Burton / Bolton

There was so little in the statement and interviews given by Edin Rahic on his first day as Bradford City chairman that there seemed to be a challenge to the accepted wisdom that it is always easy to be negative.

The German’s remarks ticked so many of the boxes Bradford City fans wanted ticking that they presented even the most pessimistic person a problem finding something to be unhappy about. Rahic respects the club’s traditions, is looking forward to working with Phil Parkinson, and wants to bring success a measured way.

Rahic said that he and Stefan Rupp had looked at four or five clubs and settled on City because of a alignment of aims. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Could be.

While everyone hopes Rahic and Rupp will be everything they say they will be the fact is that the Football League has welcomed these new owners with only a tick on a Fit and Proper Test which many have serious reservations over and very little else.

What have Rahic and Rupp had to do to prove they should own a big community assets in one of England’s top ten cities? What did Massimo Cellino have to do to show he should own Leeds United? What did Ken Bates have to prove? Very little.

And this is not a comparison between Rahic and Rupp and those two brigands just a realisation of the lack of protection afforded supporters as they watched the process of the club being sold. A recognition that the level of regulation in English football around clubs is so scant as to be virtually non-existent.

The Football League has made some movement in the past decade to regulating the owners of clubs – a response perhaps to the “never again” moment of Milton Keynes – but still it is an under-regulated body with members who like to keep regulation loose.

Even though many clubs struggle, many are run by directors who are using the under-regulated environment to take a few chances with their club’s futures.

City will face Bolton Wanderers – recently of the Premier League – in League One next season. League One is littered with clubs – clubs like Bolton Wanderers, Charlton Athletic, and for that matter City – who have gambled and lost.

Bolton Wanderers were £172.9m in debt at the end of 2015 having fallen from the Premier League and seemingly had no method of dealing with the decline. I cannot say why no one at Bolton arrested this financial situation sooner but I feel sure that it is uncontroversial to say that there is something wrong with a system where a club can spend that much money unchecked.

Another former Premier League club Charlton Athletic are run in a way that scares the Football League to an extent that they fear their supporters protesting the Championship presentation. Blackpool have exited League One downwards with their fans practically at war with the the people who run it.

When the likes of Burton Albion – the new Crewe if you will – reach the second tier of English football seemingly just by being persistently sensible in a sea of insanity you might wonder if Rahic and Rupp wanted an English club because all you need to get on is an ounce of good business planning.

Burton Albion, AFC Bournemouth, even Leicester City all have some money behind them but they are mostly characterised by sensible management. Contrast that with Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Leeds United, Bolton Wanderers, Charlton and on and on.

Nevertheless there is little appetite in football for any type of regulation which might stand in the way of clubs being run exactly how clubs wish to be run.

The hope for supporters is that it is run like a Burton and not like a Bolton.

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

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Gary MacKenzie, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott, Mark Yeates | James Hanson, Billy Clarke | Tony McMahon, Jon Stead, Matty Dolan

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.

Liverpool bow to pressure, not reality

A look at the Premier League table – frozen over a cold FA Cup weekend – puts Liverpool under Everton and above Blackpool as Roy Hodgson leaves the Anfield club by mutual consent. The position tells much.

Blackpool are much lauded this season under Ian Holloway who is being talked as a potential England manager with his maverick style likened to Brian Clough and the idea of him being passed over representing the same kind of error. Nevertheless his side sit down Liverpool who now have Kenny Dalglish returning as manager.

The natural reaction by many, if not most, is that the two cannot be compared and that what is a good performance for the Seasiders is unacceptable for the Reds. That Liverpool should be being far better than Blackpool, not one place.

And this is true at present. Blackpool were a fine team in the 1950s when every factory shut down for a week and whole City’s headed East for the coast, sea and a week of a good time but when the package holiday arrived Blackpool descended the leagues. At 13th in the Premier League Blackpool are “over performing” but taking their highest watermark they are some way off the days of Stanley Matthews. The money to sustain the club, the affluence of the town itself, had diminished.

Blackpool are by no mean alone in this fall from grace and no better example is needed than Bradford City in this the anniversary of the 1911 FA Cup win. The Glorious 1911 is well worth a read detailing (one of ) the best team(s) in the country who played at Valley Parade in a Manningham that ranked as one of the most productive and affluent areas of the United Kingdom.

