impact of this aggressive pricing that makes following football a thing that only some can afford is obvious to anyone who sees the aging supporter group and the gentrification which seems to come with it.

£27 to get into Sheffield United is certainly something I can afford but it is not something I will pay. It is a few pounds more than other games and those few pounds are hardly significant to me but I will not pay it.

And I do not know when the hand becomes the wrist nor do I feel like I’ve created a hard and fast rule never to be broken but I would not support this part of football’s attempts to gouge out of my pocket because they assume that because I can pay it they should sell to me, aged 42, for a price that me, aged 21, would never have been able to pay.

The combination of the two

If you enjoy a team that puts in a performance that is part frustration, part opportunism then you would have enjoyed the Chesterfield game.

I would argue that Chesterfield, or Scunthorpe, or Doncaster, or Oldham were little different to the game with Chelsea that defines 2015 for Bradford City: Minimise chances coming at your goal and maximise what one has at the other end.

But I cannot say with all honesty that all people would enjoy all or any of those games. I am cut from a cloth were I am more impressed with hard work and honesty on a field than I am by rabona kicks and 45 man massing moves.

I enjoy seeing a team with limitations which overcome those limitations, some of the time, and the processional football of the Champions League leaves me cold. I’ve no interest in football where the players who walk onto the field against Barcelona believe they are beaten before kick off.

Winning away at Chesterfield from few chances but battling to make sure that the team does not concede a chance let alone a goal is a good Saturday afternoon for me but probably only because of the narrative it creates.

It is enjoyable to watch my team Bradford City attempting to overcome limitations because I know those limitations. There is an overarching story of the emergence of Rory McArdle from understudy to as rock of defence, or about Tony McMahon finding a role having floated anchorless at the start of the season.

(There is also a story about James Hanson being not good enough for a transfer to a professional club, not good enough for the bottom of League Two, not good for the middle of League Two, not good enough for a League Cup semi-final, not good enough for a play-off second leg, not good enough for League One, not good enough for a team chasing the League One play-offs. One day he will not be good enough and I’m sure the phrase “we told you so” will be used regardless of all the times naysayers were proven wrong. Watching Hanson over the last few years is a lesson in the narrative of football.)

These things are seen over the course of months, and years, and not in isolation. Football, for me, is never viewed in isolation. I find the idea of turning on Sky Sports to watch any old game as mystifying as opening a book at a random page, reading twenty pages, and then putting it back on the shelf.

To watch the unfolding narrative of a team one needs to be able to watch often and prices over £20 are no aid to that for me but would have been a substantial problem to me twenty years ago. Is Sheffield United vs Bradford City £27 worth of entertainment when – if one considers it – one could take a friend to watch The Force Awakens in IMAX and still have change for popcorn?

I can’t remember a worst time

Sheffield United away is not Chesterfield. Without a game owing to waterlogging and without the regular training pitches owing to flooding reports return that City lack sharpness and are easily beaten. Football is a multi-polar world and games are hard enough when preparations are ideal.

The supporters – both Bradford City and Sheffield United – are subject to some racist chanting from Sheffield United fans and some chanting that is unpleasant. This will be passed onto The FA – who are perhaps the least able and qualified body in the Universe on this subject – but probably not to the Police.

The FA never seem to tire of their role as prosecutors of – some might say persecutors of – those whom the Law of the Land can find no case against claiming their lower standard of evidence as somehow better than the one that is required by any court which could not be prefixed with the term Kangaroo.

I would not want to have The Racists of Sheffield who were at Bramall Lane to be convicted for what they said or what they think. I’m happy to just consider them to be a collective of idiots and be done with it.

But I did not pay £27 so what can I say?

The focus

To suggest that football needs to understand better its audience is to allow the game – the collective of clubs and organisers – leniency on the charge that they understand full well that they increasingly greying men who populate matches are the ones who will dig deepest for tickets and that they exploit that.

The people who run football always need more money and they know that people aged 35+ in good jobs with good incomes will fund their extravagant demands for more wages paid, more promotions pushes, more mistakes and managerial pay-offs.

These people are the focus of football’s attention. In twenty/thirty years time when those people have retired to Saturday afternoons in more comfortable surroundings there will be no generation to replace them because that attention is so narrowly focused.

Oddly enough because of the odd combination of Wembley twice and season ticket pricing Bradford City are one of the clubs who have some protection against this – there is a healthy group of younger City fans who have been allowed a stake in the support – but mingle with the home fans at an away game and appreciate the difference.

Football is ploughing fields without planting seeds.

The longview

Sheffield United away is I am told a bad performance in isolation but not out of keeping with how Bradford City perform. When taken over a longer period City are averaging a point and a half a game away from home, as well as the odd Chelsea if you will.

Often the game plan of Chesterfield works but when it does not the result is as it was in South Yorkshire. Since Phil Parkinson arrived his plans have had a shifting impact on the mentality of the club.

When he arrived the club was congratulating itself for avoiding relegation out of the Football League under the hapless Peter Jackson. Now there is a consideration that the club is not ideally placed to reach the second tier of English football.

But I – and perhaps you – only know this having been fortunate enough to be able to afford to follow the club from that period to this.

I do not see how that will be possible for the coming generations of football.

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

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.

The superb and stupendous success of Scunthorpe United

There were probably more Bradford City fans in the stadium applauding off their side than there were supporters of Scunthorpe United following City’s 2-0 victory.

The Bantams had scored a goal in each half with Kyel Reid being fouled after his own shot was saved to allow Tony McMahon to score his second penalty of the week. Greg Leigh scored his second mesmerising run and finish from left back of the week too. Which was good, if you like that sort of thing.

City drafted in Jordan Bowery on loan from Rotherham United to cover Steve Davies in covering James Hanson in the forward line. This caused some upset with some supporters aghast that the Billy Clarke/Deavnte Cole partnership would not be given a chance, others that Bowry’s training would be to have Rory McArdle kick the ball at him very hard, and others that Luke James would be furious. The irony of Parkinson being called out for overlooking long term loan players in favour of short term loan players is not to be lost.

But so it was that Bowery – a willing runner who ran up with cramp towards the end of the game – played target man and Billy Clarke fell deep from the forward line to bolster a midfield which was already bolstered by favouring the more defensively minded Gary Liddle over in form Billy Knott.

City dug in and delivered the ball quickly to the final third. It was the first Wintery day of the season and – at times – one half expected to hear the old stand-by that the ball would come down with snow on it.

Oh to be a Scunthorpe United supporter

By contrasts Scunthorpe United are a joy to watch. Set up with a 433 with one fulcrum midfielder they deployed the insanely talented ballplayer Gary McSheffrey on the left side of a three up front and he drifted between the lines perfectly.

The Iron midfield moved and played short balls well – or tried to – and the forward play of Darius Henderson was all about him dropping deep and trying to turn balls on the floor into him, into passes to supporting players. Henderson ended up isolated and isolated because after a team the belief seemed to seep out of Scunthorpe.

Promiscuous manager Mark Robins has created a Scunthorpe United team who try to – underline on the words try to – play football “the right way” and while the two best chances that the home side created came from raked balls forward on the whole Robins deserves whatever credit swirls around for playing passing football to focus on him.

Yet nobody stayed to applaud his team off.

What you say you want

What Scunthorpe United do is what you (and it should be obvious who the “you” referred to is) say you want. You say you want to see Bradford City play passing football. You say you want City to stop playing long balls to a target man and play through the midfield. You draw little pictures of formations with Devante Cole on one side of attack and no Tony McMahon.

This is what you say you want. Players with deft touches trying to create the perfect chance. The passing game. If you are brave enough to match the courage of your conviction and utter the phrase “I’d rather see City lose than play like this.”

This is what you say you want.

And I wonder if you would stay behind and applaud off a team that lost 2-0 and lost heart when the deft touch was bitten down and the team fell short in effort as well as quality despite the desire to do the right thing.

The evidence of the home supporters suggests that the superb and stupendous success of Scunthorpe United is not all it is cracked up to be.

And perhaps you should stop saying it is.

And onwards

There was a sense of hopelessness in the air when Phil Parkinson brought back Kyel Reid and put McMahon on the right at Rochdale but City have not lost a league game since.

McMahon talks about a team meeting that turned the season around and brought the squad together. That togetherness is – to me – what is worth watching in football. Seeing players enjoying working hard for each other, and enjoying the rewards.

It is what elevates the game from twenty two grown men running around a bit of grass taking everything too seriously.

Stern tests await. Coventry City are top of the League One table and arrived at Valley Parade on Tuesday night. They used to have McSheffrey and now have Joe Cole in his position.

One can not imagine that if reading that all the Bradford City players would smile and note that McSheffrey’s position is somewhere deep in Stephen Darby’s pocket.

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.

The welcome to Bradford City moment as the Bantams draw 1-1 with Shrewsbury Town

For those who were new at Valley Parade in this the first home game of the season one got a sense of an early baptism. The Bradford City who beat Arsenal and Chelsea are also, and very much, the Bradford City of a 1-1 draw with Shrewsbury Town.

With morale low and a team to build Phil Parkinson would have liked to win, would accept a draw, and did not want to lose and everything about this first home game said that. Playing his playmaker formation with James Hanson and Steve Davies in the forward line Parkinson’s City matches Micky Mellon’s Shrewsbury Town man for man with Billy Clarke occupying the impressive Ryan Woods who sat in the spoiling role in front of the huge Jermaine Grandison
and the coveted Connor Goldson.

And in doing so the two sides, more or less, cancelled each other out. A mistake by Martin Woods in midfield allowed Billy Clarke to burst forward and scored following a returned pass by Davies. Tyrone Barnett equalised after half time getting credit for chasing a very long ball forward and perhaps earning the luck that came as his shot cannoned back off Rory McArdle and then over Ben Williams. Nothing Williams could do about that which seems to be a phrase said a little too often for comfort.

Those goals sandwiched half time and from that part on it was a very typical Parkinson performance. Not wanting to throw players forward and risk losing the game City did try Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson as wingers to pull the play out of a packed middle but the middle two of Shrewsbury were firm.

Goldson was rated highly and is composed on the ball. Alan Sheehan has not been rated so highly this week after his penalty miss starting as central defender in the place of Nathan Clarke he put in a very good display. He seems prepared to offer Parkinson an option in that position and I believe is worth considering for the role.

Gary Liddle’s return strengthened the midfield immeasurably and Josh Morris showed his ability to play the side role in a three man midfield. I shall not pretend to Parkinson’s preference for Christopher Routis but will note that Routis had a serviceable game but if he wants to be a midfielder he needs to stop wasting possession on silly passes and ludicrous shots. If we are to persist with Routis then he needs to be judged on the same standards as other players in the team.

There were shouts for penalties as the game wore on and Stephen Darby’s shot at the end of a well worked move was blocked when it looked like it would win the game.

But this was a game not to be lost, and it was not, and at every step in the accent of Bradford City under Phil Parkinson there have been games like this where one wishes that City were more adventurous and not be so content with a point.

But such is Parkinson’s way and it is that way which has brought all these people to Valley Parade in the first place.

A life more ordinary as Bradford City lose on penalties to York City

Let us not, dear reader, waste too much time with the symbolism of Bradford City’s long standing record of winning penalty shoot outs coming to an end at York City. Eventually all sequences end.

Let us look instead at the nature of the performance that led to the penalty shoot out. Once again Phil Parkinson’s team put in a hollow performance. There was a shell of a performance and there were moment of good play and spells of in game dominance but in the core of the display was empty.

City are playing without character and, truth be told, it has been that way for sometime. Bristol City, Preston North End, Swindon Town. These games tell the same story as York does. Playing some good stuff, having chances, but when pressure comes the players – both collectively and individually – failing to show the mental toughness to stop games from going against them.

Which is hard to say about the team and especially hard to say about the team that builds its reputation on having that very quality. Two down at Chelsea, Arsenal equaliser, Burton away and so on.

And of course we have to realise that having a team that showed that level of character was a hard build thing on Parkinson’s behalf. Forged perhaps in the Crawley Brawl and build though an historic League Cup run the opposite of which we have seen this year we got used to having a team that excelled in its mental toughness, and its character, and its spirit.

We are used to that team.

What we have now is the team more ordinary.

That we return from York City recalling a fine volley from Christopher Routis and talking about how serviceable Routis was in midfield is an illustration of that ordinariness. Routis gave City the lead peeling away at a set piece and cleanly striking the ball in after a deep cross.

Sitting in the middle of a 442 with Gary Liddle Routis played some good football and Liddle’s breaking up skills were important and the problem was a collective one of character rather than one of performance it is worth dwelling on the performance for a moment.

Make a square mentally between the central defenders and the central midfielders. Controlling that square is absolutely how teams win football matches. Stopping the opposition playing within that square is what good teams do.

With Nathan Clarke as one corner of that square struggling to get up to speed following his signing and Routis on the other struggling to constantly maintain his corner the square stretched and York were allowed too much of the ball in that most dangerous position.

This manifest itself when Clarke was run at, and Gary Liddle brought down, Reece Thompson was he broke into the box. The gap between Clarke and Liddle was too big and Thompson got to pick his attack. Luke Summerfield scored the penalty.

Later James Berrett would hit a free kick in after being pulled down by Rory McArdle stretching too far and again showing the gap between defence and midfield. Defenders should not need to lunge for the ball in such a way and that McArdle did continues the theme of the mental toughness that is lacking.

Mental toughness, and character, are much to do with how much faith one puts in one’s teammates and at the moment the answer to that question is not much. Rory McArdle will lunge at the ball believing and only he can get the ball away, Gary Liddle will bring down players believing he and only he can make the tackle.

