Before Darlington City consider what is a good footballer?

After last Saturday’s game at Accrington Stanley Bradford City’s players were “simply not good enough” and Peter Taylor had to get rid of them. After the win at Rochdale on Tuesday night they were “brilliant and capable” and had beaten a team five points top of the league.

This weekend the same players face moribund Darlington. So which is the real reflection of the current set of Bradford City players?

The season has seen them wend a way to the lower mid-table for sure but also create a club record of games unbeaten. Rochdale made them looked hapless, they returned the favour and beat them when Dale’s lads were brimming with confidence. How good, or how bad, are the City players?

Certainly following the game Peter Taylor was clear about what he thought had transformed the team saying that the return to a 442 on Tuesday night with Michael Flynn up front alongside James Hanson – a function Taylor credits Wayne Jacobs for passing on to him – and an evening of hard work.

Said Taylor

There were so many good things but most importantly they realised that they got the result through hard work and togetherness.

So if the players are together and work hard then they are “good” divided – as they were following the departure of Stuart McCall and the communal lip out sulk – they are “bad”. So are they good or bad?

Perhaps the question is framed wrong.

The terms of good and bad in football have always been around but have come into a sharper focus in the digital era where games like Championship Manager and FIFA demand that players be rated and assessed. If you, dear reader, ever played one of the LMA series of management games you did so (in some years) with a Bradford City team assessed and rated by yours truly.

I recall opening the spreadsheet and being given a range – Bradford City players could not be rated over 59% or under 44% – and were scored in categories like shooting and passing. I wondered how one rated players like Bobby Petta in those stats. For sure the man could hit a ball, but only when he could be bothered and why award him the higher fifties because he once leathered a ball in against Huddersfield when Steven Schumacher scored more – albeit less impressive – goals?

The question asked in that instance really was one of “good” and “bad” but that is the world of clicks and buttons and the reality of football offers more depth. Robbie Blake – for example – was considered for long periods of his career a player who would be good enough for the Premiership if only he had the pace suggesting that his abilities would be spread between percentages, if they could be encoded at all.

The way that the good people at Codemasters created their game allowed an even spread of abilities up and down the game. There were as many players with the ability levels suited for the Premiership as for the League Two – linear distribution – and as City slipped down the leagues having risen up in double quick time the previous decade it struck me that that notion was wrong.

As the skill level of players at, and visiting, Valley Parade decreased from the days of Paul Scholes volleying in a David Beckham corner it became clear that there was a level of ability which rose and fell up and down the leagues but that as we fell down the leagues this quality did not drop off to the same extent. The difference between the second and third tiers of football were not as great as the drop between the top of the top flight and the clubs at the bottom.

The exponential growth of players able to play at a level as one descends the league means that while only one English footballer might have the abilities of David Beckham and ten are good enough for the Champions but a hundred Englishmen are good enough for the Premiership on the whole and thousand able to play at the next level down which encompasses an area I’d say is roughly the half way down the top of the Championship to the middle of League Two.

It is crude analysis for sure but it explains how a Paul Jewell or a Peter Taylor can take clubs like Wigan and Hull and take them through the leagues to the edge of the Premiership play-offs. The players who were idling either at those clubs or to be bought up from rivals of a similar standing did not improve in natural ability – the did not become “good” having been “bad” but they certainly improved.

Improvement that is put down to coaching and to motivation. The latter being shown in Paul Jewell’s ability to build a mental toughness in his players in which they believed they were capable of beating any team at any level and the former being in team drilling and understanding of the roles and responsibilities on the field and the pattens built up.

The average player in League One when promoted would be expected to get on in the division above, when relegated to be able to play in the one below. The same group of players who seem hopeless at one point can seem brilliant at others when they have the right approach to the game and to each other.

Which brings us back to Bradford City and the difference of three days between Accrington and Rochdale. Assuming the players have not simply “become good” over the space of three days and that Taylor requires more than a couple of sleeps to have the players won over to his tactical approach or his mental position how have the Bantams improved?

Probably the change has much to do with the depressed mood at the club that came as a result of sacking Stuart McCall being superseded as a worry by the idea that if a team cannot complete with Accrington then it is likely that that club would be relegated. The players had a sulk, they were upset, but professional pride – or perhaps the mental toughness they have – kicked in and they raised the game in keeping with the raised noise from the away end.

Add to that Taylor looked at simple basics of the team and noted that – since Paul McLaren left – we have had no quality delivery. That problem has been fixed by loanee Robbie Threlfall. Threlfall’s delivery played a part in all three goals against Rochdale. A small practical fix which allowed Luke O’Brien to move forward to balance the left flank and set City for victory.

Threlfall makes his Valley Parade début against a Darlingtonnnn side managed by Steve Staunton who was himself a Liverpool left back loaned to City and is set to be joined as a temporary transfer at the club by Gillingham’s Mark McCammon,physicalcal striker.

McCammon seems likely to partner James Hanson up front as the club praised The City Gent for raising £5,000 to pay two thirds of the transfer fee for the player. The last two weeks has seen much debate over the club and the owners of that club and acknowledgement is given to the joint chairmen for the investment they have made but The City Gent’s – in effect – buying a player is another of many examples of the supporters of Bradford City funding the business of Bradford City and when calls are made to the joint chairmen for clarity it is done in the knowledge that frankly amazing actions such as Jeremy White’s fund raising is done by people who should be considered more than consumers of the Bradford City product.

The McCammon/Hanson combination sees Peter Taylor go about the business of making the no nonsense attack that his Wycombe side had and will allow Michael Flynn to slot back alongside Lee Bullock in the midfield alongside O’Brien on the left and Gareth Evans on the right although a return for Omar Daley or the inclusion of Scott Neilson is possible, but would be harsh on Evans who is returning to form.

The back four of Simon Ramsden, Matthew Clarke, Steve Williams and Threlfall will continue in front of Matt Glennon.

Good players, to a man.

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.

Stuart is gone for his tea

Real football isn’t Championship Manager I keep reading but if it was what would Stuart McCall be doing after last night’s defeat 2-1 to Darlington?

He might say it was unfair that the home team got a later goal when their tiny midfielder out jumped Matt Clarke. “As if that would happen!”

He would probably say the same out Kevin Austin’s free kick five minutes from time that looped over Rhys Evans but maybe he should take a look at Evans who made a couple of great saves but was beaten too easily by this free kick.

He might do that thing where you clear all the players and pick your best eleven again but if he did would he include Barry Conlon who was booed by the home fans because he was playing so well cleaning everything out at the back.

He might wonder why his team has started letting in two goals a game in the last six games and look to the game before this bad run started. The difference is in the full backs. Luke O’Brien is coming on well but TJ Moncur and the way he ignores Joe Colbeck in front of him is huge problem.

The pressure on the ball on the flanks has been lessened as has the amount of possession City enjoy in a game and much of this is down to the full back positions and how those who play them play the game.

Dean Furman almost had another impressive game alongside Paul McLaren who looked good but it was Furman who was caught in possession allowing the home side a second goal as he looked for a perfect pass rather than doing the simple ball.

City did some simple things well for most of the game but were caught out trying to ease out a draw and now go to Grimsby down on luck and looking for a win at a team that haven’t got three points all season. Stuart has been watching players who know better and who has has seen play better make mistakes in the last few games and that is depressing. Darlington was different and most of the defensive mistakes of the past few games were ironed out for most of the game but still at the end the Bantams resistance was undone by errors.

How will Stuart approach the game on Friday? How will he turn things around? If life were like Championship Manager he’d probably turn it off and go for his tea instead.

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