Walk around Manningham and look at the housing on the crescents, the stone work, the beauty of it all were one to strip away a hundred years of industrial decline. As with Blackpool and the package holiday the artificial fibre and end of the wool trade is the underlying story of the decline of Bradford City. The tide ebbing out.

It is this tide which ultimately decides the success or failure of clubs. Looking over Europe and it is rare for the town on its uppers to have a successful team and often the decline of an urban centre is mirrored in the decline of the club that it supported and other clubs rise up and up as a result of money coming to a City. Wander around Manchester and see the affluence of the reinvented City Centre or the new Salford Quays and then look at the top two in the table.

Now anyone who talks ambition at Valley Parade talk about getting the club “To the Championship, where it belongs” which is a point one could debate all day without resolution. Bradford being a City in the top ten of population one might ask why the target is set so low? Bradford being a City with so many scars of financial turmoil one might ask why so high? Certainly the ambition is no bad thing.

Back to Liverpool and like Blackpool and Bradford the City is not what it was. Various statistics from various Government departments conflict on population sizes and relative wealth but the overall view of Merseyside is that it has lost a lot of people to other parts of the country and what remains is not that well off.

Like Bradford and Blackpool Liverpool the City has declined and with it has gone the two football teams. Everton used to win UEFA Cups and were two weeks off doing the double but now their aims are more modestly set at getting as close to fourth place in the League as possible.

Liverpool, however, still maintain the aims of the times when they were dominant in English football and talk about challenging for the Premier League title. As a recent Champions League winner they certainly have cause to talk in such a way – although that was before the First Americans and their abuse of the club – but they do so swimming against a tide that ebbs away as surely as it has done at Valley Parade or Bloomfield Road.

There is a benefit in the brand of Liverpool which is built on the belief that the club is a successful one and the aims that see them want to be performing better than they have this season. Setting high aims and (more importantly) believing they can be achieved is a vital part of creating success and it is no coincidence that all successful teams are often dubbed “arrogant”.

Hodgson’s exit from Liverpool is thus painted as useful. It says that Liverpool expects better performances and in doing so continues the (perhaps healthy) belief amid the players, the fans and the world at large that the higher echelons are the club’s rightful home.

It staves off the reality of a situation – a reality which has become endemic at clubs and in cities like Blackpool and Bradford – which redraws the map of football.

Blackpool undermine the technology debate

To all Football League supporters but Preston fans, the performance and strategy adopted by newly-promoted Blackpool in the Premier League this season is something we should take pride in. True they’ve had a couple of heavy beatings, but their unwillingness to compromise on their attacking principles and refusal to break the bank on star players is a highly commendable approach that it would be heart-warming to see succeed – especially with all the usual pundits ridiculing them for it.

But as manager Ian Holloway snarled into the interviewer’s microphone after refereeing decisions contributed to a 3-2 home defeat to Man City, it suddenly became difficult to muster sympathy or retain the fantasy that this was one of us sticking it to the Premier League elite.

Holloway called for the introduction of video technology, citing that three crucial decisions which went against his team – a disallowed Blackpool goal at 0-0, a borderline offside Man City opener and a foul in the build up to City’s second – would have otherwise been correctly called by the officials. He pointed out the ludicrousness of the fact TV viewers around the world had access to TV replays in seconds, while the referee has no such help in evaluating whether his decisions might be correct.

But he called for video technology to be introduced to the Premier League, and perhaps the Championship, only. He said, “It doesn’t have to go down to every bit of football, it doesn’t, just the top flight. If you can’t afford it for everywhere else it doesn’t matter…it won’t matter about the 1st division 2nd division, non-league, it won’t matter.”

Given this was only Blackpool’s eighth top flight match, it was disappointing to see how quickly the club appears to be turning it’s back on the lower leagues which have been the Tangerines home for the previous 29 years. Sure, the Premier League has the resources and the TV technology to implement the use of video evidence, but what about the rest of us? Are our games less significant? Is it right we play to a different set of rules?