Every goal that goes in comes with a worrying Ben Williams lambast – which seems different in character from Jon McLaughlin’s similar shouts but in a way I struggle to quantify at the moment – which suggests that he has not got the belief in the defenders. The way defenders turn away suggests the feeling is mutual.

The defence of Williams is that he can not be expected to save anything that comes at him – a curious job description for a goalkeeper – but I’m not sure how Williams’ post-goal antics fit within that. On assumes anyone who believes that Williams should not be expected to stop any of the six goals he has conceded this season would also not expect Alan Sheehan to score a penalty. His miss tonight compounded Billy Clarke’s on Saturday.

James Hanson equalised in the last minutes of stoppage time and going forward Mark Marshall looked interestingly threatening while B. Clarke, Luke James and Steven Davies – to be known as Serpent Head or Serps if you will – looked good. Paul Anderson struggled all night.

But one of the marks of the ordinary team, rather than the extraordinary heroics of the last few seasons, is the clenched sigh of what could have been had various strikers done more. It is football’s l’esprit d’escalier.

The penalties favoured York.

So now then

Phil Parkinson has admitted that he allowed Jussi Jääskeläinen to leave the club rather than the Fin signing for Wigan over City. Chris Kirkland is, it is said (although not by me), training with City with a view to filling the number one position. That Parkinson watched Jääskeläinen for two weeks and then decided he was not the man suggests that the City manager is looking for something Jääskeläinen could not give him.

Likewise City have had a bid accepted for a defender – believed to be Connor Goldson of Saturday’s opposition Shrewsbury Town although you trust rumours at your peril – but one can not underline enough how the problems with Parkinson’s side are not solved by signing players.

York City looked like middle of League Two team and when the applied pressure to City – just as Swindon did on Saturday – City had no reply. Players became disconnected to other players. The shape broke up. The lack of whatever you would call it: team spirit, belief in one’s peers, confidence; was obvious.

Those things are uncommon. Ordinary teams do not have them in the abundance Phil Parkinson has built them into recent Bradford City teams.

This is Phil Parkinson’s hollow team. As a manager he knows what he wants and he knows this is not it. It will take time, and hard work, to build them back into this Bradford City team.

Bradford City’s first day defeat and the honesty applied to it

After watching his Bradford City team lose 4-1 to Swindon Town on the first day of the season Phil Parkinson was in need of the very trait the lack of which defines close season: Intellectual honesty.

The second half collapse which saw the Bantams go from strolling to a comfortable win to strolling a deep defeat was nothing new for Parkinson and seemed to be 2015 in a match for the City manager. It started well and then drifted and as it drifted it went away from the team, and the manager.

And it is the manager Parkinson – rightly praised in the build up to the season – who needs most to find the honesty to look at this performance and sort bad luck from bad judgement, and bad play from bad players.

45 Minutes

The opening goal of City’s season was a near carbon copy of the Andrew Halliday effort at Chelsea. A ball worked down the right and put back to Tony McMahon who held the ball up and played it to Joss Morris who – four minutes into his debut – applied the finish.

It was Morris who was fouled for a penalty which Billy Clarke hit too low but wide enough to beat most keepers but Lawrence Vigouroux is six foot six and pushed the ball away.

Which is where the first dishonesty in the game emerged. The penalty was not a turning point in the match. Accepted had the game been two or three to nil at half time then Swindon Town might have found a rally more difficult but the penalty miss was part of a half long period of pressure where the Robins allowed City to dominate possession happy in themselves to play nice passing football at speed and be blocked off by the Bantams physical size.

City bullied Swindon for forty five minutes and Swindon in turn allowed that to happen. The speedy possession play was ineffectual. Ball comes forward, ball pinged around some strikers, Rory McArdle cleans it out, Swindon look sad.

If one is looking for a turning point in the first half then look no further than Billy Knott’s break on 38 minutes which was abruptly ended by a two footed tackle by Nathan Byrne.

Byrne got the ball but with two feet so the Referee Steve Martin seemed to have mandated a given a free kick for an offence which is only punishable by a red card, and gave a yellow.

Quite apart from the fact that Nathan Byrne was to have a not little impact in the second half this moment formed an idea in the head of Swindon boss Mark Cooper which was to turn the game.

15 Minutes

How knows what is said in a dressing room at half time and how those phrases are manifest in performance. Who knows what. Phil Parkinson will look back at the changes he made as having a cause and effect on the second half collapse, Mark Cooper on the revival. One suspect that Cooper said a phrase like “get amongst them” or “match them physically”.

Cooper and Swindon seemed to recognise that the Referee Mr Martin was no disciplinarian and had a broad definition of what constituted robust play. In the first half Bradford City’s side had dominated play because they were more physical but there was clear space between the edge of Mr Martin’s robust play and City’s first half play that Swindon could occupy.

90 Minutes

The effect was that Swindon applied pressure some of which resulted in free kicks and some of which did not and Bradford City wilted in the face of that in the same way that common at the end of last season against Preston North End or Bristol City.

Parkinson’s half time changed the way that City approached the second half. Playmaker Knott and right midfielder Christopher Routis were detailed with closing down Swindon as they tried to play out of the back line leaving left midfield Morris and central man McMahon as the two in the middle and Billy Clarke and James Hanson falling wide when Knott and Routis were closing down quickly.

The idea was not without merit in that twice City robbed Swindon as they worked the ball out of defence but its massive detriment was how porous it left the City midfield. Swindon moved the ball around well but with City committing Knott and Routis to attacking the ball in the Swindon Town half should Swindon get pasted that line – which they were always going to – they found rather than eight or nine players defending six or seven.

They had the space to play and Byrne – lucky not to leave the field in disgrace – left it with a hat-trick with Jon Obika adding a fourth for good measure. Each goal a celebration of passing and moving, running into space and playing the ball quickly, and enjoying the fact that putting in the sort of challenge that is not the done thing in pre-season they had gone in the space of a half hour from being bullied to doing the bullying.

And at ninety minutes the distressing thing was just how City had let that happen.

Honesty

Returning from Swindon will have given Phil Parkinson time to think over what went wrong and much of the season will depend on what those thoughts were.

The manager could look at the players and conclude that they were lacking. It would be true to say that the depth of the collapse of the second half showed the same signs of weak character which were obvious at the end of last season but that explains the depth of the defeat but not the direction. How did things go to defeat at all after the first half? This requires an honest answer, or a series of them.

The Routis/Knott closing down was a tactical mistake from Parkinson.

It solved a not especially urgent problem – that Swindon could bring the ball out – by creating a far more pressing problem of Swindon being able to find space to pass the ball around in the City half which was the cause of the defeat.

The decision to leave Gary Liddle on the bench – one Parkinson said before the game was down to the form of other players – was also a mistake.

The main crux of criticism directed at Liddle is that he is a more defensive midfielder and offers little going forward but this is to vilify a man for his virtues. City needed Liddle to stand up in the midfield and stop Swindon Town playing and whatever the abilities of Tony McMahon he did not do that.

In fact McMahon spent the second half closing down Swindon players who had just played the ball away and if Morris was near him he was doing the same thing but Morris was more often caught between two players with options and failed to take either.

Routis had too far to travel between his hunter role beyond the forwards and his midfield duties which he did well in the first half when no pressure was applied and Knott spent much of his time cast as a Bradford City Frank Lampard watching play happening thirty yards away from him and waiting for the ball back.

The application of honest to Billy Knott is that he needs to be able to play a box-to-box midfield role or all his abilities in the attacking positions are all for nothing. I think he has that capability but I think that if leaving him on the half way line when play is happening in the City is because Phil Parkinson does not feel Knott can play central midfield then he would be best not having Knott in the squad.

As it was Knott was isolated and away from the game which badly needed a player who would try take control of the midfield and – as with the defeats of last season – rather than that it got Christopher Routis.

That Morris always had more to do than McMahon was because of a grimly sobering reality that Mark Cooper’s half time team talk seemed to have told Swindon that they should attack City down the right to avoid Rory McArdle and target Nathan Clarke who was slower than the attacking players, and more lumbering than the attacking players, and without Andrew Davies’ judgement that allowed him to suffer those deficiencies.

If Nathan Clarke is to be a first choice central defender for City then Parkinson needs to find a way of fielding a midfield that offers him more protection against the ball being dribbled and played at him at speed. This would mean looking at a holding midfielder (or two) sitting ahead of the defence to break up that kind of play which again points to Gary Liddle’s afternoon on the bench as a thing of mystery.

Which is not to say that McMahon is not able to play the position he did today just that he did not do it effectively today. If City were to play Swindon every week then I’d be urging Parkinson to field a Double Six of McMahon and Liddle with three in front and a back four behind to compress play leaving Hanson up front alone but City will not play Swindon or Swindon like teams every week. Few teams try to play possession football at pace in League One and next week we may be talking about how it is a lack of creativity, not the inability to stop creative teams, which is the problem at hand.

Part of the rigour of intellectual honesty on Parkinson’s park though also comes in recognising what has gone well on an afternoon that ended badly. He has a Bradford City team which is brittle but – when on top of games – is dominant. James Hanson’s play is both target man and works well in support and Hanson works hard suggesting that if the supply to Hanson is good then City will prosper.

There is a worry about how infrequently Billy Clarke gets into dangerous positions but B. Clarke is an intelligent player and should supply increase then he will adapt his game appropriately, or he will stand down.

Parkinson also needs to look at Ben Williams in the harsh light of Football League reality.

Williams is an unremarkable goalkeeper and one of whom it will always be said that he did not have a chance, or that the defenders should have protected him, or that looking at goalkeepers for concessions misses the reason for concessions but I struggle to recall a time which I had so little expectation that a goalkeeper might – occasionally – stop a shot from going into the goal.

Both Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson made cameo appearances and Steve Davies came on and looked like he wanted to plant the same kind of “robust” challenges which the home team had done. City ended the game with Tony McMahon and Christopher Routis in central midfield and the kind of result which one would expect from a team with Tony McMahon and Christopher Routis in central midfield.

Which is both a criticism of the character of the players in the second half and one of the management in not foreseeing that repeating the same mistakes will get the same results. Central midfield is the heart of a team and City’s team were heartless in more ways than one.

How Bradford City mastered calm seas beating Carlisle United 2-0 in pre-season

And the day continued well. Phil Parkinson and his entire back room staff are in talks over new contracts and that was the discussion as fans mingled with players following the 2-0 pre-season win over Carlisle United. The drizzle gave way to a pleasant sun the early evening and all seemed to bode well.

Parkinson’s team had been in full race trim for the only Valley Parade friendly of pre-season and while Carlisle United had a moment or two they seemed a keen poorly set up by manager Keith Curle and set to struggle.

Curle approach centres around switched on midfielders who can dynamically move from the holding role to forward positions and he gives that responsibility to Jason Kennedy as if Jason Kennedy were able to be Steven Gerrard if Curle wants him to. I doubt he will last the year.

Parkinson’s approach is as contrasting as one can get. James Hanson is target man, Billy Clarke plays off him and with two banks of four behind them. For forty five minutes City play meat and potatoes football and they play it well grinding Carlisle in the first half and scoring two in the second.

The second saw Parkinson’s playmaker return but rather than trying to play through the man behind the front two the role was more space hunting third striker looking for the ball that came from Hanson’s head or – later – Steve Davies.

Davies was an inch away from scoring with his first kick but rather was next to Gary Liddle as he tapped in a flick down. Josh Morris had scored the first after switching to the right wing following a productive first hour on the left hand side.

Morris was impressive on the day, as was Liddle who played next to Rory McArdle in the back four, but all impressive performances were set in a context of how little trouble the visitors caused.

And there are things to write about the squad. Things to write about how Josh Morris provides a better supply of crosses than Mark Yeates in that he will cross from the byline. There are things to right about how when Gary Liddle moves out of central midfield there is no cover for him. Things to write about how Parkinson has a better first team but a weaker squad.

But all those things are conjecture based on a weak sample. Most pre-season tells one little, this one has said virtually nothing. Leyton Orient’s Nathan Clarke watched the game from the stands an looks set to sign during the coming week which will replace Andrew Davies.

One wonders if Parkinson hopes that he can maintain a small squad with players able to cover more than one position rather than bring in poor characters. Tony McMahon seems to cover one half of the defence and Alan Sheehan the other while Parkinson would rather play Christopher Routis in whatever hole the team presents than he would bring in players he does not know, who might not have the character he wants, who might not fit into his dressing room.

At the end of August Phil Parkinson will have managed more Bradford City games than Trevor Cherry did which we can broadly define as being the longest serving manager in the modern era. At the end of the season he will be the third on the list of most games managed.

This, it seems, is what stability looks like. Parkinson has players he trusts in the dressing room – players like McArdle, and Stephen Darby, and James Hanson – and he understands that those players have bought into an ethos. With that comes the tacit understanding that that ethos will be maintained.

That puts the onus on Parkinson to only bring in the right sort of character. Football is replete with players who can kick a ball well but are bad characters and it is those people who Parkinson has spent the summer avoiding. Judging a players ability to kick a ball can be seen in a friendly game, seeing how well a player fits into the dressing room will only be obvious as the season goes on.

The type of creativity Phil Parkinson wants as Bradford City start 2015/2016 beating Farsley 3-0

“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity” – Charles Mingus

Bradford City’s 3-0 win over neighbours Farsley was a given but the players in the first half who ran up a three goal lead through two James Hanson headers and a low finish by trialist Sanchez Watt deserve credit for starting the 2015/2016 season with good tempo but the theme of the afternoon was how this new generation of Phil Parkinson’s side was to do with the team’s syncopation.

