Unfamiliar / Preview

Matthew Kilgallon joined Bradford City on a one year deal from Blackburn Rovers bringing a level of excitement to some supporters at the end of a summer where things at Bradford City fell apart and were put back together again.

The usefulness of Kilgallon’s recruitment will be seen in time. He and Nathaniel Knight-Percival joi in the central defensive position and Nathan Clarke and Rory McArdle remain. This gives Stuart McCall’s Bradford City three or four – depending on your view on Clarke – strong choices to start in the middle of the defence.

At the other end of the pitch things are different and attacking options are thin on the ground. McCall arrived in June to find James Hanson still at the club he had left five years ago but one could argue that Hanson and his colleagues players in attacking positions: Mark Marshall, Paul Anderson, Billy Clarke; need improvements on last season’s performances to be significant.

Teams score goals, not players and while four of those mentioned above could be more creative than converting – the flick down from McArdle’s diagonal ball is an act of creation – none could be said to have created enough.

Tony McMahon’s withdrawal to right back form the right wing – where he spent a season under Phil Parkinson – is a curious move from McCall exactly because it removes the one player in the Bradford City team who excelled in creation last season.

Drop

His name dropped into the preview it is worth acknowledging that Phil Parkinson is going to have more of of an impact on Bradford City 2016/2017 than Stuart McCall will. Parkinson – who of course exited for Bolton Wanderers in June – built as much of a monolith as football allows a manager to create in the modern game at Valley Parade.

Parkinson took his backroom team with him to Bolton and his backroom team – it is reported – took everything they had worked on with them. Once again – just as with the situation a few months prior to Parkinson’s arrival at Valley Parade – the file cabinets that contained scout reports were empty and the structures around a football club were scant.

And it is this way because Parkinson wanted it this way. The former Bradford City manager had had experiences sharing out the power at a football club previously – most notability at Hull City – and found it wanting. Parkinson fought a hard fight against unspecified directors with unspecified roles to make sure that he had some control in every aspect of the footballing side of Valley Parade and he won those fights.

There was no pressure on Parkinson to develop young players and so Stuart McCall arrived to find no young players with first team experience. There was no pressure on Parkinson to create a squad which was sustainable from one season to the next. There was no pressure on Parkinson to develop a squad with resale value until new owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp arrived at the club and – within a few weeks – Parkinson was gone.

Rahic and Rupp arrived to replace Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes as Bradford City owners and began to talk about a future in which the squad was shaped around recycling the waste product of Premier League academies.

That last statement sounds needlessly dismissive and should not. If one looks at the example of The Chelsea Academy of the last fifteen years one can only think of a single player – John Terry – who was not waste. Millions are spent on players who are discarded for not reaching and elite standard but are able to be turned around and made into useful footballers.

A production line of turnaround players is as close to a business model as the game at lower levels has ever had and one which Rahic and Rupp believe they can benefit from. Clearly the club they bought was an ill fit to achieve that.

Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes freely admitted that they could see no other way of the club going forward than someone arriving and injecting more money and, as the ultimate result of that paucity of thinking, they were prepared to give Parkinson total control of all football matters.

Which is not to say that Parkinson should not have enjoyed carte blanche to do any or all these things as he sees fit. Parkinson’s methods showed constant year-on-year improvement and perhaps would have continued to do so but without the manager ceding some control they would not have aligned with the owners.

Parkinson used many short term contracts, and Parkinson used many loan signings, and Parkinson was not entirely interested in developing young players, and if the club are now interested in long term permanent signings of young players then it starts from a negative position.

Which is a long way of saying that the 2016/17 season – the first post-Parkinson season – is defined by the decision taken by Rhodes and Lawn to allow Parkinson to be the entire centre of the footballing side of Bradford City. There was no institutional retention of knowledge – the scouting cupboard was bare – and that is the result of choices made before June 2016, not after.

Five

Phil Parkinson’s final finish for Bradford City was fifth in League One and it is that which – rightly or wrongly – Stuart McCall will be measured against in the next twelve months as will Parkinson at Bolton Wanderers.

Both measurements could be unfair. For Parkinson his record of first season success is thin and the Trotters would be better to be prepared to wait.

For McCall he is a manager who started late and without structures which are necessary. McCall has not walked into a Southampton where the manager is an appendage to a well run system. He is at a club which – both rightly and wrongly – allowed itself to be defined by its manager and who has now gone.

There is much work to do to replace Parkinson and while Rahic has an idea of the shape that he would like the club to take in the long term there is no reason at all to believe that any of the work ahead of McCall, Chief Scout Greg Abbott, James Mason or Edin Rahic can be achieved without any negative effect on performance.

That Bradford City that finished fifth last season is gone and progress must now be judged anew.

These are unfamiliar times.

Gone / Parkinson

It would seem that Bolton Wanderers will confirm that Phil Parkinson is their new manager tomorrow after Bradford City’s new owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp agreed to allow the long serving manager to talk to the Lancashire club.

Parkinson leaves behind him a Bradford City transformed from the struggling League Two team he inherited when they sat in 23rd position. His record of having improved the league standing of the team in each of his five finishes is impressive in itself but coupled with a League Cup final, wins over Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Sunderland and Leeds United make a case that Parkinson is the club’s most successful manager in the club’s history in terms of the resources available to him and what he achieved with them.

Parkinson built teams of iron character with players who redefined, for me, unity on a football field and his legacy will be measured in the high watermark set for players who wear the shirt from now on in terms of the effort put in and the support given to team mates.

Legacy

While it is Parkinson’s abilities to make these teams of his overcome huge obstacles that will have him remembered – giving Chelsea a two goal start is a good example – his real successes are on the nuances of manufacturing a team which rewarded effort in support with effort on the field.

But it would be wrong to say that Parkinson did not have his detractors. There were many who were concerned with his style of play and how it focused on a long delivery into the final third. There were questions about his ability to recruit players to improve the team with the summer of 2015 resulting in a lottery of players none of whom worked out. There were also concerns about his willingness to bring young players into the Bradford City first team set up which contrasted with Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp’s stated aims of developing talent.

Those questions will not need to be answered and Parkinson leaves Valley Parade having created a genuine symbiosis between supporters and team that becomes the next incumbents biggest asset and the now former manager’s lasting legacy.

Parkinson also achieves that rarest of things for a Bradford City manager in that he leaves on something of a high. He has not been sacked (well, only the once, and that was a few years back now), or forced into resignation, or hounded out, or told he would have not had his contract renewed, nor did the club or a majority of supporters want him to leave.

Parkinson was a good thing and – it seems – that good thing has come to an end.

Motivation

As Parkinson leaves suspicion is thrown on Rahic and Rupp as to how they could have avoided the manager’s departure and how determined they would be to have kept him. One could only guess at this but it would seem that Rahic had meetings with Parkinson and one assumes that at those meetings the two explained their approach to each other. Parkinson, one assumes, did not especially like what he heard from Rahic and decided that his career was best served elsewhere.

One can have one’s own thoughts on if Rahic should – when Parkinson told him that he wanted to carry on his career elsewhere – have told Parkinson that all the manager’s plans would trump all the owner’s decisions. While the change of ownership might have given Parkinson the pause to exit it seems unlikely that fundamental disagreements could have emerged in the space of two weeks that precipitated the exit.

Parkinson may explain his motivation but ultimately you, I, and Edin Rahic have to accept that he has made that decision and take it with good grace. That good grace to the likes of Gary Jones and Jon McLaughlin who return to Valley Parade as opposition players, rather than boos and backbiting, is another part of the Parkinson legacy and something best carried on, in my opinion at least.

Incumbent

And with Parkinson exiting thoughts turn to his successor and very quickly to Uwe Rösler who has been linked with the position since the new owners arrived although Rahic was quick to speculate that the link was created in the English press because both parties were German.

Rösler’s track record in management is not especially good enough to promote his name above any other candidates and one hopes his application is considered in that way. Linking Rösler seems to be educated guesswork as does linking Dutchman Huub Stevens.

Steve Parkin and the rest of Parkinson’s management team are expected to follow him to Bolton Wanderers and – experiences with Chris Hutchins colouring judgement – that may be the best for all.

When to start pressing your palms together as Bradford City beat Oldham Athletic 1-0 at Valley Parade

Bradford City ground out a win against an Oldham Athletic team who played most of the match with ten men after Connor Brown was sent off for a late and long lunge at Kyel Reid and were defeated when James Meredith’s deep cross was lob headed in by Tony McMahon.

City had chances to add to the lead which were squandered – strikers James Hanson and Billy Clarke both were guilty of missing the target in the final third – but it seemed that there was little commitment from City boss Phil Parkinson that his team would add a second, or third, goal against a team in the bottom four and playing with one fewer men.

Parkinson was happy with a one goal win. Parkinson is always happy with a one goal win. Parkinson has been Bradford City boss for around 250 games and we know that he approaches football like this. He likes clean sheets and takes a geological (“Geology is the study of pressure and time“) approach to winning matches.

This approach was in evidence at Parkinson’s finest hour and in many other fine hours before and since.

The game this time last year against Millwall which saw the visitors fold after an early sending off was the game that everyone wanted once Brown was sent off but it did not happen. Oldham under new manager John Sheridan were more robust than that Millwall team and approached the game trying to not be beaten rather knowing they needed to trying to win.

Wedded to that was City’s struggle to make play. James Meredith had one of his better games but most of the other players have had more fruitful afternoons. None of the players have got more points on an afternoon – there is no four points for an entertaining win – and so City continue to occupy a place in League One where with games in hand and a good wind the Bantams would trouble the play-offs.

Pressing palms

After around eighty minutes of the win over Oldham Athletic a cross from Mark Marshall was headed wide by James Hanson. It was a bad miss and received only a smattering of applause from the Valley Parade crowd of 18,522. I did, and was (in a roundabout way) ticked off for a friend who sits nearby at VP.

“I’m not clapping that” he remarked with what could be described as a cheery grump, before asking me why I was. The exchange was good natured with fifteen minutes of him turning to ask if it was acceptable to clap now and me telling him that he could not.

This exchange culminated with (and I shall let you, dear reader, judge if this is a high bar to clear) my point which encapsulates the argument crisply.

“You can clap when the fourth goal goes in against Chelsea, or you can start before then, its up to you.”

It all comes back to Chelsea in the end.

Gnomic

What is supporting a football team? A disinterested friend of mine calls it “cheering laundry” while a friend of his defines his life by the fact that he has a season ticket at Old Trafford. One suspects that there is a type of support for every supporter.

But there does seem to be an Isthmus of Suez between those who believe that supporting is an active participation in creating a better football team and those who believe it is appreciating the endeavours of that team. The former see supporting as an active process of involvement in a community while the latter look at it as a reactive experience in which their involvement is largely immaterial.

To start to characterise the two groups the latter group Hanson’s miss has nothing to applaud. It is a failed attempt to produce an aim. To the former group Hanson’s miss is a subject to improvement and that that improvement is made through hard work by the players and that hard work comes as the result of encouragement. It is not hard to imagine what the latter group would think about that.

The latter group look on a miss like Hanson’s as being similar to a duff album track, or Star Wars Episode One, as something that could be done better but was not. Why get excited about something like that? Why clap Jar Jar Binks as a good attempt that went wrong?

The former would reply that the heights of achievement are only possible because of the support at the bottom and that when teams are playing poorly, or when players miss headers, it is the role of supporters to rehabilitate and return to the heights.

When to start and when to finish

The classic Chicken or Egg situation exists here. Are Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United et al popular because they are successful or successful because they are – or were – popular? Is there a symbiosis of the two?

The Chelsea game gives a case in point. The cheer for the fourth goal – the footballing cherry on the top – was so much full-voiced than that for the first which seemed a consolation at the time, or the second which equalised. Instinctively I know why this is but it would be better to have cause and effect explicit.

I clapped Mark Marshall’s cross, and James Hanson’s effort to get to the ball, and Jon Stead’s 1-2 goal and the effort which created the single chance City mustered at Accrington in a Peter Jackson inspired 1-0 defeat which represents the lowest ebb of City’s play I’ve seen.

Hanson’s header went a long way wide but his header against Aston Villa put the club into a Cup Final. The approach, losing a man, getting in front of a defender, the effort required, everything to the finish was the same. Is only one admirable?

Perhaps I should have saved my applause for the moment Yeates had put the ball past Cech or some other rung on a ladder between there and here and somewhere lower. I did not and I cannot help but wonder what football would be like if people did that.

How Football is ploughing fields without planting seeds

An away trip through South Yorkshire

Chesterfield away is a classic of the genre. A one goal victory that came when Bradford City ground the ambition out of the home side leaving only struggle.

Every pass forward was marshalled and pushed away by an imperious defensive line. Every easy clearance was made hard by strikers and midfielders who chased down what would have been the routine were it not for the attitude that manager Phil Parkinson has drummed into his team.

The goal came when Tony McMahon finished off a mazy run and low cross by Billy Clarke. Clarke enjoyed his best game in claret and amber and tormented the Chesterfield backline dropping into the hole between James Hanson and the midfield and exploiting it.

Chesterfield’s response – to bring on the aging Richie Humphrey – showed a team stepping back on their home turf. McMahon’s goal finished off the home team.

Parkinson would say after the game that City could have had four – indeed the post was pinged a number of times – but really the City manager oversells his policies. A one goal away win excites Parkinson – and excites me – because of the grind that has seen wins come Scunthorpe United, Rochdale, Doncaster Rovers, Oldham Athletic.

Those days are Parkinson at his best.

Playing away to teams that want to win mirrors the visits of Sunderland, or Arsenal, or Aston Villa, or the trip to Chelsea. When the opposition commits to victory Parkinson uses Hanson the battering ram occupying multiple defenders, and soaks up pressure with a mean back four.