As I’ve argued previously, to me it seems wrong that similar incidents in a game between two Premier League teams and two Football League teams could be subject to a different set of rules simply because one league is more prosperous. Contrary to popular belief, this sport is not all about 20 clubs and the actions taken over the past 18 years in pushing the focus so heavily onto the top flight has had damaging consequences in the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Other sports like Rugby League have been happy to operate under different rules; with Super League employing video technology during televised games and the National Divisions below it having no such support Super League and National Division games shown live on TV employing video technology, but non-televised fixtures having no extra support, but in many ways this is a sport which has had to sell out its core values in order to increase its popularity. There is not even promotion and relegation to and from the Super League anymore.

But above all that, the argument that Holloway made shows exactly why introducing technology could prove a bad mistake for the sport. Once the tap is turned slightly, it will be difficult to switch off.

The main argument put forward by the advocates of technology is to use it purely for settling debates over whether the ball crossed the line. But on Sunday Holloway was arguing technology should be used to settle offside calls. Fine, add that to the new rules too. But wait, he’s also upset that there was a foul in the build up to the second Man City goal, which TV replays could have highlighted to the referee. So do we allow technology to be used for such incidents too?

And it goes on and on. Because if technology is used for one aspect of the game, pretty soon every wronged manager will be telling the press it’s a disgrace if technology isn’t used to settle the type of controversy their team has just suffered from too. Suddenly the game is in chaos and the line between what is fair and not fair is blurred completely. The tap can’t be stopped.

Equally, both the glorious and worst thing about football is its subjectivity. I bet Man City fans would argue Carlos Tevez didn’t foul the Blackpool player in the build-up to the second goal, would video replays have changed the referee’s mind? We can all hold our own opinion over whether the goal should have been allowed or disallowed, but I bet we all wouldn’t universally agree.

How long, after technology had been introduced in this way, would it take for a losing manager to question the validity of the judgement? “I don’t care what the video referee says, that was never a foul. He’s clearly never played the game before.”

Finally, there’s the potential use of video technology in teams’ tactics, which could be to the detriment of the spectacle. If, say, managers were allowed to call for a video replay of a disputed decision, a team defending a lead could make it part of their time-wasting tactics which are aimed at disrupting the flow of the opposition and preventing them building attacking momentum. You’re 1-0 up in the 89th minute and you get a chance to stop the game by asking the officials to review a trivial decision, thereby disrupting the match. Imagine how frustrating that would be as a supporter.

We can all feel sympathy for how Holloway and Blackpool fans felt after their team was robbed of a credible point or even a famous victory, and we all know how horrible that feeling of injustice can be when our team is on the wrong end of bad refereeing decisions – goal line technology at Morecambe’s Christie Park in April 2009 when Peter Thorne’s effort appeared to cross the line, for example, and Bradford City might have achieved promotion. But video technology has assumed some form of idealistic solution in the minds of too many people, as though it would instantly solve all of the game’s problems and football would always be fair because of its deployment.

There has to be other solutions to the problems, such as more officials and closer alignment between the training of footballers and referees. Sure decisions will still be wrong, but this is a game played by humans not robots and if standards could be significantly improved it would be easier to accept fewer occasions where costly mistakes are made.

Bring in the technology for the Premier League only, and it’s almost as though football operates under two codes. It wouldn’t take long for a Football League manager to blame a defeat on the lack of technology, citing that, “if we were in the Premier League that decision wouldn’t have happened, how is that fair?”

And given the historic difficulties newly-promoted clubs have in staying up in England’s top flight for more than a couple of seasons, what price for that lower league manager complaining to one day be Ian Holloway?

Blackpool near the right way of doing the Premier League

Blackpool chairman Karl Oyston is doing his job so well that he has offered to resign from the newly placed Premier League club.

You may recall the Oyston name from his Dad and the massive collapse the Seasiders had on an off the field when City beat them 3-0 in the play-offs in 1996. The son has been at the club since 1999 and seemed as surprised as anyone when Blackpool got to – and won – the play-off final finding themselves £90m richer and in the glare of the most watched football league in the world.

From that day to this Oyston has seen his stock drop to the point where he offered to resign charged from all sides with a failure to be able to bring in new faces to bolster Ian Holloway’s promoted squad. Indeed with the highly rated Seamas Coleman returning to Everton after a year at Bloomfield Road it is said that the Tangerines are the first club in the history of the Premier League to have an obviously weaker side than the one which saw them promoted.