Within thirty minutes James Hanson had shown that his much converted prowess in the air would figure heavily in Bradford City’s arsenal this season with Phil Parkinson having spend both forty five minute periods playing the 442 with a withdrawn striker which had seemed to be his modus operandi in his first few years at City. Full backs were instructed to go beyond wingers – which they did resulting in a third goal – and a thin slice of the performance suggests that next season will see the tactics of simplicity at Valley Parade.

Which is to say that most of the afternoon in West Leeds was spent wondering how creative this version of Bradford City would be and how important creativity is to a football team.

“Creativity comes from a conflict of ideas” – Donatella Versace

The head of Hanson is a tried and tested route to goal for Bradford City. Hanson flicks on, Hanson heads in, let us take it as read that Rory McArdle – not playing today but wandering the stands – will be hitting diagonal balls towards Big Jim all season long.

This presents two problems. What is Big Jim is not there? There is an argument that the main problem with the now departed Andrew Davies was not that he suffered injury and suspension is was the impact on the team in his absence. Take out Andrew Davies and the rest of the squad would be given am excuse for defeat. Of course we got beat by Preston North End and Bristol City – the mental process goes – we did not have Davies in the side.

This is the idea that a player is almost “too good” for the team he is in and that removing him improves the team. It is counter-intuitive and often seeps into debate as justification for making a team worse and one could dismiss it for that if it were not for the occasions when it is accurate. Chris Kamara’s Bradford City with Chris Waddle beat Everton, and Waddle was the best player by a country mile, but the team lost and drew a lot and only when Waddle exited for Sunderland to be replaced by Shaun Murray, Tommy Wright and other inauspicious names did staying in the division look possible.

The best player left but because the team had to do more than just giving the ball to Chris Waddle and seeing the outcome then there was a general improvement. Without Andrew Davies will the rest of the players be unable to use the excuse – and I use the term in the context of mental reasoning and not about what is said in the T&A – of Andrew Davies’ absence? We shall see.

And we shall also see if the same is true of James Hanson. Steve Davies sat out Farsley too and he may be a Hanson in waiting but none of the other forwards looked capable of replacing Hanson. Those forwards included Billy Clarke who picks up this season where he left off last as prolific but probably not prolific enough and Luke James who caused some problems with his energy but suffered in comparison to Sanchez Watt who enjoyed the forty five minutes before him.

Watt scored and showed a left footed touch to play the sort of ball which will be useful to overlapping players. He slowly got into the game and started to demand the ball more than wait for it. He looks every inch a confidence player who has not got confidence, or at least not where he needs it. Parkinson has a few weeks to decide if he and Steve Parkin can get into Watt’s head and press the right buttons. If they can Sanchez Watt would be a real asset. If not he floats away as it seems he will do.

(If he does though he will still give me this Abbott and Costello moment for the ages heard from two men over my right shoulder.)

Man One: “Who is that?”
Man Two: “Sanchez Watt.”
Man One: “I don’t know what?”
Man Two: “That’s his name.”
Man One: “What?”
What Two: “Watt.”
Man One: “That’s what I’m asking?”
Man Two: “Watt’s his name.”
Man One: “Yes.”

(Humour like that – and I swear that is verbatim – is worth ten pounds of anyone’s money.)

That aside aside there is an obvious problem with Hanson being a single point of failure within the team which was auditioning central defenders with the ability to play a long pass. Gary Liddle best asset as a defender is his abilities in midfield and Alan Sheehan took the second half in the middle of a back four with Greg Leigh playing left back for a half in which he registered nothing of note.

More impressive was the six foot five Jamie McCombe who seemed to quickly find a place in the Bantams side. McCombe is thirty two and has had his own injury hell but I would be very surprised if he were not a City player next season.

Which is not to say that he was especially good against the limited opposition – he was serviceable – but he fit into the role Parkinson has for him so well. Tall enough to offer a threat from set plays, comfortable on the ball enough to play it with control, and massive. Youth player Kesi Omolokun was the fourth central defender on show. He was untroubled during the second half.

In the second half midfield Christopher Routis epitomised Mingus’ point about being weird not being the same as being creative. Routis continues to be an impressive physical kicker of a ball but one who seems to lack a position. We know he is not a central defender in League One and as a midfielder he tackles sometimes and uses the ball badly. I want so much to be proved wrong about Routis because if his abilities to kick a ball could be put into a position then he would be very useful but I cannot see how it will happen.

And trying to force Routis into central midfield makes that a player like Sam Wright – full of energy for the first half and able to take responsibility for the ball – would have his development curtailed. A product of the youth set up Wright burnt himself out after a half hour but he showed his willingness to take positions and offer options to team mates as well as his control of the ball. It is not to damn him with faint praise to say that he could be a man to take a space on the bench this season but rather to suggest that doing so would bring better results than constantly trying to shoehorn Routis into positions he does not show the discipline to play.

Discipline being a key for Parkinson. Routis winning the ball in midfield and having options in front of him – only to see him smash a ball high and wide – is no more useful at Farsley than it would be at Wembley. Routis has a choice between trying to score blistering goals against weak opposition and trying to show how he can perform in a team. He makes his choices, Sam Wright made his, and I know who I believe the club should reward with first team football.

Josh Morris looked able next to Wright in central midfield although one might think that he is best used on the left flank with James Meredith going past him. Morris run and shot off the bar showed a player who enjoyed having the ball but most of his play focused on usefulness and that was a good start. Daniel Devine took a role in the second half but would need to do more to commend himself.

At full back Tony McMahon returned and Luke Hendrie – son of John (although I shall try to not hold that against him) – played at right back with McMahon strolling through the second forty five minutes and Hendrie overlapping well but defending poorly in the first half. Hendrie has spent much of his career to date as an attacking midfilder – a position which borders on fiction – and that showed but there seemed to be some potential going forward but a lot of work to be done as a right back.

Sons of Fathers include Harrison Gilkes – the son of Michael – who was generally unimpressive in the first half on the left flank running at players and losing the ball. Dylan Mottley-Henry and Joe Brennan took the second half wide positions and both looked eager. A note too on Filipe Morais who showed accuracy which gave a second route to the head of Hanson. Increasingly Morais looks key to Parkinson’s plans.

In goal Ben Williams causes me worries, and Joe Cracknell has nothing to do.

“Creativity is the thing that everybody wants and nobody wants to pay for” – Me, this week

And so considering the game the questions arise around how creativity should function in Phil Parkinson’s side. We have always known that Parkinson as a manager wants a controlled, dependable creativity. The Versace idea of creativity as being a clash of ideas is something which City tried last season and got success at but that success was limited. It game us – one could argue – the greatest season to support Bradford City we’ve ever known: Chelsea, Sunderland, Leeds; and it saw an improvement in the League One position but it saw fluctuating results.

Players have come available this close season – players like George Green – who represent that idea of idea clash creativity. The Gascoigne figure bewitches the mind but Parkinson wants the Mingus idea of creativity. He wants a lex parsimoniae creativity of simple football played in small, well practised units.

Parkinson wants the creativity of dependability, metronomic in making chances. To get this he needs reliable routes to goal. That Morais will find Hanson from dead balls is already obvious as is Rory McArdle hitting Hanson long but Parkinson wants Meredith opening the same path, he wants a player entering in the second phase of attacks, he wants full backs able to go past wider players. He wants to collect a team or reliable attacking routes to goal and he is building that from his 442 formation.

At the moment he has James Hanson’s head. It is not wonder he did not want the striker to go.

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

The emotion

“Eight One.

Eight Bloody One!

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

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

They were the worst.”

Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns

The substance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phil Parkinson facing the face of success as Preston beat Bradford City 3-0 at Valley Parade

The 3-0 defeat to Preston North End will be hard to take for Phil Parkinson and his Bradford City team but contained within it a number of sobering lessons.

The game turned almost entirely in the fourteenth minute when a hopefully ball forward to Joe Garner was demurred from by Christopher Routis, who then ended up on the wrong side of Garner, and then brought Garner down, and was then sent off.

Following that City enjoyed a good deal of good play and Jon Stead will look back at a shot well saved by Sam Johnstone (who frustrated City in a 1-2 reversal by Doncaster earlier in the season) but after half time when Gary Liddle – press-ganged into central defence – slid into Jermaine Beckford the direction of the match was sealed.

The three goals flattered Preston who played well and one was left with the feeling that but for a fourteenth minute sending off one could have seen a superb football match but with the certainty that for the visitor’s had enough talents they did not need all the help City gave them.

Mistakes

I’m not going to criticise Christopher Routis for his sending off but I am amazed by Phil Parkinson believing that the Swiss was ever going to be suitable to play central defender in this match.

Routis is titularly a central defender and perhaps it says he is a central defender on his passport but the skills that are needed to play a League One football game as a central defender (especially against Beckford and Garner) he does not possess. Rory McArdle does. Andrew Davies does. Gary MacKenzie does. The Preston three of Tom Clarke, Bailey Wright and Paul Huntington do.

And while hindsight is 20:20 playing Routis in the position was a mistake by Phil Parkinson and one that had consequences in short order. Without Davies and without MacKenzie one might suggest that Parkinson had only two central defenders left in McArdle and Routis and was forced into the selection but to that I would say he then had only one and had to play someone out of position.

Christopher Routis has shown time and again that he cannot play a central defensive position in League One. Parkinson made a call playing him there rather than dropping Gary Liddle into the back four and was rewarded for that with the performance one had come to expect from Routis even when Routis is playing well.

He does individual things well some of the time and is poor in team patterns. The curious thing about Parkinson’s decision to play him was that there were four very good examples of what good look like when it comes to defending in League One. It looks like Tom Clarke, it looks like Rory McArdle, and it does not look like Routis.

Not mistakes

Why Parkinson felt that Routis was capable is in his judgement and his judgement is sound most of the time. Routis aside Parkinson will look back on a team that showed much against a very good Preston North End side although there are areas of concern and lessons to be learnt.

Going forward City’s cutting edge depends on Jon Stead and Jon Stead’s mood seems to govern much. Against Preston he was not the Jon Stead who put Chelsea to the sword and was subdued. James Hanson – on the other hand – maintains a constant level of performance. It is not hard to see why managers have been frustrated with Stead in the past but Parkinson has a decision to make on the mark he sets on Stead.

The Jon Stead of Chelsea is a player one would take the edge of the budget for, the Jon Stead of Preston is somewhat lower in value, and only those inside the club know what offers have been made to the forward. With Aaron McLean still earning for City whilst in semi-retirement at Peterborough for another season there is a need for the City to have a player who can provide (in both scoring and creating) goals in games like Preston at Home.

If that is Jon Stead then one would be overjoyed – he has a #sowhat cult following and all – but the lesson of Preston for Phil Parkinson is that of the two Steads and the judgement the manager must show is which one will get get most of the time should he be signed, and how much is that worth?

There is value to be had elsewhere. City have no goalkeeper signed up for next season. Ben Williams saved a penalty and has some talents but if Parkinson wanted a keeper to control his penalty area and clean out crosses then Williams is not that man.

Which is not to take anything away from Williams but rather to say that this game with Preston is the type of match that Phil Parkinson needs to take lessons from.

We know what good looks like

To get promoted from League One you have to be good. Good looks like Bradford City’s performance with ten men in many ways. Short of a man the players worked hard and worked hard for each other. At times it was – to use a cliché – difficult to tell which side had the full complement of players but when Daniel Johnson first and later Chris Humphrey fired the kind of shots one takes when one has a man, and a goal, advantage the difference was obvious.

Good looks like confidence, and City can add more of that, and it looks like self belief and that is sometimes lacking from the Bantams. Mostly though those things need to be tweaked rather than overhauled and after the game one was left with the idea that City with eleven men would not be far away from Preston. That City have the right framework in place for promotion, but need to improve in some areas.

Phil Parkinson does not need a template for knowing what a team which can be promoted looks like but – if he does – Preston North End might represent it.

(Aside: Dylan Mottley Henry made his début and looked keen.)

Parkinson’s success is seen in the shifting of the Overton Window when Bradford City beat Doncaster Rovers 3-0

The Overton window in politics

In political theory, the Overton window is the range of ideas the public will accept. According to the theory, an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within that window. At any given moment, the “window” includes a range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.Overton Window, Joseph P. Overton

It is commonly held, and held for good reason, that the current and previous incarnation of The Labour Party (Miliband and Blair) are substantially to the right of the 1970s (Wilson) party and that the current Conservative policies are also massively to the right of where they could have been in the same decade. 1971’s Industry Relations Act from Ted Heath would put him left of current Labour thinking.

The Overton window is defined – broadly speaking – by the left and right of what the public will accept and so the two parties stand glaring across it. The window was dragged significantly to the right under Thatcher and so Heath would be out of step with modern Tories just as Blair would be out of step in the 1970s Labour movement. The left and right are relative to a centre which is defined by the greater populous.

James Hanson, predictable

Which seems to have very little to do with a Friday night in Doncaster and Bradford City wandering into the dressing room at half time scoreless against a Rovers side who – like Chesterfield on Tuesday night – looked very similar to the Bantams in approach and effort.

First half blows had been exchanged – weakly perhaps – and once again City seemed to be playing a game on a knife edge. Gary MacKenzie’s slip on Tuesday night had decided the Chesterfield game in the visitors favour and something similar would decide this game, or so it seemed.

Which was the frame of reference that a grumble about the predictability of City’s approach of hitting the ball to James Hanson came about. The speaker thought City needed to “get rid” of the man 442 had called the 45th best player outside the Premier League and one could waste ink on the denotation of this rather than its connotation: that City needed something to tip the knife edge in their favour.

Hanson was policed all evening by a Doncaster Rovers backline who know the striker’s threat and did what they could to respond to it. After forty five minutes they would have been pleased with their attentions – not so after ninety – but the instinct of City fans that the Bantams needed to add something less predictable alongside the thrust of James Hanson was telling.

