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

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

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

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.

The long walk

Stuart McCall took a long walk around the Valley Parade for – what is assumed – the final time.

McCall’s time as Bradford City manager would seem to be coming to an end – John Hendrie suggested that should he be asked to stand down he would – with rumours that Mark Lawn has been fighting all season to unseat the man of legend and Julian Rhodes about to give way.

Many times I have watched Stuart McCall applauding Valley Parade. Some players and some managers do that and others do not and perhaps we should not read too much into it but have travelled up and down the country to games much worse than this one and been acknowledged by the little man with strawberry blonde hair I did not stop clapping until McCall was out of sight.

That the Bantams were not out of sight in this game with Bury is a curious mystery but one which could be unravelled. The Bantams had the balance of both possession and chances but Andy Morrell put away the visitors only shot on target and the game was thus settled.

Which has something to do with the Bantams forwards – and there were many on the field today with the end of the match seeing Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding being supported by James Hanson and Gareth Evans – and the way the snapped at chances. As the Bantams attacked Evans slammed a chance wide, snatching at a shot rather than controlling. When the chance to get what would have been an equaliser came to Peter Thorne in the final minute the striker’s head send the ball agonisingly wide.

Agony which was etched onto Stuart McCall.

McCall has switched Simon Ramsden with Zesh Rehman and covertly replaced Matthew Clarke with Rio Ferdinand – or so it seemed as Clarke played perhaps his best game in a City shirt – giving a sturdy back line but not losing Rehman’s physical presence from set plays. Michael Boulding led the line in front of James Hanson and toiled ineffectually all afternoon. Boulding’s optimum times of usefulness are so few and far between.

For an answer on the fish-hooking Boulding received, the yellow cards for single offences by City players while Sodje was allowed to commit umpteen bookable offences, the two footed lunge before half time and on one will have to find an answer elsewhere for I am stumped.

For a reason why Matthew Clarke’s header on the far post allowed to be batted away with the arms of a defender you might want to ask this guy cause again I have no idea.

Nor indeed will McCall. Perhaps as he took the lap of honour to muse on the contrast between that moment and the penalty at Bury which went agianst the Bantams and contrasted the two but I hope he did not.

Boos rang out after the game. Boos for the result one supposes because the performance was worth a win. People walked away from Valley Parade as as they did McCall took what would seem to be his final lap of the pitch.

I hope that Stuart applauded the people who stayed in the same way we applauded him and perhaps he has the same thoughts about the people who leave early booing as I do. For a guy who is five foot eight Stuart McCall is a massive man and can take whatever comes at him from Bradford City.

Next game against Grimsby Town should the team play in the same way then it is almost impossible to see them not winning. Who the manager who benefits from is one can only speculate.

That charming man

If football has a charm – and this week the charmlessness of the game was brought front and centre – then it could be seen in the last seven minutes in Torquay last weekend.

The two close ranged finishes that Gareth Evans scored might have totalled less than five yards in distance but they seemed to make The Bantams feel miles better. If Stuart McCall came ten minutes from the sack then his glass was near empty but now – 20 games from glory – it is to be considered one percent full.

City have twenty games left in the season and sixty points to play for which equates to a good chunk of football to be played between now and the end of the year and the news that Peter Thorne – who is probably playing the last twenty games of career – will be taking part in those could be significant.

Thorne’s late entrance at Torquay did much to turn that game around and his absence this season has been keenly felt across the entire City side. His return give City more options than perhaps any other plater in the squad.

City face Bury at Valley Parade n Saturday – the second game with the in form Shakers in the last month which ended in controversy and a 2-1 reversal – and strikers (which is to say finishers) have been in short supply at the Bantams this year bring a problem which has shaped the season.

Without the finishing of Thorne Stuart McCall has looked to his striking ranks and found two fantastic workers and a player who is great on the counter attack but no fox in t’ box – so to speak – and rather than continue to plug away with two men up front, and considering the manager lost two right wingers from last year, a switch to 433 was made.

The idea being that 433 would address the lack of fire power with additional numbers and sometimes it works but more often – and increasingly of late – it has left the defensive side of the team undermanned. A 433 gives a back four with three midfielders to protect and – if they work insanely hard – two wide strikers to come back when full backs break forward.

In practice this does not occur and often City have been using a 433 and defending with seven men, although they attack with more numbers.

This is a contrast to the 442 which gives the back four, two midfielders and two wide men to cover full backs and allows a team to defend with eight men although they attack with fewer and poise less of a problem.

Peter Thorne addresses that problem if he can start finding the net as he did over the previous two seasons and in allowing a switch to a 442 he plugs the holes at the back.

I’m not in agreement with the idea that the Bantams defence make too many mistakes – although at Lincoln two weeks ago individual and selection errors were plentiful – just that they make the number forced by the weaknesses of defending as a team with seven men. Luke O’Brien – for example – has started to be criticised for his performances this season but often he is forced into defending against an overlapping fullback only with support from a midfielder who is co-occupied with another man.

Detail a wide man to track the full back and allow O’Brien to concentrate on a man. The two central defenders face similar problems with exposure coming most often when the ball is driven in at feet or by a pass not in the column directly between them but from the inner flanks.

This is why 433 is good at winning games but bad at winning promotions. If you match it to the right opposition then 433 can stack a game in one’s favour but in the week-in-week-out of League Two the 442 is most suitable, most often.

My hope is that McCall will return to a 442 with Matt Glennon behind Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien with Scott Neilson, Michael Flynn, Lee Bullock and Omar Daley in the midfield and Gareth Evans and Peter Thorne up front but you, dear reader, will have your own selections.

Stephen O’Leary is hovering around the squad, Michael Boulding has his fans and some believe that Matthew Clarke should be in, others that Chris Brandon needs a place. Of the eleven mentioned James Hanson would be worth a place up front for Evans if fit and I have a preference for a tight three of a midfield which would include James O’Brien and only one flank man but feel McCall would be best served by going for the jugular with a pair of wingers.

I could be wrong, football is a game where wrong is more common than right, but the charm of football is in the things which go unexpectedly right.

Two close range finishes and a hope that springs eternal.

Cheating is cheating is cheating

Jason McKeown’s match report following the game at Bury has once more raised the issue of cheating in sport. Or, to use an expression taken directly from the Laws of the Game, unsporting behaviour.

I watch far too much football. Not only did I see exactly what Jason saw at Gigg Lane, but I also watched quite a lot of football on television over the last weekend, in a sad attempt to make up for the loss of a live match to attend on Saturday.

At Gigg Lane I get one chance in real time from one angle and a distance of thirty metres to make up my mind about whether that was a dive or a penalty. I am also biased in favour of my team. I might get the chance in a day or so’s time to see it again from the point of view of a camera, even further away from the action than I was and with a different, but probably less good, angle.

In the comfort of my own armchair, those fine people at Sky let me see almost instant replays from three different views at two different speeds. They include, as near as they can, the view the ref had of Lucas and Higginbotham coming together at Stoke.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to become a supporter of referees. I’m certainly not about to become a supporter of Lee Mason. I just happen to think that, perhaps more by luck than management, he got this one right, both in the instant and in the wider context. I’d better explain myself before I come back to Gigg Lane.

The Stoke replay showed clearly that Lucas began to go down before there was any contact. There was absolutely no reason for him to begin has fall at that moment, other than the desire to persuade the referee that it was a penalty. Thereafter, Higginbotham committed a foul in the penalty area.

However, as we all know, once a foul (unsporting behaviour) has been committed, the ball is dead and a second foul, although punishable by a booking or sending off, cannot result in a free kick or penalty. If it were otherwise, all those shirt-pulls while waiting for a corner would be fouls.

So, as the replays showed, Lucas committed the first foul, for which Mr Mason quite correctly booked him, and the second ‘foul’ did not result in a penalty, because the first offence took precedence.

