Waring / Trophy

Bradford City will play Stoke City Under 23 team in the first round of the Football League Trophy along with Morecambe and Bury.

There is endless controversy about this move by the Football League to include Premier League reserve teams. The idea of watching Johnville Renee-Pringle, Joel Taylor, George Waring in a competitive FLT game is an anathema to what football should be.

Johnville Renee-Pringle has a superb name. George Waring has a decent record scoring six goals in fifteen games in a loan spell at Barnsley in 2014/15. Barnsley played Oxford United in the final of the Football League Trophy last season and won. Oxford lost the game 3-2 and George Waring – on loan from Stoke City once more – played in that game.

And so we have a situation in which George Waring plays for Barnsley and that is fine, and George Waring plays for Oxford United and that is fine, but when George Waring plays for Stoke City u23 then it is not fine. Not fine at all.

Swing

Let us dispense with Football League Trophy in one swing. Football teams represent communities of supporters and – statistically – there is serious reason to doubt that anything under the first team level is viewed as representative of that community.

People do not go to reserve games on the whole, they do not go to u21 games, they do not on the whole take a lot of interest in top level women’s football associated with their clubs. The tradition of British football is that a football club is seen as the first team and nothing else.

And so (unless there is a sudden groundswell of unprecedented interest) Stoke City u23 are not Stoke City – not really – and one does not expect Stoke City fans to come watch them. The game does not represent the community and game that do not represent communities are in decursu argumenti not football we need concern ourselves with.

It is a training match, or something similar, but what it is not is one community meeting another community for a game. This might be a romanticised view of the game (I’d argue that football without romance is just athletic movements) but important to football is the idea of meritocracy. In any game one team can beat the other. This might seem fanciful but I was at Chelsea and Aston Villa and I speak from experience. The irrelevance that the Football League Trophy has brought us is that the if Bradford City beat Stoke City u23 they will not have beaten Stoke City, and so the result will hardly matter.

But still we have the question of George Waring.

If we say that we are not interested in watching Waring play for Stoke City u23 and are against their inclusion in the Football League Trophy why are we for watching him play in the Football League Trophy for Oxford United? Or Barnsley? If it is not worth watching a Stoke City reserve like George Waring play for Stoke why is it worth watching him play on loan?

Year

Last season’s player of the year will not be at Bradford City this season. Reece Burke joins Josh Cullen and Lee Evans in returning to parent clubs. This is the case almost every year at every club in the lower two divisions.

Go to any League One game and it is not uncommon to see a half a dozen young players from Premier League academies on loan in League One matches. Players like George Waring who come from Stoke City u23. We do not want to watch them play for Stoke City u23, why do we want to watch the play for (or against) Bradford City?

Why is it good to watch Reece Burke but bad to watch George Waring?

If we worry that playing Stoke City u23 is not the same as playing Stoke City then what is playing a Bradford City team with two West Ham United u23 players in it? Football League rules limit the number of loans from a single club to four, and the total loans in one match day squad to five.

If Bradford City were to be offered a deal that gave them Reece Burke and Josh Cullen back for the 2016/2017 season but – as a part of the deal – West Ham’s Martin Samuelsen and Lewis Page must also feature for the Bantams then City would be able to field them all. There are a good few supporters who would see that as a very good deal. It might be a very good deal but if the Football League Trophy is Stoke City u23 and not Stoke City then how would Bradford City with four West Ham United players not be not Bradford City? Would it be any different with six players? Or ten? Or two?

Wider

There is a wider worry vocalised by Against League 3 that there is a covert agenda in place to bring Premier League B-Teams to the Football League in the same way that Real Madrid Castilla or FC Bayern Munich II.

The suggestion is that including Premier League u23 teams in the Football League Trophy is the first step towards such teams being allowed in the Football League. I would suggest that the first step has happened and that it has happened slowly to a point where as supporters we have got used to – even celebrate – our clubs being used as training grounds for a selected few from the Premier League Academies.

If we are against the Football League Trophy for including Premier League u23 teams are we not also forced to at least question if we should be against the same players being dropped into Football League clubs?


Note, I was not happy with the first version of this article so I made a few changes.

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

The Team

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

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

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

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

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

The Phil Parkinson era

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

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

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

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

The best from the worst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did John Iley do about that problem?

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

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

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

The Iley way

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Team

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

Constructionism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reductionism

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of course this assumes one is not entertained already.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The obvious quality of Phil Parkinson and how he could be the decisive factor in 2015/16 Promotion

The season starts and one thing is obvious: Bradford City will be promoted.

That is obvious. It is obvious because I’ve read it in FourFourTwo and it is obvious because Bradford City beat Champions Chelsea last season and that must mean that Bradford City can win League One.

It is obvious because City have brought in some real quality in the form of Paul Anderson and Mark Marshy Marshall, and while seeing Andrew Davies go is hard seeing Mark Yeates and Andy Halliday go is not.

And it is obvious because City finished a place off the play offs last season, and every season Phil Parkinson has improved Bradford City’s league finish, and as we all know no one ever gets in the play offs and does not win.

It is obvious and because of that it is a thought that has passed the mind of even the most negative Bradford City supporter.