At this stage of the season four years ago there was (needless, in my opinion) talk of City falling out of the League because of Peter Taylor’s management and Peter Jackson’s arrival was seen as something of a saving grace. Taylor’s team were never in danger of relegation and so any credit to Jackson for “saving” a club that was not in trouble is – in my opinion – misplaced but he is given that credit in wider public opinion.

The Overton window in football

Manchester City almost finished in the UEFA Cup places in 2005. At the time it was high drama in the Premier League. David James – goalkeeper – went up field to try seal this amazing achievement for the Blue side of Manchester but it was not to be. In the end Manchester City reflected on a good season but finished 8th.

A similar finish for Manchester City now would be cause for alarm. The ownership of the club – through Khaldoon Al Mubarak – has changed what the populous believe Manchester City should be achieving significantly. When winning the Premier League last season the reaction was muted – or so it seemed – because of failures in the Champions League.

The Overton window in football for Manchester City has shifted as a result of the massive investment in the club.

The same can be said for Chelsea who played league games at Valley Parade in the 1980s but now measure their success by European Trophies and Premier Leagues. It can be said to have shifted down for Newcastle United who go into a derby game with Sunderland hoping for local bragging rights and a secure Premier League finish as a return for a club that twenty years ago believed they would win the League. Mike Ashley’s ownership of the club has – in the minds of fans and the rest of football – made sure that ambitions should be limited and so they are limited to a window of achievement which is shifted downwards since the Keegan era.

It can be said for Blackpool who – when the North of England used to holiday there in the 1950s – were a team capable of winning trophies but as overseas holidays took business the Overton window for football slide down and down to a point where the team who had the Greatest Footballer ever (some say, Matthews himself thought Tom Finney was better) are now amazed to have had a year in the top division.

Four years ago the Overton window in football at Bradford City had shifted down to a point where relegation from the Football League was feared and the idea of promotion from League Two was considered to be all but unreachable. “My main aim next season is to play attractive football, but winning football as well” said Jackson, “I can build for the future.”

Something changed

What words were said at half time by Phil Parkinson at Doncaster Rovers we will not know but the outcome was incredible. In the second half the Bantams were yards ahead of the side that has matched them stride for stride in the opening forty five minutes. Gary McKenzie’s opener came from a scramble on the far post following a corner, and a cross in, but it was the result of pressure following half time that did not relent.

Hanson, tireless, chased down defenders all evening and in the centre of midfield Billy Knott and Gary Liddle stopped the home side having time on the ball. Indeed Knott – coming up against one time favourite of this Parish Dean Furman – can be pleased with his best performance in a two man midfield for City so far. His tendency to go missing went missing and Knott manifested his progress over the season in the display. Liddle battled through and Filipe Morais’ control of possession in the home side’s half showed what had been missing in recent weeks.

Hanson ran defenders down and made room for Billy Clarke to add a second. Tony McMahon got a third – his first for the club – filling in at left wing for Mark Yeates who felt his shoulder pop out ungraciously in front of the visiting supporters. McMahon seems ready to play anywhere for City just to be at City and that attitude is probably worth noting.

McMahon’s goal – picking up on a slip by Reece Wabara – completed a fine enough evening that Phil Parkinson walked the length of the away supporters to give thanks to those who had come down from Bradford. The scenes seemed as unlikely an hour previous as they would have done four years ago.

Which is Parkinson’s success at Bradford City and one which is not dependent on promotion being achieved this year although this result increases the chances of that. The shift in the Overton window in football upwards for Bradford City has it that City should be thinking in terms of a Championship side and thinking about how to win games against teams like Doncaster Rovers who have just exited that level. How can we win the game on the knife edge to chase a place in the Championship? It was not a question we asked four years ago.

And while Manchester City and Chelsea are foremost in clubs who have shifted their windows up through investment – and clubs like AFC Bournemouth, Hull City and others have had smaller investments and smaller shifts – most of the time when the Overton window for football shifts it is because of money coming in or (Blackpool, Newcastle United, Leeds United, Portsmouth) going out in City’s case it has been achieved on the field, with the same scale of resources, and no sudden injections of funds. In fact City have paid back investment in the last four years.

Which is truly remarkable. With the same resources (less, arguably) which were considered only good enough for playing “good football” at the bottom of League Two Phil Parkinson is measured against Bradford City’s ability to be promoted to The Championship.

Now that is success.

The power of facing character comes into question as Bradford City lose to Chesterfield

I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life. George Orwell, Why I Write

A poor place to start – when talking about events such as Bradford City’s 1-0 reversal at home to Chesterfield that squandered a play-off advantage – is with the self.

That one might have preferred to be elsewhere on the inexplicably snowy last day of March 2015 – perhaps watching England draw with Italy, perhaps doing one of any number of other activities – avoids the subject of the game itself and it was a game which presented facts, some of which are unpleasant to deal with.

Bradford City lost the game after a mistake by Gary MacKenzie which saw him head a ball back towards Ben Williams – and short – rather than in the opposite direction. Byron Harrison intercepted and scored. It was Chesterfield’s only goal from their only shot on target.

The mistake itself should be a problem to no one – mistakes are not infrequent and being able to overcome them is how we define character in football – and certainly that mistake aside defensively the truth is that Bradford City were untroubled.

But Bradford City were found lacking going forward. Chesterfield – a compact team who showed a significant commitment to curtailing any opening that City could force – achieved their aims of denying City space to play in by closing down quickly and making possession hard to maintain. It was not pretty, and perhaps not even admirable, but it was effective.

City – on their part – were cowed by the visitors. Specifically there was falling back by the Bantams players from doing what was difficult to taking easier options which were ultimately (and always going to be) fruitless. Billy Clarke – having problems with the 38 year old Ritchie Humphreys in the holding role – was guilty of taking soft options. Jon Stead was under the control of another veteran Ian Evatt all evening and again took softer options that were need to break a resolute defensive line.

No matter how valid it is Stead on the ground looking at the Referee saying he has been pushed over has never been the prelude to a penalty, but Stead on his feet pushing his back into a central defender has been the precursor to match winning goals in big games.

The Referee Jeremy Simpson was appalling – as usual – and many players may feel hard done to the morning after the night before but more resolution from the Bantams could have opened up Chesterfield. Claims and little passes out of danger did not.

Two Asides

Two points. One: The booking for François Zoko for diving which seemed to be the result of Zoko falling over the ball. No one asked for a penalty, no one suggested Zoko dive, but Referee Simpson had decided that he wanted to book Zoko. I can only hope that he had a personal reason against Zoko as a man – perhaps from a previous game where Zoko had gone unpunished – and was of a mind to book the Ivorian at the first opportunity because failing that one is left with two very dubious choices as to why the official did as he did.

Two: Christopher Routis continues to show the problems he showed as a central defender in central midfield. As a defender he was able on the ball but not drilled to the way the team plays. As a midfielder he is able on the ball but again does not play as the team needs him to. This is not a criticism of Routis specifically – he is the player he is – but the role he plays needs a player who can better balance the cause and effect of what he does with the players around him.

The player who plays that role has to understand the dynamics of the game. He has to understand when to stay close to Gary Liddle to look for a short pass and when to go long and wide and look for a ball behind the full back. He also has to understand when to not move forward into the areas that Clarke behind the front players wants to move into and when to do that to offer Clarke a chance to switch positions.

It is a tough position to play and it needs a player who can read the game in situ and Routis is not that player. As able a deputy as he proves trying his hardest to fill a gap the gap going forward has become more and more obvious and is repeated on the left hand side when Billy Knott is not playing.

Facing

The mix through of players who could not and players who would not commit enough to win the game was decisive and the chance to move sixth which presented itself receded. Tony McMahon had a late strike which Tommy Lee – a fine keeper – saved well but few of the City players will be especially happy with being bullied out of a game.

Phil Parkinson has made his career on pulling teams together and battling through. On Saturday I thought that City had to over-perform to win sixth place in League One and losing to Chesterfield 1-0 was a prime example of what happens when The Bantams do not do that.

One never wants to fall into cliché but there is a truism in games being won by the team that wants to win more. Chesterfield made it difficult for the Bradford City players to do as they wanted to do and so some of the players did something easier and less productive.

That is the test of character that we so often talk about Phil Parkinson’s City teams passing, that was failed last night.

The game was settled by a small margin – a mistake – but such is the nature of games between teams that have similar virtues. Parkinson – if this season is not to fizzle out – needs to find a way to have his players overcome stiff resistance or face the unpleasant thought that to progress he will need different, bigger, characters who can.

Bradford City contemplating becoming what they are after beating Oldham 2-0 at Valley Parade

The month of attrition

Before Billy Clarke turned to scramble into the goal a ball that was bouncing around the Oldham Athletic penalty area it would have taken a brave man to suggest that Bradford City would definitely win the game and that the Latics would definitely lose it.

When Clarke slowly rolled a ball into the corner of the same goal twenty minutes later Oldham Athletic had sunk to 13th in League One with seven left to play leaving them – to all but the brave – with no chance of securing a place in the play-offs.

Without the odd goal in the opening hour – the Latics were on top for twenty minutes – it seems that the visitors are all but eliminated from promotion.

So we come to the defining part of the season. The month of attrition.

Duck week

Bradford City’s victory was as hard fought as any this season and all the better for it.

On the surface City spent a week in Portugal as reward for endeavours to date and perhaps away from the distractions at Valley Parade – and there were significant – the collective mind had been focused. Every game from now seems to hold the prospect of ending the season. Promotion places then are like the statue carved from marble. Bit by bit teams are chiselled away until it is complete.

The sight of Andrew Davies beating the ground in frustration after pulling up following a burst of speed to follow Conor Wilkinson worried. City with Davies are more likely to win and everyone in Valley Parade knows it. His replacement Gary MacKenzie looks assured and calm, authoritative even.

Oldham press early and Wilkinson looks useful up front although is often isolated. The early exchanged are for the Latics and City seem lost in the midfield. Mark Yeates and Christopher Routis are a pair alongside Gary Liddle who is prepared to push himself to a performance despite an obvious, creeping fatigue. Liddle is being talked about as Bradford City’s player of the season because of performances such as this.

Yeates struggles to get into the game and Routis’ positioning is poor while Billy Clarke shows both faults. It is a common feature of Bradford City teams under Phil Parkinson that players are faced with problems like these and, when faced with them, find a minimum performance. Keep going, and keep giving what you can, and see what happens.

As good as you are

Bradford City vs Oldham in March 2015 is what I go to football for. The game stands on a knife edge and until Clarke’s injury time goal it could have gone either way. The game is won not necessarily by the best team – because the difference between the sides is not significant – but by the team which takes the chance, that runs when tired, that puts in the head where it hurts.

The best thing about Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City is that they are a team who realise that they are as good as they are. The sum of the parts. The equal of the endeavour.

The reward, and the reason for the reward.

Billy, Billy

Billy Knott replaced Yeates and brought his high intensity pressing to the game as City pushed onto Oldham Athletic. It was a corner that both James Hanson and Jon Stead has attempts at heading that fell to Clarke’s left foot. From that City controlled the game by attacking and pressing the visitors.

A smart piece of fakery where Knott sold the dummy of time wasting to set up Stead, who rolled to Clarke, who scored put a gloss on the game. Half an hour before and it was hard to say who would win and Oldham deserve credit in defeat, but the defeat is probably terminal to their play off aspirations.

City go into the rearranged Chesterfield game on Tuesday night knowing a win will put City in sixth position, but the same can be said of Chesterfield, and with City looking to nudge ahead of a pack of peers one can only look forward to the game with some relish. Doncaster Rovers, Sheffield United and Barnsley all follow.

At the end of season of Stamford Bridge football and giant killing City are in a burly, knock down brawl. The next few weeks could be very enjoyable indeed.

The continuing problem with Bradford City’s promotion push

When Fleetwood Town scored the second of their two late goals to equalise a game that Bradford City were strolling in one could not help but wonder two things: Just how the visitors from the East Coast found an extra two gears after a performance that suggested they had finished playing for the season, and just what Phil Parkinson would be saying to his Bradford City players after the game.

On the first point one has to give credit to Fleetwood and their manager Graeme Alexander for turning the game around. For long periods they looked uninterested in not losing the match, and incapable of doing to stop Bradford City winning without breaking into a run.

Nathan Pond equalised in the last moment capping a very good display from the defender but for long periods of the game the visitors were pedestrians watching the football go by. It speaks to their character that they came back into the game from the position they did, but it should worry Phil Parkinson that they did.

Which moves onto the second point which was the problem with the level of application which the Bantams put into the game and how this differs from Monday night. If Monday night was City exhausted this was City playing without wanting to expend too much energy.

Things started well enough when Billy Clarke slipped down the left and Jon Stead put in the ball from close range and Christopher Routis finished a fine move just after half time to suggest that the game could be won without much of a stiff challenge from Fleetwood but during the afternoon City lacked a level of application which would have won the match with ease.

Which is not to minimise the tiredness of bodies – it was obvious that the players are still suffering the long season – but when that tiredness is allowed to manifest itself with inaccurate and unproductive play then it becomes a problem and that was a problem today.

To win matches players must show character and showing character is a lot of about wanting to take up a position that gives a team mate an option for a pass rather than sitting behind an opposition player. Showing character is about making sure that when one is the only target (or one of few targets) for the pass then one attempts to take up a position where the pass is easier.

City’s midfield two of Routis and Yeates, and Clarke playing off the front man, were all too ready to watch the ball being hit long to James Hanson and Jon Stead from the safety of marked midfield positions. The full backs delivered little and the front two took up few threatening positions to be delivered too.

These issues compounded but would not have been a problem were it not for the late rally that Fleetwood mustered. When the visitors got going they found a City team who were not controlling the game so much has enjoying the remainders of it.