OK. OK. So I’m being kind to the ref and I’m being legalistic. But let’s just compare Mr Mason’s decision (right or wrong) with Mr Mathieson’s (right or wrong) at Gigg Lane in the wider context of cheating. (I would have to ask any Bury fan reading this to try to put aside the natural bias towards one’s own team. But, if there is a Bury fan reading this, BfB would welcome a comment on the concept of cheating.)

Cheating is becoming more prevalent. Does anyone want to disagree? I suspect not. Cheating, at least from one’s own team, is close to becoming more acceptable and once again we see the description ‘professionalism’. We used to have the ‘professional foul’, but we all knew it was still a foul. We now have the ‘professional fall’, but it’s still a fall.

Would Lucas have been brought down by Higginbotham if he hadn’t fallen first? Of course he would. If he’d behaved like a man, stood up and taken the tackle, he’d have got the penalty. Would Dawson have been brought down by Glennon if he hadn’t fallen? I doubt it very much. My City eyes saw no contact at all. Even if they deceived me and there was some contact, it was, as they say, minimal and certainly insufficient to bring him down so dramatically.

And therein lies the problem. We now have a generation of professionals who know that any contact at all can get them a free kick. We even talk about players ‘winning’ free kicks and penalties, like they were a prize in a raffle. The whole notion of ‘sporting behaviour’ is secondary to the ‘winning mentality’. (I apologise to Paulo Di Canio, who should forever be remembered for catching the ball when the opposition keeper was down injured.)

And ‘being down injured’ brings me to another aspect of cheating and refereeing. At Gigg Lane one of the Bury players clearly pulled at Daley’s shirt (there had to be some advantage in wearing those bright white shirts and clearly seeing them pulled back was about the only one) and then, when the pull failed to stop Daley, went down ‘injured’ and presumably in the hope that the referee would stop the game and the resulting attack. When the referee didn’t stop the game, the player decided he didn’t need treatment after all and performed a miraculous recovery. (I’ve just realised – that was practically a word of praise for the ref!)

And while we’re on shirt-pulling, I can’t resist going back to my hopeless addiction to TV football. When Micah Richards pulled, more than once, at Louis Saha’s shirt on Saturday, the referee’s assistant (and how rarely do they genuinely assist?) flagged for the foul (shirt-pulling still being a foul, I thought, as opposed to the ‘accepted’ practice I’m sure I heard it described as by one former referee) and the resulting penalty. It’s almost worth a small word of praise for Saha that he didn’t throw himself to the ground – almost, but not quite, since that would give non-cheating a status it hardly deserves. Shirt-pulling is just another form of cheating, hoping the referee and his assistants either won’t notice it or won’t do anything about it – because so many don’t.

I don’t want to pay £18 to watch who can cheat better. I could stay warm and dry at home and watch some fake ‘wrestling’ for less. I want a competition between two football teams, to be decided by their relevant footballing skills. I want more Mr Mason’s and fewer Mr Mathieson’s. I want more honest players and fewer cheats. And I want cheats defined in such a way that the word ‘winning’ can no longer sensibly be placed before ‘penalty’. And I want ‘professional’ to mean what it used to mean before the invention of the ‘professional foul’.

Am I asking for too much? If I am, would the authorities tell me, so that I can give up all hope now and decide whether to stop watching or to reconcile myself to watching something horrible and nasty? But if I’m not asking for too much, would the same authorities allow the referees to say ‘I’d have given you that if you hadn’t thrown yourself to the floor’, thereby dealing with the cheats and bringing back something closer to The Beautiful Game?

The emotional freeze

Supporting Bradford City has become miserable, gloomy and demoralising – and this feeling just isn’t going away.

Defeat at Bury this evening means it’s one win, one draw and five defeats since the start of December. We can officially decree that we’re undergoing a disastrous winter – with a run of form to match the Spring of 2008/2009 collapse and the Autumn of 2007/2008 calamity. Thank goodness we don’t play during the Summer. We’re desperate for an end to the despair, for now just the short term fix of three points will do to raise spirits.

But top of the ever-growing list of worries is the long-term effect of this disastrous run.

Tonight’s game followed a well-worn and familiar script. City were far from out-played by in-form opposition and yet again the evidence suggested the gap in quality between the Bantams and the majority of the League Two promotions is minimal. As per usual, City deserved more than they earned. Chances, possession and territorial advantage seem to be areas they win every week. Goals for verus against, a battle won less often.

And just like the last few weeks, it was a refereeing decision which ultimately cost the team. With the score 1-1 and half an hour on the clock, Stephen Dawson had charged into the area with just Matt Glennon to beat. The debut keeper rushed out to reach the ball, but pulled away from making a challenge after Dawson tapped it past him. The Shakers’ midfielder then hurled himself, untouched, to the floor and the referee Scott Mathieson – the man who awarded Rochdale two hotly disputed penalties when City were beaten 3-0 at Spotland last season – pointed to the spot.

It can perhaps be argued that, by initially attempting to make a challenge before pulling out, Glennon invited Dawson to make the tumble and ensured it looked a penalty to Mathieson and his linesman, both a fair distance away. Yet the lack of contact and obvious intent of Dawson to win a spot kick rather than go for goal cannot be considered anything but cheating.

Ryan Lowe converted the penalty and, as he wheeled off in celebration, began shouting towards the livid City fans behind the goal who’d reacted angrily to the penalty decision. It was as though Lowe was upset that supporters could have the temerity to question his team’s honesty. Well Ryan, I had a perfect view of the incident and your mate dived.

That moment was ultimately to prove decisive. Bury had taken the lead when Mike Jones was able to tap the ball home after Glennon had saved an initial effort. City levelled quickly when a scramble in the box lead to Efe Sodje scoring an own goal, and though Bury often threatened a nervous back four, the visitors – forced to play in old Bury white shirts due to a kit clash – gave as good as they got with Chris Brandon and Scott Neilson causing problems out wide.

But the penalty set back momentum and confidence, it wasn’t until the second half that signs of fight from the temporary whites returned. Numerous chances were created, the best a Brandon effort from a tight angle which smacked the outside of the post. Tellingly though, home keeper Wayne Brown was barely tested with efforts on target too straight and often tame.

Omar Daley came on and provided some spark, Rory Boulding was introduced later and looked anonymous. His older brother battled hard but his towering marker Ben Futcher was always going to have the beating of him in the air – how James Hanson was missed. Gareth Evans again disappointed, Simon Ramsden and Michael Flynn had some decent spells on top but at other times were outgunned. The possibility of a deserved equaliser remained up until an uneventful four minutes of stoppage time.

But deep down, you never really believed it would come. The players can put together some good moves, but confidence and composure is draining with each recent setback and it leads to possession too often been surrendered. The spirit and determination to get hold of the ball and charge forward was still there, but somehow it doesn’t quite seem as strong as it once was. Because of all these reasons and more, the Bantams look a team short on quality right now.

But the downbeat mood is not just evident on the pitch, within the away end there was a strange subdued mood to the evening. At times strong vocal support was offered to the players, at others there was an eeire silence and resignation. City supporters are split about the reasons for the season’s nosedive and, specifically, over Stuart McCall, and this seemed to manifest itself into a lack of atmosphere so unlike typically following City on the road.

We’re all just miserable. We can’t agree on what the cause of the latest run of failure is, we certainly can’t agree on the solution. The mood seemed dark, the belief had slipped. Why are we here tonight? Because we want to be, or because we feel we should be? Suddenly watching City is becoming a chore rather than a pleasure.

So at Gigg Lane we sat in muted disunity. We were freezing cold with a ghastly wind further lowering the temperature at regular intervals. We watched our struggling team beaten by opposition which had cheated us to prosper. We’re fed up of this dismal predictability and, with failure such a typical feature over the last 10 years, we’re almost bored.