No matter how many layers of cynicism a person might surround themselves with one cannot escape that feeling on a sunning Tuesday morning that this year is the year that City return to the top two divisions for the first time since May 2004.

But wait…

A Barnsley website who had, one assumed, lost Jason McKeown’s email address asked me to preview the coming season. They asked what my realistic view on the Bradford City season was. I chewed my pen (metaphorically speaking) and considered beating Arsenal, beating Aston Villa, late serge and beating Burton, Wembley again, beating Chelsea, getting to Wembley for a major Cup Final.

It struck me that at Valley Parade of late realism is in short supply.

And perhaps in that context it is excusable if all of us go on a little fantasy safari when considering the prospects for the season that starts at Swindon on Saturday.

The counter to those thoughts are the huge gulf that was obvious between Bradford City and Bristol City in the mauling of last season and the general lack of character in the team around that time. Reality comes in wondering if the Bantams have a Marlon Pack/Luke Freeman pairing as Bristol City had or a back line as strong as the one that took Preston North End up? Or a 25 goals a year striker?

At that point obvious stops being the operative word.

The multi-polar world

The temptation is, of course, to take the team one follows in isolation and to consider that if your team has done well in recruitment, or preparation, then it will improve in absolute terms in League One. League structures are always relative.

You can be better than last year (or worse) but your position will on the whole be decided by the strength of the other teams in the League. Was the Benito Carbone team in the second year of the Premier League worse than the one which finished 17th the year before?

It certainly was at the end of the season but after the other win over Chelsea in August 2000 was the team worse or was the problem that there were no Watford, Wednesday and a woeful Wimbledon dropping like a stone to finish beneath them?

Football is a multi-polar world. Your league achievements are necessarily measured against the other teams around you. It might be obvious that City have improved (or not) but have they improved more than the teams around them in League One?

Looking at the teams in League One this season first day opposition Swindon Town lost in the play off final last season which normally denotes a challenger but they seem to have lost a lot of players and are blooding a new team.

Relegated clubs can be strong but few will fear Millwall considering how easily the were brushed aside eight months ago at Valley Parade. Wigan Athletic have a lot to do to end a losing mentality which has come into the club since it got to an FA Cup final three years ago. As for Blackpool it is very possible they will carry on where they left off last season and finish bottom.

The likes of Peterborough United, Doncaster Rovers, and Barnsley would all argue that they have as much of a right to be considered promotion contenders as anyone. Scunthorpe United, Bury and Fleetwood Town have spent money to get where they are but not Bristol City levels of money and even if they had sometimes when you spend money you get Aaron McLean.

I have a belief that Burton Albion are worth considering as having an interest in the play off places. They are a club that seem able to transcend managerial changes and maintain steady progress. Coventry City have potential and in Tony Mowbray they have a pragmatic manager.

All of which leaves Sheffield United as being everyone’s favourite for promotion. They reach semi-finals, they bubble under in League One, they have a strong fan base and get great noisy crowds. They seem to have everything that a club that is trying to get out of League One wants.

Except for the manager.

They have their second choice as manager.

Nigel Atkins manages Sheffield United now but they wanted to take Phil Parkinson to South Yorkshire. It seems that the Blades boardroom came to the same conclusion that echoes around the City manager.

Parkinson: Special One

If all league football is relative then perhaps management is absolute.

Perhaps a manager who improves a team always improves a team. Perhaps when Parkinson is given the chance to manage – a chance Hull City did not give him in his brief time at that club but did at Colchester United – he will always improve a club as he has Bradford City.

It is hard to draw a conclusion but Parkinson’s admirers are many and growing with every achievement.

From the outside when looking at the twenty four teams lining up in League One some teams have spent more, and some teams have more season ticket holders than others, but no team has a better manager in a better position to manage his club than Phil Parkinson at Bradford City.

Parkinson has carved a space out for himself. He arrived at a club where Mark Lawn was accusing the players of not passing to a prospective signing, that had had a manager who (reportedly) felt bullied out of the club, and where the dysfunctions at the club had become endemic.

The success Parkinson earned on the field gave him the scope to create the role he wants off it. Parkinson is as powerful a manager as Bradford City have had but still had challenges to his role. One could worry about how success would be maintained should he exit if one wanted but more important would be ensuring that he is allowed to do his job and shapes the club around that.

We are, perhaps, lucky that the Sheffield United approach and the moment Parkinson had to bend the knee to the boardroom were separated by six months. Imagine starting this season without Parkinson. Where would thoughts of promotion be then?

When looking at which teams will be promoted what is most often the decisive factor? It is not in the quality of players but rather the quality of manager. The thing that unites the clubs that went up was that they had experienced managers who are spoken of in terms of their quality.

What Steve Cotterill, Karl Robinson and Simon Grayson offered last season is the thing that Phil Parkinson offers this. Likewise when José Mourinho got over his defeat at City by winning the Premier League it was – we are told – because he was the best manager. Success – the theory goes – goes to the best manager.

That, at least, is obvious.

Macclesfield Town game off

City’s trip to Macclesfield Town has been called off owing to a waterlogged pitch which is captured by this photograph from Shane Duff who tweeted “Can’t believe they made us travel. Back to Bradford for training.”

The Moss Rose Ground has been subject to heavy rain over night which has left the pitch unplayable.