Oyston’s issues are caused by a refusal to over pay for player, and to over pay players. The chairman vocalises a problem that Geoffrey Richmond also noted in his “King Canute” speech which denied Robbie Blake and Darren Moore five figure salaries but ended up offering such rewards to the ill-deserved collective of Bruno Rodriguez, Jorge Cadete, Ian Nolan, Peter Atherton and David Hopkin.

Oyston – it seems – will not be drawn into valuing what the club does not have more than what it does.

It’s been an eye-opener for us when we’re told by agents that their client wants to play in the Premier League, then they’ll go off and sign for a Championship club, but on more money.

One can almost see the idea forming from Richmond to Oyston through Derby County’s errors and Hull City’s problems that is almost fully formed. Oyston has the actions, but not the reasons. Put simply when a club in the position of Blackpool – or City – is promoted to the top division they should not make any Premier League signings.

Which is not to say that a promoted team should not try buy players – but they should be the same players who they would have signed were they not promoted. City – for example – were locked in bidding for players like David Wetherall with clubs from the league below. Indeed Paul Jewell missed out on signing Clyde Wijnhard because they were not able to match Huddersfield Town’s financial offer for the two players the defender opting for the top league, the striker for more money.

Make the same signings and say on the day that you are promoted that the players who took you to the top flight will keep you in the top flight. After all the Blackpool players have – in that play-off way – proved themselves better than the division below, why not assume they are good enough for this division.

The act of backing the players in such a public manner could – in itself – be decisive. There is much talk about money in football and money is not unimportant but ultimately the majority of money in football is wasted. Manchester City are the riches club in the world, but Manchester United are better and they are better because they have a manager who understands that the game is more mental than it is technical and games are won in the head before they can be won on the field.

Tell the players that you do not want to replace them with any Carlos Kickaball who’s agent has sent you a video, tell them they are your Premier League quality players and let that set of players grow into the roles. “Act as if ye have faith, and faith shall be given to you.

The price of failure – the relegation which could follow – comes with the sweetener that the money you got for going up has not drained away to players and can be used for genuine long term club growth. This summer – once again – one is forced to curse Richmond’s decision to spend money on Nolan, Atherton et al that could have paid for a training facility the club would be using today.

The benefits of success are multitude. Should the squad that some would have thrown away retain Premier League status then they will do so well rewarded no doubt but without the financial costs of recruitment and paying Premier League wages and they will have a connection to the club which comes from experience wearing the shirt. This is true in failure too. the illustration which showed how few games City’s players had played said much about the connection between fans and players.

Say to all that these are our players, the players we cheered to promotion, and build the belief in the squad that having earned their position in the top division they are good enough to build on that. Oyston is near, but not there yet. His instinct is right though. Why should Blackpool pay more for the players who have achieved less than their squad which achieved promotion last season?

Money seduces all in the Premier League – in football – but the biggest betrayal of that seduction is the idea that one can shortcut hard work and mental belief that brings initial success by throwing around the cash that results from it.

The Taylors

Peter Taylor spent his Saturday afternoon watching Blackpool beat Cardiff to secure promotion to the Premier League for Sky TV and while the City manager is better at his day job than the post-modern wonder that is Soccer Saturday’s meta-football – watching people watching a game – the Bantams gaffer will have taken note of the rise of the seasiders.

Blackpool – the team of Directions to Wembley – have earned the crack at the Premier League which clubs like Bradford City, Burnley and Barnsley have had before and save the reservation about a curious afternoon at VP a few years ago when both Robbie Williams and Claus Jorgensen thought they had been sent off only for City’s Steven Schumacher to take the first use of the soap one wishes them well.

A look down the Tangerine squad shows few names which will be known to those who are buying 2010/11 Panini stickers but Ben Burgess had a brush with the Bantams some time ago and Brett Ormerod played for Park Avenue. Charlie Adam has obvious quality and is known to many, one name that does stick out is Gary Taylor-Fletcher.

Taylor-Fletcher score a close range headed goal at Wembley which will be – to date – the highlight of a career that has taken him to Huddersfield Town and Lincoln City as well as a couple of loans at Dag & Red. As much as Steven Gerrard or Wayne Rooney though he is a Premier League player.

This is a lesson often forgotten by football managers. Many of the players who people teams like Blackpool, Burnley and City were what would be considered journeymen but with the coaching in place, with mental belief and some strong characters then a player like Taylor-Fletcher can go from Huddersfield to The Premier League in the space of three years.