And one could point at Billy Clarke’s last twenty minutes where the ball passed over his head far too often and he engaged in neither attack or defence or François Zoko’s failure to hold the ball and preference for trying to spark a low percentage chance out of every ball rather than high percentage retention but to do so would be to inadvertently make a virtue from a performance which seemed better than it was up until the final moments when it got the result it deserved.

Without putting more on the line City will not win games, and not win promotion.

Which is not to damn City’s chances. In Parkinson we have a manager who has made a small art out of getting a team to believe it is better than it is, and then making the players that as good as he told them they were. Think back to the games before Millwall at Valley Parade and remember how Gary Jones returned with people suggesting that City had not improved the side since the summer.

The FA Cup run has created the idea that City are too good for League One and – on our better days – that is very true but those better days come from levels of application that far exceed what was seen today in the last ten minutes for sure, but in the previous eighty too.

Parkinson knows this of course. His stock in trade is getting overperformance from players. Not for nothing is Jon Stead’s game at Chelsea called the absolute best single player performance of the season.

Which is the continuing problem with Bradford City’s promotion bid. As with the recently finished FA cup run the push for promotion requires City to overperform often and – when things do not favour Phil Parkinson’s side – they are dragged into a plethora of clubs in the middle of League One.

When the immoveable object met the immoveable object and Bradford City and Reading agreed to a replay in the FA Cup sixth round

Balls in bags

On Monday night, at Old Trafford, something well happen that has not occurred in over one hundred years. Bradford City will be in the draw for the FA Cup semi-final. The goal-less draw at Valley Parade in the FA Cup sixth round with Reading guarantees that the Royals will be in that draw too.

The immoveable object met the immoveable object in the first of the four quarter final ties and while City will look back to a chance or two which could have resulted in more the game which mustered only a single shot on target had the hallmarks of a pair of teams more concerned with losing than committed to winning.

Which is not to criticise either side for that approach – I spoke recently about how Phil Parkinson’s approach puts importance on not being out of a game – but to explain the dynamics of a game which promised everything and left tension unresolved.

Each side enjoyed a half of the game. The first forty five minutes Reading edged possession and hit the post through Pavel Pogrebnyak although the seemed to be a fast and loose being played with left hand touchline calls by a linesman who gave the benefit of geography to the Royals.

Nevertheless Pogrebnyak’s shot – along with a deflected effort by Hal Robson-Kanu – was all that Ben Williams in the Bradford City goal had to do. Williams’ inclusion over Jordan Pickford was a surprise but a pleasant one. Williams kept goal for every Cup tie while Pickford was tied to Sunderland.

“The guy that brung her”

That Parkinson kept faith in the keeper that had got him to the sixth round recalled Paul Jewell’s decision at Wolves in 1999 to go for promotion with the eleven who had been his most regular starters. “A girl dances with the fella that brought her”, I said then and I think it now.

Indeed after watching Ramires burst from the Chelsea midfield to put the Blues into a 2-0 lead Williams has not conceded a goal in the FA Cup. Thinking back to that day one recalls how Chelsea were lacking a Claude Makélélé in holding midfield.

While Chelsea had allowed the Bantams to build in the forward midfield positions Reading deployed a man to sit in front of their back two and make sure that Billy Clarke’s influence on the game in the first half was as minimal as possible. Nathaniel Chalobah sat next to Clarke and forced a gap between Jon Stead and James Hanson which split City’s forward options leaving the Bantams disjointed in the final third.

Chalobah put in a very impressive game – especially in the first half – and looked as if he may be the decisive difference between the sides until Phil Parkinson tweaked his approach at half time to play more through left and right midfielders and less through his front man. Chalobah – oddly – is on loan from Chelsea. He has a very brought future.

Tweak

Parkinson’s tweak was to have the ball played through Billy Knott and Filipe Morais – and to have Knott and Morais pick the ball up deeper – and then allow Clarke to drift left and right effectively taking himself and Chalobah out of the game.

And so City enjoyed more of the game in the second period. Morais had a chance just after half time which he passed when he could have shot – he seldom is accused of “making the wrong decisions” as a Kyel Reid or Omar Daley was although he probably does as much – and James Hanson swept a ball the wrong side of the upright after good work by Jon Stead.

The best chance of the game presented itself when Morais bent a free kick in and Andrew Davies connected but watched his headed chance take the paint off the post as it skimmed wide. Davies’ reaction suggested he knew that the best chance of the game had gone, but that the tie would have more chances in it, and so it will prove on Monday week.

Reading’s Pogrebnyak tried to handle the ball into the goal in the last moment. That was all the City defend had to cope with in the second half.

It would be easy to miss

In the swirl of a crowd of 24,321 at Valley Parade and the first FA Cup sixth round since the mid-1970s, and in the media coverage which seems to have decided that this game was not worth watching, it would be easy to not give credit to Phil Parkinson’s team. (Hob Nob Anyone? can give Steve Clarke’s team credit.)

That City went toe to toe with a Championship side is impressive. If one were to ask which side regularly played at a higher level one would be simply guessing an answer. There was a character needed from City’s side today to handle being favourites and there was a character needed to turn the performance around at halt time.

That good performances and great character are common does not make them less impressive.

Looking forward

One wonders what City have to do to win the second game which was not done today. Away from Valley Parade the Bantams have a tendency to replace Billy Clarke with Billy Knott and play Andy Halliday – a late sub today – to create a different shape to the midfield and that shape seems more effective.

City have won more games away from Valley Parade this season in League One than at home, and on travels to Chelsea, Millwall and Halifax Town have shown character in different ways. The Valley Parade turf was better than it has been (which is, of course, not down to Roger Owen who is not responsible for the pitch) but is heavy and the ball bounces little from it. A better surface will not suit City any more than it does Reading, but it will allow for City to play the tight triangles that much of Parkinson’s attacking play is built around.

City face trips to Coventry City and Gary Jones’ Notts County in the nine days before Reading. In League One today City slipped to tenth and the expereince in the build up to this tie did not suggest that the Bantams will be turning games in hand into three points.

1911, and all that

But those worries are for another day. It will be the 16th of March and City will still be in a cup competition and that has not happened in over one hundred years.

Not for Parkinson though. The manager who has as a modus operandi not being out of a game is not out of a tie. Nine days to assess Reading, and the game that passed, and to plot a victory which will make City more than a name on a ball in a bag.

Nine days cannot pass soon enough.

Bradford City and Peterborough United ab ovo

Nec reditum Diomedis ab interitu Meleagri, nec gemino bellum Troianum orditur ab ovo; semper ad euentum festinat et in medias res.
Nor does he begin the Trojan War from the egg, but always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things…
Horace on Homer, Ars poetica.

To watch a a football match is to experience life in medias res. While every game has a structure starting, middling, and ending those games are largely only understandable in a wider context. Uninteresting is the match which does not continue a story at the start and suggest one at the end. The meaning of the 32nd game of a season is given by the 31 game which proceed it.

Not so Bradford City’s trip to Peterborough United where both clubs seemed to be attempting a start of things.

Most obviously in the case of the home side who dispensed with the services of Darren (Son of) Ferguson in the week and replaced him with Dave Robertson. That Robertson ended up winning his first game in charge of The Posh was largely down to a first half in which Bradford City wasted some chances and wasted more chances to create chances against an ill fitting wing back formation.

With Billy Clarke playing removed from Jon Stead in the forward line and Billy Knott partnering Jason Kennedy in the midfield City’s compact 442 once again committed only to not giving away too much of the game too early while Peterborough were laid raw in wide positions. Oliver Burke looked fast and had a fine chance to claim a lead which he squandered and from that point he faded. Andy Halliday returned to the left wing where he had been unimpressive at the start of career and looked unimpressive showing perhaps that he has found a calling in inside midfield that should not be ignored. When he switched inside later in the game his seemed more comfortable.

City’s side was marked by its absences today. The point where Filipe Morais and Gary Liddle became cemented into the team sheet might only be obvious in retrospect, but it is obvious. James Hanson spent the warm up going through his paces with the coaches but was not included on the bench. James Meredith warmed up a few times but that was all the stretching his legs got and it seemed to become clear that minds were on next Saturday’s FA Cup quarter final with Reading and not on Dave Robertson’s first game as a football manager.

Indeed when Oliver Burke was removed following Peterborough’s scrambled first by Gaby Zakuani – and when Parkinson moved to a 4312 – Meredith remained on the bench with Knott taking the holding role rather than Alan Sheehan moving forward. Parkinson may reflect how much more comfortable his side seemed in the 4312 having switched from the 442.

Robertson in the home dug out found his victory from going to a 442 and launching the ball into the City box as often as could be. If this is the start of his time as Peterborough manager then the home fans who this week went through possible replacements for Ferguson discarding some for not playing good enough football may find that they have to get used to something less beautiful. There is enough about Peterborough to suggest that they will be aiming for promotion to The Championship next season.

For City the game was players not playing with injuries they would previously have battled through, and a general lethargy in the display, and at some point in the afternoon a plan formed which is probably not spoken at Valley Parade.

Looking at City’s performance this season and seeing how strong the top four in League One are a case could be made that anyone outside the third and fourth positions in the play-offs has less chance of promotion. Parkinson could send his team out to sacrifice life and limb for a push to get to fifth or sixth but – having been defeated in the play-off semi-final – the result would be that next season the club would be in no better position than it was this.

However if those limbs are saved for the Reading game and if the Reading game were won then the rewards of an FA Cup semi-final would add significant chunk to the club’s income and – with no directors to trouser the cash as a loan repayments – that income would have no better place to go than into Parkinson’s purview. A new pitch, three top quality recruits, and a new contract for Andrew Davies and City start August 2015 as one of the favourites for promotion.

One shot as favourites rather than two as outsiders.

A late penalty made the score 2-0 but that is immaterial as – it may be – is City’s game with Crawley Town on Tuesday night. A win against Reading next Saturday and Parkinson will turn his attentions to next season via a semi-final, just a Robertson will hope that this result and his plan for next term gives him the job at London Road on a full-time basis.

Which would make this game the embryonic start of next season and a rare case of football’s ab ovo.

If Parkinson is the Special One if City only get one point?

As time ticked out on Bradford City’s 1-1 draw with Walsall at Valley Parade Andy Halliday – playing right wing – stood defensively containing the visitors left back preventing him from playing the ball forward.

Play the ball forward – or beat Halliday with the ball – and the Saddlers would have a chance to create a chance. And from a chance they could turn the point time would give them into three. And that could not happen.

Likewise had Halliday tried to win the ball then City could have fashioned a chance to do the same but to do so risked losing position on the field.

As it was Halliday kept his man on the flank and the clock ran down.

Is Parkinson a special one?

Have no doubt, dear reader, that Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City side against Walsall will not have returned to the dressing room to an angry manager. Parkinson will not have blistered the walls with shouting nor will he have been furious at chances missed. In fact the 1-1 with Walsall is exactly how Parkinson would want his Bradford City team to play.

Of course he would have wanted more goals to be scored and fewer conceded. He would have wanted Francois Zoko to make more of the chance that fell his way in the second half, would have wanted Billy Knott to have confidence with his right foot when given the option to shoot with that, would have wanted Rory McArdle to not lose his location and head the ball cleanly seven yards the wrong side of the goal post. He would have wanted all those things.

And he would have wanted Billy Clarke to have run back to replace Andy Halliday when Halliday gave the left hand side of the Walsall attack too much space that allowed Anthony Forde to cross and Jordy Hiwula-Mayifuila to head in after slipping away from the otherwise excellent Gary McKenzie on his début. We all wanted those things.

But we have learnt Parkinson’s method over the last 3 years, 177 days of his time at Bradford City and nothing suggests that he would unbalance his team to try take all three points when he had one. The failures that prevented City winning were in execution for Parkinson, but not in the planning.

Which raises an interesting question for City fans to consider.

At 2-1 down to Chelsea Phil Parkinson did not send his Bradford City team to play an all-out attack, nor did he at 1-0 down to Leeds, but those wins came from a combination of maintaining City’s position in the game (which is to say, not conceding more) and taking chances that presented themselves.

One can – and I have – criticise that approach as not doing enough to commit to winning a game against opposition who aimed to draw at Valley Parade but one cannot deny that the overall approach for games does not differ between matches.

Stuart McCall – for example – was fond of changing his team with the ebb and flow of the game. Chris Kamara was too. I would suggest that both McCall and Kamara would have looked at the Walsall equaliser as a signal to make attacking moves, bring on strikers and generally try to create a win.

And I found both managers created very exciting teams to watch. One recalls McCall’s City 2-0 down at Accrington Stanley only to win 3-2 following the introduction of Barry Conlon. Barry came on and caused chaos on the pitch that City benefited from massively.

One recalls the game at Addams Park Wycombe under Kamara were City went two down early on and Kamara brought on Carl Shutt to create a 253 which made for a massively unbalanced game which ended up as a cricket score in favour of Wycombe. At two down, Kamara thought, City were not going to win the game anyway so why not throw in some chaos and see what happens.

Parkinson is not a manager who enjoys adding chaos into games.

McCall or Kamara might have thrown another striker on at Chelsea, or today, and it might have worked. For Parkinson though staying in the game and working hard has worked.

But it has only worked at Bradford City and Colchester United. Supporters of Hull City and Charlton Athletic found Parkinson intractable and unadventurous and were largely glad when he left their clubs because of his tactics and approaches. At Valley Parade today he defended a 1-1 draw, and one doubts he would apologise for it.

If one is happy with Parkinson’s games at Chelsea, and at home to Leeds and Sunderland, then one is happy with the approach that created it then perhaps one just has curse bad luck today and regret that ill-fortune did not favour City today while accepting that other days it does.