Silkmen chairman Mike Rance hit a disappointed note saying

We’ve been pumping water from the corners for the best part of two hours, but the water levels are so high that is was always going to be a losing battle. I understand Bury and Altrincham are also off and such has been the downpour I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more matches get called off.

Should Barnet win at Northampton and Stockport win at Torquay then Macclesfield would drop into the bottom two with Burton Albion – due to play Bury – put at the bottom of the division having played eight fewer games than Stockport. That is 17% of the season – including a game at City – which Burton have to play.

City will drop below either Lincoln City or Hereford United depending on the result of the game between those teams who play today but no further leaving the Bantams 19th going into next week’s home game with Peter Taylor’s former club Wycombe Wanderers.

The two Hendries

When John Hendrie left Bradford City in the summer of 1988 he demanded the club pay a loyalty bonus to him as a part of the transfer. Hendrie – it seems – was to be paid for every season he stayed at the club before his exit to Newcastle United for £500,000 and City had to make the payment.

Lee Hendrie left the club on the first of January with the club and the player incapable of making a deal which is normally football talk for the fact that a player wanted – or had been offered elsewhere – more money. Lee Hendrie – the captain a month ago – exits and good luck to him.

The two Hendries provide an interesting contrast. The former showing the days when footballs economics were tipped towards the clubs allowing them to keep a player even when out of contract and the latter highlighting the wandering nature of the post-Bosman rule player. The John Hendrie payment is a quirk of a club trying to keep a player happy rather than keep him under contract, the latter shows how Mark Lawn and Bradford City are sensilbly not willing to try offer the sweetest deal to anyone who frowns.

Much is talked about how City – with Peter Taylor on a one year contract – favour short term thinking but it is worth considering that when players like Hendrie arrive and stay for but three months that the game itself is tipped towards the short term, and while some may think that the club could break that way of thinking, what they are doing is in keeping with the environment.

So Lee Hendrie follows Zesh Rehman out of the club and along with him is Louis Moult. One wonders what Peter Taylor will do with the additional budget. In May 2011 it will be thirty years since my first visit to Valley Parade and perhaps I’m getting long in the tooth with my belief that supporters prefer the players of today to be around next season (or even next month) but the modern football attitude features the phrase “get rid of him” about players so very often that one suspects that the short term contract is most often used for a club to dump a player than the other way around.

City face a Bury team who once again are pushing for promotion under Alan Knill and sit fifth in League Two having just dropped out of the automatic promotion places following a 2-2 draw with Macclesfield Town. The Shakers last win was on 23rd November 2010 when they won away at Lincoln City.

Gareth Evans enjoyed his trip to Lincoln two days ago with a fine strike and a fine performance and he is the player in form looking set to partner James Hanson up front although increasingly predicting Peter Taylor’s mind is an inaccurate science. Jason Price and Omar Daley could also feature – especially if Taylor favours a 433.

Tommy Doherty will look to come back into the midfield although Lee Bullock’s recall may see him keep his place. David Syers seems to feature in Taylor’s teams more often than not and Luke O’Brien’s move to the left side of midfield often bare fruits with Robbie Threlfall back at the back along with centreback pairing Steve Williams and Shane Duff. Richard Eckersley will be right back and Lenny Pidgeley in goal, probably.

How Peter Taylor turned around Bradford City’s season

The contrast could not have been greater. A month to the day since Bradford City departed the field to yet more angry boos in the wake of a dispiriting home loss to Morecambe, jubilant scenes greeted the final whistle at Gigg Lane as the Bantams recorded a fourth win from five. The immediate future looked bleak on October 2, now it appears hugely exciting.

Midway through the second half at Bury, a massive argument between the two benches over a strong home challenge prompted a boisterous chorus of ‘Peter Taylor’s Bradford Army’ from the large travelling support. Compare that to the scenes at full time against Morecambe – part of which were captured live on the excellent Bantams Banter podcast that week, where in the words of Tom or Dom: “Taylor’s being booed, he’s just walked onto the pitch and is being absolutely annihilated.” – and for the City manager to still be employed is an achievement in itself.

After the Morecambe loss City had slumped to 23rd – or a ranking of 91st out of 92 professional teams who play in England. It was a new low point of a 10-year slump which has featured numerous “it can’t get any worse than this” moments. But 31 days later the Bantams have climbed to 10th position – a remarkable recovery after it had appeared the only way we’d be exiting League Two would be via the relegation trapdoor.

And for that Taylor deserves a huge amount of credit. In the wake of the Morecambe loss, tabloid speculation took hold that he had to win the next game or would be dismissed. Taylor and City pulled back from the brink, winning 2-0 at Barnet in a thrilling manner. But even then it seemed Taylor’s future remained right on the knife edge and, as Cheltenham took an early lead at Valley Parade the following Saturday, the end appeared close.

City recovered to win while producing their finest display of the season so far; and though a 3-0 setback at Burton once again raised question marks, victories over Oxford and Bury have firmly pushed away the pressure of the sack. Now to keep going.

Above all else the turnaround has been achieved by placing a greater emphasis on the quality Taylor has available. The less-than-inspiring end of September/early October, which featured defender Luke Oliver up front and seven hours without a goal, saw City play some quite dreadful long ball football. It was back-to-basics, desperate tactics seemingly aimed at grinding out results. It was also horrendous to watch.