Has Taylor-Fletcher become a better player? Perhaps but Blackpool would have many of the squad who had improved if that is the case. Probably it is more correct to say that Ian Holloway has crafted a team to be more than the sum of parts such as Taylor-Fletcher.

The majority of managers – for many and varied reasons – are not able to create a team like that – Paul Jewell did it at City, certainly did not at Sheffield Wednesday – but as he spends a summer recruiting and signing up people for the City squad Peter Taylor will aim to do the same with the Bantams.

For if the past three years has had an object lesson it is that squads, not signings, make for successful teams.

How far away is the Blackpool Tower?

The Blackpool Tower is a mile down the road but the Twin Towers beckon for City now.

Stuart McCall was not playing the night in 1996 when the Bantams bested Blackpool to write Chris Kamara’s name in City’s – and football’s – history as the first manager to take City to Wembley and win and the first black manager to win at the old, now gone, stadium.

The new Wembley – something akin to a shopping centre they say but an enticing thought – is the aim for McCall now with the City manager watching the fourth defeat on the bounce against Port Vale and deciding that the push for automatic promotion is off.

In following the path via Wembley of Kamara McCall presses the case for stability – Kamara was assistant manager to Lennie Lawrence before taking the job on and a member of his backroom staff who took over in Paul Jewell led City to the Premiership – but the two managers approach the end of season lottery from different perspectives.

Kamara’s City went on a winning run of around a third of a season going into the play-offs as the form side while McCall’s are badly out of sync with each other and needing a sea change in performances to not only reach the top seven but to win when there.

The current City boss has indicated that there is a chance for the players in the squad to reclaim starting shirts. I’ve always believed that too many loan players make for a tepid team and were Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren and Joe Colbeck back in the side for the trip to Chester City at the weekend then I would be happy and few would probably be surprised.

Famously opposing Kamara at Blackpool the night when City came back to win 3-0 to steal the play-offs was Sam Allardyce who following that game snuck off to Bolton and emerged some years later as a regular Premiership manager with the failure of May 1996 respected as a part of his learning process.

Man(ager) of the moment Rafa Benitez has a string of woefulness in his early career in Spain which is considered to be a part of the making of him. The two wins in twenty three games at Valladolid and the sack were followed by one win in nine at Osasuna and the local Archer came calling again.

All of which is to say that if the metaphorical twin towers elude McCall then perhaps it will form a part of that process of learning – the making of the man so to speak and something that someone will benefit from – but utterly regretful with the thought of 23 more clubs coming to Valley Parade to play like Port Vale did on Saturday.

The excitement of Blackpool never seemed so far away.

The worst punishment

Putting aside debates over Stuart McCall’s ability for a moment, everyone should be horrified by the prospect of the Bantams manager leaving this summer. A managerial vacancy in May will mean the play offs have been missed and a resultant punishment no one connected with City will relish – more of the same.

Today’s 1-0 defeat to Port Vale was a bad advert for League Two and sadly something its biggest crowds have had to become used to. Not so long ago visiting teams came with clever game plans that often worked, this season the majority show up with limited aspirations of avoiding defeat. Five across the midfield, time waste as often as possible and, on occasions home players get through, bring them down by any means necessary.That they succeeded owed more to City’s lack of confidence than any better parking of the bus compared to others.

The only goal of the game came four minutes after the break through a neat low finish by David Howland, but the chance came seconds after City had been on the attack and Keith Gillespie, making his full debut, had produced an ill-advised short pass to Dean Furman which had too much power to control and allowed Paul Marshall to break forward. Graeme Lee stood off him too long and, when he did eventually put in a challenge, the ball spun into Howland’s path from which he beat Rhys Evans.

It was the only time Vale troubled City’s goal, though the territorial advantage the Bantams enjoyed didn’t manifest itself into many chances. Lee might have made up for his hesitancy for the goal with three attempts that were cleared off the line, Clarke had a decent half volley attempt which was straight at Valiant keeper Jon Anyon, Furman blazed over and Steve Jones stabbed a few efforts wide – but at no point in the game was momentum built up to the level of heavy pressure.