Parkinson’s football is the application of pressure towards steady progress. To want him to be different is to want another manager.

Seven

The frustrations of the afternoon were obvious to all. With injuries to James Hanson, Filipe Morais, and Andrew Davies Phil Parkinson reverted to his 442 deploying Halliday on the right, Mark Yeates on the left and Billy Knott with Gary Liddle in midfield behind Jon Stead with Clarke playing removed from the front man. The result was a less pressing midfield that contained the game more.

Indeed Walsall seldom attacked through the middle and Liddle and Knott will reflect on a successful afternoon but Yeates was out of sorts on the flank and not involved enough to pick up the tempo of the game. Halliday was manful on the right. He was seven out of ten. Again.

The result was not so much a lack of creativity – chances came – as it was a misshape on the creativity. Stead held the ball up by fewer players ran past the forward line from midfield than had in previous games leaving him to pop the ball out from between his feet to anyone who might be near.

The supply from the flanks was sporadic. At one point Stephen Darby beat six men on a mazy dribble which was impressive but underlined the problem the players were finding. Without the reliable diagonal ball to to Hanson from McArdle City were less predictable but by virtue of that easier to play against. The paths to goal were improvised and Walsall’s backline stopped what they could. Dean Smith is a good manager and had his side well drilled.

But Smith, like Parkinson, hoped that what was created would tip the game his way but would rather not have lost. Walsall have not lost in eight away games and have their own trip to Wembley to plan for. City take up sixth place in League One.

It should have been a good day all round, but we have got used to better days than this. They are not long the days of milk and honey.

Parkinson has his thoughts on the bread and butter.

How Bradford City got to the sixth round of the FA Cup and how easy it was

A story of abject failure

Bradford City’s 2-0 win over Sunderland was most remarkable because of how easy it was.

From Billy Clarke’s third minute shot deflected in by John O’Shea onwards the result at Valley Parade was hardly in doubt.

Bradford City played accurate passing at tempo which Sunderland could not match, and with a shape which Sunderland would not adapt to. Robbed of midfield quality in Jack Rodwell and power in Lee Cattermole Sunderland played Liam Bridcutt and Sebastian Larsson in the middle against City’s three of Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle and Billy Knott and lost the midfield.

Bradford City dominated the first forty five minutes. Liddle sat behind his two partners who were both admirably disciplined, and while Bridcutt picked up Billy Clarke in the playmaking role Sunderland manager Gus Poyet left Larsson on his own with three players.

And Larsson could not deliver a quality of possession on the flanks for Sunderland who had based the game on the ball to wide players – Adam Johnson looked lively – which would be put in for Steven Fletcher to finish with Danny Graham in support. Fletcher vs Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies was hardly even a contest.

Better matched were James Hanson and Jon Stead against O’Shea and Wes Brown but with Clarke coming forward and Hanson moving out wide left City pressed with strength, movement and intelligence. O’Shea and Brown with Bridcutt coming back were unsettled by Hanson’s strength and Clarke’s speed with ball at foot.

Only unsettled though, but with so much of the rest of Gus Poyet’s team selection playing exactly as Bradford City’s Phil Parkinson would have wanted it to be it seemed that the Premier League time arrived at, and played with, a hand tied behind their back.

And that hand was tied by Gus Poyet. At half time, watching his team lose the midfield battle, Poyet threw on Connor Wickham for Graham, went route one, and lost the game.

In terms of a manager approaching the game, understanding how the opposition would play, and putting out a team capable of navigating that Poyet failed utterly abjectly.

Shall we switch narrative?

We have become old hands at this of course. The giant killing narrative that is spun around a team who have done what Bradford City have done in the last few years. The talk is of passionate performances and playing with character. It is of small changing rooms and bad pitches.

(The pitch was was better today, something I would congratulate and praise Roger Owen for but as he has said he is not directly responsibility for the pitch and that it is not his responsibility so I offer him no congratulations and no praise at all.)

Talk like that misses the point of Bradford City’s wins against Chelsea and Arsenal, Aston Villa and Wigan but it especially misses the point of this game. Bradford City did not approach Sunderland with a blowing hurricane, just with determination, but Sunderland’s preparation and approach was so far away from what it should have been that the distance between the two sides was great.

For all the coverage of a “team of heroes”, or “plucky players”, or (curiously) “real men” the reality was a Bradford City team who put in a very steady performance. Not that the players were not very good – they were – but that at the end of the game where City had won in something of a canter no player had especially surprised, or played beyond himself, or amazed.

All had played very well, in a very good unit, and carried out the roles that they were assigned very adeptly. Billy Knott – the agent provocateur against Chelsea – slipped into the discipline of a central midfield role as well as he had since first he joined from Sunderland. Filipe Morais continues to curb his solo excesses too.

Everyone played very well but Bradford City did not spring a surprise on Sunderland, or mug Sunderland, or rough Sunderland up. Bradford City played in the same way as in the win over Milton Keynes Dons on Monday, and did not have to play better to beat Sunderland.

Sunderland were the team that were beaten 8-0 by Southampton once again. Bradford City – in this giant killing – were just here to make up the numbers.

The best thing about Sunderland

The only good thing one can say about Sunderland is that the team is much, much poorer than the supporters. The supporters of Sunderland applauded former players, applauded Bradford City for beating them, applauded Bradford City fans for the atmosphere in Valley Parade. They deserve better.

They will be told – perhaps by Guy Poyet – that City roughed up the team on a bad pitch and the media will tell them they were beaten by a team with chutzpah.

But that is not true, and those fans know it.

Poyet set out an attack that played to City’s strengths and a midfield that was outnumbered in the centre of the field, and they played without the commitment to a team structure and the belief that what they were doing would work.

One does not want to downplay what Bradford City and Phil Parkinson have done against Sunderland or in his time at City. The level that City play at is very high and the squad’s character is obvious to all.

Sunderland played badly and often Parkinson’s teams make other teams play badly. Parkinson has his team close down the space for opposition players making time on the ball claustrophobic. That was certainly the case today.

But Parkinson just had to ensure that his team continued Monday night’s MK Dons performance and the victory was not even difficult.

So then now…

After a few minutes Billy Clarke took the applause after lashing a shot back across goal which cannoned off John O’Shea and into the goal past Vito Mannone and City – perhaps – expected the Premier League visitors to come back into the game. Phil Parkinson’s return to 442 from his 4312 was the making of his City team against Halifax in the first round of this competition, as City go into the sixth round the three men in the middle smothered Sunderland.

Sebastian Larsson – a fine player – struggled to move the ball to the flanks effectively. Occasionally Johnson looked impressive but with only Larsson in the middle either Knott or Morais could help full backs deal with wingers. Graham was anonymous finding no room to play around Gary Liddle and Stephen Fletcher’s abilities in the air are less than either of Davies or McArdle’s.

The best Fletcher did – and the best chance Sunderland got – was a ball that slipped through the offside line and nestled at the Scots striker’s feet until McArdle appeared (as if from) nowhere and hacked the ball away. The cliché writes itself here, McArdle wanted it more, but Fletcher did not seem to want it at all.

Contrast that with the quick thinking in the second half when James Meredith pushed Johnson all the way back into the corner of the pitch and Johnson lobbed the ball out for James Hanson to head softly beyond Brown and O’Shea, but not beyond Johnson deep, and to Jon Stead who picked up the ball and finished well under Mannone.

An hour in and with Sunderland resorting to playing long balls which Davies and McArdle took care of, and aside from Ben Williams making a single save the Bantams defence was untroubled.

Phil Parkinson and his City players took plaudits from a capacity Valley Parade – including a good few Sunderland fans – for a fifth Premier League team beaten in three years. The sixth round of the FA Cup is the last eight teams in the country. Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United (or Preston North End), Aston Villa West Brom, Reading, Blackburn Rovers and Bradford City.

Wigan was unexpected and tough, Arsenal was hard but deserved. Aston Villa was a double sucker punch at the end of the game and Chelsea was understanding the power of pressure and seeing that pressure pay. These were all great, great games and great football matches to be at.

Sunderland, though, was easy.

The refereeing of “So What?” as City beat MK Dons 2-1

As Sky TV pushed a camera into his face at the end of Bradford City’s 2-1 victory over Milton Keynes Dons Jon Stead was challenged by the presenter as to if he had committed a handball in the build up to the winning goal and answer succinctly “It hit my hand, but so what?

“So what” indeed?

As he did MK Dons Karl Robinson manager was fuming. Robinson watched the game from the stands for most of it self-imposing another game to a punishment the FA gave him for abusing Christopher Routis. Routis would have been seated not ten yards away and so Robinson remained in the stands.

When charged by the FA Robinson had used the Matthew Simmons defence when accused of mild xenophobia. When attacked by Eric Cantona at a game in 1995 Matthew Simmons had insisted he had incurred the wrath of The Frenchman with the words “Off, Off, Off! Its an early bath for you Cantona!”. The FA heard the defence and dealt with it in absentia of anyone from City. Indeed it seems that no one including Routis seemed to care about Robinson’s offence or punishment.

Robinson was furious about something Routis did that night, and was furious about Referee Paul Tierney‘s decision not to give a handball decision against Stead in the build up to the winning goal in this entertaining 2-1 encounter. The defeat at the boggy Valley Parade cost MK Dons the top position in League One but Robinson was smart enough to admit that – handball or not – his side were second best all game. Handball? Well, so what? MK Dons were not going to win anyway.

That Referee Tierney had not given the decision was typical of the sense of confusion which swirls around football in relation to a subset of the Laws of the Game including those around handball which the authorities seem uninterested in solving. If Tierney was pressed now he would say – no doubt – that Stead’s handball was not a deliberate handball and because the word “deliberate” features so heavily in the Laws of the Game it thus was not a handball offence even if the ball did hit Stead’s hand.

In return the MK Dons defenders might ask if they is supposed to pay the same attention to the hands of opposition players as they do the feet or head if those appendages can be used to control the ball, albeit inadvertently. We might all ask that if the Stead offence was on the goal line (either) then would it be considered to have not been an offence?

The Laws of the Game have created a margins for errors to creep in that is significant, and the game’s attitude to those errors seems to be “so what?” and that mistakes happen and are a part of the rich fabric of football to be debated.

Those debates will probably not have even been at the back of the mind as Stead played a low ball to James Hanson who kept a cool head to slot in a winner completing City’s comeback from a goal down. Stead’s form has given Hanson a new role in Phil Parkinson’s City team and the striker plays wit the relief of not being the only target. The ambition of Hanson slotting between the legs of the keeper suggested a player, and a team, who believed that they could create chances in the game. No need to snap at the first one that comes along and all.

Returning to offences that were not offences, and saying “so what”

Elsewhere Filipe Morais is given offside when walking away from the ball when Referees (and Assistant Referees) are instructed to only give a free kick when a player interferes with play and as such Morais – who had not turned to the ball and so was not interfering with play although certain had the potential to do so – should not have been called offside.

This offence (which is an ill-fitting word) happened in the corner of the field and had virtually (or perhaps actually) no impact on the game. It was the wrong decision but it was an unimportant decision and so the reaction is “so what?”

Players have got used to wrong decisions. Phil Parkinson has said that he has told his City players to not try claim penalties any longer because of the infrequency of their awarding some of which must be justified. A few moments after MK Dons took the lead Billy Clarke slipped through the well organised backline to control a Gary Liddle pass and slot in to equalise. Before he celebrated he looked over his shoulder at the linesman, ready for the wrong decision to be made, and to be told that yes he had scored, but so what? It would not count.

No flag came, and the first of three important home games for The Bantams turned to City’s direction.

Alarmingly frequent

Dele Aili will be joining Spurs for £5m in the Summer and scored when Jordan Pickford and Andrew Davies got in all sorts of trouble as for a moment neither seemed to understand that the least of all mistakes was to clear the ball for an opposition throw in. Later in the game he kicked the ball at Jon Stead while Stead was on the floor.

He did not kick the ball hard, nor did anyone really complain about it, and he accepted his booking with the shrug of the shoulders which suggested that all this would soon be someone else’s problem but everyone saw someone deliberately kick the ball at another player who was on the floor.

The Laws of the game say that this is violent conduct but there is enough grey area that a Referee like Mr Tierney can make up his own rules, if he wants to, and perhaps he is right to want to but should football games be Refereed on the question of “so what? So what if I don’t do what it says in the Laws of the game, I’m doing what I think it is right.”

The regularity of these “so what?” moments is alarmingly frequent.

Pick a random five minutes of a random game and you’ll see a few instances where they grey area of the laws of the game is interpreted by the officials. Some offences will be ignored while some non-offences will be given and the judgement on these will be given to a Referee who – with the best will in the world – is being asked to do impossible things.

Was Jon Stead’s handball deliberate? Tierney is not able to read Stead’s mind, just guess it. Was Morais interfering with play? Tierney is not able to look at a future of the game where he did not blow the whistle, just guess at it. Was Aili trying to hurt a player when he kicked the ball at him and accidentally kicked it too softly or was he trying to kick it to land short and hit the ball to hard?

When faced with questions like this the football authorities seem to believe that getting the decision wrong is not important if it happens in situations which are not important. Most Referees mistakes are not important. Is it bad for Bradford City that Aili has not been suspended? Not especially. Is it bad that Morais’ offside was given? Not even slightly. Is it bad that Stead’s handball was not given as a handball?

For Karl Robinson and Milton Keynes Dons it would seem so, for the player himself his response said much more than the two words he uttered.

sees Parkinson, Milanese and the beauty of beating Leyton Orient

En media res

Having been the Leyton Orient manager for a month Mauro Milanese is changing how things are done in his part of London. Last season the O’s reached the play-off final with Russell Slade’s side losing out on promotion to Steve Evans’ Rotherham United.