At Barnet Taylor went back to 4-4-2 and employed Tom Adeyemi alongside Tommy Doherty, to provide the cultured midfielder with greater support – and City struck two quality goals in the second half to win the game.

Doherty’s early games were relative quiet and unassuming, with the summer signing attracting the kind of criticism gifted players like Nicky Summerbee and Gareth Whalley received for their shortcomings. He looked quality from day one, but struggled to get team mates on the same wavelength and to make the sort of clever off-the-ball running he has the ability to ping a pass to.

In recent weeks it has been a privilege to watch someone of such talent making a big impression, and his performances against Cheltenham and Oxford have drawn comparisons to Whalley. I feel we are very lucky to have such a superb player for this level; he is pivotal to Taylor’s side.

Now that he has settled in and built up fitness, Lee Hendrie is also making a huge difference to City. He scored the crucial second goal against Cheltenham in what was his best all-round performance for City. Hendrie clearly has a clever football brain and the vision to spot things others don’t see. Here until January at least, with each excellent performance the likelihood of another team coming in is growing.

But for now he is not only helping Doherty increase his influence, but setting a superb example to others in helping Taylor evolve the team’s shape. Hendrie is not an out-and-out winger, but a wide midfielder able to tuck inside and help central team mates. His good habits appear to have been taken on board by Leon Osborne, who is growing into his right midfield role, and the shape of the team looks more solid, particuarly when City don’t have the ball.

The third creative player who’s authority has grown is Omar Daley. Deployed up front alongside James Hanson or Jason Price, Daley has revelled in the trust his manager has placed in him and is causing all kinds of problems in a free role. He regularly pops up all over the final third of the park, and this is proving difficult for defenders to pick up.

Balancing out this trio’s flair is the ball winning and athleticism of David Syers or Tom Adeyemi, who carry greater defensive responsibilities. Syers has looked strong going forwards in games, but Taylor is clearly looking for more positional discipline and the more withdrawn style he displayed at Gigg Lane on Tuesday is likely to be more the norm than the attacking midfielder who has already scored four times this season.

With the defence continued to look solid, in keeping with the start to the season where goals against wasn’t a huge problem, City are looking tougher to beat and capable of scoring regularly – particuarly with full backs encouraged to carry the ball forwards. The balance has been achieved, enabling the flair we were beginning to fear would never be a feature of Taylor’s management to become the telling factor.

So City march on; and though there is no guarantee the upturn inform will continue, the manner of recent displays suggests Taylor has found most of the answers to the strong questions been asked of him a few weeks ago, and that he can continue building from here.

Now who thought that would be the case a month ago?

Taylor enjoys the freedom of pragmatism

The Team

Lenny Pidgley | Zesh Rehman, Luke Oliver, Steve Williams, Luke O'Brien | Tom Adeyemi, Tommy Doherty, David Syers, Leon Osborne | Omar Daley, Jason Price | Hanson (for Daley), Bullock (for Doherty)

As decelerations of intent go, this was as loud as Bradford City have screamed all season. Recent victories over Barnet, Cheltenham and Oxford may have defused an alarming start to the season, but to triumph in the backyard of one of the early promotion front runners suggests the Bantams’ prospects for the campaign may be more in line with those heady pre-season expectations.

Bury came into tonight’s clash having won seven and drawn one of their last eight games – they hadn’t been beaten at Gigg Lane since an opening day 1-0 reverse to 2nd place Port Vale. Extreme downpours, which had the game in doubt even past kick off, left a soggy pitch not conducive to the passing brand of attacking football which is winning the Shakers’ rave reviews. But this was still some result for City.

Omar Daley’s 30th-minute spot kick ultimately won the contest – the Jamaican getting the opportunity from 12 yards which he’d been denied on Saturday when chasing a hat trick, as designated penalty taker Lee Hendrie, injured tonight, had been unwilling to step aside – after his superb run and through ball to strike partner Jason Price was illegally stopped by home keeper Owain Fon Williams. But this game was less won through individual brilliance, more collective endeavour.

Manager Peter Taylor had spoken pre-match of taking a more conservative approach, and while attacking intent remained the team was deployed deeper and the onus was on Bury to attempt to break them down. David Syers, brought in to replace Hendrie with Tom Adeyemi switched out wide, performed a central role that looked less sparkling than his previous thrusting style, but where he was simply sensational and the key man all evening in protecting the back four.

Syers’ return allowed Daley and Price to remain up the park and the willing runners of Leon Osborne and Adeyemi were encouraged to get forward when either forward had the ball. As such, the game plan of frustrating the visitors while posing questions on the counter attack was executed beautifully.

The quality that is evident in City’s ranks has truly emerged in recent weeks, and though this evening flair was reined back Tommy Doherty was again masterful in setting the tempo and spraying the ball around intelligently. Daley continued where he left off on Saturday in causing havoc. The theory with Daley is that his inconsistency sees him go missing on wet nights like this, but instead perhaps it’s worth contemplating whether previous tentativeness was in fact lack of confidence. Omar clearly looks a far more committed and happy player than the guy who missed sitters at Burton and in the first half on Saturday.