Of course this can’t go on forever and, when the pain of tonight dies down, those of us who were at Gigg Lane will be able to take comfort from how well the Bantams played in the second half.  City will eventually win again and we’ll all be able to start feeling better.

But the longer this run of poor form goes on, the greater the long-term damage is likely to prove.

The unwelcome winter break draws to a close

In footballing circles the closer you get to the Arctic Circle there is talk of a Winter break which would allow the players a mid-season rest while conditions are too bad to play and supporters would appreciate the chance to stay at home in the warmth.

This last month the Bantams have had something similar, and it has not been enjoyable.

The one game in four weeks has been a shock to the system. An unwelcome cold summer holiday leaving one at a loose end on a Saturday afternoon and – snow covering being what it was – robbing the opportunity to keep snug in the snug of The Fighting Cock.

A week of perpetration, the increasingly heard comment to wives and girlfriends of “I’m looking forward to some football this weekend”, the thought about how and who and where City will play and then, nothing.

So a return to football on a Tuesday night in Bury is timely, the winter break having gone on far too long.

This game was due to be played on Boxing Day but failed owing to the snow. The Shakers used the generally static division to move the leagues resting in sixth after Saturday’s win over AFC Bournemouth.

The Bantams return to action with one addition in the form of Matt Glennon who has been signed on a six month deal following the exit of Simon Eastwood. Lee Clark has spoken highly of Eastwood suggesting he is ready to take over from Alex Smithes should that player leave as he expected to do so although having watched Eastwood for five months it is hard to share his opinion.

At times excellent, at times calamitous Eastwood lacks a steadying influence which was the hallmark of – in my humble opinion – the best goalkeeper City have ever fielded Gary Walsh. Eastwood is an fine athlete but has yards to go to become as good a footballer.

At 31 Glennon has been around the leagues and the hope is that that experience will settle a City back line which has better footballers in it than it gets results. Glennon sits behind full backs Simon Ramsden and Luke O’Brien and central pairing Zesh Rehman and Matthew Clarke who replaces the suspended Steve Williams.

Omar Daley returned to the City squad not match fit a month ago but one can imagine no player in the division is up to speed at the moment following the flurry of cancellations so the winger may get the nod to restarts. Stuart McCall is expected to form a 442 with Daley on the right hand side and James O’Brien on the left around the middle pair of Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn although Stephen O’Leary is expected to be back in contention and should McCall favour a 433 which he seems to be moving away from then he or Chris Brandon may feature.

Should that happen Daley may be pressed into service as one of the two supporting forwards to James Hanson alongside Gareth Evans – who struggled for form before this break – or Michael Boulding.

James Hanson – who it is said is prompting interest from higher up the leagues following his first five months in professional football – is expected to complete the team.

City on the way forward again

City bounced back from their Gigg Lane fiasco with a convincing, but nerve wrecking win over Grimsby Town in this crucial game at Valley Parade on Saturday.

Tuesday night’s heartless display in a promotion six pointer had seen the Bantams slip to 9th position – a couple of points outside the playoff places – which made a win in this home fixture absolutely essential to keep pace with the chasing pack, jostling for automatic promotion and playoff places.

Wholesale changes were made to the starting lineup, with top scorers Thorne and Boulding recalled up front, Law and Furman in centre midfield, with Jones reverting back to his right wing role, and O’Brien welcomed back from illness at left back with Rehman switching to right back.

And the players selected – very much in contrast with Tuesday night – did not disappoint with confidence, effort and excellent play in defence and attack all over the field.

City had numerous first half chances to break the deadlock. Zesh Rehman, on his home debut, was thwarted twice from set pieces by Grimsby keeper Barnes with two excellent saves from powerful headers.

After homing in on goal Omar Daley pulled back an excellent ball to Nicky Law who took a touch to bring him within 10 yards of the goal, and just as it looked like he was certain to score, Barnes excellently kept out his left foot strike. And Steve Jones once again was frustrated in front of goal when his strike hit the outside of the post, as another nail biting afternoon ensued.

A key moment happened on 20 when Thorne flicked on to send Boulding in the clear, but his run was abruptly ended by a rugby tackle from Grimsby defender Atkinson. The referee judged him to be the last defender and swiftly sent off the Mariner’s man.

There was then only one question on everyone’s minds. Would City be able to break the deadlock? and grab 3 points at home, ala Morecambe, or would they be massively frustrated by a side who clearly lacked the City team’s more skilful individual players, ala Chester and Acrrington Stanley.

The answer, thankfully, was that City did manage to get that crucial goal that set them up for three very important points. From the moment that Grimsby went down to 10 men, it was apparent that only one team were in the running to score goals. Town were toothless in attack, even with 11 men, but to give them credit they didn’t just park their team bus in front of their goal – they did try and get the ball down and play.

The second half was another tale of City struggling to break down a dogged defence. Omar Daley flashed a fierce shot just over, and Steve Jones was looking dangerous every time he picked up the ball, but once again his shooting and ability to deliver an end product let him down again. Nevertheless, he was a threat, and did not give up persisting and produced some exciting wing play. One moment saw Jones lay an excellent ball all the way across the line that just needed someone to tap in – but no City player was on hand to read the ball played.

City’s defence looked very secure with Matt Clarke particularly outstanding and Zesh Rehman produced a very promising display. He looks a very good acquisition.

The crucial goal arrived when Boulding layed the ball over to Nicky Law, who drove forward in trademark fashion towards goal, and released a shot that slipped under Barnes to send the Valley Parade crowd wild and put an enormous amount of relief in the air. Barnes had kept out trickier shots, but the power on the shot from the industrious Law beat him.

Funnily enough, despite having literally all the play in the second half, City’s goal triggered Grimsby to apply a small amount of pressure and force 3 corners which were all handled excellently by the defence.

15 shots on target for City told the story of this game, and as Grimsby again tried to sneak a point in the dying seconds, the ball was cleared and City were presented with a 3 on 1 chance.

Joe Colbeck, on as a late substitute, continued his recovery from injury by releasing Jones in the dying seconds who confidently rounded the keeper and tapped in with his left foot to wrap up the points in this important home game.

Too often this season have City been unable to win games at home that they should be winning. Having only lost one game at home all season is admirable, but as admitted afterwards by Stuart McCall, home draws (7) have been too common so far this season and have impeded our chances of pulling away from the teams around us.

And so to Darlington’s visit to Valley Parade on Monday (weather permitting). The Quakers won a big game away at Dagenham today, but that will no doubt have taken its toll physically, not to mention the long trip back from London up north. It would be a good time to play them with confidence high and the Sky cameras ready to take in the action. What better time to prove that we have what it takes to get promoted this season.

An interesting area of debate at this stage of the season is, would you settle for a guaranteed playoff place at this point, but not be allowed to go up automatically? I wouldn’t. I firmly believe we are one of the three best teams in this division if we play to our potential and we should not have to go through and take a chance in the lottery that is the playoffs. Looking at the remaining fixtures, Brentford and Wycombe both have to visit VP over the next few months, which will prove to be crucial games – but surely gaining maximum points against the likes of Macclesfield, Aldershot and Port Vale in games like today against Grimsby are what will determine whether we give ourselves a chance of finishing in the top three. Our away form doesn’t concern me too much at all as we have performed pretty well away from VP ( with the exception of Bury away), its all about the final eight home games for me. Win a high percentage of those instead of costly draws against defensive minded teams and promotion the easy way (automatic) should be assured.

Reboot, Reload, Rebuild? Should McCall take Championship Manager approach?

I’ve bemoaned to all the notion that Championship Manager is a blight on real football but Stuart McCall could do with learning the trick that used to save my seasons when I was a slave to the pixel hot seat.

When I was in a bad run – and that one “win in nine” talk has become McCall’s bad run – I’d be faced with three choices. The first was blindly tinkering with the team throwing in a player there and taking out someone here with the idea that the right combination would come.