Rather than imitation of Evans Leyton Orient (under new ownership) have brought in a manager to move the club from gusto to grace. Milanese has Leyton Orient in transition. They were one of the better lower league English sides last term but very much a lower league English side and Milanese is moving them towards something distinctly more – shall we say – “continental” in flavour.

A team that can pass and move in short distances, a team that will bewitch you with a flick or a back heel, and a team that is comfortable on the ball when probe for space between defenders. When Milanese is finished Leyton Orient could be a superb team to watch.

He is a long way off finished yet.

Ad initium

Bradford City tried transition but Phil Parkinson has more recently decided that his endeavours in that direction have to be retired – for now at least – and his team has returned to the beloved characteristics of old so much so that when Chris Dagnall excitedly lunged into a tackle on Billy Knott sending the 22 year old midfielder spinning away into the distance out of the corner of an eye one half expected to see Jon McLaughlin charging from his goal looking to join in the pushing and shoving.

Parkinson has found the heart of the Bradford City side which won promotion and it still beats.

David Mooney had scored an equaliser for Leyton Orient with fifteen minutes remaining in the game following an impressive backsiding of Andrew Davies out of the way. Milanese will have been pleased with how his team had got back to parity despite spending most of the game exposing their flaws to City. When that equaliser came rather than flatline though City sparked into life again and five minutes later – following Dagnall’s red card – were 3-1 ahead.

Milanese may look back and think that equalising was the worst thing his team could have done. When defending Leyton Orient were a struggling side failing to mesh how they used to play with how they wanted to play. Players shouted at one another, pressure relieving clearances were played out of defence (badly), simple play was passed over in favour of more aesthetically pleasing but less effective football. They were as porous a team as any who will come to Valley Parade.

City led by one at half time after pushing through this defence only once and there was concern that for the second week running that the Bantams would forgo the chance to win. The goal came when Jon Stead put in good work to square to Billy Knott who rolled the ball into the goal. Today was Knott’s 22nd birthday and while he has some problems in his game he has many, many more benefits. There is nothing not impressive about a midfielder who demands to be on the ball and be involved in the game as often as possible

When behind all Leyton Orient needed to do was attack and when attacking they looked capable. They moved the ball well and one lost count of the number of times strikers peeled away from through balls to allow midfielders to burst through and take possession – or rather try to – because whatever that count it is x+1 of the times when Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies kept eyes on the ball and not on the fakery and cleaned things out.

The difference

Cleaning things out is probably the difference between the teams. Parkinson’s City team are a team of pragmatism who can be aesthetically beautiful from time to time and normally those times are when Mark Yeates – quiet today – is on the ball.

Milanese’s Orient seem to want to be beautiful all the time and beautiful in a way which seems to suggest their manager and his career around the divisions of Italian football. Beautiful in the sense that aspires to a higher ethics rather than a practical ones. One recalls William Morris‘ “Nothing useless can be truly beautiful.” The reflections on playing well but losing are long and deep.

David Hume in Moral and Political failed to turn concept into phrase when he said “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” When Phil Parkinson watched Billy Clarke appear at the far post in the minutes after Orient’s equaliser and red card and sweep the ball into the goal perhaps he considered the resilience of his team to be the most useful thing he has brought to Valley Parade and by being so the most beautiful.

There is a beauty in how the player’s celebrations centred around their manager as Clarke ran to the dug out and how the manager has (re)found the thing that made Bradford City precious.

Hard working Jon Stead latched onto a poor back pass and turned half chance into goal the victory was sealed.

A month into his time in London Milanese is a short way into transforming his team into something more aesthetically pleasing for sure but one wonders if he will recognise the beauty of a cold winter’s night in Bradford.

The basics of football management and how Phil Parkinson might not be able to go back to them

The second half of Bradford City’s win against Halifax Town saw Phil Parkinson move away from his most commonly used tactical approach of 2014.

An hour after the change in the dressing room at The Shay, City fans walked home with a victory, and I tried to summon up a phrase other than the cliche of “back to basics” to describe what had happened.

The discussion over Parkinson’s tactical approach did not last long.

Billy Clarke was lauded by many as if it were him and him alone (rather than the change of approach) that had made the difference, which seemed to lead to a consensus of opinion being framed that Parkinson’s error was in not picking the striker in the first place.

This talk gave way to a discussion on why Bradford City failed to wear Remembrance Poppies during the game, and whatever it was that Parkinson had done seemed to soon be forgotten.

The cliche, however, remained in my mind.

Unpacking the cliche

On any given Saturday afternoon, the losers of any tie will have a section of supporters soon making the case that the manager should leave the club. There is a common set of terms applied: “Taken the club as far as he can” is not unusual, whilst “not good enough” is more blunt.

Criticisms of managers are based on the results of games. The justification for a statement that a manager is “not good enough” almost always being a perception (reasonable or otherwise) that there is an acceptable set of results, and that those results are not being achieved.

This is obviously a judgement which should be subject to some refinement. The results delivered by a football club are the effects of any number of things, some of which are within the manager’s control. When the words “not good enough” are used, they are used as a catch all, but what do they catch all of?

What is a manager “not good enough” at? Our own experience suggests that there are very few situations in which a person has a uniform level of skill across a number of disciplines even if those disciplines are similar to each other. Mark Zuckerberg borrowed Eduardo Saverin’s ranking algorithm for Chess players whilst on the path to creating Facebook because while the Zuck could code like no-one else, that kind of applied Mathematics coding wasn’t something he could do.

Selecting tactics, recruiting players, coaching teams, building motivation… These are (some of) the constituent parts of football management that a manager may do, but all of these things are not done by all managers, and not all at the same level.

On Sunday Phil Parkinson reverted to an approach which was tried and tested in the past – he went “back to basics” – but what basics did he go back to? And since the basics we’re talking about are specific to Parkinson, why are they classed as basics in the first place?

Back to basics

After half-time, Parkinson changed from 4231 to 442 in his tactical approach, and this is regarded as his “basic” because it’s a standard that has has worked for him before. It’s worth noting that this “basic” is contextual. If Pep Guardiola were to send Bayern Munich out playing 442, then it would be a new tactical approach for him, not a basic. The basics of football tactics involve five forwards and a half back.

We can conclude that when we hear about Phil Parkinson going “back to basics” the “basics” we are talking about are in some way specific to Phil Parkinson.

And those who travelled to The Shay will have noted that as Parkinson’s tactical approach changed, so too did the motivation of his players in what my brother and I called “Rear Inserted Rockets.”

It is worth thinking about what Parkinson did not do at half time, and what he could not have done.

He did not sign any players at half-time obviously, nor did he coach the players in set-plays in the way that requires a training pitch. He did not make a decision on who would be in the match day squad because that squad had already been decided. He did not teach the players anything new or at least anything which could not be taught in a few minutes.

These are things which a manager is given the power to do but that are not done at half-time of a game.

The basics that Parkinson went back to are a subset of what makes up his role as a football manager.

This is common sense of course, but how often – when people talk about how good or bad a manager is – do the terms get unpacked? How often when someone says that a manager is “not good enough” are they invited to say what it is he is not good at?

Not good enough

It stands to reason that not all managers are equally as good at all things.

When we look at the meritocratic collection of managers at the top of the Premier League, we can see that the general view of specific managers is that they tend to be good at some parts of the job and less good at others. No one thus far has suggested Louis van Gaal is getting the best out of his players, or that he has a genius for recruitment, but Arsene Wenger, we are told, is good at developing players.

It is difficult to say that Roland Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino’s skills are because both have continued on the paths the clubs were on already. Pochettino’s club Spurs famously employed Harry Redknapp, the beloved “wheeler dealer” of transfer deadline day. Yet when Redknapp wanted to be England manager, the criticism of his skills was that he was more about smart recruitment than he was about tactical game approaches.

Alan Pardew is infamously “not good enough” according to the supporters who created sackpardew.com but seems to be good at creating a good team atmosphere within a squad, whereas supporters taunted Brendan Rodgers with the idea that he was not good at spending the money that the club brought in by selling a player that the previous manager who was not good at spending money bought in.

We get a general idea of what is good and bad about these managers, and we might postulate how good a fit they are for the roles they are in. Some clubs want their managers to be restricted to the training ground, whilst others want them to involve themselves at board level and leave the coaching to the coaches.

When we unpack the cliche of “not good enough” we start to draw out a map of where a manager excels. The cartography of ability can be superimposed onto the needs of a club and an idea of the manager’s suitability found.

Phil Parkinson in 2015

I would suggest, based on my experience as a fan of Bradford City, that the needs of the club which a manager must fill are near all encompassing when he is a manager at Valley Parade. Aside from the retarding requirement that the team plays football a certain way one, suspects that Phil Parkinson has, and is expected to have, full control over football at Valley Parade.

There is no Director of Football at the club, no Chief of Player Recruitment, and at senior level seemingly nothing except Parkinson and the people he wants. This underlines a state of affairs where while Parkinson may have a set of skills with peaks – team building is obviously one – and troughs. Being the manager of our club means there’s a need for him to involve himself in all of these things, and be “good” at them all.

Parkinson’s “basics” are, in the end, all the club has. And this is presents a problem for both club and manager.

In 2015, Phil Parkinson will have two chances to improve his squad. Improving a manager’s squad has been given a common parlance of “having a good transfer window”, and it is a long time since Phil Parkinson could have been said to have done that.

In fact one can probably go back to the summer of recruiting Gary Jones – a player who was on Peter Jackson’s list of midfielders he wanted (but could not get) – and Nathan Doyle – who is a former Bradford City Player of the Season – for the last time Parkinson recruited very well. Since then we have had a mixed bag of the good (I like Billy Knott), the bad (Raffaele De Vita is hardly even spoken about now) and the average. It is here where we get to the subject of Jason Kennedy.

JFK

Kennedy is a useful footballer in that he is wholehearted and obviously has the attitude Parkinson wants in his players, but his confidence in his own passing ability (justified or not) sees him play in a specific way which rarely adds greatly to the team’s creativity. Gary Liddle is a steady performer who – no matter which set of numbers that add up to ten and represent playing positions is deployed – seems to be a six out of ten.

We do not know if these players are the best Parkinson could get, the best Parkinson could get for the money, or what Parkinson perceived to be the best, but we can probably conclude by now that Parkinson’s greatest skills are not in player recruitment.

He is superb at building a team out of the right characters (and he is right to make character a requirement), and anyone who saw the reaction of the players to the comeback on Sunday will note how he can get those characters to play for him.

What he needs to do better – perhaps – is bringing together a group of players who can perform at a higher level. The ability to do that – the Harry Redknapp smart recruitment – is not a basic that Parkinson can go back to.

And so we get a picture of the future of Bradford City under Phil Parkinson. It is of a level performance, and a good team, waiting for the manager to get it right – or maybe just get lucky – when putting together a squad.

Beating Halifax Town by returning to a Phil Parkinson team

Two years ago Giantkiller. Now giant. Brought down to size. Three minutes and everyone was getting what they wanted.

Bradford City’s trip to Halifax was a defeat waiting to happen and when Lois Maynard ploughed in from close range following a series of corners needlessly conceded defeat seemed to be worryingly unavoidable. It was what the BBC, BT Sport, and a lot of the local media coverage had sharpened pencil for.

The team that conquered Arsenal, have themselves been giant killed.

The overdog role with a depressing ease

A cliche like that proves irresistible even to the subjects of it.

Halifax Town – OK, FC Halifax Town if we must – took the role of the underdog with a lot of the gusto which City took showed in the cup run of 2013. Town made things were difficult for the Bantams. Throw ins were launched long and were hard to head out. Midfielder’s were chased down. Wide men were pushed wider.

The home side made the most of set plays which led to the goal after three minutes and to the general sense that Halifax took their role in a way Phil Parkinson would have been proud of. Parkinson’s City took the overdog role with a depressing ease.

Starting out with a flat four with two in front of them, then a three sitting behind a single front man were disparate and far too easy to play against. Filipe Morais, Billy Knott and Mark Yeates were a line behind Jon Stead but ineffectual and quickly parted, separated, and not difficult to counter. The onus was then put on holding two midfielders Jason Kennedy and Andy Halliday but they failed to provide that and both seemed to be guilty of waiting for someone else to make something happen.

There was a moment – following City’s cup keeper Ben Williams’ save from former City defender Steve Williams’ close range header – where another narrative wrote itself. It was about the decline of a manager in Phil Parkinson and how in the future we would talk about how one could tell that things were over for the City boss when he played that Andy Halliday in central midfield in a 4231.

The rapid switching between formations, picking players in ill-suited positions, and lifeless performances or cup exits are the stuff of the last days of a manager’s time at any club. What happened to the Phil Parkinson who used to so love his 442?

It may have been that that thought occurred to Phil Parkinson at the same time as it did to me. His Bradford City team were not playing very poorly – chances were being created – but the story of the season has been sporadically creating chances without patterns in the play.

Former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi said of Mario Balotelli that is was “not a player, because a player moves as part of a team. He’s just a footballer.”

City had a lot of footballers, just as Arsenal had, but Halifax had a team.

Giantkiller/giantkilled

Perhaps that realisation stung Parkinson.

City had so easily fallen into the giantkiller/giantkilled narrative and responded accordingly. I like to think that the City manager thought that if this game at Halifax was going to be the start of the final days of his time at the club then he would go out on his own terms.

Parkinson of old. Four Four Two and the big man/little man combination of substitute Billy Clarke alongside Stead. Billy Knott – wandering in the first half – was given a place in the midfield engine and the full backs Stephen Darby and James Meredith were given the support of wide men in front of them.