The biggest concern for Stuart will have been that the final whistle did not herald only the second home defeat of the season, his team looked beaten long before it. Confidence is draining from certain players who, only a matter of weeks ago, were in excellent form. Low confidence for City typically results in a more direct approach and an over-desperation to force a goal which was evident even during the early stages. The lack of composure in hurrying the ball forward rather than passing it around patiently meant possession was quickly gifted back to Vale, who tried their hardest to boot it back in the direction it came.

Stuart has faced the conundrum all season of two central midfielders being out numbered by three opposition and seemed to have found the solution in the boundless energy levels of Furman and Nicky Law, but even the on-loan pair looked jaded and unable to influence the game. Out wide Gillespie and Jones battled hard and caused problems, but the double-marking tactics left them struggling for space and the efforts of Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien to support were undermined by the former’s favouritism of his left foot and the latter’s struggle to handle the counter attack threat from his side.

Up front Paul Mullin made his debut after signing on-loan from Accrington and, though he showed some good touches and battled well, offered nothing Barry Conlon does not on a good day. The hope for Stuart will be that he has higher consistency levels. Michael Boulding looked useful with the ball at feet but finding space is a problem he’s faced at Valley Parade all season. With the ball invariably aimed at Mullin, he was forced to feed off scraps. Stuart introduced Chris Brandon and Lee Bullock from the bench, but neither had any impact.

Fortunately for City, this impact on the league table has been just as slight, with only Rochdale winning and the gap to third still only a mountable six points. Realistically the play offs are the target but the worry is this further dent on confidence will make it even harder for the players to achieve that. Next week’s game at Chester becomes even more must-win and, with The Blues winless in 17 and having fallen into the bottom two for the first time, it will be a pressure game for both sides. Losing is unthinkable and would bring the reality of missing out on the top seven and another season in League Two closer.

That we are even here in the first place owes a little to today’s whistle-happy referee who did as much to ruin the spectacle as Vale’s Marc Richards and his kicking the ball away time-wasting efforts. It’s almost two years ago to the day since Steve Bratt was last officiating at Valley Parade and on that afternoon he stopped a resurgent City effort against Blackpool by ridiculously sending off Steve Schumacher just as the Bantams were completely on top. The score was 1-1 but the game ended 3-1 to the Tangerines with the hapless referee later admitting he was wrong to dismiss Schumacher – in between City were relegated from League One.

Back at the scene of the crime, Bratt played completely into Vale’s hands by continually stopping play and awarding some bizarre free kicks. On at least two occasions City players were fouled, only for Bratt to give the decision the other way. He also displayed ridiculous inconsistencies with the advantage rule, at one stage pulling the game back ten seconds after a Vale foul hadn’t stopped Boulding charging into the area with just a defender and keeper to beat. No wonder the Vale players were so quick to shake his hand at the final whistle.

Stuart was yet to be installed as manager on Bratt’s last visit; as assistant to Neil Warnock, he had just witnessed Sheffield United lost 3-0 at Chelsea. The bright lights of the Premier League quickly became distant after the five successive defeats early into his City managerial career, last season. His immediate task is to make sure that record isn’t equalled next Saturday, as well as restore hope we might escape another year of punishment.

View from the dugout

Cup football presents certain opportunities. A chance to see the Bantams face someone different from usual (although for City that’s largely not been the case recently), reading a match day programme filled with contributors’ sentiments of how “it’s about time City went on a good cup run” and, largely unnoticed, the prospect on an entertaining cup tie. The Tranmere 1st Round FA Cup tie two seasons ago was one of the better games of that season while the 4-0 thrashing of Crewe, which took place exactly a year ago, was probably City’s best performance of a forgettable campaign.

It’s also an opportunity to be there when so many others fail to bother and bask in the smug satisfaction of labelling yourself a ‘loyal supporter’ when the pitiful attendance, in this case less than 4,000 City fans, is announced. With even more empty seats than usual, there’s also an opportunity to watch the game from a different place.

If you include the live beamback of the Newcastle United FA Cup tie in 1999, I’ve watched City play from each side of Valley Parade. There’s one view point I’ve been especially interested in watching a game from and, with all seating up for grabs, I took the opportunity on Saturday. I wanted to watch the game from how the dug out sees it.

