The friends of Bradford City welcome back that rarest of thing

Wayne Jacobs and David Wetherall will return to Valley Parade on Thursday 22nd September at 20:00 as the Friends of Bradford City host a forum with the former players and coaches of the club.

Both Wetherall and Jacobs put in sterling service for Bradford City with the pair of them clocking up around thirty years combined service. For Jacobs the service was on the way up the leagues starting as a free transfer from Rotherham United recovering from a season long injury and going on to be a Premier League player. For Wetherall – who scored the famous headed goal which kept City in the top flight – the only way was down and as City slipped down the leagues the former captain’s contribution was to slow that decline.

Jacobs put in 318 games for City, Wetherall 304 which dwarfs anyone in the current set up and leads one to wonder who – in ten years time – will be being invited back for functions such as this? Who are are heroes of the future when the current player with most appearances for the club – Luke O’Brien – is persona non grata at Valley Parade. Injury to Robbie Threlfall (21 apps) may see O’Brien add to his 122 appearances for City this weekend.

O’Brien and Lee Bullock (120 apps) are the only players at the club in triple figures – a long way behind Ces Podd‘s 502 – but neither seem to be set to add many to that list. Bullock was unwanted by Mark Lawn but kept by Peter Jackson while O’Brien is frozen out of the first team for reasons unknown, or at least unsaid.

Not that O’Brien has ever enjoyed great popularity at Valley Parade. As a player he is better regarded on the bench than he is on the pitch. On the bench he is the world beating Roberto Carlos ready to turn things around but, when on the field, one might wonder if one were hearing the same crowd describe the player where his efforts are met with grumbles and only quiet support.

Often the same can be said for third on the list James Hanson (79 appearances, 21 goals) who proves that he can score when given service but is subject to a level of criticism which would suggest he had picked selected members of the support and punched their dogs.

Hanson’s return is under a goal every 3.76 games – around the same strike rate as Robbie Blake (153, 40) – which puts him above a good few well respected Bantams of the past. Joe Cooke (3.99) played 271 time and scored 68 although he played central defence at times. Ask men of a certain age about Don Hutchins and they go weak at the knee and his return of a goal every 5.5 games (286 appearances, 52 goals) was a good return and secondary to his overall contribution. The lauded Paul Jewell (269 appearances, 56 goals) banged in one every 4.8 games although most of them were before Christmas.

To paraphrase the problem is not in the stars but with ourselves. A mentality has grasped most of football – having taken hold a good many years ago – which suggests that supporters are blissfully happy to be unaware of what they have until it is gone. Sean McCarthy banged in a goal every two games for City – more or less – but was nicknamed “Scud” as a reference to his perceived inaccuracy.

McCarthy won the hearts of City fans when he exited Valley Parade for Oldham on deadline day and turned up wearing a ludicrously high squad number on Match of the Day a few days later playing at Old Trafford. Players who leave the club are well regarded. Wetherall and Jacobs’ defensive team mate Andrew O’Brien was – according to one voice in earshot – “On his way to Halifax Town, if they will have him” following City’s promotion. Two years later and he was “being sold too cheap.”

An exit infers a kind of status on a player, a respect because someone else has recognised the ability, and without that status our own players are generally disregarded. No player racks up hundreds of appearances because they either are snapped up by someone higher or they are slapped down and leave of their own volition.

A Catch 22 situation then. If a player never leave it is – in the eyes of some – because he is not good enough for anyone including City so should not be suffered to be in the side. It is no coincidence that the greats of Bradford City history: Stuart McCall, Bobby Campbell, Peter Beagrie; left the club before coming back.

Not Jacobs or Wetherall though. Both stayed with the club as players and became part of the coaching set up at later Valley Parade. Wetherall left for a development job with the Football League while Jacobs was unceremoniously launched from the club after Peter Taylor’s sacking. There was a verbalised question mark over Jacobs coaching ability and the former number two probably has too much class to point at the current state at the club – the so called “worst team in Bradford City history” – and ask how his departure improved things at Valley Parade.

One wonders if Wetherall and Jacobs are a rare thing. Only fourteen players who topped three hundred games for City and to add to that list Luke O’Brien would have to play pretty much every game for the next four season for a club where he is the only player who has been here for more than four seasons.