With Price enjoying easily his most productive game to date since signing on loan, City were a handful in the small bursts where they attacked. And while Bury can argue they were unfortunate to go in at half time 1-0 down having enjoyed 66% of the possession, the scars leftover from when City played them off the same park last January, only to lose to a penalty that never was, left sympathy in short supply.

The second half saw strong spells of Bury pressure; but other than Ryan Lowe’s shot that hit the post, a scramble off the line and a Lenny Pidgley save in the final minute, the prospects of that pressure leading to an equaliser seemed unlikely. This was largely down to a superb performance from the back five. Luke Oliver – so often maligned by supporters, including those of his former clubs, for his ungainly style – was outstanding and produced his best performance in a City shirt. Time and time again balls into the box met his head and were diverted out of harm’s way.

Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien continued their consistent form while Taylor would be wise to call off any search for an on-loan right back, such is the impressive manner Zesh Rehman has grown into the role. He may not be as effective as O’Brien when going forward, but Rehman’s positioning and reading of the game has come on in leaps and bounds from the panicky, dive-in-first-think-later form he was displaying for a great deal of last season.

The minutes ticked by ever slower. James Hanson replaced Daley, and within seconds embarked on a superb solo run and fired a sizzling long range effort which Williams did well to tip over. With Price also missing an easy headed chance back at 0-0, it can be argued City created the evening’s best chances even if they otherwise had to defend for long periods.

But best of all on nights like this was the incredible backing from us supporters. Bury’s sizeable away end was packed with City fans and the roof acoustics are favourable for creating a right old din. The chanting was kept up most of the evening, and in the second half every tackle and clearance from a City player was greeted by huge roars of encouragement. A major contrast to the emptiness of the three home stands, where vacant seats in two at least easily outnumbered those with bums on. A reminder, if it were needed, of what a huge club City are at this level.

Huge or otherwise though, it’s what’s on the field that counts; and as depressing as the dreadful start to the season was to go through it seems to have generated a spirit of togetherness between supporters and players that, frankly, has been lacking in recent years. Perhaps things got so bad that perspective and reason finally had to change. It’s no use believing we’re too big a club to be in League Two, if those expectations are too much for our League Two players to live up to.

Whatever the reason, the players and management are currently receiving vociferously-positive backing before they’ve done anything to deserve it, and such a revisionism seems to be allowing the pragmatic style of Taylor to flourish. Tonight City played like a team which knew it was probably the weaker side but which could triumph by accepting and dealing with such a truism, rather than acting like ‘big club Bradford’.

Like a number of visiting sides to Valley Parade in recent years City kept men behind the ball, made sure they controlled the tempo and that it was a tempo too slow for the home side to profit from. And unlike in recent times where pressure from fans meant this wasn’t possible – because we “should be beating little teams like Bury” – we supporters got behind them for doing it. This was like City at Sunderland in the first Premier League season; and just like that season deploying this strategy at the right times can help us to achieve our objectives.

Quite what is possible for this season now is unclear. City are three points off the play offs and eight from still third-placed Bury. Perhaps most symbolically of all, the league table now shows us as a respectable 10th. The corner seems to have been turned, and we have all played our part in making that happen.

James Hanson wins red card appeal

Bradford City have been successful in appealing James Hanson’s red card against Oxford United on Saturday – meaning last season’s top scorer is free to continue up front for the Bantams’ trip to Bury this evening.

Hanson will also be available for the 1st round FA Cup clash at Colchester on Saturday – where due to restrictions with loan players Peter Taylor is set to be without Jason Price and Louis Moult, meaning Luke Oliver might have returned to makeshift striker – and the Wycombe league clash a week after.

It’s been a stop-start campaign for Hanson to date – he missed the month of September through injury – and a further absence would have been badly timed for the former Co-op man, who set himself a 20-goal target at the start of the season.

Hanson has two goals to date. Thanks to the FA’s actions, everyone of a claret and amber persuasion will hope he can now add to that tally tonight.

The optimist and Omar Daley

If you are the type of supporter who rarely views games away from Valley Parade – and with 11,000 at home and about a tenth of that number following City away that includes a great many of us – then the next time you see Bradford City they will have played three games and shaped much of the season.

City take on Bury at Gigg Lane on Tuesday night and on Saturday week Peter Taylor takes his team back to former club Wycombe Wanderers and sandwiched between is an FA Cup first round game at Colchester United and do so having won three of the last four games.

Rollocking good wins over Oxford United and Cheltenham as well as a ground out display at Barnet have seen Taylor’s City team turn around. Those nine points – were they not firmly ensconced in “the bag” – would have seen City at the foot of League Two and probably the manager out of a job. Oxford United’s supporters insistence that Taylor would be “sacked in the morning” seemed a little wide of the mark five goals later.

Indeed five games after the 1-0 Morecambe Taylor – should he get a result against Bury and other results go the way he would want – then the Bantams would be tickling the play offs.

Not only that but wrapping five past Oxford – and beating Cheltenham – could hardly have been more enjoyable. Taylor side have – on occasion – played entertaining and winning football.