The City manager’s problems come at home when teams sit back and defend the Bantams attack which is sporadic as shown by the third fewest goals scored total in League One. When City are forced to make the play in a game then games slip away from Parkinson.

Or sometimes things do not work.

An away trip to South Yorkshire

Text message before the game with Sheffield United: “Upper or lower?”

Reply: “Neither.”

Going to a football match should not cost more than going to the cinema. I’ve said this in the past and I believe it.

I think that Bradford City’s home pricing is a rare oasis of sense in a madness of a game in which this generation sells the game from the next and does so with a great deal of support from those getting fleeced.

Bradford City’s away pricing – and walk up pricing – is equally toxic to the game as a whole. Last time I checked it cost £25 to go to Valley Parade as an away fan. It cost £22 at Chesterfield, it cost similar at Walsall, it cost similar at Doncaster, or at Scunthorpe and so on.

The impact of this aggressive pricing that makes following football a thing that only some can afford is obvious to anyone who sees the aging supporter group and the gentrification which seems to come with it.

£27 to get into Sheffield United is certainly something I can afford but it is not something I will pay. It is a few pounds more than other games and those few pounds are hardly significant to me but I will not pay it.

And I do not know when the hand becomes the wrist nor do I feel like I’ve created a hard and fast rule never to be broken but I would not support this part of football’s attempts to gouge out of my pocket because they assume that because I can pay it they should sell to me, aged 42, for a price that me, aged 21, would never have been able to pay.

The combination of the two

If you enjoy a team that puts in a performance that is part frustration, part opportunism then you would have enjoyed the Chesterfield game.

I would argue that Chesterfield, or Scunthorpe, or Doncaster, or Oldham were little different to the game with Chelsea that defines 2015 for Bradford City: Minimise chances coming at your goal and maximise what one has at the other end.

But I cannot say with all honesty that all people would enjoy all or any of those games. I am cut from a cloth were I am more impressed with hard work and honesty on a field than I am by rabona kicks and 45 man massing moves.

I enjoy seeing a team with limitations which overcome those limitations, some of the time, and the processional football of the Champions League leaves me cold. I’ve no interest in football where the players who walk onto the field against Barcelona believe they are beaten before kick off.

Winning away at Chesterfield from few chances but battling to make sure that the team does not concede a chance let alone a goal is a good Saturday afternoon for me but probably only because of the narrative it creates.

It is enjoyable to watch my team Bradford City attempting to overcome limitations because I know those limitations. There is an overarching story of the emergence of Rory McArdle from understudy to as rock of defence, or about Tony McMahon finding a role having floated anchorless at the start of the season.

(There is also a story about James Hanson being not good enough for a transfer to a professional club, not good enough for the bottom of League Two, not good for the middle of League Two, not good enough for a League Cup semi-final, not good enough for a play-off second leg, not good enough for League One, not good enough for a team chasing the League One play-offs. One day he will not be good enough and I’m sure the phrase “we told you so” will be used regardless of all the times naysayers were proven wrong. Watching Hanson over the last few years is a lesson in the narrative of football.)

These things are seen over the course of months, and years, and not in isolation. Football, for me, is never viewed in isolation. I find the idea of turning on Sky Sports to watch any old game as mystifying as opening a book at a random page, reading twenty pages, and then putting it back on the shelf.

To watch the unfolding narrative of a team one needs to be able to watch often and prices over £20 are no aid to that for me but would have been a substantial problem to me twenty years ago. Is Sheffield United vs Bradford City £27 worth of entertainment when – if one considers it – one could take a friend to watch The Force Awakens in IMAX and still have change for popcorn?

I can’t remember a worst time

Sheffield United away is not Chesterfield. Without a game owing to waterlogging and without the regular training pitches owing to flooding reports return that City lack sharpness and are easily beaten. Football is a multi-polar world and games are hard enough when preparations are ideal.

The supporters – both Bradford City and Sheffield United – are subject to some racist chanting from Sheffield United fans and some chanting that is unpleasant. This will be passed onto The FA – who are perhaps the least able and qualified body in the Universe on this subject – but probably not to the Police.

The FA never seem to tire of their role as prosecutors of – some might say persecutors of – those whom the Law of the Land can find no case against claiming their lower standard of evidence as somehow better than the one that is required by any court which could not be prefixed with the term Kangaroo.

I would not want to have The Racists of Sheffield who were at Bramall Lane to be convicted for what they said or what they think. I’m happy to just consider them to be a collective of idiots and be done with it.

But I did not pay £27 so what can I say?

The focus

To suggest that football needs to understand better its audience is to allow the game – the collective of clubs and organisers – leniency on the charge that they understand full well that they increasingly greying men who populate matches are the ones who will dig deepest for tickets and that they exploit that.

The people who run football always need more money and they know that people aged 35+ in good jobs with good incomes will fund their extravagant demands for more wages paid, more promotions pushes, more mistakes and managerial pay-offs.

These people are the focus of football’s attention. In twenty/thirty years time when those people have retired to Saturday afternoons in more comfortable surroundings there will be no generation to replace them because that attention is so narrowly focused.

Oddly enough because of the odd combination of Wembley twice and season ticket pricing Bradford City are one of the clubs who have some protection against this – there is a healthy group of younger City fans who have been allowed a stake in the support – but mingle with the home fans at an away game and appreciate the difference.

Football is ploughing fields without planting seeds.

The longview

Sheffield United away is I am told a bad performance in isolation but not out of keeping with how Bradford City perform. When taken over a longer period City are averaging a point and a half a game away from home, as well as the odd Chelsea if you will.

Often the game plan of Chesterfield works but when it does not the result is as it was in South Yorkshire. Since Phil Parkinson arrived his plans have had a shifting impact on the mentality of the club.

When he arrived the club was congratulating itself for avoiding relegation out of the Football League under the hapless Peter Jackson. Now there is a consideration that the club is not ideally placed to reach the second tier of English football.

But I – and perhaps you – only know this having been fortunate enough to be able to afford to follow the club from that period to this.

I do not see how that will be possible for the coming generations of football.

The Ben Williams season continues with City facing Aldershot Town in the FA Cup

Williams from Williams

The first time Ben Williams became known to Bradford City supporters was during the first round of the FA Cup when – minutes into the game with Halifax Town – he was picking the ball out of the back of his own goal.

An inauspicious start to a campaign that would see Williams keeping goal at Stamford Bridge but his afternoon at The Shay better when Phil Parkinson switched formation and Filipe Morais and Billy Clarke turned the match and the season around.

Jon Stead scored – he always scored in the FA Cup – and Williams’ role was largely forgotten but he did make a very good save from a Williams’ close range header. I’d describe it as memorable but it seems that not a lot of people remember it.

Ben Williams save from Steve Williams. Steve Williams is a former Bantam who exited Valley Parade around the time of the change from Peter Taylor, to Peter Jackson, to Phil Parkinson . In the words for former Chief Scout Archie Christie when asked why the talented Williams had left said that the player “did not want it enough.”

Wanting it enough was big for Christie, and is big for Phil Parkinson.

Wanting it

The last three weeks of Bradford City have been the definition of “wanting it”. A trip to Millwall, a visit from Blackpool, a trip to Aldershot for the 0-0 draw that brings about this reply, and a 2-0 win over Crewe Parkinson’s team had dug in hard to turn a few good wins into an impressive unbeaten run.

Parkinson’s has taken his Bradford City back to the most simple of building blocks creating a team which fetishises not conceding in the same way Barcelona lust for possession. Parkinson’s City will not concede – so the thought goes – and as a result the result will take after itself.

One has to go back to 24th of October when Wigan Athletic took the lead past Ben Williams for City’s last concession. Williams could have done better with that strike, and he got lucky with a shot from Crewe on Saturday that slipped greasy off his body and flew back into play but Williams has earned his luck with his graft.

My issue with Williams’ goalkeeping style – that he allows too much of a gap between the defensive line and himself – is addressed by Parkinson compressing his defensive unit at the expense of his forward line leaving the forward line lacking numbers. It is meat and potatoes and City are criticised for a negative approach to the game.

Criticism is always relative though, and relative to the criticism one gets for losing.

The work

The work which Phil Parkinson’s team have put into the last two months is transformative. Players have developed pairings where previously there was confusion. Stephen Darby has found an unlikely partner in Tony McMahon while James Meredith probably thought reuniting with Kyel Ried was unlikely too.

The central midfield pair are of two of Lee Evans, Gary Liddle and the much improved Billy Knott are a product of days at Apperley Bridge. Knott would be the poster boy for improvement with his push back from the Ghetto of being an “attacking midfielder” into a genuinely useful box to box player.

Would be if it were not for the backline of Rory McArdle, Reece Burke and Williams himself. Calm has replaced barked blasts. Control has replaced scrambles. Stern has replaced soft when running at the heart of the Bantams team.

There is a significant need for a collective improvement. It has happened.

A Ben Williams sort of season

Bradford City’s season has become a Ben Williams sort of season. Capable of slips, and at times doing things wrong, but improved with hard work and no better/no worse as is shown on the field.

I’ve always found this aspect of football as – perhaps – the most understated joy in football.

To support a Liverpool in the 1980s, a Manchester United in the 1990s, a Manchester City now is to experience football top down where expectation is winning and winning is everything. Bristol City supporters last season – with a team outspending its league – expected the same. It is rare to have that in football, I’m sure most at City never will have had it.

For the rest the drama is in watching teams which are – and I struggle to find a better description – only as good as they are on the field. City are in a morass of teams in League One who are in a similar situation. The FA Cup against Aldershot Town offers the kind of assumption which the Bantams seldom get, and can never enjoy.

Aldershot Town are struggling for form in the National League but so were City when City rolled up at Chelsea last year – everything in the FA Cup is set in the Chelsea context for a while at least – and while the Bantams should win they will only do so with the same hard graft that has turned the season around.

Hard work, and hoping the mistakes go unpunished. A year on from his debut and we are all having a Ben Williams sort of season.

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.

The alternatives to how Premier League football runs the game

How could it be any other way?

The Thierry Henry campaign to launch the return of the Premier League on Sky Television was predictably a hit. A video showing the Frenchman wandering through moments in the last 23 years of football history like some kind of Gallic Forrest Gump has been watched millions of times.

And right now there are sponsorship deals being made which will see logos for betting companies or pay-day lenders – or airlines and insurers – emblazoned on shirts.

Soon football will be returning from a Summer break that hardly seems to have happened. Which is wonderful.

Because we all love football. I know I do, but I know I do not love all football, and increasingly I recognise that there is a lot about football that I do not like at all.

It’s all about the money, Dick

This is not the prelude to a moan about money in football. I have no problem with a player earning the salaries they do.

In the most general terms the money in football comes from footballer supporters subscribing to the game through season tickets and television rights, from a pie at the game to a pint in a beach bar under the omnipresent sight of Premier League football on a screen suspended from a rattan roof.

Most of the money which comes into football goes out to players. This is often the source of consternation but it is probably not the case that if as money did not go to players it would result in cheaper shirts and lower admission. It would go to Directors and Owners.

I enjoy watching players play, I don’t enjoy watching Directors direct nor spend their dividend payments. If I had the choice of how money flows through a club, if I have a choice between Players and Directors, it would flow with the players.

Encapsulated in that choice is the perception problem we have with our football. We set the game in the tone of excess. What to do with the massive amounts of money that the game generates?

What are the ethics of a £100m transfer fee? Or a player who earns £1m a week? Should clubs use money to reduce admission prices? Who should be allowed to own a club? Should the owners of a club be allowed to relocate the club to another City? Should they be allowed to rename or recolour a club? Or to fund club to success at the expense of other clubs who have not been given huge financial injections? Or to strip out assets as someone might do with any other business?

These are the debates in football over the last few years, and they will be the debates we have for the few years to come. These debates are all framed around one central theme: the massive amounts of money generated by football, and what should be done with it.

Dead Irish Writers

Standing on the roof of Croke Park and looking out to Dublin Bay you can see Howth Head. It is the spot where Leopold Bloom asks wife Molly to marry him as recalled in her soliloquy which closes Joyce’s Ulysses.

The roof of Croke Park is a horse-shoe shape leaving one end uncovered. It seats 73,500 people which along with the 8,800 on the terrace create the third largest stadium in Europe.

It is a towering structure and one which is used almost exclusively for Gaelic Games and specifically Gaelic Football and Hurling.

The Gaelic Games are amateur sports. When more than 82,000 people go to Croke Park – and they do – they go to watch players who do not get paid anything more than expenses to play for the county of their birth. The teams in the Gaelic Games are regional and there is no transferring between them. Of course you can find example of players who get paid in some way, and who have managed to find a way to switch clubs, because abuses exist in every system, but standing looking over the expanse of Croke Park the contrast to the oncoming rush of Premier League football is stark.

And it is stark in this way. We have been told – as football supporters – that there is only one way that a sport can operate and it is the way of the Premier League.

Since the launch of the Premier League in the early 1990s all football has been mutated around it, becoming focused on what is more or less the same approach to a game at every club.

There is a circular model which operates at every club which is about trying to achieve as a high placed league finish in order to generate money through sponsorship and advertising which is put into trying to achieve a high league finish.

Its is important to make a distinction between this model and trying to win a league. Newcastle United are our model in this analysis. They aim to finish as high as they can but know that that will not be able to win the Premier League. The aim is to maintain position.

The method is to recruit a team from all over the world without any specific connection to the team or the area it plays in, or the people who support it. That team is paid for by advertising almost anything that can be advertised. There is no ethical, or interest, test employed other than the commercial one.

Barcelona – a team who said that no sponsor would dirty the shirt – accepted one in order to compete in UEFA’s world as defined by Financial Fair Play. The rules that football is played under demand that income is maximised by any means. That is the way that football is.