Rare things, and worth see. The forum is free to Friends of Bradford City members or a single shiny pound for non-members.

Mark Leonard, for one night only

There is a moment etched into the collective memories of Bradford City supporters of a certain age in which City rake a long, high ball forward for a flick on and then for Mark Leonard to out jump his defender and loop a header into the goal. If you were at that game already you have conjured the moment in your mind.

Mark Zico Leonard scores against Everton.

The ball lofted forward was by Peter Jackson – putting a lie to the idea that he did nothing on his return – and Ian Ormondroyd’s flick on to Leonard would be repeated when Sticks headed down at Wembley eight years later. The Everton side featured a recently transferred Stuart McCall on his return to Valley Parade and the goal loops over Neville Southall – at the time considered the best goalkeeper in the country if not the World – who would finish his long, illustrious and brilliant career in that very goalmouth aged 41.

Watching the goal again does not dim the memory although things jar: The bars fencing in supporters for another, The way that Southall picks up and rolls out a back pass, The physical size of the players who to a man are seemingly a stone heavier than their modern day counterparts;

On that night Leonard shone as bright as any player might. Against the league champions, and uncharacteristically for a team starting to decline, that was Mark Leonard’s night.

The story wrote itself of course. Leonard had broken his leg having been hit by a car on the way to sign for Everton and this was his “unfinished business”. He had joined City from Stockport County with a good scoring record at the lower levels but had not been able to fill the not inconsiderable boots of Bobby Campbell competing for a place in City’s forward line with Ron Futcher in the season the Bantams made the Division One play-offs. Leonard scored 29 goals in 157 appearances for City, none of them recalled with the glee of the evening against Everton.

Leonard did not score a goal every other game, his knowledge of the offside law – or his ability to put that knowledge into practice – was massively limited and seldom has a City striker strayed beyond the back line to invite the flag more. His nickname – Zico – was ironic. For all his hard work, honest endeavour and tireless efforts the only flash of brilliance Leonard showed was that header.

Which damns the man with feint praise. Leonard worked hard as a player and that was appreciated by City supporters. Zico was ironic but affectionate. The mood might have wished for Leonard to be putting the goals at the rate that Mark Bright and Ian Wright – Crystal Palace’s deadly strikers that season who were first and second in the top scorers list – but the fact he did not was not for the want of effort. Leonard was one of football’s triers. Everton was his moment in the sun, but he never let anyone down in his years in the shade.

Indeed for a time he played at centreback before his unwept at exit from Valley Parade in 1992. He went on to win a promotion to the Football League for Chester City playing for Preston North End and Rochdale but never moving above City. When he left football became a top class crown green bowler ranking in England’s top ten. Perhaps he really was Zico when aiming at a Jack.

When thinking about Mark Leonard – Lenny to some, Zico to others – I wonder how he would be received by the modern Bradford City. Perhaps he would be a Gareth Evans of a player with as many critics as he had people in his corner, perhaps he would be a Jake Speight with his hard work ignored and eyes fixated on his goal tally, perhaps he would be a Barry Conlon.

Looking at Leonard’s goal scoring record one is struck by how the higher up the divisions he went, the lower his return. Like Chesterfield’s Jack Lester who seemed to work out after his spells at Nottingham Forest that he was more effective the lower down the leagues he was and one might have forgiven Leonard for staying low and being a good scorer in the bottom two divisions. As a rule though footballers though are built from ambition always want the bigger prize, and to play at the highest level, to forgo a good career in the shadows for some time in the light.

And for one night, Mark Leonard achieved that.

When giants walked the Earth

You could hardly escape Andy Carroll this weekend. He was on the front page of The News of the World on Sunday morning when someone mixed up the phrases “In the public interest” and “interesting to the public” and by the next morning he was on the back too.

The target man Newcastle United forward is expected to feature in Fabio Capello’s England squad for the friendly with France which represents something of an “uppy downy” kind of time for the forward who quiet out shined opposite attacker Marouane Chamakh.

The French forward Chamakh is a strange sight. Tall and strong but able to take the ball into his body the 26 year old is something of a French Alan Shearer – we have heard that phrase before – and is there to add a bit of muscle to Arsene’s Arsenal.