This balance of enjoyable and winning is especially relevant agianst Alan Knill’s Bury side. Last season City faced Bury twice in the space of a month and twice Bury manager Knill stated after the game that his team was outplayed and twice saw his team victorious the second time being in Stuart McCall’s final game as manager.

Those performances typified the end of McCall’s time at the club and formed much of the problems that Taylor had at the start of this season. McCall’s City played well but got beaten, Taylor’s side just got beaten but as things turn around for the current City manager he must hope to not suffer the same outrageous fortune as was suffered at Gigg Lane last year. Now City have slipped into a knack of out playing the odd team it is enjoyable that that is being reflected in the result.

(As a note about mentioning of Stuart McCall in this and other context. I grow tired of hearing and pretending that one of the most significant figure in the last few decades has no significance. If you don’t like mentions of Stuart McCall when that significance is called upon on this site – or if you want those mentions to be aggressive – then please feel free to take a number, stand in line, and kiss my arse.)

Enjoyable being a key word for Saturday’s win. The joy painted over the faces of the players as they roared into Oxford was marked and one can not help but wonder if the likes of Omar Daley and Lee Hendrie might have wondered when in treatment rooms for extended stays that those days would ever come again. Daley’s celebrations earned him a booking but few would deny a player who has suffered so much his moment in the sun.

Few I say but some would. As a player Daley is frustrating for sure but the level of criticism that pours forth to him would suggest he is something other than the player capable of winning games as he did on Saturday.

They key – perhaps – to understanding the Daley game is the oft said idea that he takes the wrong option which often means he takes an option which does not come to fruition (not always the same thing) and there in is the frustration of the man. Arriving four years ago Daley was rightly accused of laziness – his woeful defending coast City dear against Leyton Orient – but in the years which have passed his development has been noted.

Yes, he takes wrong options but he is brave enough to make a decision, to take an option, and that speaks to his character and his improvement. Football is full of players who will take your money and try make sure they never look too bad and as a result never do anything that good – j’accuse Andrew Taylor – but Daley risks standing out for the wrong reasons in order that he might at times stand out for the right ones.

His enjoyment on Saturday was shared by all who had bitten the tongue when frustrated by his running in the wrong direction who did not lambaste him but just hoped that next time would be another of those times, and it was.

Lenny Pidgeley is expected to make a second start for the Bantams after a good debut and the back four of Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams who was peerless on Saturday, Luke Oliver and Luke O’Brien will continue in front of him.

Tom Adeyemi was something of a passenger in the first half against Oxford and David Syers’ hammer finish from the bench suggested the one over the other. My call would be Syers to play alongside Tommy Doherty but when you are in the position that Taylor seems to be taking City into one does it by managing players and whatever he is doing with Syers is clearly working.

Lee Hendrie and Leon Osborne play on the flanks in what is this writer’s favourite type of midfield. Four men with one fast and wide and one tighter and more on the flanks. It is the same balance of a midfield as Jamie Lawrence, Stuart McCall, Gareth Whalley and Peter Beagrie.

Up front City wait for a call from the FA to find out if James Hanson will be suspended following his red card on Saturday which City have appealed and Jason Price stands by to start in his place. Omar Daley is alongside, finding his niche.

So three games on the road begin and an optimist would say that City will be back at Valley Parade with 23 points, a place in the second round of the FA Cup and a triplet of great performances that got great results. That optimist probably never grumbles at Daley either, probably enjoyed Saturday more than most too.

Who is the best side you’ve seen at Valley Parade this season and who deserves promotion?

Notts County and Rochdale were both promoted over the week and with the former having blasted five past City on the first day and Rochdale impressing at Valley Parade few City fans would say that either does does not deserve promotion but with League Two offering three automatic promotion spots one wonders who deserves to be in League One next season and so The Barry Articles asks…

“County and Dale aside – who is the best side you’ve seen at Valley Parade this season and who deserves promotion?”

Jason Mckeown City Gent & BfB Writer

I’m not one of those people who endlessly bang on about how League Two is a poor division. Of course it is short on quality compared to the upper echelons of English football, but personally I still enjoy lower league football. There’s a fantastic competitive nature to every fixture and no team gives you an easy ride. It’s a scrap, which can get ugly at times, but it’s an enjoyable scrap.

That said, apart from Notts County and Rochdale I’ve not been impressed by any visitors to Valley Parade this season. Rotherham arguably stand out for their over-physical approach that so often teams at the top earn success from, think back to the MK Dons two years ago. However their 4-2 December success on our turf was aided greatly by referee Lee Probert. Burton and Crewe looked good sides on the day, but aren’t in the promotion shake up. Port Vale impressed in the Valley Parade JPT encounter if not the league game, Bournemouth were solid if unspectacular and Dagenham brilliant for the last half an hour of the recent 3-3 draw.

From the away games I’ve attended, it’s been a similar story of teams looking decent but not amazing. Notts Forest in the League Cup tie were terrific, I do hope they go up into the Premier League.

In terms of who deserves to be promoted with County and Dale, Bournemouth are certainly good value for third. Eddie Howe is clearly an outstanding manager who deserves to go far. The race for the play offs is too close to call, and my preferences for who goes up from and who comes down to our league is always centred on having more nearby northern teams, for easier away travel, the following season. This year I also want everyone who cheated us in league games to get their just desserts and slip up; so I guess overall I’d like to see Aldershot promoted on the basis they’ve not upset me and it’s a bloomin’ long journey to their ground – with Rotherham, Bury, Morecambe and Shrewsbury enduring miserable failures.