There is little which is not sacrificed in pursuit of the circular model. Cardiff City change the colour of the team’s shirt, Hull City try to change the name. Manchester City seem to have been prepared to change everything about the club other than those two things. Newcastle United will change the name of the stadium, West Ham United will change the stadium, Coventry City will sell the stadium. All in order to turn the wheel faster on the circular model.

Which makes sense if the circular model is the only model – the only way to run a football club – but is it?

FC Romania v Sporting Bengal United

FC Romania play in the Essex Senior League and have a place in the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round this month. They are a team set up to give a place where Romanian community can play football together. Sporting Bengal United who were formed to encourage more London Asians to play the game and play in the same league.

FC United of Manchester have opened a community stadium. AFC Wimbledon seemingly exist to show that community football is viable.

To greater and lesser extents these clubs operate away from the circular model in that they have priorities other than success be that financial success or success on the field. AFC Wimbledon, for example, could make more money to spend on the team should be agree to the many attempts to create a kind of WWE style Smackdown rivalry with MK Dons but they prefer to stay quiet and dignified.

These have things which they consider more important than being successful, and which they would maintain at the cost of success. They would rather be “a thing” than be successful in the way that football measures success.

They create their own terms for success which are tightly weaved into their clubs.

Hill 16

Hill 16 is the standing area not covered by the Croke Park roof. “Why isn’t the stadium finished?” asked a tourist, “That’s sacred ground.” replied the tour guide.

On 21st November 1920 the stadium was the scene of a massacre by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Thirteen supporters and one of the players were killed by gunfire described as indiscriminate. It was a reprisal attack on a day which is known as Bloody Sunday.

Hill 16 is set as the location of the attack and as such is the focal point for the mood of defiance that surrounds the Gaelic Games. That defiance is not just nationalistic (if it is nationalistic at all) it is also anti-establishment, or at least anti-corporate.

Recently Dublin has had to contend with the news that the Irish FA, smarting from being knocked out of the World Cup by a Thierry Henry handball, were paid and accepted hush money. The Henry advert for Sky is probably not as popular in Dublin. Football and Rugby Union are popular and are part of Global sporting movements.

It is not hard to see how the Gaelic Games stands apart from that. In the bowels of the massive stadium is a small museum dedicated to the history of the games, and of what the games represent in Irish independence, which talks of a community pride and tradition.

Again the contrast to the “whole new ball game” of the Premier League is marked.

Hill 16 stands as a part of that tradition. To continue the roof of Croke Park around would be to intrude on what is sacred ground to some. It would also be to miss the point of what Croke Park is and how it is a focus of a feeling that is at the heart of the Games played there.

Hill 16 is not sold as a part of the brand of Gaelic Football. It is intrinsic to that game itself.

Reading, writing and arithmetic

I go back in my mind to that week when Bradford City played three distant away games in six days culminating in one of the biggest games in the club’s history, an FA Cup Quarter Final.

The heavy legs, the weary players, and the sense of unfairness that had come from what was the luck of the draw of fixtures on one hand, and the fixed nature of the replay date because of the demands of Television and European Champions League football.

Had I been watching that game as a neutral I would have wondered how it could be that such a handicap would be applied to one of the teams. Alan Greene said as much during his Five Live coverage of the game.

The answer is as depressing as it is predictable. The money which fuels the circular model comes from the same sources that have created the environment where that game was considered to be an acceptable part of a top level football competition in this country.

And that poises obvious questions as to who decisions are being made for in football, and made by.

The Duke

At Bradford City we have enjoyed and endured a narrative over decades which (in some contexts) sets the club apart. In the Fire of 1985 we have out Hill 16, conceptually at least, and there is a sense of priorities which does differ from other clubs.

On most occasions those priorities are folded into the fabric of the wider game seamlessly enough. When it clashes such as in the Diadora advert for example a kind of reparation is made quickly and everyone moves on.

There are serious people who have reservations about how clubs like Bradford City, or Liverpool with Hillsborough, Spartak Moscow at Luzhniki, or Torino with The Superga Air Disaster have the tragedy build onto their sporting brand often without the permission of the club or its community, and sometimes against the will of supporters involved.

There are times when it is apt to talk about 1985 at Bradford City and times when it is not.

Bradford City the football club and Bradford City the community of supporters do not always overlap. Asking a player under twenty eight years old at the 2013 League Cup final if they are (para) “doing it for the victims of the fire” is one of those times.

Matt Duke, who played in that 2013 final, having survived cancer earlier in his life and saw his achievement on the field set entire in the context of his illness. The tone was not quite that had Duke not made a major final his recovery would have been lesser but the nature of the coverages showed the inability of the football media to consider matters out of a sporting context.

When, in the build up to the 2013 League Cup Final, Liverpool born pair Gary Jones and Steven Darby were asked what their thoughts on City accepting coverage sponsorship from The Sun and replied that they would rather it did not happen and the club (to the credit of all) respected those wishes.

The media ignored that story and still do perhaps because there was no way to set that in the context of “the boys doing good”.

The Chelsea Museum

If you arrive at Stamford Bridge early on that glorious day you could have walked around The Chelsea Museum. It is as far from Croke Park which has a delight in history and the amateur codes as you would ever see.

A celebration of Chelsea, and Chelsea winning things, and the fact that Chelsea had won things largely (but not only) because of massive amounts of money which were questioningly amassed by Roman Abramovich and lavished on the club.

Perhaps there should be a corner of the Chelsea Museum donated to Dubliner Mark Yeates wheeling away after he scores the fourth goal in City’s 4-2 win at Stamford Bridge?

The Shed End full and bouncing celebrating a team of hard working players scoring a massive upset. It contrasts sharply with what Chelsea have become since Abramovich’s arrival but it seems to speak to something at the heart of the football experience for supporters.

This might seem a comic idea – and it is presented tongue in cheek – but to a person who pre-dates the Premier League standing in the Chelsea Museum celebrating someone’s success because it happened at Stamford Bridge is very much what the club is about.

The phrase “easy to rig and was in fact rigged” is the heart of the Chelsea story. It does not feature in the Chelsea Museum, nor does it feature in the advertising for “23rd Year of The Best League In The World” which is bombarding out media this week.

Who does English football serve?

Who does English football serve? We have a simple question which quickly diverges into complexities.

Is English football here to serve the season ticketed rank and file supporter? Is it to serve the wider nation that flags up every two years and consumes the game passively? Is it to serve the overseas audiences who we are told are “increasingly important markets”? Is it to serve Oligarchs and Billionaires who own clubs? Or the Millionaires who play for them?

And when we get to an answer to those questions do we think that English football serves its aims well and for the good of the people it claims to serve.

It is nothing new for a season ticket holder at a club like Bradford City to suggest that the game is expensive to follow and does not seem to have his interests at heart and this sense is not lessened the higher up football one goes. Newcastle United supporters have been given a 12:45 kick off in Bournemouth in a move “by TV” which used to cause more outrage but now is just part of the fabric of the game.

We just assume – as supporters look on – that someone else’s interests will always trump our own. If we were at Croke Park we would just assume that Hill 16 would be demolished because someone else wanted it to be, or could make money from it.

And in that we assume that the someone else benefits appropriately but are we that convinced that the overseas audience the Premier League loves so much is best served by watch it? Would football energy not be best spent making better local leagues? The one hundred year plan in Japan, and the progress of the MLS, have shown what a country that is able to get the space to create its own league can progress.

Think about the ramifications of this football Imperialism the next time you see a Real Madrid shirt in Bradford City Centre. The people at FC Romania v Sporting Bengal United are building real communities around football. How does having to compete with Real Madrid help with that?

And how is it less obvious how the expansion of the Premier League to overseas markets is not equally counter-productive for other communities?

How is it not obvious the damage being done to us all?

Phil Parkinson against the forces of wilful blindness

It’s a truism that love is blind; what’s less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore – Margaret Heffernan, Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious

Two absolute legends gone in the space of a few days. I wish them nothing but the best – Mark Hainsworth ?aka @bcafcmark, Twitter

If Andrew Davies’ exit to Ross County this week was unexpected Jon Stead’s signed for League Two Notts County rather than Bradford City was confirmation for Bradford City supporters.

No one was sure what Stead’s move did confirm – that the club had less money that it seemed of should have to to be the prime concern – but Mark Hainsworth’s tweet recalls the way that City fans took Stead to their hearts after the win over Chelsea.

The fact that Stead had seemed to be Mr Huddersfield Town for a long part of his career hardly seemed to matter. Indeed as Stead put Chelsea to the sword he was technically a Huddersfield Town player and that alone seemed to be enough of a factor to ensure that Simon Eastwood’s career at Bradford City never got out of the blocks when he joined on loan from the team to the West.

City fans fell in love with Jon Stead and as Heffernan says it is not only true that love is blind it is staggering how much evidence we are prepared to ignore in that blindness.

Wilful blindness

Wilful blindness is a legal term applied to a situation in which a person deliberately avoids knowing information to avoid being liable for knowing it. In short it is why if someone gives you a £1,000 to carry a suitcase through HM Customs you are liable what the contents of the suitcase are.

Wilful blindness is carrying the case without opening the case because you know what you would find if you opened the case. It is when you avoid knowing pertinent information to avoid liability.

It is a dangerous trait to employ in football where liability is not decided so much as detected. If a Chairman retains the services of a manager being wilfully blind to the mistakes he is making results quickly remove that blindness. A manager can more easily be guilty of it. Playing a favourite player despite his failings is masked by the other players on the field but even that is eventually found out.

Do I not like that

Overall, people are about twice as likely to seek information that supports their own point of view as they are to consider an opposing idea – Heffernan

When Graham Taylor removed Gary Lineker in the final twenty minutes of his final game for England in 1992 the nation went into uproar at the way the England manager had cruelly ended the career of one of the finest strikers in the side’s history and sabotaged chances of progressing in Euro 92.

A sober remembering of the game – a 2-1 defeat – recalls that Lineker was playing poorly and the Silver Haired Goal Hanger admits so himself. That Taylor replaced Lineker with the monumentally average Alan Smith rather than – for example – fresh faced Alan Shearer was a whole different mistake but in removing Lineker Taylor worked against the wilful blindness of a country who were perfectly prepared to ignore The Static Crisp Salesman’s ineffectiveness which saw him not score in Euro 92, or in the run up to Euro 92.

It would be too much to suggest that Taylor was struck by inspiration when he ignored this common wilful blindness but there was something iconoclastic about his actions, even if they were fruitless.

Which Jon Stead?

The Jon Stead against Chelsea was a rare sight at Bradford City but it was an impressive one. Stead’s performance was inspirational and at the end of the season it was mentioned as the best single display by a player all year. It is impossible when thinking of Jon Stead not to think of that day.

But there were games against Chesterfield and Preston North End as City’s season fizzled out which were also a part of Jon Stead. His play was frustrating and he was easily marshalled by the more impressive defenders of League One like Ian Evatt and Paul Huntington.

Without knowing what he was offered by Bradford City – or by Notts County – to make him one of City’s highest paid players as was suggested would be to be wilfully blind to those games where Jon Stead was – well – not very good. Not very good or at least not very useful to the aims of scoring goals which has to factor into Phil Parkinson’s thinking.

Like Graham Taylor in 1992 dealing with Gary Lineker Parkinson does not have the luxury of looking at Stead with optimism and ignoring the information he does not want to be the case. If he spends his budget on a player on the hope that the high watermark of his performances will be the common and constant watermark then he will fail ass a manager.

He has to open the suitcase because he is liable for what is in it. Signing Jon Stead is an exercise in wilful blindness.

Yes, but which Jon Stead?

It would seem that Steve Davies has joined City to replace Stead and the standard that Davies will be held against is not the Stead of those games where he wandered, or looked disinterested, but the Chelsea and the Sunderland matches where he was at his best.

When Davies has failed to score on some boggy pitch in Bury he will be compared unfavourably with Jon Stead, but not with the real Jon Stead, but on the one we create out of the parts we want to remember.

But Andrew Davies

Andrew Davies played three season for Bradford City and played twenty eight league games in each. I think he was City’s best player last year and I would rather he was still at the club and not wandering the Highlands of Scotland.

If Phil Parkinson’s job on Jon Stead is to not be blind, is the same true of Davies? After all while I can say that the team was measurably better with Davies in the side I can bring to mind mistakes he made that cost games.

Likewise while talking about how the defender can play twenty eight games a season I ignore the fact that in his first season it was suspension and not injury that cost him matches, and that in the second half of last season injury compounded injury.

I think that he is worth a new contract but I am wilfully blind myself in this matter. I’m partial to Davies. He is my sort of player and I do not find myself wanting to think on his faults now he has gone.

But think on them we should else we ignore the obvious and create too high a standard for the next set of Bradford City players.

The rise and pause of James Hanson

Having watched them fail to cope with his muscular style in the FA Cup it was hardly surprising that Millwall put in a bid for James Hanson. The London club – who will compete with City in League One next season – have seen the effectiveness of the Bantams bluntest object first hand and were evidently impressed.

The Lions bid has been rejected. The word from Bradford City was that it was not near the amount the player is valued at which sounds troublingly more like a negotiating tactic than a hands off notice. We await developments with a sense of worry.

For most who cast an eye over Valley Parade in the past five years James Hanson’s rise is the rise of Bradford City. Emerging from nowhere – he did used to work at the Co-op – to heights previously unprecedented and very unexpected. It was Hanson who scored the goal which took City to Wembley in 2013 and who the BBC choose to use as their representative of the club in their coverage of that League Cup final.

It is not hard to associate the tall striker with all the good things that have gone on at City in the past few years. He was the man of the moment in the greatest moment to date at Villa, he scored a superb strike at Burton Albion in the playoffs, and he worked his backside off on the left hand side against Chelsea. In-between he puts in the kind of hard working displays that he promised back in 2010.