This seems to be what Stuart McCall is doing now making ekes and tweaks to the eleven that finished the last game. Barry Conlon’s start on Tuesday recognised the need to win and hold the ball away from home and Steve Jones up next to the target man recognised the need for pace on the break that is so often the route to victory for away sides at Valley Parade.

Big man, little man. Brawn and speed. On paper it works until you look at the paper and realise you have just selected as your best two forwards Barry and a bloke out of Burnley reserves. The team becomes a version of a version of a version of what you started with.

Likewise the midfield becomes contorted around the players who were in it last week rather than the ones who were in it when you were doing well. Nicky Law Jnr or Dean Furman is the question but when City were winning games on a regular basis Lee Bullock and Paul McLaren were in the middle.

Which lead to McCall’s second option – and the one most often favoured after a re-load – which is to click down list of players in the side and pick the team again from scratch evaluating everyone again and ending up with what is your best eleven. In City’s case aside from a couple of options in the midfield this is obvious from results when they were in the side: Evans; Arnison, Lee, Clarke, O’Brien; Colbeck, McLaren, Bullock, Daley; M Boulding and Thorne;

One could argue about the two loan midfielders Law and Furman who both have been impressive but I have never believed in playing loanees over your own professionals. Certainly looking at the team who lost to Bury four of them – Zesh Rehman, Nicky Law Jnr, Dean Furman and Steve Jones – belong to other clubs and when the debate starts about why a team does not want it enough this factor cannot be ruled out.

I recall fondly that at Wolves on the day that City were promoted Paul Jewell entrusted the game to what was the definitive side of the season favouring Robbie Blake over Dean Windass, Jamie Lawrence over Lee Sharpe, John Dreyer over Andy O’Brien or Ashley Westwood. He favoured senior professionals with long term stake over new arrivals and young players and he was rewarded for it.

Which is the option that this writer would have McCall follow now. A couple of days on the training field and a decision as to who are the eleven players he would want to win a Wolves type game of which we have plenty if we want promotion at the end of this season.

That of he could go for option three. Turn off and go watch some TV.

Flickering faith follows Bury defeat

I am not one of those fans who has pretty much been criticising Stuart McCall all season and becoming more and more vocal and outspoken in recent weeks.

Neither am I writing this because I’ve just seen City undone by yet another sucker goal which could and should have been avoided.

At Bury in the 1-0 defeat however, like a candle when someone opens a nearby door, my confidence flickered briefly. Involuntarily I asked questions of City’s management team! The questions tumbled over each other in my mind.

Apart from the enforced change, why had Stuart changed the starting eleven yet again?

Why, if he was determined to make changes, were Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding warming the bench? Particularly as Barry Conlon and Steve Jones have scored precious few goals from open play (a goal is a goal I know, but, like most supporters I just don’t rate penalties as highly as those from open play or other set pieces). When Thorne and Boulding were fronting the team we were scoring goals (21 between them) and winning matches. Since Peter returned from injury they haven’t play a full match together.

Why, with Conlon being particularly ineffective (as City continued to lump the ball forward into the middle I saw him beat the cental defender and get the ball only twice all match) wasn’t Thorne or Boulding brought on as a direct replacement?

Why, with Lee Bullock still returning to full match fitness and not being at his effective best, wasn’t Dean Furman brought on after the hour?

Why have we stopped playing football? Hoofing the ball into the middle in the hope of Barry getting his head on it is not only terrible to watch, it’s proving to be completely ineffective in matches.

Based on all the chopping and changing in recent matches I do get the distinct impression that Stuart doesn’t know what his best eleven is. Either that or he’s too nice trying to keep everyone happy by giving them all a game or part of one.

The manager has to have a ruthless streak! Deciding on his best starting line up and (injuries and suspensions permitting) sticking to it no matter who in the squad this might upset. Having differing opinions on the best starting line up is a luxury for fans, not for managers!

Stuart, I haven’t lost confidence but, much more baffling team tinkering and performances like last night and this might change. I definitely hope not because if not, that would mean we’d got back to a settled side playing football and winning matches again.

Where is it going wrong?

On an evening when there was much to trouble manager Stuart McCall, the immediate reaction of his players to going behind to Bury striker Andy Morrell’s 76th minute strike will surely have worried him the most.

Having allowed a game to drift from been in a position of relative control to one they were losing, the City players collectively appeared to lack the determination and drive to make the best use of the remaining 14 minutes and get back into the game. There were some golden chances created – and spurned – right at the end, but it was a case of too little too late. Like the game, City are now in danger of allowing their promotion hopes to drift away.

Through November and December City were guilty of been unable to use the advantage of a strong league position to drive forward from the chasing pack, but as that run of form now stretches to just one win in nine they are struggling to even keep up. The season-worst position of ninth now occupied was not in mind at the start of the season, where ambitions of going up as champions appeared realistic.

It would be premature to panic, but the negatives of the evening require urgent addressing. City came into this promotion six-pointer on the back of an excellent second half display at Luton and the elation of Barry Conlon’s late penalty equaliser, but any intentions to carry on where they left off were undermined by some questionable selections from Stuart which saw Dean Furman, excellent on his return Saturday, and Peter Thorne relegated to the bench. On Saturday Stuart had made his intentions of seeking to freshen the team clear, but even allowing for strong options these two players particularly need a run in the side.

Conlon was recalled ahead of Thorne and while memories of his excellent performance at Gigg Lane last season might have been in Stuart’s thoughts, the strike partnership with Steve Jones failed miserably. At times they were too isolated from each other and the Irishman badly needed Jones nearer to him to flick the ball towards. Launching long balls to Jones was especially futile and the on-loan Burnley forward was almost completely anonymous.

Lee Bullock was brought in to replace Furman and had a quietly effective game in the middle, with City at times passing the ball around neatly but without the pace and creativity we’d seen on Saturday. Once again too many direct balls were played forward from the back and one is left to wonder how a team who began the season playing some excellent football has lost its way in recent weeks. Resting Furman, who had provided energy and dominated the midfield alongside Paul McLaren at Kenilworth Road, clearly did not help matters and, while playing Law out-wide had been effective on Saturday justifying trying it again with Jones up front, Stuart’s failure to adequately address the fact it wasn’t replicated this evening leave concerns about his tactical acumen.

When City weren’t struggling to work out what to in possession they were been asked plenty of questions by a dangerous Bury forward line. Andy Bishop is well known and provided Matt Clarke with a tough night while Elliott Bennett and Mick Jones also caught the eye. Jones and Morrell both missed some good opportunities in the first half as City had to deal with plenty of dangerous balls into the box. Morrell in particular wasted one guilt-edged chance while Rhys Evans, easily City’s best performer on the night, made a couple of decent saves. The best City chances fell to Clarke and Conlon, but efforts flew wastefully wide. Omar Daley looked a threat on the right and was clearly singled out as the danger man by the home side. Zeshan Rehman enjoyed a decent debut in the left-back spot with Luke O’Brien ill, though no-one will want to see the impressive youngster lose his place to an on-loan defender no matter how good his pedigree.

Stuart must have had words at half time as the Bantams came out much stronger after the interval and had Bury begged back in their own half for the first 15 minutes. There were lots of throw-ins and a few corners, but crucially a lack of chances. The ball wasn’t whipped in with the same urgency as the home side and, with the strike partnership still struggling, the deadlock rarely looked like been broken. A couple of decent crosses should have been better attacked by Conlon, while slack marking from a free kick presented Bullock with the chance to prod the ball home, but it trickled tamely wide of the post.

But here was the time when managers need to be making a difference and those who believe Stuart isn’t able to make effective changes were given further ammunition tonight. Taking off Jones for Joe Colbeck was a good move though it was questionable whether Daley, who’d drifted out of the game, should have been moved up front in Jones’ place when there were two strikers who’ve shared 21 goals this season kicking their heels on the bench. It’s also curious as to why Conlon was kept on given how limited his influence on the game had been and the impression he was not giving 100%. Barry is of course loved for giving everything he has, which often make up for some of his failings – without that work-rate tonight he just looked a poor player.