Arriving half hour before kick off, we made our way to the front row of the Main Stand and took a seat just behind the home dug out so that we could see and hear how Stuart McCall and Wayne Jacobs behave during matches – something I couldn’t possibly tell from where I usually sit, on the opposite side of the pitch.

Wayne reacted to Thorne’s goal by running towards Stuart for another hug, but the City boss rejected his advances. Perhaps fearing he might have hurt his assistant’s feelings, Stuart then stuck out his hand so that the two could enjoy a more reserved, gentlemanly handshake.

We were also able to witness a hilarious argument with Bobby Williamson and supporters. During the week the Chester manager had somewhat bizarrely made public comments that Bradford City don’t have any outstanding players, a view that surely fired up people in the home dressing room. As Williamson came to the away dugout, one supporter stood and began angrily barracking him for his comments. Williamson responded by turning away and laughing. The fan continued shouting, prompting a member of the Chester backroom team to tell him to shut up. Another City fan then shouted at this Chester coaching member, who replied by inviting the City fan to ‘take this outside’!

Attention soon turned to Stuart and Wayne walking down the touchline, both of whom received a round of applause from fans nearby. The game kicked off and both spent the whole 90 minutes stood on the touchline barking encouragement. It’s a cliché but true, they really did appear to kick every ball.

Both Stuart and Wayne were continuously giving instructions and demanding more from certain players. In particular they were shouting at Eddie Johnson and Omar Daley. They had clear ideas of where on the pitch they wanted Daley to be, going forward and defending. Eddie was called over to the bench for instructions on several occasions. At times Eddie’s face was that of someone fed up of being told what to do, but he always appeared to take on board the instructions and enjoyed another decent game in the hub of midfield.

He missed City’s best chance in the opening stages when he failed to connect to Paul Evans’ brilliant free kick. Soon after City were in front with an excellently worked goal. Daley was ordered to take up a good position from a throw in and he and Darren Williams worked the ball along to give Evans a chance to cross. His delivery was perfect for Peter Thorne who headed the ball into the far corner for his first City goal.

Viewers of Thursday’s Yorkshire TV Soccer Night will have seen a clip of Stuart and Wayne hugging when City’s second goal on Tuesday had gone in, a celebration perhaps wilder than usual. Wayne reacted to Thorne’s goal by running towards Stuart for another hug, but the City boss rejected his advances. Perhaps fearing he might have hurt his assistant’s feelings, Stuart then stuck out his hand so that the two could enjoy a more reserved, gentlemanly handshake.

Joy soon turned to anger at the referee’s inept performance. Just before half time Guylian Ndumbu-Nsungu challenged for a loose ball which he appeared to win. At worst, he slightly tapped Chester’s Laurence Wilson in the process, but the full back collapsed as though he had been shot. The referee sent G off for two yellows. It was a moment strikingly similar to Steve Schumacher’s incorrect dismissal against Blackpool last season. Naturally Stuart was livid and ran over to the linesman and referee to tell them so. He later revealed, on radio, that the linesman had agreed with Stuart that it was wrong to send G off.

In the second half it was backs to the wall again as City sought to hang on. Like on Tuesday, Chester piled on the pressure forcing City deep but again the home side largely defended well. The substitutions, who I enjoyed getting to know about before everyone else by being able to hear Stuart tell them they were coming on, were also highly effective. Scott Phelan should be feeling especially pleased. He’s become somewhat forgotten since the Accrington debacle but he has some promise about him.

For all their pressure, Chester had only one real chance with Donovan Ricketts saving well. At one stage Ricketts’ came rushing out of his goal for no reason. Hearing Stuart mutter “what’s he doing now?” made me smile – proof that Stuart is thinking the same as the rest of us! It’s been a great week for our recalled keeper and a second clean sheet of the season will only increase his confidence.

At the final whistle Bobby Williamson turned to clap the fans in the main stand with a curious smile. You get the feeling he had enjoyed the banter he had experienced with City fans, but will probably be glad he doesn’t have to visit us again this season. I wonder if he still thinks we have no outstanding players?

As for Stuart and Wayne, it was hugely enjoyable to observe them from close quarters. Both spent the match barking instructions and Stuart clearly has belief in his assistant Wayne to allow him to shout out his own views. Occasionally they chatted to each other, but both seemed happy to watch and talk to the players on their own initiative. Stuart is clearly his own boss and he has already perfected those bizarre managerial finger movements and hand signals which don’t appear to mean anything.