But there is a temptation to ask what the limits of using a player like Hanson are. At League One level the teams that do well have a powerhouse forward like Hanson but the higher up a club goes the less used the more obvious parts of Hanson’s game are. Strength and the ability to hold the ball become necessities at some point although that point is a deal higher than the middle of League One where City are at the moment.

One is tempted to look at the stalled progress of Hanson’s former partner Nahki Wells and suggest that somewhere in the middle of The Championship – the hurdle that Huddersfield Town cannot manage to leap over – there is a gradual change in playing style away from the type of football that gets you into the league at the bottom and towards the type of football that gets you out of it at the top. Wells and Hanson were a classic big man/little man pairing and that is out of fashion at Watford and Norwich where promotion is being celebrated.

Indeed much of what Bradford City under Phil Parkinson do could be said to be out of step with the successful teams of the division above. Football as a whole sneers at City’s physical play, direct football and hard work ethic. That sneer is turned away after Chelsea, or Sunderland, or similar but only in those instances. The prevailing narrative of football is that what City do week-in-week-out is some how less teams that pursue “pure” football.

Parkinson is given awards for his work but none of the managers who lost at Stamford Bridge is tempted to imitate him.

Which gives Hanson, and Parkinson, a moment of pause. Will City’s rise be a result of the same patterns of play – albeit with refinement – or will the club, management and players have to change to progress?

Steven Gerrard, no EPLs and having the football we want

As I write this article Steven Gerrard, Liverpool footballer, is preparing to play his last match at Anfield after seventeen years as a professional at the club.

Gerrard’s exit is the final story in a Premier League which seems to have long since been decided. Chelsea have won the league – Oh Chelsea – and Burnley & QPR have been relegated with Hull City to follow probably.

I say probably because it would seem that given the choice between devoting its 24 hour news coverage to the fate of Hull City, or the play offs, or Gerrard’s closing career in English football the media seems to have decided that the England midfielder is the story to cover.

And of course this gave rise to criticism on Twitter because – well – there is nothing in modern life which does not beget the fury of people on Twitter. This criticism is summed up in the idea that the coverage is excessive considering that Gerrard had not won the Premier League championship.

EPL

When I first heard the phrase “EPL” I knew that something truly ghastly had entered the conversation on English football. As an abbreviation for English Premier League it makes perfect sense alongside the Scottish Premier League, The National Football League, Major League Baseball and so on but its creation as a term in common usage denoted the internationalisation of the top flight of the English game.

“How many EPLs has Gerrard won?”, “He won UCL!” and so on. This is the lingua fraca of discussing the top of English football on some places. I do not suggest you discuss football on the Quora website but if you do prepared to be amazed by just how remote the discussions are from the mechanics of week-to-week supporting of Bradford City.

But let me be clear this situation of internationalisation of the English Premier League support is not an issue because Americans want to watch Manchester United or that people in Indonesia want to follow Liverpool. It is an issue because those Americans and Indonesians are in American and Indonesia.

They are far away

Far away and not likely to ever go to Old Trafford or Anfield but able to follow their clubs remotely through websites and live TV streams. They can commit a good deal of time to their support and by virtue of their financial contributions in shirt sales and so on I’d support an argument that they had paid their dues.

(I use the term “their” advisedly, I’m not arguing that they are less fans, or that their support is less genuine.)

However the mechanics of supporting a club you will never see – or may only see once or twice – are different from those of watching a team week-in-week-out. I know this from my experience following Japanese side JEF United in addition to Bradford City.

For City I appreciate attributes from players such as the effort they give when trailing by two at Peterborough United, or how they try motivate their team mates to sneak a victory at Rochdale when a draw would be a perfectly acceptable result. The moments which tell you the most about a player or a team are those which are not lingered on by TV cameras. The walk back after a concession, the speed of which a player gets back to his feet, the look on his face when a team mate makes a mistake.

I have none of this information when following JEF United. I have stats. Goals scored, assists, number of EPLs won.

Framing the debate

Drop into a global “EPL Talk forum” and the discussion is almost entirely about stats and not about character which, in my opinion, frames the debate of football entirely in the wrong way. In my opinion the number of EPLs that Chelsea had one was not as important as the character which Bradford City showed.

(As an aside it was interesting how easily Chelsea recovered from that defeat in the FA Cup fourth round and how little impact it made on their profile, globally or nationally. I believe that was because there was no context to the statistics that the game offered. It was impossible to make sense of stats like how much money Chelsea cost compared to City when the disparity was so large, it was impossible to make sense of it so it was ignored.)

This debate framed poorly values different things at the top of the Premier League which attracts a great many supporters who are not regular attenders of games than it does at lower levels, and for supporters of teams at the top of the Premier League who do attend regularly.

It is hard to argue that the regular attenders pay for football – TV money, advertising and so on pay a good chunk of the bills – but when chunking up and down the Motorways its easy to imagine that regulars are showing a level of commitment that demands that the coverage of the game be set up for them.

This may be an illusion – a factor of the white lines late on a Saturday evening returning home – but the idea that football coverage is for the benefit of people other than those who go to games is not something which is oft considered. We assumed that the explosion in football coverage that came in the last twenty years would be for the benefit of the same people who have season tickets. We were wrong.

We do not have the football coverage we want.

Gerrard

Steven Gerrard has some remarkable achievements as a Liverpool player – UCLs and so on – but talking to people who go to Anfield his contributions are more marked in the way that City fans have considered Stuart McCall and Gary Jones in the past, and consider the likes of Andrew Davies and James Hanson now.

The tributes to him as he prepares for his final game at Anfield are the odd mix of a football event which has some resonance with supporters of clubs up and down the country and something which appeals to the debates of the EPL Forum.

These moments are rare, and when they come they highlight the distance between these two sets of value, and how wide that distance often is.

Andrew Davies and why he is my player of the season

Dipped in the River Styx

Andrew Davies was a curious signing for Bradford City. Brought in from Premier League side Stoke City where he was persona non-gratis one could not help but hear the feint ringing of alarm bells.

Why would Davies – a Premier League player on £14,000 – join Bradford City and how had City got him to join without paying him anything? And how could he come into the team which had Peter Jackson’s big signing Guy Branston it it. Branston’s lunging defending was the legacy which Phil Parkinson inherited from Jackson. Parkinson wanted a fresh start. And he got it through Andrew Davies.

Rarely has a manager and a player operated in such simpatico as Parkinson and Davies, and not since Paul Jewell trusted Stuart McCall to lead on the field and leave him to led in the dressing room have two people tied their fortunes so closely together.

The manager: intelligent and practical; The player: passionate and purposeful; The combination at the heart of all that has been good about Bradford City.

The shot of Paris

Davies’ weakness is obvious to all. He has missed ten leagues games every season he has played for Bradford City. Sometimes suspended but often injured Davies seems incapable of a full season at full fitness. The frustration he feels at it is obvious late in 2014/2015 as he bangs his fist on the floor when he pulls up once more.

City’s promotion attempt fails, and the two are not unconnected.

One wonders how high an Andrew Davies who had the fitness of his defensive partners Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle could have gone? If he was at City and playing would this season in which the play-offs were missed by one place and four points have turned out differently?

If he had not had this Achilles Heel would we have seen him at Bradford City at all? His misfortune has become something at Valley Parade and taken on a purpose.

At Troy

League One gives players two types of challenges. The best games and the best players are battles of wits in which a smart player tries to give a defender the slip, sneak past him or through him, or pull him out of position to leave a hole for a team mate.

Look at his face closely and you can see Andrew Davies’ concentration in those games. Those are the games where a tackle is not followed by a clenched fist or self congratulation but a check over the shoulder and a retaking of position.

Then these are League One’s battles against League One’s battlers. Davies is the man for both occasions. He thrives on a physical challenge. What he gives up in speed he makes up in judgement – most of the time – and importantly he makes up in the discipline he drills into his defensive partner Rory McArdle and his two full backs.

Perhaps the greatest attribute one can afford a player is that he improves those around him. Sometimes it seems that with Andrew Davies in the side City are a match for anyone.

Indeed they are.

The river of oceans

Andrew Davies will always be Chelsea away. Put up against a genuine legend of the modern game in Drogba, and against a team who would move and pass their way to the Premier League title Davies and McArdle shipped a couple of goals in what many if not most expected would be up to a half dozen for the home side.

But something happened after half time and before Filipe Morais’ equaliser which is seldom credited. Davies lead the team in effort, and in passion, and in ability frustrating the Blues and setting up what was to come.

It speaks to the man’s character, and it echoes ever game Davies has played this season. The instance that no game should be given away, and that the attitude of the club must be that Bradford City do not let victory go cheaply, and that if victory has not gone the there is always a chance.

Give Phil Parkinson £10m to spend in the summer and he will not find a better player to encapsulate that. Get Andrew Davies a new contract.

And shall we mention

In the interests of a top five in player of the season I would suggest that Davies is followed by by Rory McArdle who has one again been a definition of dependability. Then by Billy Knott who has progressed from a high level with a winner against Leeds to a higher one later in the season where he was given an inside midfield role.

Then by James Hanson who continues his rise and at points starts to look like he is finding a ceiling but – crucially – ignores any suggestion of a limit to what he can do by constant, perpetual, hard work. Finally Filipe Morais who had something of a tempestuous time but his goal at Chelsea, and his contributions in other occasions where he sacrificed himself to the team ethic, were the proof of what Phil Parkinson is trying to do at VP.

The thrashing by Bristol City that taught us what we already knew

The emotion

“Eight One.

Eight Bloody One!

Eight One To Brighouse. They are a team of old aged pensioners! The centre forward wears glasses. During the match!”

Eight goals! Four of them from back passes to the goalkeeper!

They were the worst.”

Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns

The substance

If the one goal defeat at Gillingham did not finalise Bradford City’s inability to make the League One play offs in 2015 then the goal sodden mess of a 6-0 home defeat to Bristol City did.

For those who had seen City only in the brightest moments: the Chelsea, the Sunderland, the Doncaster Rovers, the Millwall at home, the Preston away; then this result might not be able to be set in context. For those of us – and this is most of us – this represents the low watermark in a season which offered equally contrasting highs but was always due to tend to the middle.

That Bristol City looked like the all-stars of the bottom two divisions goes some way to explaining their success this year. The likes of Luke Freeman, Marlon Pack, Wade Elliott, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, and Aaron Wilbraham have been best players for different teams for the last few years. The Robins have put them together with devastating results for the Bantams.

Bradford City – on the other hand – endured a night of compounded mistakes passing through the team like a virus and starting from the dis-effective. There was something in the way that Mark Yeates kept playing James Meredith short that caused Meredith problems and those problems chipped into a decent display from the left back which became a very poor one.

From Meredith it spread. After the left back was beaten by the effervescent Freeman for a second goal which Stephen Darby was massively outjumped for it had passed to the opposite full back (credit Darby, he strode on manfully) but most crucially to the goalkeeper Ben Williams.

Williams’ command of his box was shot and the area behind Rory McArdle and Gary MacKenzie was freeland for the opposition where it should be an area for a all out keeper to come claim balls. This would be seen in the 4th goal, or perhaps the 5th, where Pack bent a ball behind the central defenders and in front of Williams and there was the freedom of the pitch to head home in.

It is horrible to write off a man’s career but Williams seemed a spent force. A technical goalkeeper who needs to show a command of his box which he does not he is like the minutes after a goal when Jon McLaughlin would sulk stretched out for entire games. Jordan Pickford’s mouth on style will take him to places Williams’ laconic ways will not, and are far more useful.

MacKenzie caught what was going around. His defending was average but his failure was in attempts to play controlled passes rather than clearances, and a strange choke that saw him trying to volley away things he would previously have headed.

The Choke – an interesting concept in Sports Psychology – I use to to describe a failure to win what was expected but to do what is normally done. MacKenzie – when under pressure and at three goals down – stops being the reliable clearance based replacement for Andrew Davies and starts trying to play the ball like Beckenbauer.

The midfield were out muscled – at times unfairly and Gary Liddle will wonder how his being elbowed in the closing stages is something that can be ignored – but at times by a Bristol City side who were more committed to winning the game. The 442 Phil Parkinson favoured for the evening badly needs a speedy winger to stop an opposition midfield sitting toe to toe knowing it will not be beaten for pace.

Parkinson switched to a 4312 for the second half. If the manager wants to maintain an ability to move between the two formations he needs at least one fast wide player who can make the flat four lass flat and he needs to rethink Billy Clarke’s ability in the playmaker role in a three man with one behind formation.

Clarke drifted out of the game at about fifty five minutes last out never to be seen again. Pack dealt with him well – one seldom comes up against such a player – but to highlight the problem Luke Freeman was offering a masterclass in playing the playmaker role for the opposition.

Freeman was a constant threat – the type of player you do not want to see on the ball – in a way that Clarke has not been. In truth Freeman offers a model the playmaker role – set out for Mark Yeates at the start of the season – to be filled by Billy Knott who does the job of constant annoyance better than Clarke.

As it was Clarke was ineffective as was Jon Stead. Stead fills the heart with joy – Chelsea and all that – and typifies City’s season. Sometimes he is Chelsea, sometimes he is this, and when negotiating with the forward (perhaps in Lira, so to speak) one hopes nights like this where he offered very little of note are remembered.

Which is not to criticise the former England u21 player but while he was an England u21 player James Hanson was working at the Co-op and on the night when he saw his team get battered Hanson emerged with credibility. His head did not go down, his levels did not drop, and he alone could be said to have earned his corn on this woeful evening.

What then for Parkinson and his squad. As obliquely referenced above takeover talk buzzed around Valley Parade with the idea of investment on the horizon. Often a double edged sword this investment may give Parkinson the wage budget to improve his side but Parkinson will look for characters to do that, and it is character that was lacking tonight.