By the time the first change was made Bury had reclaimed the ascendency but the major difference between their good spell and City’s was how often they came close to scoring. Evans made two brilliant saves and Morrell missed another sitter, but City’s luck did not hold out after a brilliant run from Bennett resulted in Morrell firing the ball into the net. Stuart quickly reacted by bringing on Furman and Boulding,but it took too long for decent pressure to be exerted on Bury’s goal.

As the clock ticked Boulding forced an excellent save from Mark Tyler and a scrambled effort from Law appeared to be blocked by a combination of a defender and Conlon on the line, who then had the opportunity to fire it home but turned and volleyed well wide. Evans came up from a corner and from it Colbeck had a chance on goal, but the rustiness of such a long injury lay-off may be partly to blame for the scuffed effort which rolled wide. On another day one of these chances would have been taken and a draw wouldn’t have been unfair, but over the 90 minutes City didn’t do enough and only had themselves to blame.

When City were picking up better results a few weeks ago they were doing so with half a team on the treatment table which won plenty of admiration, despite the fact performances weren’t convincing. Now Stuart has the majority of his injured players back and one of the most talented squads in the league to choose from, and with it the expectation levels are rising once more. Performances have been marginally better but getting the results to go with it are probably only going to happen if Stuart worries less about pleasing everyone and picks his best team as often as possible.

Because the season cannot be allowed to drift any further and, while it might not be fair to put too much pressure on the team, they have now fallen into a position which makes obtaining six points from the two home games this weekend essential. The tools are largely all there, now Stuart must show himself to be a good workman.

The points adding up as Rehman signs – Bury vs Bradford City – League Two Preview

The Barry Conlon penalty at Luton Town was scant reward for City’s second half endeavours when Stuart McCall unveiled what I’m sure his critics will be calling Plan B.

McCall – sent to the stands for complaining about a decision to award a free kick on an afternoon that saw many a bizarre refereeing decisions – enjoyed the best and worst of times facing criticism for abandoning his FourFourTwo principals for forty-five minutes and then seeing his side utterly dominant in the second half thanks in no small part to the ball winning of Dean Furman.

Furman’s display added to an impressive set of midfielders with Nicky Law spoken of as undroppable, Paul McLaren making significant contributions including the first goal on Saturday and Joe Colbeck returning for the last fifteen minutes adding to the already impressive Omar Daley. McCall struggles to make a best fit of those five names without the additions of Steve Jones, Chris Brandon and Lee Bullock. His selection for the middle is an embarrassment of riches of his own making and should he return to the four in the middle on Tuesday night for the trip go Gigg Lane then one can only guess who will be excluded. For my part Colbeck, Furman, McLaren and Daley would be my four but every City fan will twist that Rubik’s Cube in different ways.

A different sort of puzzle is the reason why the mean defence of City on Saturday suddenly started to leak goals – or a goal rather – a specific cross in and head in which the Bantams have not seemed so venerable to since Gary Shaw and his two and a half minute hat-trick.

What caused the Bantams to go from unit to untied is not known although the presence of Zesh Rehman – a central defender signed on loan from QPR on Monday – in the directors box might not have been the most settling sight for Matthew Clarke to see although in all likelihood the three goals from balls lumped into the box and the absence of Barry Conlon’s clearing head were not unconnected.

Coming out of contract at the end of the year Rehman looks to impress in his loan until the end of the season. The Birmingham born Rehman has played six times for the Pakistani International side and become captain in the 7-0 reversal by Egil Olsen’s Iraq side – if our path since we relegated his Wimbledon side has been winding imagine what road has led the Norwegian to be manager of a nation which in the time since we were in the Premiership tortured its players for poor results.

Rehman – who has played right back but favours the middle has his potential debut at Bury for Bradford City which is interesting in many ways much beyond football, and for that matter politics. Simon Schama would call it the future of the British Empire but – for the moment – we shall call it an interesting signing when one considers how stable the back two have been over the last month.

Mark Bower exits to Luton as Rehman arrives and BfB never favours playing loanees over our own players with one feeling sorry for City’s longest serving player. Rehman’s signing made sense if he plays and does well and makes sense if he adds to the right back berth uncovered since TJ Moncur’s return to Fulham but there is a nervousness that City’s second Asian player and first Pakistani is something of the Beckham of Bradford designed to get bums on seats from the locals of BD8 rather than cheat sheets.

Perhaps it might be nice to do both. Certainly it cannot do much harm and Rehman need only prove as useful as TJ Moncur or Steve Jones to be justified in the context of the season. If he proves to be in the bracket of Nicky Law and Dean Furman then he is available at the end of the season.

One might suspect that City needed not to strengthen at the back but bolstering up front with goals hard to come by over Christmas and January – until the second half on Saturday – but still Peter Thorne struggles to find the net and Michael Boulding and Barry Conlon were left cooling their heels. With chances created will follow goals and considering the options in midfield those chances should be created.

Bury for their part are in reasonable form sneaking to third in the table with the kind of mix of draws and the odd win that City get. The Shakers still possess the highly rated Andy Bishop whom Stuart McCall was impressed by and boss Alan Knill informs all that he has yet to have a firm bid for the player. They sit a point above the Bantams but have a poor record against promotion rivals – recent losses to Shrewsbury and Wycombe and a draw with Darlington – all of which points to an interesting game and a telling one.

Should the Bantams win then we will – at least – slip above Bury and could end the night second while a defeat could leave us tenth but with Rehman’s incoming and Bower departing being – seemingly – the last movement of the transfer window after McCall declared himself happy with striking resources then it would seem that they City manager has the squad in place that he wants – or at least can have at this point – leaving the players to get the results to back up such faith.

Joe Colbeck is Barack Obama – Luton Town vs Bradford City – League Two Preview

I didn’t hear the snap of Joe Colbeck’s foot over at Grimsby and I could not tell who was down at first but I know he is coming back.

My mate Russ came back to City last year some time. He has been off in Siberia or somewhere and was not a massive follower of City anyway but we had a ticket free and along he came and during this game he looked out at City’s ginger right winger who became player of the season later that year but wasn’t then and he said “Is that that piece of [something] Colbeck.”

Russ was filled in with what had happened in his absence and that Colbeck was now considered to be something of a tidy player and I pointed out that some of us thought he was all along that day the lad had a stormer and all was good in the world.

So if during Russ’s absence Joe Colbeck went from popular boo boy to glorious hero what has happened during Colbeck’s break? Well he has become so important to City that you could be excused for mistaking him for a second coming.

Colbeck is great and everyone cannot wait for his return to Valley Parade and that surge of good feeling is important just as all the Obamamania is great just because it makes everyone so damn happy but unlike Barack Obama Colbeck faces a trip to Luton and a game with Bury before his inauguration [But who is to say the American political process would be worse if all candidates had a final hurdle of having to impress on a Tuesday night at Gigg Lane before being sworn in? – Ed]

Colbeck will probably be on bench duty for the Luton game and return for Bury on Tuesday night leaving Steve Jones to carry on his weird wing play where he never seems to do enough, tackle enough, get stuck in enough but seems to have played well at the end. The Burnley winger started his City career as Stevie, Jonesey or Jonesio and now is just Jones which says a lot about him. He flatters to deceive.

Jonesinho will play right wing to Omar Daley’s left and Paul McLaren, who used to play for Luton and feels some sympathy for them apparently, and Nicky Law will play in the middle. Now stay with me on this one but I think that Law should be dropped for Dean Furman who wins the ball better and winning the ball gives us more possession and that leads to more chances. I know Law has some of the same magic as Colbeck about him but tough calls have got to be made to get four or six points on the road before we get back to Drawey Parade and it is time for a change and that would be the one I make.