Meanwhile, at Valley Parade, we have James Hanson who scored twice in the weekend cup defeat having come back from an injury which hampered the start of the season with a point to prove. Hanson is able in the air and gives defenders little chance to settle – his red card was rescinded after the Burton Albion win but he was in the think of the action all afternoon – but his hammered strike against Cheltenham showed his talents.

One has to wonder what Huddersfield Town – the club he was associated with as a youngster – did not see in Hanson although City’s neighbours have passed up on previous Bantam forwards. They had seven games out of Bobby Campbell and got three goals out of him.

Bobby Campbell was a centreforward more of legend than fact but looking past the stories for a second – and only a second because the stories are wonderful – then Campbell was a muscle striker who could hit a ball with what seemed to be immeasurable power.

Legend has it that Campbell’s time at Huddersfield was ended when he took the junior squad for a jog as a part of a punishment in training and – in true Campbell style – that jog included each player getting into the driver’s side of the manager’s Ford Anglia and dragging muddy boots out of the passenger side.

One doubts Hanson was involved in anything such as that before his time in the Co-op between The Terriers and The Bantams and obviously when City came to offer a second chance he took that with two hands but one doubts his style of play has changed. It has, one might say, come back into fashion.

Ten years ago football’s forward lines seemed to have lost their big men. Dean Windass – City’s forward of the day – had Campbell’s gruffness but not his style of play and he was partnered with the slight Benito Carbone. The Premier League was won by Dwight Yorke and Andrew Cole and there was not a target man in sight. Niall Quinn went out to pasture at Sunderland and Kevin Phillips new partner was a more able footballer, and certainly not a big fella.

The big forward at the top level had dropped out of fashion. Of course there were Jon Mackins, Drew Broughtons and Shequi Kuqis wandering around the game but often they were considered classless – Broughton still is – and soon dropped in favour of a forward with a little more guile. Naturally a big lad who has that guile prospers but how many Didier Drogbas are there? Not enough for everyone to have one although in League Two every team seemed to have someone who was six foot eight and it took the Bantams some time to realise that a Matthew Clarke or a Luke Oliver was needed to keep the defensive line strong.

So defenders became used not to battles in the air and trying to win the ball but to trying to anticipate and steal by stealth. Defending at the top level – and further down – has become a more intelligent affair about second guessing the path of play and about anticipation.

Enter Hanson, enter Carroll, enter Chamakh. They play a game that says to defenders “you know where the ball is going, I know where the ball is going, now lets see who gets it” and because – in words that would be used in comparison to Bobby Campbell – defenders have gone soft the cannot defend against the new generation of target man.

Hanson battles the beefiest of League Two defenders and comes out on top which Carroll will be facing the French back four soon. For a time these target men rip through defences like giants stalking the Earth.

As for the progress of James Hanson, Bobby Campbell would be impressed, and so am I.

A Chronic Illness

I’m really looking forward to the Dagenham game. I may not have the best of reasons for making that statement and I hope that BfB readers will at least understand my feelings, but the one reason for my anticipation is that I won’t be at Dagenham. It will be the first game I’ve missed, home or away, since Barnet back in February and I just feel the need to do something else.

In the run of eleven consecutive games since then, I’ve seen just two wins, both at home, and I’ve travelled more miles than I care to tot up. You have to bear in mind that I travel over 150 miles just to get to a home game. At least Chester brought some reduction in my mileage, although it hardly balanced out the trip to Exeter and Bournemouth.

For those of you who don’t drive any distance to get back home after a game, I should point out that the journey lengthens according to the result and the performance. The 70-odd mile trip back home was reduced to about 30 miles, or so it seemed, after the Aldershot game. On other days the same trip has felt like 200 miles.

It’s not just the travelling, though. I’m well used to that by now. I think I’m just generally worn out. Sometimes I think I’m not the only one showing signs of weariness. I think there are plenty of others more closely connected with Bradford City who display the same symptoms.

And it’s not just a question of being tired with the poor performances, although much centres on that issue. I’ve seen poor performances many, many times. I’ve watched years of fourth division football at Valley Parade and plenty of meaningless end-of-season games. If you go back to the end of the 1980-81 season, City finished 14th in the fourth division and played their last game at home to Hereford. Now there’s meaningless for you. And the crowd of 1249 remains a record low for a league game at Valley Parade. I could have reduced it to 1248 by staying at home.