It was also quite bemusing, midway through the second half with the game stopped due to injury, to observe Wayne call Paul Heckingbottom over and give him instructions for a few minutes. During his first spell at the club Heckingbottom won the left back spot over Jacobs. Clearly no lack of respect from Hecky, as he took the advice of a bloke he used to keep out of the team!

In the pub before the match I was asked that, if a non-legend had been in charge, do I think he would have been sacked for the results so far this season? If some people really believe that’s the case it shows what’s wrong with fans expectations sometimes. Legend or not, should any new manager be dismissed so quickly? It’s still very early days in Stuart’s managerial career and some of the criticism he has received in recent weeks has been undeserved. It’s going to take time to turn around a club which has been falling for so long. Hopefully these two victories over Chester point to an improvement which will continue.

As for the dug out view, it would be wrong for me to write that Stuart and Wayne showed themselves to be a great management team. I don’t know what’s good touchline behaviour, or what’s bad. What I did see and hear was how they wanted City to play and what certain players should be doing. I also saw a decent performance – not as good as elements of Tuesday’s, but also not as bad – where everyone in Claret and Amber contributed. I will return to my usual seat in the Midland Road stand for the Stockport game in two weeks continuing my backing for a management team who, legend or not, I believe can eventually turn round the flagging fortunes of this club.

Given The Choice Of Two Evils

Football at this level needs to do something about the quality of Referees right now or it faces a nothing of a future.

Yes I am furious about the red card for Steven Schumacher which stopped a rampant Bradford City getting a much needed three points from Blackpool who had taken the lead but struggled to keep it following Omar Daley’s superb equalising strike after an hour. I’m furious cause I did not think that Schumacher even committed a foul let alone one worth being booked and I’m furious because Blackpool made the man advantage count to inflict what could be a fatal blow on City’s hopes of staying up.

Yes I’m furious about the fact that Referee let the visitors pass the ball around Donovan Ricketts for a third goal as if the injury time, last ditch goalkeeper out situation meant that the basic rules of the game did not count.

I’m furious about the fact that after a quarter of a century watching football I can still come away from grounds totally clueless as to why things have happened one way and not the other and have no one attempt to clarify things for me. Is it really that hard to have a way of communicating between Referee and supporters? I’m furious about all these things.

However I am more furious about this feeling I have in my stomach that will not accept that today we saw another dodgy Referee.

That is what we are told to accept. That the man in the middle makes a bad call this week against us and one next week for us and while only a fool would suggest that is an acceptable system it is something of a status quo in the game.

I’m no longer able to accept that idea. I’m looking for another explanation and I’m looking in places that I used to think were for raving mad men only.

Biased referees are a part of football at the moment. Referees who have been paid off to make sure one team gets a result are a part of football at the moment and if I’m asked to make a choice between the idea that today’s official Mr Bratt was making his decisions after being paid off or was just so utterly incompetent that he would send of Schumacher, would allow Blackpool’s Robbie Williams to stay on the field following his last warning as he committed offence after offence, would wave such a very off side goal into the net then I’m stuck between two options neither of which are welcome.

I would prefer that Mr Bratt had taken a pile of cash to get the result rather than thinking that he represents the standard of refereeing. One side of that question can be addressed after all. If Bratt really is the standard of refereeing then the game is not worth watching.

Certainly that is what I concluded at the end of the game as for the first time in my life I left a game early. That was not football it was pantomime. I doubt the best villains worry about being booed and I’m sure they are rewarded handsomely.

Half of Serie A – including the third biggest club in the world Juventus – are under punishment for match fixing and as I type the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal are still sitting round the G18 table with proven cheats. I do not believe it is naive to suggest that if cheating can exist at the very top level then it is possible in the money hungry, paid less world of League One.

Which is not to take anything away from Blackpool who played a good game – but so did the Old Lady of Turin over the last two seasons when they won the league only to have it stripped away. The Juve players and fans were distraught with what they assumed to be steamroller football being found to be Referees moving the obstacles out of the way.

Blackpool played well but they did not deserve the three points that they were gifted when Schumacher was sent off. Take your pick between paid off bias or game perverting incompetence but be sure of this – whichever it is it is killing football at this level and was the only thing that cost City three vital points today.

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