That said Lee Bullock might get back in the side. Why not? We won all the time when he was playing.

Paul Arnison, Graeme Lee, Matt Clarke and Luke O’Brien are a mean defence and Rhys Evans tends to look bored during most games so little has he to do so that end of the park is going well. Up front City need to give Chris O’Grady a try out.

Just kidding.

O’Grady is in the last week of his loan and it looks like Leeds are not going to be giving us tonnes of money so either the Oldham man will be going back to be one half of this scrap or Stuart McCall will confound us all by giving him a longer contract. Until that he is a not that important bench sitter.

Being fair to O’Grady he has hardly had a chance at City featuring off the bench for fifteen minutes at a time but then again Billy Topp never got a chance and that was cause he did knackers all in training to impress the boss. If the mark of a striker out the door at City is that they do nothing when coming off the bench Toppy style then O’Grady is not around for long and Stuart will be looking at signing a new loan player until the end of the season. In a way O’Grady has been the perfect replacement for Topp. The net effect of having him on the field is the same but he has none of the thrills of Toppy because he is not from Temuco City hes from Roverrum.

That or Rory Boulding will get a chance to do nothing from the bench, but probably not. The only player in the last few years to do anything from the bench is Barry Conlon who will probably be back to sitting on his backside to watch Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding. City’s strikers are my worry at the moment. All three of them score goals but at the moment I find myself lacking confidence that any of them will find the net.

It is not that logical I know cause only two years ago we had one source of goals in Deano Windass and nothing else but at the moment we are lacking the fox in the box who scores with every touch or we are lacking Peter Thorne firing on all cylinders.

Luton have zero points but should have thirty apparently. Either way they are a mid-table outfit who think that they have been hard done to and have great vengeance and furious anger which they aim at anyone who doesn’t feel they have been badly treated. If Leeds last season is anything to go by the slog to zero points will signal a general foot off the gas-ness and last week’s 5-1 drubbling by Darlington could have been just that. They have Lewis Emanuel, who I always liked as left back, but he is out injured.

It doesn’t matter anyway cause whoever is right back I hear will be torn apart by Joe Colbeck anyway, just for a change.

Only the usual conclusion can be made

Just like video goalline technology, winter breaks and the declining tradition of the FA Cup – the opinion “it’s a poor league” is one uttered on an annual basis.

In City’s case, it doesn’t seem to matter which division we are in – even during our second season of the Premiership the national media spent a few concentrated weeks deriding the standard of the top flight – or how well we are doing, the opposition are always poor and City firmly part of such mediocrity. It’s a viewpoint the vast majority of supporters also hold no matter who their team is, every league is always poor.

When looking at this season’s League Two table it can be tempting to trot out such well-worn phrases. Discount the points deductions of Luton, Bournemouth and Rotherham and the gap between top and bottom would be a measly 22 points after a third of the season. Everyone can beat everyone and, while that makes for an exciting and unpredictable league, it also leaves the playing standards open to accusations of poorness.

It’s been said that, unlike last season, there are no outstanding teams going to runaway with it like MK Dons and Peterborough; though a look at the League Two table this time last year offers few clues that was going to be the case. MK Dons had its noses in front, but Peterborough was back among traffic. This year Darlington and Wycombe hold the same advantage of the Dons, though the chasing pack remain closely on their tails. The six-point advantage both enjoy over ninth-place Bury is in contrast to a year ago where fifth-place Peterborough was seven behind MK Dons. Meanwhile the eventual Play Off Finalists, Stockport and Rochdale, were 15th and 17th respectively, a fact which will give Aldershot, Port Vale and Notts County inspiration this season.

Above those three are 12 clubs which retain credible aspirations of promotion, which illustrates just how competitive a league it is. That Wycombe remain unbeaten is a great achievement and the Buckinghamshire club will be hoping to turn a few more draws into wins to build on its impressive start. It remains to be seen how they will react to that eventual first defeat, but Peter Taylor has clearly been able to take the club forward after the good work of Paul Lambert last season.

Like Wycombe, Darlington lost in the play off semi finals last year but have responded strongly. Dave Penney is rumoured to be interesting Huddersfield and isn’t universally popular with Quakers fans, but on the evidence of games against the Bantams they look stronger this season. Much depends on if they can keep the impressive on-loan Billy Clarke, who’s Ipswich contract expires in January and is seemingly surplus to requirements.

Currently top of the of the six clubs on 27 points is Shrewsbury. Having spent big money on Grant Holt during the summer the Shrews are looking particularly strong at home and have a manager experienced enough to guide the club in lasting the distance. Rochdale has climbed after a slow start, though don’t quite appear as strong as last season. Brentford’s Andy Scott is cementing a reputation as one of the game’s bright young managers and Gillingham, relegated last season, are improving. The biggest surprise is Exeter still being up there, though the newly-promoted Grecians have suffered heavy defeats to City and Chesterfield suggesting they aren’t strong enough to last the pace.

Doubts which were also raised at Bury and Dagenham, which seem to be coming true as both fade away following impressive starts. Chesterfield and Lincoln, who both started slowly, are closing in and have the expectation and quality to force themselves into the top seven above.

Which just leaves the Bantams. Predictably Saturday’s defeat has lead to some fans writing off our chances of achieving anything better than a play off spot, but the injury situation which Stuart McCall is currently contending with is clearly going to slow things. Omar Daley is the only out-and-out winger fit and, while the Jamaican’s performances are remaining highly consistent, the lack of a similar threat on the other flank for a team which bases much of its style of play on the widemen is reducing chances for the forwards.

There are question marks still over the defence but, in general, the team has been able to respond to weakness at the back with potency going forward. The next few games may be a battle and not wield as higher a number of points as we’d like, but if City can approach Christmas in a similar position to now, with Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon due to come back, the prospects of a good run of form at the turn of the year are good.

It would take a brave man to bet on who will finish in the top three spots come May right now, but clearly the next segment of the season will be vital in reducing the number of possibilities. Next Saturday Lincoln entertain Shrewsbury; the Tuesday after Gillingham face Rochdale, who’s game after is Darlington away; City travel to Brentford the following Saturday; the Saturday after sees Shrewsbury host Wycombe. With the Christmas fixtures including Rochdale v Shrewsbury, Darlington v Chesterfield and Gillingham v Wycombe, the chances of anyone running away with it seem unlikely.

It’s a league where you don’t want to take your eyes off anyone, even if we are all ‘poor’.

Where the pieces fall

The ball would not drop.

It held in mid-air like the frost had clung to Bradford’s trees this first Winter morning and took time to come down to the crisp grass of Valley Parade.

Later it would fall to Barry Conlon – of course to Barry Conlon – who would stand straight and head past Wayne Brown.  Allowing Conlon to head past him was the only one thing the man in the Bury goal did wrong all evening but a half hour before that moment it would be Michael Boulding trying to take down a looped cross from Peter Thorne and – when on his own in the middle of the penalty area – control and convert the chance.

The chance had come when Brown had sprinted back to his line to scoop away a back pass by David Buchanan which had seemed to be going into the visitors goal. Boulding’s pressure had forced the error but that would be no consolation as the ball steadfastly refused to sit up to be struck hanging in the air from Thorne’s cross.

Wins, promotions are made of such things.

This phrase seems to be commonly uttered at Valley Parade of late as the Bantams slump – the dire Bantams of Darlington eight days ago – nestle in to second place in the table with 14 games gone. If promotions are made of late goals and of the late goals that Conlon seems to have more of a hand in then they are also made of characterful performances where the Bantams ground out that rarest of things – a home win against an opposition who would have been happy with a point.

Happy and deserved. Bury were a desent side who came to Valley Parade with a game plan to anchor the midfield and hit on the break.  After a half where City edged the game once the mismash of players had started to build an understanding of each other the Bantams began to convert possession into chances.