Dave Pendleton Bantamspast Curator & Former City Gent Editor

It’s difficult to judge who deserves to make the final promotion spot. We only get to see most teams in the flesh once at VP – and some twice if we go away. Bournemouth look fairly safe in third place and, given their travails, one hopes they cling on for promotion. Directly behind them are Rotherham. I did wonder whether this entire question was another excuse to have a laugh at Rotherham’s expense? Something I’m only too happy to do.

Our old friend Ronnie Moore, someone we love to hate ever since he City should be thrown out of the League for going into administration. Of course, since then his beloved Rotherham went into administration and lost their ground. I should feel for the Millers given their predicament, but the season after a points deduction they suddenly have cash to throw about, whereas many clubs who suffer administration take years to recover. They might have got lucky, or there might be a hint of a downmarket Leicester or Leeds about them – I often wonder what Julian Rhodes makes of these scenarios.

The other contenders are former FA Cup winners Bury, Aldershot, Dagenham & Redbridge and Chesterfield. We are more in the territory of play off winners here. I’d like to see Aldershot do well, as a reformed club they were in the equivalent of the Northern Premier when we were in the Premier League, now they are poised to pass us. That probably says more about Bradford City than it does Aldershot Town, but good luck to the Shots, I hope they do it. Chesterfield were, last time I checked, still owned by their supporters, so again, I tip my moral hat to them. In truth though, I’m more likely to support southern teams in the play-off race, simply to save on travel costs next season. Good luck to all involved, just wish it was us sweating on the final games.

Michael Wood BfB Editor

Many of the things that I’d like to see Bradford City follow have been forced on AFC Bournemouth and manager Eddie Howe who has taken the curses forced on the club by administration and money issues – however deserved they may be – and made them into boons.

Howe’s side are hardly allowed to sign players but they use that to make a tight squad. They cannot bring in a senior professional to replace the experience of Steve Fletcher so they ask him to stay and are rewarded with a good few goals and a good head. They are forced to blood young players like Joshua McQuoid, Danny Hollands and Brett Pitman who have grown into a very capable bunch.

It goes without saying that in this situation they have been cherished the stability they could. Manager Eddie Howe has been at the club since 1994 – save an unsuccessful sojourn to Portsmouth from which he returned smartly. Things have had to stay the same – and in staying the same they have improved.

The triumph of Howe and The Cherries this year is not to be the best team in the division but to be the best team they could be – so much more than the sum of the parts – and a stark contrast in a league which has seen teams like Shrewsbury, Bradford City and even considering they paid Sol Campbell £400,000 while struggling in mid-table Notts County spend big and achieve little.

The saddest of endings

Stuart McCall’s farewell lap around Valley Parade applauding supporters was a heartbreaking sight – but it was also a beautiful moment.

His actions at the end of the 1-0 defeat to Bury said everything that is fantastic about the City legend. He knew the game was up and that, whether on Monday it will be announced he has resigned, left by mutual consent or been given the sack, it was no longer up to him whether he could stay. But there was no quick retreat down the touchline; he showed typical courage and respect in going out to applaud his supporters.

And the reaction back was equally fitting. Sure there’d be typical murmurings of discontent about McCall during the match and many had exited the stadium before the final whistle, but this was a time for  putting aside misgivings and showing appreciation for the man, the legend, who will ultimately always retain the respect and adulation of City fans.

It was the saddest of farewells, handled with the greatest of dignity.

There’s been a fear among many of those fans who’d been demanding a change that, if action wasn’t taken swiftly, McCall might be subject of the sort of unpleasant abuse other managers have received in the past. No one wanted it end ugly, and it sums up the bond between McCall and supporters that the parting of ways is as amicable as can be. I was close to tears as I applauded McCall’s farewell lap, and I have so much respect to him for taking the time to do it.

Once the farewell had been competed, Bury manager Alan Knill walked over to McCall and hugged him. He was humble in victory, as is easier to be, admitting that, just like at Gigg Lane a fortnight earlier, the Bantams were unfortunate to lose. Undoubtedly City, who hurled everything including the kitchen sink at the visitors during the closing stages, deserved to take something from the game.

Yet I don’t agree that City – and McCall – had been unlucky to lose this time. I was disappointed with McCall’s formation and tactics. And though I wanted him to remain as manager, there is something troubling about the evidence presented in front of us over the lack of progress this season.

Even before kick off, City seemed to have a whiff of desperation about their approach. Playing 4-3-3 is not new this season – the merits or otherwise having been debated on this site only a day earlier – but 4-3-3 with James Hanson, Gareth Evans AND Michael Boulding? Three up front worked earlier in the season due to those employed to take the two wide slots of the front three – Evans and Neilson – been able to play out wide. But Boulding and Hanson are largely better through the middle and leaving Omar Daley in the middle three meant the balance to the team wasn’t right and the style of football suffered.