The squad – at the moment – seems to break into three groups. There are players who lead and who have the character needed for success: Hanson, McArdle, Davies, Darby and more; and there are players who when led will show the character to create a great group and team: Morais, Knott, Meredith, MacKenzie and more; and there are players who seem to have failed a test of character or of usefulness: Yeates, Routis, Zoko, Williams and more; who the manager has taken a look at must have found wanting.

The ability to process the side to sift the one from the other is the test that Parkinson faces every year. It seems more pressing when one throws a carriage clock out of a window but it is not.

Promotion this year was an optical illusion based on the curvature of a win over Chelsea and ignoring the displays where City came up short mentally, and in character, and was a practice in confirmation bias.

The 6-0 home defeat to Bristol City confirmed promotion for them but told us what we already knew – that Bradford City were not going to be promoted this season – and so we move onto next.

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

The Overton window in politics

In political theory, the Overton window is the range of ideas the public will accept. According to the theory, an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within that window. At any given moment, the “window” includes a range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.Overton Window, Joseph P. Overton

It is commonly held, and held for good reason, that the current and previous incarnation of The Labour Party (Miliband and Blair) are substantially to the right of the 1970s (Wilson) party and that the current Conservative policies are also massively to the right of where they could have been in the same decade. 1971’s Industry Relations Act from Ted Heath would put him left of current Labour thinking.

The Overton window is defined – broadly speaking – by the left and right of what the public will accept and so the two parties stand glaring across it. The window was dragged significantly to the right under Thatcher and so Heath would be out of step with modern Tories just as Blair would be out of step in the 1970s Labour movement. The left and right are relative to a centre which is defined by the greater populous.

James Hanson, predictable

Which seems to have very little to do with a Friday night in Doncaster and Bradford City wandering into the dressing room at half time scoreless against a Rovers side who – like Chesterfield on Tuesday night – looked very similar to the Bantams in approach and effort.

First half blows had been exchanged – weakly perhaps – and once again City seemed to be playing a game on a knife edge. Gary MacKenzie’s slip on Tuesday night had decided the Chesterfield game in the visitors favour and something similar would decide this game, or so it seemed.

Which was the frame of reference that a grumble about the predictability of City’s approach of hitting the ball to James Hanson came about. The speaker thought City needed to “get rid” of the man 442 had called the 45th best player outside the Premier League and one could waste ink on the denotation of this rather than its connotation: that City needed something to tip the knife edge in their favour.

Hanson was policed all evening by a Doncaster Rovers backline who know the striker’s threat and did what they could to respond to it. After forty five minutes they would have been pleased with their attentions – not so after ninety – but the instinct of City fans that the Bantams needed to add something less predictable alongside the thrust of James Hanson was telling.

At this stage of the season four years ago there was (needless, in my opinion) talk of City falling out of the League because of Peter Taylor’s management and Peter Jackson’s arrival was seen as something of a saving grace. Taylor’s team were never in danger of relegation and so any credit to Jackson for “saving” a club that was not in trouble is – in my opinion – misplaced but he is given that credit in wider public opinion.

The Overton window in football

Manchester City almost finished in the UEFA Cup places in 2005. At the time it was high drama in the Premier League. David James – goalkeeper – went up field to try seal this amazing achievement for the Blue side of Manchester but it was not to be. In the end Manchester City reflected on a good season but finished 8th.

A similar finish for Manchester City now would be cause for alarm. The ownership of the club – through Khaldoon Al Mubarak – has changed what the populous believe Manchester City should be achieving significantly. When winning the Premier League last season the reaction was muted – or so it seemed – because of failures in the Champions League.

The Overton window in football for Manchester City has shifted as a result of the massive investment in the club.

The same can be said for Chelsea who played league games at Valley Parade in the 1980s but now measure their success by European Trophies and Premier Leagues. It can be said to have shifted down for Newcastle United who go into a derby game with Sunderland hoping for local bragging rights and a secure Premier League finish as a return for a club that twenty years ago believed they would win the League. Mike Ashley’s ownership of the club has – in the minds of fans and the rest of football – made sure that ambitions should be limited and so they are limited to a window of achievement which is shifted downwards since the Keegan era.

It can be said for Blackpool who – when the North of England used to holiday there in the 1950s – were a team capable of winning trophies but as overseas holidays took business the Overton window for football slide down and down to a point where the team who had the Greatest Footballer ever (some say, Matthews himself thought Tom Finney was better) are now amazed to have had a year in the top division.

Four years ago the Overton window in football at Bradford City had shifted down to a point where relegation from the Football League was feared and the idea of promotion from League Two was considered to be all but unreachable. “My main aim next season is to play attractive football, but winning football as well” said Jackson, “I can build for the future.”

Something changed

What words were said at half time by Phil Parkinson at Doncaster Rovers we will not know but the outcome was incredible. In the second half the Bantams were yards ahead of the side that has matched them stride for stride in the opening forty five minutes. Gary McKenzie’s opener came from a scramble on the far post following a corner, and a cross in, but it was the result of pressure following half time that did not relent.

Hanson, tireless, chased down defenders all evening and in the centre of midfield Billy Knott and Gary Liddle stopped the home side having time on the ball. Indeed Knott – coming up against one time favourite of this Parish Dean Furman – can be pleased with his best performance in a two man midfield for City so far. His tendency to go missing went missing and Knott manifested his progress over the season in the display. Liddle battled through and Filipe Morais’ control of possession in the home side’s half showed what had been missing in recent weeks.

Hanson ran defenders down and made room for Billy Clarke to add a second. Tony McMahon got a third – his first for the club – filling in at left wing for Mark Yeates who felt his shoulder pop out ungraciously in front of the visiting supporters. McMahon seems ready to play anywhere for City just to be at City and that attitude is probably worth noting.

McMahon’s goal – picking up on a slip by Reece Wabara – completed a fine enough evening that Phil Parkinson walked the length of the away supporters to give thanks to those who had come down from Bradford. The scenes seemed as unlikely an hour previous as they would have done four years ago.

Which is Parkinson’s success at Bradford City and one which is not dependent on promotion being achieved this year although this result increases the chances of that. The shift in the Overton window in football upwards for Bradford City has it that City should be thinking in terms of a Championship side and thinking about how to win games against teams like Doncaster Rovers who have just exited that level. How can we win the game on the knife edge to chase a place in the Championship? It was not a question we asked four years ago.

And while Manchester City and Chelsea are foremost in clubs who have shifted their windows up through investment – and clubs like AFC Bournemouth, Hull City and others have had smaller investments and smaller shifts – most of the time when the Overton window for football shifts it is because of money coming in or (Blackpool, Newcastle United, Leeds United, Portsmouth) going out in City’s case it has been achieved on the field, with the same scale of resources, and no sudden injections of funds. In fact City have paid back investment in the last four years.

Which is truly remarkable. With the same resources (less, arguably) which were considered only good enough for playing “good football” at the bottom of League Two Phil Parkinson is measured against Bradford City’s ability to be promoted to The Championship.

Now that is success.

The journey to Ithaca

I

“Did not Odysseus beside the ships of the Argives offer thee sacrifice without stint in the broad land of Troy? Wherefore then didst thou conceive such wrath against him, O Zeus?”

Within minutes of the kick off of Bradford City’s defeat at Reading the game was written out. Before the first goal – a header at a corner from Hal Robson-Kanu – the Bantams players looked leaden footed, and heavy, and no good could come of this.

This game was the conclusion of a run of three games in six days that travelled 850 miles with a squad of around twenty players. When an innocuous shot hit Andrew Halliday and looped over Ben Williams to make the game 2-0 Reading had won before ten minutes were out.

It was not that Bradford City had not made a game of the game, it was that they could not.

II

“Cyclops, if any one of mortal men shall ask thee about the shameful blinding of thine eye, say that Odysseus, the sacker of cities, blinded it, even the son of Laertes, whose home is in Ithaca.”

Tuesday night in Coventry.

The locals had offered a 2 for 1 Valentine’s day offer with the assumption that Bradford City – away at Chelsea on the weekend the offer was announced – would not stand them up on the date.

By the time the Bantams did go to Coventry City Steven Pressley had been sacked from the Sky Blues. As his time came to an end Phil Parkinson was basking in the glow of besting Jose Mourinho. “The other special one”, or “dark ages football” as Pressley had said.

As it was City ground out the first half at The Ricoh Arena only to go behind to a goal at the end of the first half by Frank Nouble. Parkinson asked his side for more in the second half and got it. James Hanson ended the game forcing a header across and low to get past Lee Burge but Burge pushed the ball away.

The win would have been just reward for the effort but the effort seldom brings the reward you would want so much as the consolation along the way. Mark Yeates approached a free kick from twenty five yards and drill-curved the ball around the wall and low into the goal.

Yeates celebrated by kicking an advertising board in half. Perhaps he would have renamed the ground had Hanson’s header gone in but the point was a good result.

For Parkinson though his eye must have gone to the level of effort put in by his team which is in a race for promotion in League One which is often as much attrition than it is about ability. Every effort to recover a game is a resource which cannot be tapped again.

That at the end of the season City had beaten Coventry City at Valley Parade and drawn at The Ricoh would be a riposte to Pressley’s view about City and the dark ages, but Pressley was blinded now anyway.

III

And City moved on. Jordan Pickford exited to the blind at Sunderland to be replaced by Jak Alnwick from Newcastle United. Jason Kennedy joined Oliver McBurnie and Aaron Mclean out on loan.

The squad thinner and thinner, the demands on it more and more.

IV

And on the fifth the beautiful Calypso sent him on his way from the island after she had bathed him and clothed him in fragrant raiment. On the raft the goddess put a skin of dark wine, and another, a great one, of water, and provisions, too … Gladly then did goodly Odysseus spread his sail to the breeze;

The sight of Gary Jones comforts the heart.

Notts County at on Saturday and City have patched a team together to face Jones’ midfield that features Christopher Routis and Matthew Dolan. Gary Liddle played every moment of a season for Notts County but his legs looked heavy on his return to Meadow Lane.

He is not alone.

Filipe Morais has returned to the side following injury but the energy levels that follow him to in the position to do what he should do while allowing him the licence to do what he wants is missing. Andrew Davies’ resting continues and it starts to become clear that the injury that sidelined him at Coventry City is more than a trick of the light.

Jones’ energy levels are the stuff of legend at Bradford City but the heavy winter has taken its toll on him. The game is more a struggle than a battle.

Still City are in the ascendancy.

Jon Stead scored after good work from François Zoko but County always looked capable of replying and Mike Edwards equalised. A point away is a good return and County are slowly ticking towards safety but with a game with Reading kicking off in 51 hours Parkinson could only worry.

Elsewhere Reading have dropped nine of the ten outfield players that make up their starting team. They are beaten four goals to one by Watford in The Championship. The sacrifice is obvious and available because Reading have concluded that they will not be promoted, while Bradford City fight on multiple fronts..

Gary Jones – and Garry Thompson – wished Bradford City players good luck on the way off the field and one could have spent a lifetime in the wash of nostalgia. The days when Jones and Thompson took on a challenge like Reading and emerged victorious, and took the spoils of victory, and all was golden and good.

V

Think for a moment, dear reader, and consider my offer. I would give you one moment at a football ground to stretch out for all time and to be all the moments at football. Pick the second that Hanson scored against Villa, or the sight of Arsenal’s fifth penalty coming back of the post, or Mark Yeates giving the world and the fireworks at Chelsea, or Wolves away or Liverpool at home.

Pick one and it is forever stretched before you as an endless sea, and you forever adrift on that sea, never to see land again but in the most blissful of ignorance.

The moment when Gary Jones pumped his fist at Wembley as promotion was sealed stretched out until the horizon and over.

And you would reject the offer?

You would.

VI

“Achilles, no man aforetime was more blessed nor shall ever be hereafter. For of old, when thou wast alive, we Argives honored thee even as the gods, and now that thou art here, thou rulest mightily among the dead. Wherefore grieve not at all that thou art dead, Achilles.”

“Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus. I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished.”

Two goals in the first ten minutes and Bradford City are suffering not just the effects of two games in three days but the cumulative effects of the constant attrition of playing in League One. It is not that a player rested three days ago might be expected to be fresher than one who has rested for six it is that the inexorable navigation of games takes something which all.

The difference is not the binary state of being fresh or not. It is a team at 75% playing one at 60% (or fill your own figures in here) and the rest Reading gave up a game for is put into a whirlpool of effects which have left City incapable of putting in a performance to make a game.

Second to set off, second to the ball, and second best one would struggle to fault the City player’s effort. They gave all they could offer, but there was nothing to give. Jamie Mackie scored a third after Filipe Morais was sent off for a high foot on the once again superb Nathaniel Chalobah and one was left to conclude that City had lost the chance of a semi-final not after the odyssey that followed the 0-0 draw at Valley Parade but on the rough, unplayable field at Valley Parade that has begun to characterise Bradford City’s season.

One wonders if this game represents what The FA want from the Cup. Bradford City’s reward for progressing further in the competition is to be put into a position where the club is handicapped as the quality of the opposition increases.

A League One club plays Halifax Town after a third of the season. Millwall after a busy Christmas but every game after the third round brings a postponement which has to be played mid-week. By the time Reading at home came along City had been playing weekend-midweek every week for over a month.

And all the time the possible opposition gets harder and harder. That Reading were not Chelsea ignores the fact that they were the fourth side City had faced from a higher division. As the games get harder, the ability to play those games gets less and less.

And I do not say this as a complaint or to propose a solution but just to underline the absurdity of the situation and perhaps to illustrate how impressive it is that any club outside of the top 44 of the Premier League and Championship should get this far in The FA Cup. Last year’s beaten semi-finalists Sheffield United won more FA Cup games than the losing finalists Hull City, and as many as winners Arsenal.

VII

“Come, I pray thee, goddess, tell me this thing truly, if in any wise I might escape from fell Charybids, and ward off that other, when she works harm to my comrades.”