Nicky Law Jnr came in on the right wing for the injured Joe Colbeck and offered little going forward but his attitude and approach was typical of a City performance which ensured that despite some interesting probing by The Shakers the defensive line remained solid and from that came the win.

Bit by bit in a first half City took more and more control of possession in the game. Tom Clarke – in for Matt Clarke – looked to have a head beyond his years and put not a foot wrong. As the game wore on into the second half Luke O’Brien would become more and more important as a distribution outlet and as a capable defender. His current form would keep Paul Heckingbottom out of the side.

From Boulding’s chance onwards City mounted attack on attack save sporadic meanders forward by the visitors with Dean Furman’s deep role allowing him to control the passage of possession and Paul McLaren probing forward. Law’s right wing role did not offer the outlet of Colbeck and City struggled to breakdown Bury but with the lion’s share of the ball the game was the Bantams to win.

A free kick for an arm in Furman’s face dummied by McLaren and struck with hitherto unpredicted venom by Graeme Lee and the ball pinged up into the air looping down to the waiting head of Conlon who after scoring joined the rest of Valley Parade in expecting referee Mr Friend to be anything but but tellingly as his central defenders were booked for complaining Wayne Brown said nothing.

The goalkeeper twice watching how the pieces fell in front of him. Two similar situations, two different outcomes.

Colbeck’s injury could keep him out for months, Daley is suspended for Saturday and Peter Thorne took a whack and could join Mark Bower, Lee Bullock and Chris Brandon on the sidelines. Like all managers Stuart McCall’s test is to make the best of the pieces that fall to him and second after fourteen games he would seem to be making a good fist of that.

Didn’t you used to be us? – Bradford City vs Bury – League Two Preview

When this Bradford City vs Bury fixture crept onto the horizon a few weeks ago it seemed very much like the Bantams would be looking at getting something from a tricky visit from one of the top three as they struggled to stay in the play-off places.

The game will no doubt still be tricky but with Bury losing 2-1 at home at the weekend to Luton the Bantams are a point and three places above the Shakers with Shrewsbury and Darlington sandwiched in-between.

All four play-off teams have seem – at times – to be about to become the team to beat in League Two. City are last month’s Brentford, Bury are last week’s.

The visitors are looking to get back to the winning ways The Bantams found on Friday at Grimsby and Stuart McCall will be hoping his players dig in for the same kind of battle bested at Blundell Park.

McCall has brought Nicky Law Jnr back to the club on loan as the effects of five games in two weeks begin to pile up. Joe Colbeck joins Mark Bower, Paul Heckingbottom and Lee Bullock on the injured list and two suspensions – Omar Daley and Matthew Clarke. Daley’s suspension will kick in on Friday leaving both (we think) and he is free to play tonight. Clarke M does not play.

Clarke M and his place in the back four alongside Graeme Lee will be taken by TJ Moncur with Paul Arnison or Tom Clarke coming in at right back and the oft impressive Luke O’Brien on the left. Rhys Evans will stay in-between the sticks because not only is he the only goalkeeper at the club he also played a blinder at Grimsby.

Daley’s last game before suspension could see him switch to right to cover Colbeck with Kyle Nix coming in on the left although speculation and wishful thinking on the part of some have Willy Topp on the right and Daley left on the left. Topp impressed in that role in pre-season.

Others put Topp up front alongside Peter Thorne with Michael Boulding switching out wide left while some think that will happen but see Barry Conlon in rather than the man from Chile.

Paul McLaren and Dean Furman will no doubt see off the challenge from Law Jnr for the middle midfield berths with both playing excellently going forward and Law having never suggested that he is the man to plug any defensive gaps in the midfield.

At close of play some things will have become clear for both these teams: How much will City miss Colbeck who’s importance in the side seemingly grows with every game? Can Bury break the losing run by playing away from Gigg Lane? Have the Bantams put the bad patch to bed or just played a bad Grimsby? Will Willy Topp play? If he does, will he be any good? All these questions, and more, will be answered…

However come nine thirty on Tuesday night we will be no clearer in knowing if either of these teams is to be promoted. Wins in League Two jump you over this week’s losers but the pattern of the season is frequency of movement bubbling under the top.

The rest of League Two – Preseason 2008/2009 [II]

The numerous season preview supplements produced at this time of year act as a reminder, if it were needed, that the hopes and expectations we City supporters have for the coming season are not dissimilar to the majority of League Two fans.

Much has been made locally about how last season’s promotion of the MK Dons and Peterborough has left a more levelled playing field, but we aren’t the only ones thinking such sentiments. Some clubs will look to Hereford’s unexpected promotion last season and be confident they can emulate it, others may be hoping it’s emerging young talent can push them forward in the manner of Stockport and Rochdale, while others are upping the wage budget in a bid to go for it. League Two may look weaker without the presence of the Dons and the Posh, but it’s likely to be just as competitive.

When considering who might be in the promotion shake up it’s typical to start with the clubs who have spent money, those who lost out in last year’s plays offs and those relegated into the division last season. The club record £170,000 that Shrewsbury Town has spent on Nottingham Forest striker Grant Holt stands out like a sore thumb compared to everyone else’s summer recruitment. Last season was one of underachievement for the 2007 Play Off Finalists but manager Paul Simpson will begin his first full season with expectations not much lower than at Valley Parade.

Holt made his name at last season’s play off finalists Rochdale, who are likelier to be up there come May. Keith Hill has worked wonders at Spotland and their counter attacking approach impressed last season. Arguably lacking a decent striker, the Dale will hope Halifax’s Jon Shaw can make the step up; especially as midfield playmaker David Perkins, twice the thorn in the side of City last season, has left.

Wycombe Wanderers parted company with manager Paul Lambert at the end of last season and welcome Peter Taylor – with more than a point to prove following a difficult couple of years. They will probably do better than the other semi-finalists of last season, Darlington, who have lost star players David Stockdale and, while not confirmed yet, Tommy Wright. Dave Penney spent big last summer but doesn’t appear to have significant funds this time around.

Elsewhere big things are expected of Lincoln City, who prospered last year under Peter Jackson before his time off through illness. New keeper Rob Burch was sought after by others, including City, while Frank Sinclair could prove a clever buy if he still has the legs. Chesterfield fans seem to dislike their manager Lee Richardson but have one of the best strikers in the division in Jack Lester, Alan Knill will be looking to continue his rejuvenation of Bury and they could be dark horses, while Grimsby has strengthened defensively and will hope young striker Danny North can fulfill his potential.

It’s a sad state of the continuing financial problems many clubs in the lower reaches of the Football League are suffering from that this year’s League Two relegation battle could be determined by point deductions. Three seasons ago Luton finished 10th in the Championship, but the odds are heavily stacked in favour of a third successive relegation and drop into non-league following the 30 points taken off them. Play off form will be needed just to stay up and, with the club still in a mess, that seems unrealistic.

Bournemouth and Rotherham’s hopes of merely beginning this season are still in the balance and respective 15 and 17 point deductions look like a best scenario. That may allow other clubs to breath easier but Chester City, another club with money problems, won’t be counting their chickens as they remember how last season’s dramatic collapse in form almost cost them their league status. Some of the division’s smaller clubs, such as Macclesfield, Accrington and Dagenham, will also be targeting the 50 point mark rather than any loftier ambitions.

Gillingham’s recent financial difficulties make it difficult to imagine they can achieve much beyond midtable but Port Vale, under former City defender Lee Sinnott, will be a better bet for an instant return to League One. The league’s new boys, Aldershot and Exeter, arrive with romantic stories of rebirth and should both be good enough for midtable, where they will surely be joined by Notts County, Barnet, Brentford and Morecambe.