Clarke threatened goal within a minute pulling a good save from Matt Glennon and carried on his direct, provocateur play by pulling the Halifax backline wide and creating a hole that Jon Stead appeared in when Morais had played a fine ball forward. Stead walked the ball around the keeper to equalise.

And two minutes later Morais had been found by Clarke and blasted across Glennon to score.

More dangerous, more determined and stronger at the back Parkinson’s team started to look like a Phil Parkinson team. Halifax huffed and puffed but City looked like a solid unit again and for the first time this season – maybe this year – seemed like they would score more goals. Pressure, directness and confidence. I do not know if it is what the boardroom call attacking football but it was Phil Parkinson football.

Reshaping the squad

City go into the second round, and have beaten a second West Yorkshire club of the season, and move on to face Preston North End next week with Parkinson mulling over which way he takes the City squad.

By returning to his favourite formation Parkinson seemed to free his City players from thinking in terms of their personal displays and enable them to focus on a team performance. The English footballer’s DNA is 442 and as soon as Parkinson switched to it the players seemed to switch to inbuilt positional play.

Morais – lost on one flank in the first half and playing the sort of game Sacchi would comment on – was more effective in a right wing role not only because he knew where to go (Note to pedants: his football education is that of the English footballer) but because every other player knew where he would be. When Billy Clarke flicked the ball forward to him for his goal it was in expectation. It is not that Morais found Clarke in a good position for the first goal or that Clarke found Morais for the second it is that both knew where to expect to find each other which will have pointed a way for Parkinson.

All of which questions the shape of the City squad. Next week Phil Parkinson takes his team to Preston and Kyel Reid who’s pace is lacking from the Bantams squad and seems to prevent City returning to 442. Perhaps when the transfer window opens Parkinson needs to find someone who can add the pace if he wants to return to his way of playing.

Because after avoiding the obvious narrative at Halifax Town Parkinson will probably be afforded the chance to reshape the squad once more.

Aaron McLean and the heroes of failure

The collective view of history

There is a view of history which holds that if there had never been a Genghis Khan, a Joseph Stalin, a Pol Pot, then the course of the world would have been drastically different. No Mongol hordes, no Cold War, no pogrom.

This is the individual view of history.

There is a competing view that suggests that those three people, indeed any person of history, is only of history because of the rising and falling of collective events. That if it had not been Genghis Khan then someone else would have been credited for leading the hordes, and history would have remember their name instead. That large groups rather than an individual caused the world to turn.

This is the collective view of history. It is less exciting, but probably more accurate.

From Pol Pot to Pulis

Stoke City’s rise to the place of mid-table in the Premier League is largely down to former manager Tony Pulis, and Pulis puts any success he has had down to a recruitment policy based on character.

When speaking about Ryan Shawcross Pulis commended the defender’s character – which is to say his desire to win football matches – saying that a team was built on players such as Shawcross.

“You can have other players who don’t have that (character),” Pulis added, “but only for eighteen months and then you have to move them on.”

The heroes of failure

Why do Bradford City supporters not curse the name Benito Carbone? Why is Ashley Ward’s time at the club given a light disregard when the memory of Mike Duxbury can cause grown men to froth at the mouth? What is it about Darren Morgan that has some City fans reserving a place in the inner circle of failure which even Aaron McLean – seemingly leaving City this week – need not fear reaching?

And what is this word scapegoat which is applied in defence of McLean? Has his treatment been unfair? What are the mechanics of failure at a club like Bradford City that can lionise one player and condemn another.

And let me start by saying…

When Aaron McLean leaves Bradford City, few will be upset. McLean has done well in the past proving his ability but did not do well at Bradford City. The sort of ability McLean is credited with is rare for Bradford City players over the last decade. Few players have been criticised for want of motivation rather than ability.

More common in the last decade have been the players who have shown a level of effort that defined their abilities. The words “give everything” are used about James Hanson, Gary Jones, and Andrew Davies. Players like Barry Conlon, Matthew Clarke and Lee Crooks were never said to be shirking, just that they were poor footballers.

McLean gets to nestle his name alongside Ashley Ward, Nicky Summerbee and Bobby Petta in the players who idled away their talents rather than had no talent to begin with.

In the worst possible way

Aaron McLean arrived to replace Nahki Wells. Wells enjoyed a meteoric rise at Bradford City. His speed and eye for goal were impressive and he played a role in taking City to Wembley twice in three months. After an early exchange of distaste for his choice of clubs following City it seems that Wells has settled back into his place in the hearts of City fans.

One might speculate that the fact that Wells has joined a Huddersfield side in the year they have achieved next to nothing is his saving grace for City fans. Were Town in the play-offs and Wells the architect of that, then things may be different.

But Wells is not an architect. The type of player he is – they are called “finishers” for a reason – puts him at the necessary end point rather than the engine room of a team. Wells was the end of a team of Gary Jones, Rory McArdle, James Hanson et al. Those players were the big characters who pushed the team. Wells, Nathan Doyle, Will Atkinson, Carl McHugh were (seemingly, and by virtue of their exit) the “eighteen monthers” that Pulis talks about.

Being Phil Parkinson

Losing Gary Jones was inevitable. Phil Parkinson probably joins with the rest of City fans who watch the skipper playing for Notts County and wonders if there was another year in the now 37-year old midfielder, but giving him that extra year is a delay of the inevitable need to replace him.

Losing a player like Gary Jones from your team – be it from age or transfer – matters more than losing a player like Wells because of the type of strong character he is. Bringing in or building a replacement takes time and may not be achieved. Those old enough may remember the attempt to replace the massive presence of Stuart McCall with Iain Banks and wince at the memory. If you are younger, read “Gary Locke” for Banks.

It is Parkinson’s hardest job and while developing Billy Knott may be a long term solution, one suspects the City manager has concluded that he needs to bring a character into the side and is working to that end. At the moment though Parkinson puts out the team he has and that team has some qualities, although is lacking in others.

Who does not love Xaviar Barrau?

Who was the scapegoat in David Wetherall’s relegation side which was the worst team Bradford City have fielded in my lifetime? Who carries the can for those feeble months? Not Wetherall, and not his players. Spencer Weir-Daley’s many misses against Leyton Orient and Omar Daley’s giving up of the ball on the wing are critical memories but on the whole the players are not criticised. Kelly Youga (injured during his time at the club) is fondly remembered. Who does not a place in his heart for Xaviar Barrau?

Wetherall’s side were simply too poor for scapegoats. To single out one player is to allow a club and a culture at a club to be freed from blame. No one points the finger because no one has enough fingers to point.

Likewise relegation from the Premier League is never assigned to a group of players, and the likes of Benito Carbone are heroes of the club. Circumstances dictate that a scapegoat will not be found, at least not on the field.

Parkinson’s team are not so outgunned as those two examples. The are far better than Wetherall’s side for sure, and the rest of League One is – in relative terms to City – not as good as the rest of the Premiership was in 2000.

Phil Parkinson’s team are closer to success. Indeed at the moment City win and lose on the basis (seemingly, but probably not in the opinion of the management) of individual actions. Billy Clarke puts the ball an inch lower and Oldham away is a good point; Christopher Routis heads a ball into the stands against Sheffield United then City get a battling point with ten men and so on.

Just as two years ago Rory McArdle’s determination was the difference between winning and losing against Aston Villa in the League Cup semi-final. When the difference between success and failure is small there is a temptation to assign it to individuals and individual actions.

Stevie Gee

Importantly though one can only justify assigning success to individuals when margins are small. A scapegoat is the player who did not apply the marginal difference. The opposite – a player who applied the individual difference between success and failure – is what he call in football a hero

Watching the career of Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard is watching that that theory in action. In European Cup and FA Cup finals (both of which ended 3-3) he has been heroic because he has been the individual difference between success and failure.

Last season his defensive slip against Chelsea – an individual mistake – seemed to cost his team the Premier League title. “If he had not slipped” is said with a misty eye by many, but few ask what would have happened if (now Liverpool’s) Dejan Lovren foul on Daniel Sturridge in November 2013 in a Southampton 1-0 win at Anfield had been given as a penalty.

Scapegoating is arbitrary.

Had Aaron set off in time

Aaron McLean’s first game at Sheffield United for City – a 2-2 draw – had the striker almost score the goal which almost built his confidence and almost put him on a run of goalscoring, and so on.

McLean is in poor form, and plays like a player in poor form, and many people (not me) consider that the problem City face at the moment is the need for a finisher. The logic follows easily that McLean, a finisher, could be difference between wins and defeats.

My view of football is increasingly more inline with Pulis, and it is more inline with the collective view of history. When Nahki Wells was scoring for City it was not because of his abilities so much as because of the team’s abilities (which he was a part of) and had you dropped Aaron McLean in then, McLean would be the “Goal Machine” his name so cruelly rhymes with. If you put Wells into the current City team, he would struggle.

The team struggles because of the recrafting job that is needed on its core following Jones’ departure. and the wider break up of the “History Makers” team that Phil Parkinson built. The eighteen months were up, and now Parkinson starts again. The manager is not back at square one, and the fact that the gap between success and failure seems bridgeable is a frustration, and causes this illusion.

Nahki Wells was a hero of Bradford City’s success.

Aaron McLean, because of his place in our history, is a hero of failure.

Older than the Bantams: Celebrating 112 years of black footballers in Bradford

Saturday 22 October 2011, 1.15pm. Admission free. Bantamspast museum, Valley Parade

Over a century of black footballers will be celebrated at Valley Parade on Saturday as the bantamspast museum plays host to a Black History Month event which will reveal the long history of black football in Bradford.

In 1899 a team of black players from South Africa played a Bradford & District team at Park Avenue four years before the Bantams were formed.

Two years later, in 1901, the spectacular show Savage South Africa was staged at Valley Parade in a three week run that played to over twenty thousand people. The show, complete with 500 hundred actors and 120 horses, also featured, what the Bradford Daily Argus termed ‘real African darkies’. Today the show is often criticised as being a human zoo, but for a working class family, perhaps living in a cramped terrace house, in days long before radio and television, the show must have been simply fabulous entertainment.

In 1905, only four years after the staging of Savage South Africa, Bradford City signed their first black player, the mixed race winger Billy Clarke, from Aston Villa. He had already become the first ever black player to score a goal in the first division of English football whilst with Villa. At Valley Parade he would win a second division championship medal in and score Bradford City’s first ever goal in top flight football in 1908. A hugely popular player with the Valley Parade crowds, it is interesting that, during his near 100 games for the Bantams, the newspapers barely mention his race. It seems that he was accepted almost without comment into the Bradford City family.

In the 1970s Bradford City welcomed the pioneering modern day black players Ces Podd and Joe Cooke to Valley Parade. The two men became immensely popular with the supporters and Ces is still the club’s record appearance holder, playing 565 games for the club between 1970 and 1984. Arguably, the presence of both men in Bradford City’s team, during an era that defined race relations in Britain, helped shape the culture of the club. Being a racist and a Bradford City supporter was simply incompatible. Today, the club still enjoys a reputation for openness and tolerance. Ces and Joe’s role in establishing that culture will be one aspect of Bradford City’s celebration of Black History Month.

The bantamspast museum curator, David Pendleton, will give a presentation about the visit of the black South African team to Bradford in 1899; the arrival of the show Savage South Africa at Valley Parade in 1901; and Bradford City’s first black player, Billy Clarke, who joined the club in 1905.

Professor Matt Taylor, of De Montfort University, Leicester, will speak about the pioneering black footballers of the 1970s, including Bradford City’s own Ces Podd and Joe Cooke.

The director of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University, Leicester, Professor Tony Collins, will talk of the contribution of black sportsmen and women to the culture of the north of England.

We hope that our guests of honour will include, Joe Cooke and Des Hamilton, scorer of Bradford City’s opening goal during the Wembley 1996 play-off final when the Bantams secured promotion to the Championship.

The bantamspast museum event is part of Bradford City’s One Game, One Community day, which is dedicated to the Kick Racism out of Football initiative. It takes place when the Bantams play Northampton Town on 22 October.

Celebrating 106 Years of Black Footballers at Valley Parade

In the popular imagination pioneering black footballers are epitomised by Cyril Regis and Viv Anderson, at Valley Parade thoughts turn to those icons of the 1970s Ces Podd and Joe Cooke. However, they were far from being Bradford City’s first black players, over sixty years earlier the Bantams signed the mixed race winger Billy Clarke from Aston Villa.

In 1901 Billy Clarke had already become the first ever black player to score a goal in the first division whilst at Villa. After moving to Valley Parade in 1905 he helped Bradford City win the second division championship and in September 1908 he scored Bradford City’s first ever goal in the top flight of English football.

At Valley Parade on 22 October 2011 this forgotten piece of the Bantams’ history will be celebrated, along with the contribution black footballers have made to the history of Bradford City in the ensuing 106 years.

Our visitors on 22 October, Northampton Town, had another pioneering black footballer Walter Tull in their team prior to the Great War. He signed from Tottenham Hotspur in 1911 and when war broke out he was the first Northampton player to enlist. Tull eventually became the first ever black combat officer in the British Army. Sadly, he was killed during the conflict. The home match against Northampton is the perfect occasion to celebrate 106 years of black footballers at Valley Parade.

Several events are being lined up for the day, but at the moment we can confirm the attendance of Joe Cooke. Join the big man himself in the bantamspast museum from 1.30pm where you will hear of the exploits of Billy Clarke and the experiences of the more recent black footballers at Valley Parade.

We have invited the great Ces Podd and are endeavouring to contact Bradford City’s Wembley hero Des Hamilton. Which other former black Bradford City players would BfB readers like to see at Valley Parade on 22 October? Here’s your chance to suggest the players we should invite and why? Jamie Lawrence? Darren Moore? Stan Collymore?

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