People on the pitch.

A sea of people perhaps becoming the sea of moments to stretch out as Reading reach Wembley for the first time since 1927. A sea of people ebbing and flowing in front of the Bradford City fans looking for trouble but not knowing what trouble really is.

A sea of people and through it walks Steven Darby. Fearless, heroic, in failure and in success. Steven Darby and Rory McArdle cutting through a sea of people fearless, heroic, in failure and in success.

A sea of people and through it walks Steven Darby.

Eleven games remain. The next three are at Valley Parade before the end of March.

And so then on to Ithaca.

How Bradford City got to the sixth round of the FA Cup and how easy it was

A story of abject failure

Bradford City’s 2-0 win over Sunderland was most remarkable because of how easy it was.

From Billy Clarke’s third minute shot deflected in by John O’Shea onwards the result at Valley Parade was hardly in doubt.

Bradford City played accurate passing at tempo which Sunderland could not match, and with a shape which Sunderland would not adapt to. Robbed of midfield quality in Jack Rodwell and power in Lee Cattermole Sunderland played Liam Bridcutt and Sebastian Larsson in the middle against City’s three of Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle and Billy Knott and lost the midfield.

Bradford City dominated the first forty five minutes. Liddle sat behind his two partners who were both admirably disciplined, and while Bridcutt picked up Billy Clarke in the playmaking role Sunderland manager Gus Poyet left Larsson on his own with three players.

And Larsson could not deliver a quality of possession on the flanks for Sunderland who had based the game on the ball to wide players – Adam Johnson looked lively – which would be put in for Steven Fletcher to finish with Danny Graham in support. Fletcher vs Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies was hardly even a contest.

Better matched were James Hanson and Jon Stead against O’Shea and Wes Brown but with Clarke coming forward and Hanson moving out wide left City pressed with strength, movement and intelligence. O’Shea and Brown with Bridcutt coming back were unsettled by Hanson’s strength and Clarke’s speed with ball at foot.

Only unsettled though, but with so much of the rest of Gus Poyet’s team selection playing exactly as Bradford City’s Phil Parkinson would have wanted it to be it seemed that the Premier League time arrived at, and played with, a hand tied behind their back.

And that hand was tied by Gus Poyet. At half time, watching his team lose the midfield battle, Poyet threw on Connor Wickham for Graham, went route one, and lost the game.

In terms of a manager approaching the game, understanding how the opposition would play, and putting out a team capable of navigating that Poyet failed utterly abjectly.

Shall we switch narrative?

We have become old hands at this of course. The giant killing narrative that is spun around a team who have done what Bradford City have done in the last few years. The talk is of passionate performances and playing with character. It is of small changing rooms and bad pitches.

(The pitch was was better today, something I would congratulate and praise Roger Owen for but as he has said he is not directly responsibility for the pitch and that it is not his responsibility so I offer him no congratulations and no praise at all.)

Talk like that misses the point of Bradford City’s wins against Chelsea and Arsenal, Aston Villa and Wigan but it especially misses the point of this game. Bradford City did not approach Sunderland with a blowing hurricane, just with determination, but Sunderland’s preparation and approach was so far away from what it should have been that the distance between the two sides was great.

For all the coverage of a “team of heroes”, or “plucky players”, or (curiously) “real men” the reality was a Bradford City team who put in a very steady performance. Not that the players were not very good – they were – but that at the end of the game where City had won in something of a canter no player had especially surprised, or played beyond himself, or amazed.

All had played very well, in a very good unit, and carried out the roles that they were assigned very adeptly. Billy Knott – the agent provocateur against Chelsea – slipped into the discipline of a central midfield role as well as he had since first he joined from Sunderland. Filipe Morais continues to curb his solo excesses too.

Everyone played very well but Bradford City did not spring a surprise on Sunderland, or mug Sunderland, or rough Sunderland up. Bradford City played in the same way as in the win over Milton Keynes Dons on Monday, and did not have to play better to beat Sunderland.

Sunderland were the team that were beaten 8-0 by Southampton once again. Bradford City – in this giant killing – were just here to make up the numbers.

The best thing about Sunderland

The only good thing one can say about Sunderland is that the team is much, much poorer than the supporters. The supporters of Sunderland applauded former players, applauded Bradford City for beating them, applauded Bradford City fans for the atmosphere in Valley Parade. They deserve better.

They will be told – perhaps by Guy Poyet – that City roughed up the team on a bad pitch and the media will tell them they were beaten by a team with chutzpah.

But that is not true, and those fans know it.

Poyet set out an attack that played to City’s strengths and a midfield that was outnumbered in the centre of the field, and they played without the commitment to a team structure and the belief that what they were doing would work.

One does not want to downplay what Bradford City and Phil Parkinson have done against Sunderland or in his time at City. The level that City play at is very high and the squad’s character is obvious to all.

Sunderland played badly and often Parkinson’s teams make other teams play badly. Parkinson has his team close down the space for opposition players making time on the ball claustrophobic. That was certainly the case today.

But Parkinson just had to ensure that his team continued Monday night’s MK Dons performance and the victory was not even difficult.

So then now…

After a few minutes Billy Clarke took the applause after lashing a shot back across goal which cannoned off John O’Shea and into the goal past Vito Mannone and City – perhaps – expected the Premier League visitors to come back into the game. Phil Parkinson’s return to 442 from his 4312 was the making of his City team against Halifax in the first round of this competition, as City go into the sixth round the three men in the middle smothered Sunderland.

Sebastian Larsson – a fine player – struggled to move the ball to the flanks effectively. Occasionally Johnson looked impressive but with only Larsson in the middle either Knott or Morais could help full backs deal with wingers. Graham was anonymous finding no room to play around Gary Liddle and Stephen Fletcher’s abilities in the air are less than either of Davies or McArdle’s.

The best Fletcher did – and the best chance Sunderland got – was a ball that slipped through the offside line and nestled at the Scots striker’s feet until McArdle appeared (as if from) nowhere and hacked the ball away. The cliché writes itself here, McArdle wanted it more, but Fletcher did not seem to want it at all.

Contrast that with the quick thinking in the second half when James Meredith pushed Johnson all the way back into the corner of the pitch and Johnson lobbed the ball out for James Hanson to head softly beyond Brown and O’Shea, but not beyond Johnson deep, and to Jon Stead who picked up the ball and finished well under Mannone.

An hour in and with Sunderland resorting to playing long balls which Davies and McArdle took care of, and aside from Ben Williams making a single save the Bantams defence was untroubled.

Phil Parkinson and his City players took plaudits from a capacity Valley Parade – including a good few Sunderland fans – for a fifth Premier League team beaten in three years. The sixth round of the FA Cup is the last eight teams in the country. Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United (or Preston North End), Aston Villa West Brom, Reading, Blackburn Rovers and Bradford City.

Wigan was unexpected and tough, Arsenal was hard but deserved. Aston Villa was a double sucker punch at the end of the game and Chelsea was understanding the power of pressure and seeing that pressure pay. These were all great, great games and great football matches to be at.

Sunderland, though, was easy.

How we will all be sorry after Bradford City drew 2-2 at Port Vale

Football, not football

Writing about football is difficult.

Writing about writing about football is easy.

In fact I would argue that the vast majority of the coverage of football is, in one way or another, the coverage of the coverage of football. The most viewed BBC Sport page is an abstract of a lot of newspaper stories of “gossip” – which is to say stories which no one even attempts to claim are true – while picking up the collection of local papers after the 4-2 win over Chelsea revealed column inches of reports on what City fans had said about the game on Twitter.

It is reaction to reaction, and while it is often confused for writing about football it is not. Football is that thing that happens on the field between three and five on a Saturday.

This is a preamble as to why the week of accusation followed by apology at Bradford City has been both the most and least interesting subject of conversation.

It is interesting because it concerns two of the most fundamental considerations at a football club that impact on football.

Most obviously the pitch. Literally the core of a football club Phil Parkinson pointed out, rightly, that the pitch was in very poor condition. Colchester goalscorer Chris Porter said it was the worst he had played on.

Worse Gus Poyet, manager of next Sunday’s opposition Sunderland, suggested that the forthcoming FA Cup tie between the two clubs might be moved to The Stadium of Light to provide a decent playing surface.

He did not mean it really. It was a joke but the butt of the joke was Bradford City’s ability to maintain the basic needed for a football match – a pitch – and so the butt of the joke was Bradford City.

Bradford City are a laughing stock.

The lack of blame game

Parkinson had pointed the finger squarely at Roger Owen and his co-director Graham Jones for failing to do anything about the state of the pitch which the manager had believed was within the remit of Mr Owen. He later apologised for mentioning any specific director and agreed that the quality of the pitch was a collective problem.

The club – in turn – issued a statement which read that Mr Owen and Mr Jones had no specific responsibility for the pitch but iterated through things that the pair had achievements including “sourc(ing) funding for equipment and improvements through the connection with fans group, Friends of Bradford City where they are the link to the Board” which would seem to be an act of receiving, rather than raising, funds.

Other achievements of a similar scale were mentioned and as the statement made it clear that they were responsible for small achievements but carried out those responsibilities without any remuneration. The message from Bradford City seemed to be that Parkinson was wrong to think that the pitch was the responsibility of Mr Owen and Mr Jones because the pitch was a little above the pair’s pay grade to be involved with.

Parkinson had thought that it was Mr Owen’s job at directorial level to look after the pitch but he was wrong. It was nobody’s job, at least not specifically, and so no specific director deserved any specific criticism for not doing anything about the pitch because – as a collective – all the directors shared responsibilities and thus – one assumes – any criticism shared between the directors too.

And Parkinson had made criticism, albeit pointed in what the board of directors said was the wrong direction, but that criticism was not responded to. Not responded to in in public at least. In public had been where Parkinson’s apology was made. It was carried on the club’s website which seemed to have misplaced the City manager’s original criticism from the news section.

Without portfolio

I think at the time they thought I was making excuses because the home form was poor but I don’t make excuses. Nothing was done, no help was given to the groundsman and now he’s the one with all the stress of us playing on probably the worst pitch I’ve ever seen.Phil Parkinson, 2nd February 2015

So one considered the second point which was Parkinson’s apology to the Directors without Portfolio for suggesting that they had responsibilities they did not have. Parkinson had said that he had been left with the impression that it was considered the problem of the pitch was an excuse for poor results. In Parkinson’s apology he did not, nor did the club, attempt to put right the statement Parkinson had made about the directors believing that the manager was making excuses.

Indeed there was no clarification from any specific directors or the whole of the board as to if Parkinson was right to think that it has been considered he was excuse making, that he was wrong to get the impression, that the board would perish the thought that the manager who had taken them from the bottom of League Two to the fifth round of the FA Cup via Chelsea, Arsenal, Wembley, Twice might incorrectly walk away from a board meeting thinking that he was doing anything other than a near unprecedented superb job as manager, at least from the business’ point of view.

So the picture was complete. The manager who beat Mourinho had walked into the boardroom to complain about a fundamental problem with the pitch but left having his judgement on football questioned and with the impression that it was thought he was making up excuses.

Football has a right history of managers clashing with Directors. Sam Longson got his own way at Derby County against Brian Clough and that is why Nottingham Forest ended up with two European Cups and not The Rams. You either think that football managers should be second guessed by local businessmen or your don’t. Most managers do not believe they should and some find a place where they are in harmony with the boardroom. One wonders what Phil Parkinson spent the week considering.

And so to Saturday

All of which is 1,016 words that are only tangentially about football in that they threaten the club’s ability to play the game well at home – the pitch – or under the successful manager in Parkinson who has attracted admiring glances from clubs in the top two divisions. The grass at Port Vale allowed City to settle quickly into an easy pattern of attempted ball retention against a Valiant’s side which looked as poor as any City had faced this season, Millwall aside.

Nestled in lower mid-table Rob Page’s Port Vale allowed Parkinson’s Bradford City as much time on the ball as wanted – at least in build up play – and there was something about the ease on the ball which concerned the Bantams. The popular diagonal pass between Rory McArdle and James Hanson went unplayed as McArdle enjoyed the time to pick a pass to central midfielders who moved forward uncomfortably.

With too long in possession City were indecisive and allowed the first half to all but peter out without a chance. At times it seemed like there was a game being made of attempts to play the perfect pass into Jon Stead, other times City looked like they would dominate in the box only for the ball to go unfinished for the want of players looking for flick downs.

In such situations one always worries about Filipe Morais. As a player Morais is alternatively impressive in position and undisciplined in action. He suffers a tendency to try shortcut build up play with a lashed shot at goal or an attempt to dribble from the centre of the midfield which fail but is a key part of build up when he succeeds.

For Parkinson this must be frustrating because of the frequency in which when Morais goes “off-message” fortune favours him. Forty minutes into the game and Morais decides that it is time for him to lash a low shot from outside the box which is easily charged down but the same player – doing as manager and team mates would want him to – grasped the ball and took it to the byline to cross to the waiting James Hanson who headed the first goal.

Filipe Morais squandered possession with a daft shot but got the ball back and made the opening goal. The tendency to do the former seems symbiotic to the ability to do the latter. In the second half when a good run from James Meredith saw Hanson test Vale keeper Chris Neal again and the ball fall to Morais, exactly where Parkinson would want him to be, to finish smartly, exactly what Parkinson would want him to do, and make the game 2-1.

2-1 because minutes before Vale were allowed to cross in with ease as Morais allowed the left back all the time he wanted to make his cross. The problems with a wingless team are the number of crosses that come in. Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle deal with a lot of them but not this one which was rolled in by Achille Campion from a flick down which both central defenders would probably wish they had attacked more firmly.

Who then does Parkinson charge with the responsibility for the goal? Morais for not cutting off the supply? McArdle and Davies for allowing a flick down? Billy Knott for having seen a close range chance which would have made the game 2-0 earlier saved by Neal who would do the same to Hanson later on?