The quality of League Two is derided by some, while others trumpet it as featuring real football and real fans. Last season many clubs enjoyed better form on the road but the ones who did make it to the division above were strong at home, too. This season’s League Two promises to be unpredictable, ugly and beautiful; and those successful in realising their pre-season expectations next Spring will probably be all three.

A Tale Of Two Halves

City were made to pay for a lethargic second half performance by an Andy Bishop double, that inflicted our first defeat of 2008.

All seemed well in the first period, especially when Peter Thorne nodded home a brilliant left side cross from Tom Penford to give City the lead on 23.

But, in truth , somewhat surprisingly , Bury quite often looked like a threat – even more so than when they played City in their home game a couple of weeks ago. This threat was highlighted in the first half, when Wetherall was forced to head against his own post in the early exchanges, as Bury forced a few corners and put the City defense under some pressure which we never looked too convincing dealing with.

When Thorne opened the scoring, the odds would seem to favour City finishing the game with the 3 points and climbing into the top half of the table in good form.

However, then came the first of three key incidents that shaped this game. On the stroke of halftime, City attacked down the right with a through ball that looked certain to catch Bury out, after some smart play by Omar Daley. The through ball played looked to have City with 4 attackers facing just two Bury defenders, and with all the City attackers appearing yards onside (as was clearly viewable from all sections of the Midland Road stand) – the linesman flagged, seemingly for offside.

This decision incensed the home fans and particularly Stuart McCall, who was enraged at this appalling decision. A goal at that key point would have surely settled this contest, and a chorus of boo’s rang out around Valley Parade, not due to the performance, but more due to the poor officiating once again.

But as the home fans tucked into their half time Steak and Kidney, there weren’t many who would have predicted an unlikely second half comeback from lowly Bury.

City came out in the second half without any conviction whatsoever. Stuart’s halftime team talk seemed to have a completely adverse affect on the attitude of the players in this game. Omar Daley was hardly in the match, Eddie Johnson did not stamp his authority on the game whatsoever, and Willy Topp flattered to deceive before being substituted for last weeks match winner David Brown (who shocked the home fans with his infantile like appearance!) on 65.

Early in the second half David Wetherall was adjudged to have pulled Andy Bishop to the ground in the area and the referee swiftly pointed to the spot. The decision seemed slightly harsh and soft – but Wetherall was guilty of the exact same offense at the end of last year away at Mansfield, when the referee also pointed to the spot. On both occasions, Wetherall definitely did tug the shirt of the opposition player, and you would think that a player of David’s experience would have understood that you simply cannot get away with that in the modern game – even in League Two. Any contact in the penalty area or shirt tugging almost always results in a penalty.

Bishop stepped up and smashed in the equalizer from the spot.

And so the game continued, with City never really testing the Bury defense. Any saves were having to be made at the other end, from the on-loan Scott Loach in the City goal.

Then came another shocking decision. Statrosa was adjusted to have fouled just on the edge of our own area – a decision which beggared belief. What followed was a moment of class from stiker Andy Bishop – who is, by far, the best player I have seen play in this league. A smart free kick routine ended with Bishop curling the ball into the top corner which left City distraught and Bury heading across the M62 with all three points.

This was an expected defeat which left a sour taste in the mouth after the horrendous officiating display. But nevertheless, the players need to take responsibility for this one. The second half display was truly appalling and certainly was not one worthy of picking up three points. Having been on such a good run recently, why was the desire not there to finish off one of the bottom teams in the league at home?

Next week Rochdale will certainly not be any easier an opponent, but lets hope our game gets raised accordingly and keep the belief alive. The playoffs are not out of reach, but any more reversals like this at home will see us finish in mid table obscurity come May.

Pegged Back At Bury

Despite leading twice, City were pegged back by a late equaliser that denied them a third straight win.

City started the game much the brighter, forcing numerous early corners and creating a couple of half chances. Barry Conlon had an excellent first half – really rising to the challenge of this game in testing conditions. He held the ball up brilliantly and was a real presence up front.

Neither team really stamped their authority on the game until a key moment late in the first half. Omar Daley picked up possession on the right, darted forward, and whipped in an extremely dangerous ball, which looked destined to pick out Peter Thorne at the far post – but it was stopped from reaching its target by a blatant handball by a Bury defender inside the penalty area.

The referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. There seemed to be some debate about who was going to take the penalty, with Thorne and Conlon both eyeing it up. But it was Conlon who stepped up and drilled the ball straight down the middle, and whilst the keeper got a touch with his legs, it wasn’t enough to stop it nesting into the back of the net, much to the jubilation of the City fans behind the goal.

The second half got underway with City looking comfortable. The pressure was very much on Bury to come out and start showing the form that they did last week in beating Championship side Norwich.

There were no real signs of being City’s lead being under threat, until a shocking mistake by Matt Clarke. He released a kamikaze backpass that immediately forced Wetherall and himself to backtrack rapidly, but Bury striker Andy Bishop capitalized by outpacing them both and slotting the ball past Donavan Ricketts. This type of mistake from Clarke was so uncharacteristic of his recent City form, and it was clear to see he was devastated in the immediate aftermath of Bury scoring.

Unfortunately for Clarke, that goal really changed the game, as City went from being comfortable, to having to really pull out all the stops in an effort to grab the three points.

The game faded away midway through the second half. Both teams showed no real signs of having enough to grab a late winner.

But on 80 minutes, City broke with Colbeck feeding Daley, who seemed to hesitate, before releasing a brilliant pass that picked out substitute Kyle Nix. Nix took a touch, which seemed to have taken him too far wide, but he unleashed a deadly low strike with his left foot which he planted at the keepers far post. Celebrations in the away end were euphoric as it seemed certain that we could hang on to pick up a precious three points.

A special mention needs to be made for Omar Daley’s contribution tonight. He was my man of the match with his assists for both goals and whilst he wasn’t always at his scintillating best, he backtracked and helped out the defense on numerous occasions. His workrate was a breath of fresh air. There was one instance (halfway through the second half) where he had just ran half the pitch during a run on the attack on the left wing, and when Bury broke on the counter attack, he cover the full length of the pitch to come back to help Heckingbottom defensively. Maybe with his new contract, this is hopefully a sign of things to come?

But an away victory tonight wasn’t to be. City never looked convincing or confident enough in the last 10 minutes to see the game through. And when 18 year old midfielder Dale Stephens unleashed a stunning strike from 25 yards that gave Ricketts no chance, the game seemed destined to finish as a draw.

And in typical City fashion, after Bury equalized, we had to endure more nervy defending and it even looked like Bury could snatch a late winner, as they finished the stronger.

But the referee blew his whistle with honours even. And once again, City succumbed to a late goal. Its seems to be a trend this season that the team don’t quite have enough conviction to “ shut up shop” with 10, 15 or even 20 minutes to go. We can think back to Barnet away (conceded a late winner that cost us a point) , Morecambe away ( a point thrown away, that should have been 3) , MK Dons away ( 2 late goals conceded) , Stockport at home ( late goal that cost us a win). This type of play is especially hard to accept given the number of experienced campaigners in the team – but I don’t necessarily think they are 100% to blame. It is more of a team mentality , that we sit back and invite pressure, and away from home teams come at us, and we don’t know how to cope without panicking.

We have a good enough footbaling side in this division to have to talent to play the ball to feet to get ourselves out of trouble when we are under pressure. But too often this season, we have resorted to playing it “long”, Wimbledon style. And that doesn’t just apply to defending, we often attack in the same way. And how often to these high balls up the pitch result in success? Hardly ever. Yet, the management team insist on playing this way. Most probably because they think that it could be the only way that we can play to get out of this division.

But I personally, wholeheartedly disagree. We have enough players that are decent with ball to feet, running a passing game, that would surely be more effective, as playing flowing football generates confidence and allows us to confidently pass our selves out of trouble when pressure mounts on us – especially away from home.

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