I’ve seen City twice finish 23rd in the fourth division, a final placing that today would get you into the ‘non-league’ league. In one of those seasons they even managed to lose 7-1 at home (their second consecutive 7-1 defeat) to the team then bottom of the fourth division. I never felt quite as bad in those dark days. So it’s not just losing (or not winning) that brings on this malady.

I think I know what the cause is and, even if some fans don’t share my little delight about being given some brief respite care, I think plenty of the Valley Parade regulars will recognise my diagnosis. In a word, I’m disappointed.

In that team that played Hereford we had one or two decent players. There was a young kid at the back called Peter Jackson. There was a slightly older hand in defence by the name of Ces Podd. And up front there was a player in his first full season at Valley Parade. His name was Bobby Campbell. They all had character. OK, one or two of the rest of that team were hardly household names and fourteenth in the bottom division is no claim to fame. But I wasn’t as disappointed as I am now.

Disappointment in my case is a measure of outcome against ability. In real life, that is to say in places that are not Valley Parade, I have always tried to assess what I and others are capable of achieving and then to measure outcomes against that assessment. It’s no good expecting the youngster fresh from school to know how the business works. But the senior manager with twenty years in the job has greater expectations on his shoulders. Among many other factors, that’s why he’s paid more and why I expected more. The newcomer can hardly disappoint at first, but can do after a while if he shows no sign of progress. The senior man can disappoint a whole lot more quickly, simply by not living up to his capabilities.

And so it is in football. Nobody expected Bradford City in the 1960’s to win the league title or the F A Cup. We were a strictly fourth division outfit with, by and large, strictly fourth division players. (Yes, I saw the exceptions, like Bronco and young Hockey long before he could grow a beard.) Even that team of 1981 needed a few more, slightly better players to come into the side that would win promotion the following year. And if you want to see the other side of the expectation coin, there is no finer example than the team that one famous ex-player dubbed the worst team ever to play in the Premier League. (I wonder, how long did it take for his hair to grow back?) Exceeding expectations was what they did best.

You can’t be a Bradford City supporter for too long without being disappointed. Sometimes it’s just one or two games. Sometimes it’s a longer period, but maybe the disappointment is slight or moderate. But this time it’s over a very long period and, because the outcomes are measured against the proven capabilities, the disappointment is about as deep as it comes.

Back in January I wrote ‘At our best, we are truly better than this league. When we’re not at our best, we need to work hard just to match most of our opponents.’ To illustrate that point I cited two goals, one scored by Michael Boulding, the other by no less than Barry Conlon. Those goals had two things in common. They were both team goals, as opposed to examples of individual brilliance, and they resulted from open play of a quality several steps above this league. Indeed, I haven’t seen any opposition team match either of those goals this season.

I doubt very much if anyone at City regrets the fact that we scored those goals. The only reason for regret is that they set a standard that has not been attained for many weeks now. There were plenty of other moves earlier in the season that, while they weren’t finished off with goals, showed how good these players can be at this level. Again, the standard was set; the capabilities were revealed; the justified level of expectation was created.

At the start of the season City were among the bookmakers’ favourites for promotion. There was much hype and many column inches were spent on creating what I then saw as an unjustified expectation. This was, after all, a very new squad. We had not seen several of the signings, except as members of opposing teams, and we didn’t really know how good a team they might make. But by mid-season we knew what they were capable of and we also knew they would have occasional lapses.

As we near the end of the only 46 games that matter, those of us who have watched so many of those 46, in particular this one who has watched all of the last eleven, wonder where it has all disappeared to. If the pre-season expectations were mere words, the performances and the results soon showed what could be achieved. And therein lies the measure of the disappointment, that for so long now performances have fallen so far below what the players are clearly capable of achieving.

The inevitable question is ‘Why?’, but I’m far too tired to even attempt an answer to that one just yet. Let me have my respite, if you will. Let me stay away from Dagenham, if I promise to be back for Rotherham. And then let me try to think about ‘Why?’, even if it may all be a bit late by then.

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