By the time the game entered injury time City should have been leading by some margin and would have been but for Neal. Vale’s goal was a rare foray forward in a game which was increasingly about City coming forward. The late entry of Mark Yeates for Knott was Parkinson putting on a player who could make the most of late possession but Yeates was caught on the ball and a few seconds later Jordan Pickford was being sent off as the rapid counter-attack saw the keeper slide Greg Luer’s legs away.

All Ben Williams did was pick the ball out of the back of his goal.

The reaction to the reaction

And so back in Bradford blame was assigned.

It was the fault of Jordan Pickford for the foul, or of Mark Yeates for losing the ball in midfield, or of Hanson/Knott for not finishing the chances that Neal saved, or of Parkinson for not going for the win but the game ended level and a point away is always a good result at any level.

The disappointment – it seems – is that there was a growing consensus in support in the reaction to the Chelsea win that City were upwardly mobile and making a surge for the play-offs. This may still be true and this result may be a part of that but the narrative is not about conceding goals in the last minute.

The problem with the growing consensus is that it is based on reaction to the reaction.

City beat Chelsea, and so should be able to beat anyone in League One, and if not then there must be a reason for it and if the reason is at all mitigated then that is “excuses” and not tolerated. Anything other than a victory is because the team failed to do something they should have done, and failure is something that should not be tolerated.

And the people who fail, and who make excuses, should be told that they have failed and made excuses.

It is through this bastard child of logic that one can come to the conclusion that Phil Parkinson is the reason that City are not successful rather than the reason they are. People with that way of thinking honeycomb the support of football and get far too much attention for my tastes. These people flatter themselves that they present an alternative view of a situation but what they offer is a twisted view based on misunderstanding and ignorance. They should be pushed to the edge of the community of Bradford City support with the other trolls.

However, and this is worth considering, if a person was able to do it without pay there would be nothing to stop such a person with such a twisted view of how football works and the reasons for success from joining the board of Bradford City, from not have any specific responsibilities of any note, and from using board meetings as a place to let Phil Parkinson (or any other City manager) know he is making excuses for his poor performance face to face.

And let us hope is not something that happens or we all really will be sorry.

The definitive redefined as Bradford City beat Chelsea 4-2

The war on cliché

I went to to write an article in Czechoslovakia under the old Communist regime one day in the ’80s. I thought to myself whatever I do, whatever happens to me in Prague I’m not going to use the name Kafka. So I went to this meeting and someone must have given us away because it wasn’t long before the door fell in and in come police dogs and guys in leather coats who said, ‘You’re under arrest and you’ve got to come with us.’ And I said, ‘What’s the charge?’ And they said, ‘We don’t have to tell you the charge’. And I thought “fuck”. Now I do have to mention Kafka.

Christopher Hitchens, 2009 North Korea: no liberty

The magic of the FA Cup

There is a moment when one stops taking breaths.

The ball down the wing crossed by Filipe Morais that goes to Jon Stead and at the point where it arrives at Stead the breath has left one’s body. Watching Stead holding the ball there are thoughts in one’s mind about how well Stead holds the ball, about how Chelsea’s Gary Cahill and Kurt Zouma are used to playing a game where standing off is more common than tackling, about Stead’s options.

Around this point one passes the normal amount of time which one leaves between exhalations. Stead has a claret and amber shirt near him and could pick out a pass but at this point your eyes are darting everywhere. Malcolm Gladwell suggests at moments like this: tense, excitement, literal breathlessness; a person takes on the characteristics of an autistic person and everything is literal and for a second nothing connotes as it should.

This is not a team about to fall out of the League One play-offs playing the best team in the country. It is not an unexpected two-all with minutes left on the clock. It is not really even in the wider context of a football match where this passage of play with give way to another passage of play.

It is just a man with a ball and he is going to kick it. You have not taken a breath.

Then from a deep position – so deep – runs Andy Halliday. A man who’s most remarkable attribute in his Bradford City career to date has been his unremarkable steady performances. The man who is the definition of seven out of ten. Who has run into an acre of space in the space between the Chelsea backline and midfield.

(Later I would think of writing that this is the hole where John Obi Mikel should be, but really it is the hole where Claude Makélélé should be. It was certainly the hole where Cesc Fàbregas should have been but was not. At the time though I was not thinking that. I had just literal comprehension of the moment. The ball. So close to the goal. The tightening of the throat that breathlessness brings.)

Who better than Andy Halliday?

As the air in front of 6,000 travelling Bradford City supporters went unbreathable and as Jon Stead saw his run from deep and played the ball into him who better than the player who has defined the term steady performance to calm hit the ball beyond Petr Cech.

86th minute, from two goals down to three-two and against a team which is populated with Premier League icons, and the man who puts in seven out of ten every week has just put the ball into the goal as if he were playing in training.

And then context floods back in.

This is The FA Cup fourth round at Stamford Bridge against the best team in England managed by the best manager in football at the moment bar none who were leading by two goals when the sun shone across the field but under floodlights in the second half Bradford City have gone into the lead with minutes left to play.

Chelsea manager José Mourinho has said that to lose this game for Chelsea would be a disgrace and as Andy Halliday put his hands to his face and slid to his knees that defeat went from possibility to probability. The come back of all come backs, the giant killing of giant killings was happening.

The football match of football matches. Was happening.

And exhale.

That Mark Yeates moment

Imagine having been standing at the side of Edger Street watching Newcastle United beat Hereford United 1-0 when Ronnie Radford picked up the ball in a muddy midfield. Imagine having watched Lawrie Sanchez make his Wimbledon début in 1984 and then four years later seen him score in the FA Cup final.

Jon Stead pointing at where he wants Mark Yeates to play the ball as Yeates breaks down the left. Yeates playing the ball into Jon Stead who stands strong and plays it back to Yeates where he wants it. Yeates past the defender and playing the ball past Cech’s left hand and then running away with his arms outstretched. They will play that clip forever.

Yeates’ goal could be the definitive moment of Bradford City supporting. It was the coup de grâce that was missing at Wolves, or when beating Liverpool 1-0, or against Arsenal and Villa. It was the underline. It was the world, and the fireworks.

Burnt forever into the mind however it came to mind.

I saw it from behind the left post with Robert to my left and Nick to my right. The guy who was three seats to my left probably heard it over his shoulder as he left early to catch a flight. The fans in the top tier literally over my head making the roar. Back in Bradford listening to the Radio. Watching Jeff Stelling going back to Stamford Bridge one more time. Walking around Ikea looking at Twitter having agreed to go when it went 2-0. The diaspora of Bradfordians all over the world. Everyone.

This was the new moment of supporting Bradford City.

With apologies to John Dewhirst (and his superb A History of Bradford City in Objects which you should buy) if you have a history book at home take it out and throw it in the bin, its worthless.

Chelsea 2 Bradford City 4 (Four*)

Chelsea’s side showed a number of changes from the League Cup semi-final draw with Liverpool on Tuesday night but so did Bradford City’s side that lost to Oxford United after our League Cup first leg two years ago. We expected to beat Oxford that day and there are posters of Petr Cech and Didier Drogba outside in the gallery of icons of the club. The manager has decided that he needed a freshness to his side’s play and rotated.

Not rotated was the manager: Mourinho. The only football manager to achieve the Garbofication of being known by a single name. The best manager in the world, or so it is attested, has decided that he can manage his resources to win this game. Who am I to question Mourinho?

Mourinho is right. As the game plays out it plays out as he wants it to. Drogba is a powerhouse capable of moments of sublime skill and possessed with the strength of a bear. He only goes over when he wants to – which is too often for my taste – and he wins all that comes forward forcing a save from Ben Williams which the stand in keeper can be proud of diving down to his left after the Ivorian bent the ball with the outside of his boot.

Chelsea’s methods are as they would be in the Premier League. The tendency is to hold the ball in the forward midfield and play diagonal fading passes that go through the path where central defenders and full backs overlap to cause confusion pulling one player into another and making space. It worked in the 5-0 demolition of Swansea City and it worked against Rory McArdle and Stephen Darby.

City then being dragged around the field by a team who claim to have perfected football. The first goal came from a corner with Gary Cahill dodging McArdle and flicking in with his right boot. It was a soft goal – the kind of goal Southend score against you – and Chelsea did not have to work hard enough to get it.

And Chelsea are working hard. The home side had cleared a lash from Gary Liddle and Andrew Davies had seen Cech push an impressive header away minutes earlier. The strength of Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City side in wins over Arsenal, Aston Villa et al has been how difficult The Bantams made it for the opposition to do – well – anything. There was an ease to how quickly the ball was in the Bradford City goal after Filipe Morais ran the ball into a blue shirt in midfield.

An ease that should not be mistaken for easy. The cutting attack of Ramires was everything that Chelsea promise. Ramires sprinted ball at feet half the length of the field to – after a one-two with Salah – slide the ball past Williams. Heads and hearts were heavy. Phil Parkinson had options he could utilise. He had deployed James Hanson in a role that saw him roam wide left and track back to full back on a number of occasions which seemed to have been an unnecessary rampart against an infrequent source of attack. Jon Stead was leading the line and while he battled well with Cahill, Cahill was claiming the upperhand even after a long Filipe Morais free kick had been recycled to Stead by Billy Knott deep in the box.

Knott fed the ball to Stead who lashed home from just inside the box. It was an impressive strike and at half time it seemed like it would be the spoils of the game. The performance – lauded in the Sunday morning papers – had sagged too low in the first half. Filipe Morais was struggling in midfield with his Roy of the Rovers moment not happening and Knott was struggling to make an impact in the game. Halliday had a decent first half though, a kind of seven out of ten.

(If I look at my phone I note that at half time I send a message home saying that I thought we would create a chance or two and would score in the second half, but that Chelsea looked like they would score more.)

Filipe Morais in bullet time

In the run of football a trailing team has a tendency of having five or six minutes of pressure at the start of the second half – rockets having been firmly inserted into arses – before the leading team reasserts the dominance that gave them the lead in the first place. If a team can ride out that storm it can win a game.

This was the context that City’s early second half attacks were in. A foray or two before one of the players who played in the World Cup asserts himself and the game is out of City’s reach. Perhaps watching from the Chelsea end the lack of pressure between forty-five and seventy-five minutes is damning. As City’s chances were created at some point the home side started to find it difficult to play inn contrast to the first half where things were easier.

Midfield passes were intercepted with Gary Liddle outstanding. At some point Mourinho had started standing up to join Parkinson in prowling the touchline. At some point Drogba started to spend more time clutching imagined injuries than he did standing up to Davies. At some point Ramires stopped being able to find a pass in midfield as he was crowded out. The solution: to bring on one of the most decorated players in football Cesc Fàbregas for John Obi Mikel becomes an irony in football history.

Long throw on the left by James Meredith which James Hanson flicked on and Billy Knott hass got onto the goal side of his man to bend low and blast to goal from inside the six yard box. Cech pushes away and the ball is four yards out at the feet of (former Chelsea youth/part of José’s first team/released from Stamford Bridge) Filipe Morais.

The next second plays out over a lifetime.

Morais’ face is a picturebook as he addresses the ball with an open goal before him. It is determination as he runs into position without harassment by Chelsea defenders. It is focus as he moves hie right foot towards the ball to strike it. It is unbroken as he watches the ball pass the goal line before even registering that he has done anything more than a five yard pass. And then it is an explosion of joy.

It was Catch-22 for Morais. In the first half Morais had tried to create a Roy of the Rovers moment for himself and in doing so seemed to make sure it would allude him. Allowing that moment to float away as he fitted into the Bradford City unit allowed the moment to arrive, and to be engorged on. His chest not a mortar, his heart not a shell, but a part of something bigger, a team. And by serving the team that Filipe Morais was given deliverance and in doing so created the purest moment I have seen in football since first I walked into a stadium in 1981.

Halliday followed, and Yeates followed, and that was that really.

A special one

“The Special One” is a misquotation of José Mourinho from his first Press Conference at Stamford Bridge. I am not one of the bottle, I think I am a special one. “A” special one considering the ability for multiplicity not “The special one” suggesting the singular.

Even José Mourinho thinks that that he is not the only special one.

Football’s love of fitness

At the moment English football is in love with the idea of fitness. Players must be as fresh as possible every game and every game players are rotated out and into sides to ensure that the team on the field are at the peak of fitness.

You can see how this idea has been imported as a part of Sports Science. A tennis player may miss one tournament to be at his peak for Wimbledon. A sprinter may plan his next four years in order to be at his peak for the Olympics. Being at 100% – not 99.9% – makes all the difference in those situations and it is a factor in football but it is not the only factor.

Being a team game much of football is based around collective abilities rather than individual ones and collective abilities are gained collectively. For a team to create patterns of play between players then the players involved need to be the same in training and in the game, more or less. You can swap a player in and a player out here and there but too many changes stop these patterns from working.

For the want of a better phrase we shall call this “blend”. It is the sum of how well drilled the players are for set pieces, and how when Rory McArdle has the ball at right centre back James Hanson at left forward is ready for a long diagonal pass which he will look to head on to either Kyel Reid running in behind him or Nakhi Wells in front of him. When the names changed, the blend was damaged, and 2014 was a year of getting that blend back.

And blend is, I would argue, at least as important as fitness. There is a level where players are so tired that they do not perform for sure, but there is also a level where players are so unblended that they do not perform and then there are games in which there is a play between those two factors.

José Mourinho opted to win the game through fitness. His players were fresher and had the advantage in the first half very obviously but as the game wore on that fitness advantage waned but Chelsea’s players did not have the fluidity that they had had in their previous games because of the changes made. Phil Parkinson opted for blend. He kept established patterns learned his small squad knowing that they would never be at the peak of fitness as their opposition were.