It reminded me of then-Shrewsbury manager Gary Peter two years ago, realising the season wasn’t going to plan – and therefore his own future was in doubt – and just deciding to “go for it” every match. He picked a team at Valley Parade full of attacking intent, but City tore into them with two of the four goals coming on the counter attack. Peters was shortly afterwards sacked.

Playing 4-3-3 like City did yesterday suggested a lack of confidence in the players. Even in a must-win game, McCall and City needed to show patience and have a greater game plan than just going for it. It was a contrast to the visit of Bury last season, where a more measured and composed approach eventually brought a late Bantams winner.

At the back at least, recent defensive problems were partly addressed with Simon Ramsden moving from right back to centre back alongside Matt Clarke – and the pair put in as outstanding and assured defensive displays since David Wetherall and Damion Stewart dominated at the back in 2006. Luke O’Brien had a tough afternoon, but characteristically stuck to the task.

However the decision to play Zesh Rehman  at right back was curious and ultimately flawed. Zesh is a good player, but has not had a good season and there’s frustration and even unfair suspicion over why McCall is seemingly unwilling to leave him out. At right back, Rehman kept losing his man and unnecessarily diving in for challenges when he just needed to stand up and block the path to goal – often leaving him on the floor and out the game, while the winger charged on.

Rehman played at right back towards the end of last season with limited success, but that was due to some disappointing performances from Paul Arnison. As well as Ramsden, City have the able Jonathan Bateson as a natural right back who gets forward well, and he should have been included instead.

City nevertheless competed well and were unlucky to go behind, but then the desperation was too strong again. On a difficult pitch and with Hanson competing well, playing a more direct style of football had been tolerated if not approved. Yet with 25 minutes to play Daley was withdrawn for Peter Thorne, and we had the sight of four City strikers and just two midfielders. As intentions go it was clear there would be no passing and running down the flanks, but that the back four would simply be charged with launching it forwards.

This long ball football would be understandable with 10 minutes to go, but with over a quarter of the game still to play it was premature panic. Thorne added a much needed touch of class up front and his link up play saw the ball begin to stick in the final third, but for a period it seemed as though the players had lost heart, couldn’t find a way back and were at a loss of what to do next. Heavy pressure belatedly commenced in the final stages, but the team set up suggested the manager didn’t believe his players could come back by playing football.

It was perhaps the ultimate of ironies. That a manager who made his name as a player for his combative and inspirational skills in the middle of the park, had resorted to abandoning having a midfield in order to save his job.

And yes the argument goes that on chances, possession and territorial advantage, City did not deserve to lose. There’s an argument that the referee should have awarded a penalty and sent Bury’s Afe Sodje off. There’s an argument Bury didn’t look anything special. But ultimately the difference between the sides was the composure and organisation of the visitors and the fluster and anxiousness of City.

I don’t believe this is typical of McCall’s reign, but perhaps why we’re now saying goodbye to the City manager is because it is typical of McCall’s reign when things are going wrong. In his first season there was the autumn collapse of form that saw eight winless games and promotion hopes up in smoke. Last season the collapse came at the end of the season, lasting nine games, and this season’s recent run of poor form since December has been strikingly familiar.

At these difficult points we see too much indecision in the team selection and tactics. We see what initially seems a couple of set backs become a crisis of confidence. We see a slow and stuttered speed to the recovery. We see a manager trying to put a brave face on matters, but taking the setbacks too much to heart instead of instilling confidence into others. We see a football club quickly dropping down the league table.

Ultimately, as Stuart has acknowledged repeatedly in recent weeks, it’s a results business. No matter how much we supporters want him to be a success, the results simply haven’t been there. It is incredibly disappointing that it has come to this and it will take some time for many of us to fully recover and be enthused with City and football again, but if there’s a consolation it is that it has ended more painlessly than it might have.

Indeed the tone of McCall when speaking on the radio after the defeat was almost that of a relieved man. Acknowledging the circumstances of the game been so typical of the season to date, he even allowed himself a chuckle about his own misfortune. He seemed remarkably relaxed – but sad – and perhaps that was because the pressure could now be released off his shoulders. On the BBC One’s Football League Show last night, he even texted in to thank supporters again and to apologise he couldn’t have done a better job.

The special bond he has with the club and supporters remains in tact, and while for many that would always be the case the memories are at least not going to be added to by the sight of ‘McCall out’ chanting and the visible type of abuse which many of his Valley Parade dugout predecessors have endured.  It still sickens me that, after a 1-0 defeat to Doncaster in 2006, then-manager Colin Todd found his car had been attacked by City fans – I can’t imagine how I’d feel if such acts of horror had been inflicted upon McCall.

Nine months before that boxing day incident, I’d written an article for this site about why I didn’t want McCall (or Peter Beagrie) to become our next manager. My reasons were that I feared the souring of the special bond we supporters have with McCall, and that it would end with the usual suspects reigning down the boos.

A year later and, with the club in dire straits, I was prepared to abandon those fears and believe McCall’s installation as manager could have the romantic ending we all felt it would. As he prepares to clear his desk on Monday I feel devastated it was not worked out, I remain unconvinced it is the right move to part ways now, but I’m also happy that is ending relatively agreeably.

The City legend has given so much to this club across four decades, his lap of farewell at Valley Parade yesterday was yet another unforgettable Stuart memory.

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