Blend, again I would argue, becomes more important when fitness becomes less important within a match. At seventy five minutes when legs are heavy and not covering as much ground it is the fact that players have a set of patterns of play to rely on rather than that they can cover ground quickly that makes for the difference in games.

The interplay was fitnesses’s attempt to destroy the belief of blend before blend could take effect. Belief is the third leg of this stool.

The Premier League especially has an obsession with changing teams to maintain peak fitness but this comes at the expense of having small groups of players who have played together often (peak blend) and one wonders – and seemingly Sean Dyche at Burnley is experimenting with the idea of – how a team would perform in the Premier League if it focused on blend not fitness and if a team of fewer players more used to each other could excel in League football over the course of a season

Because José Mourinho’s side were not conclusive victors at seventy minutes when the fitness of players is equal – everyone is tired – there was a chance for Phil Parkinson side who were more used to playing with each other, to where to pass to find each other, to where runs off the ball would be made and so on, to have opportunities to in the game.

Parkinson’s side took those opportunities, and we are now living in the time where the rest is history.

The illusion of The FA Cup

Fairy tales have a habit of being more about hard work than magic or anything like that and magic itself is an illusion.

Football itself is full of illusions. That big always beats small, or that the gap between the top of the bottom is an ocean of despair and not a river to be crossed.

If a team, a manager, and perhaps a set of supporters believe that illusions are just that then incredible things happen.

And perhaps that is the magic of The FA Cup.

What they heard back at Chelsea as Rochdale beat Bradford City

With all due respect to Millwall FC

Dear Mister Mourinho,

Allow me to start, Mister Mourinho, by saying let us be thankful that any fourth round tie between Bradford City and Chelsea will be played at Stamford Bridge.

I arrived in this part of West Yorkshire in biting cold, and watched a game on a wet pitch which cut badly under foot. Mister Mourinho, if you want to avoid the same, you will try beat this Bradford City within one game.

The weather aside I do not envy the man who was sent to watch Blackpool beat Millwall 1-0 for I have much to tell you Mister Mourinho and tell you it I shall.

There is much about this Bradford City which you should know

This Bradford City are a which will not be defeated, even in defeat.

Today Mister Mourinho I saw a football injustice when Bradford City were beaten in the last moment of the game by Rochdale Football Club having performed far better than Rochdale Football Club during the course of the game.

That this Bradford City played the game with only ten players was hardly noticeable Mister Mourinho. Indeed often in the game it seemed that Bradford City had played the game with eleven players and Rochdale Football Club had played it with ten, but that was not the case Mister Mourinho.

A player on loan from Sunderland (prob. not play. Gus is like that) in goal for Bradford City was sent off after ten minutes.

What shall we say about the sending off Mister Mourinho? Shall we just say that you would not have found it acceptable were it Thibaut Courtois dismissed for denying a goalscoring opportunity when the striker had run so wide and did not have control of the ball.

You would say Mister Mourinho that it was not denial of a goalscoring opportunity because the striker had run so with and did not have control of the ball. And you would be right Mister Mourinho, although I suspect you would not continence the possibility of being wrong.

And for the striker who were fouled Mister Mourinho I found myself wishing that he, A player called Matthew Done, was to be playing against John in two weeks time. I found myself wishing as he constantly tackled late on defenders who were clearing the ball on Mister Mourinho that he were to try that on John and found myself imagining what John would do in reply.

A note Mister Mourinho. We should be careful if Gavin Ward referees one of our games. Today he allowed a penalty to be scored from a rebound when the taker was in an offside position as the ball was struck. He made mistakes that compounded mistakes. He is a weak and poor Referee and obviously easily influenced and carried away Mister Mourinho. The beautiful game deserves better Mister Mourinho even at this level.

Character

But when reduced to ten players this Bradford City showed character Mister Mourinho which suggested that they were not a team to be taken lightly even with the obvious gap in quality between our side and theirs because that gap in quality would be seen by this Bradford City as another challenge which they would attempt to overcome.

With ten men this Bradford City played cleverly Mister Mourinho keeping the ball well and using their strength at set plays. James Hanson and Jonathan Stead are bustling centreforwards who upset defenders. Hanson wins most balls played into him and that was the case when a free kick was played too deep. Hanson headed it back and Stead headed in an equaliser. Perhaps Mister Mourinho I might suggest that Gary Cahill and John are a suitable pair to play like on like and I do not want to tell you how to do your job Mister Mourinho but I do worry that they may eat Nathan Ake for breakfast.

The supply to Hanson and Stead comes from Billy Knott and Fillipe Morais. Both have previously played for us in their youth.

Knott is a player of constant motion Mister Mourinho and the energy of Bradford City dissipated as he left the field after being the most influential player on the field for long periods of the game. He will make wrong decisions and expend energy needlessly on occasion but between errors he is the agent provocateur.

We must force Billy Knott into mistakes to cloud his judgement Mister Mourinho, rather than allow his head to be clear. Ignoring him is not an option. He is Bradford City’s finest irritant.

Your friend Fillipe

Fillipe Morais I believe you know. He is not the svelt wide player he was but he has a muscle about him and the ability to play intelligent football that shows your own influence Mister Mourinho. He is a player of discipline and has some strength in the tackle. He has expended his game since first you met and seems comfortable in a number of positions. That a local dubbed him The Man-o-War may please you Mister Mourinho, or it may not.

These players are anchored by Garry Liddle who is serviceable in the pass but not as strong in the tackle as a holding midfielder could be. Today his role was to break any play coming through the middle for Rochdale Football Club and he did break any play coming through the middle for Rochdale Football Club.

The defence is strong although Alan Sheehan, who plays at left back ideally but is covering central defence, is a weak point. All four can play the ball effectively long. Mister Mourinho if we stand away and let them play the ball long then they will pick out forwards with accuracy and while we can call this the dark ages of football we must not mistake it as such.

There is a measured control to this Bradford City Mister Mourinho which I cannot stress enough.

A measured control

With ten players remaining on the field for Bradford City Mister Mourinho Liddle was forced to put in the work rate of two players rather than one player and he did put in that level of work as did the other players of Bradford City. If I could underline one thing Mister Mourinho it would be the level of effort which Bradford City perform with and the character they have in their team.

Mister Mourinho we would beat them if we matched that character, and as with today we could expect to beat them as they will be at a disadvantage (numerical today, perhaps more obvious against Chelsea) but we must match that character.

Because, Mister Mourinho, that is the single most impressive thing about this Bradford City. The character which saw them outplay Rochdale Football Club with ten against eleven will see them come back from defeat today to carry on an unlikely promotion push which seems to have little chance of succeeding just as the team have little chance of beating Chelsea if they beat Millwall.

But if something is made of little chances Mister Mourinho it is made by character.

Yours,
The Scout

The excuse

Michael Flynn has spoken about how he believes that the new Bradford City manager needs to put some rockets up backsides at the club. Flynn said

We need somebody with a big character who won’t take any messing. Some of the lads might feel a bit too comfortable and a few need a rocket up their backside.

Comfortable is a curious thing at a football club. One the one hand one wants the players to feel relaxed and at ease to allow themselves the freedom to express, to make mistakes without being pilloried, to be able to minimise defeats and move on from them however when the players slide too far along this scale of comfortability then they become complacent and defeats are not felt as keenly as they should be. If the blame for a loss can be put elsewhere – Referees, pitches, the quality of the opposition, injures – then it allows the players who retain self-belief but should that blame be constantly deflected then the players will no longer behave as if they are responsible for the performances.

Certainly Stuart McCall favoured the pattern of giving his players he room to breathe and could oft be heard criticising officials for the plight of his players. For what it is worth I agree with McCall that it was – in no small way – the fault of Referees making a string of atrocious decisions the apologies for which must have rung in Stuart’s ears when he heard them from men in the middle the Monday he left the club but I doubt that were I Bradford City manager I would have allowed the players to be left off the hook so easily.

Paul Buckle – the manager of Torquay United – would have the same thought. After his side had out-played City but lost two two late and unlucky goals from the Bantams he offered his players no place to hide saying that they should have done more to win the game. Since then results have not improved – one draw and three defeats from four – and Buckle’s position at the club is questioned. The response he was looking for from his players in not engaging in what could be called “excuse culture” he has not had.

A trip up to Cardiff sees Dave Jones and his team sitting in fifth place in the Championship despite a trip to Newcastle’s St James Park which saw the Bluebird beat 5-1. After the game Jones would hear not a word against his players talking about long trips, injuries and suspensions having taken a chunk out of his side who lost to a great Magpie’s performance. Jones would not allow his players to take any responsibility and a few days later they were back to winning ways 2-0 over Peterborough United.

Two managers, two approaches and the converse which one might expect with Jones’s side doggedly in the promotion hunt and Buckle under pressure. If City were in the position Jones’s has Cardiff in would excuses be a problem? We are in the position Buckle’s side is in, would we accept his strident denials of any external responsibilities? Would Michael Flynn’s kick up the arse aimed at Torquay not be seen just as kicking the players when they are down? Perhaps.

Famously after Wigan Athletic’s opening day defeat to one squeaked goal to nil against Chelsea Jose Mourinho shook Paul Jewell’s hand and said to him “I hope you stay up.” Jewell firmly returned the shake and replied “Yeah, I hope you do too.”

Jewell would not allow his Wigan players to consider themselves on a different level to any of the other teams in the top flight but when Arsenal stole a win from the Latics Jewell was quick to blame the officials. Jewell understood that “excuse culture” is nothing of the sort. Excusing the players – or not doing – is a tool to keep the pressure off the squad when one wants it to be and not in other times.

Sven Goran Erikkson revitalised Ruud Gullit’s career by accusing the midfielder of having “glass knees” during their time together at Sampdoria. Gullit’s parting shot at Sven as he left to return to AC Milan went along the lines of “I showed you” to which the Swede explained his admiration of the Dutchman and his desires to be showed up by eight superb months of football. Excuses are a way of balancing the responsibilities a player takes and good manager’s know when to use them and when not to.

Who knows what approach the next manager of Bradford City will take towards the linguist tools of his role. Perhaps he will be like Buckle in reaction to Stuart’s excessive excuses and perhaps he will get the same results as the Torquay boss or perhaps he will strike a perfect balance letting his players feel they can control their football destinies but shielding them from outrageous misfortune.

Either way it is worth remembering that these “excuses” are tools of the manager and when employed by a Jewell giving his players the belief that they can compete with anyone or a Jones telling his players to move onto the next game without worry are at least as much about the mentality inside the club as outside it.

The loop continues at Darlington

There was a depressing predictability about the reaction to the defeat to Rochdale this week which saw the Bantams beaten 3-0 by a League Two team that played a slick, flowing, football beyond their status. For some Rochdale were not given credit for a performance which made them near unplayable while others rubbed eyes with an amazement and wistfully asked when City would play like that.

Perhaps the answer to that goes back a decade to the team that was promoted to the Premiership who played with the same bottomless confidence and belief in each other that Rochdale showed. At one point – and without looking – one Dale defender headed out from a corner to the release valve man who trotted the ball up field for another attack.

It was akin to Peter Beagrie turning a right back and putting the ball to the far post because he knew – he had the confidence that – Lee Mills would be under it to head in and from the stands it looks like telepathy. Perhaps 3-0 Bradford 2009 will be to Spotland what Chelsea 2-0 2000 is to City fan – a high watermark in performance.

City’s job following on – and specifically Stuart McCall’s job – is to minimise the result and move on from it learning what can be taken from the game and rebuilding the confidence of a side who were found to be second best. This season started in this manner with the 5-0 defeat at Notts County requiring a mental rebuild as well as a team reshaping.

Options for moving players around are available but more importantly players like Steve Williams, James O’Brien and James Hanson have had their first taste of that flavour of bitter defeat and McCall needs to work with those players. Part of building a squad based around young players gives these problems of inconsistency perhaps by virtue of the unexpected. Steve Williams will have never played against an attacking line which moved around as much as the Rochdale one did. He can learn from that.

As the dust settles from the Rochdale game the Bantams sit nine points off the automatic promotion places – the same distance as on Tuesday afternoon – but four off the play-offs. Bottom place Darlington represent a chance to close that gap.

Darlington are a club cursed by a stadium far too big for their needs an inability to get the local public interested in filling it. As a club they bought into the dreams of the last decade and a half’s promise of big football and like City they have struggled to make that a sustainable proposition. In the summer they employed Colin Todd and Dean Windass to hammer together a squad from spare parts – including former Bantams Mark Bower and Paul Arnison – and the did a manful job before departing to leave Steve Staunton – a fifth former Bantam in the sentence – who struggles against situations such as his inability to play the excellent Steve Foster again for fear of triggering the offer of a new contract the club can ill afford.

Darlington lived beyond there means – Rochdale’s Chris Dunphy would have them out of the league no doubt – and as usual the supporters are left to pick up the pieces left behind when businessmen/safe crackers have moved on.

The cost of administration and football failure is never better illustrated than the woman in Darlington who saw her B&B business in trouble after the club defaulted on the debt it had run up housing a loanee signed to sit on the bench when the clubs met at Valley Parade back in February chasing promotion in a way they could not afford.

That night Darlington played what could be called “a hard game” and one Kevin Austin challenge on Omar Daley snapped the midfielders leg in half (Hey – I’m no Doctor) and stopped the player form kicking a ball in anger until this week taking the Bantams promotion campaign with it.

Daley’s return for the reserves is a hint at things to come rather than a burst back into the side. Omar played 45 minutes but will be taking the long road back and it seems that Simon Whaley will be filling in for him until his return, perhaps exiting when he is fit.

Whaley and fellow support striker Gareth Evans were neutralised by a canny Rochdale side leaving Stuart McCall with a tactical head swim. The 433 took care of Grimsby – the team one place above Darlington – but was ineffective against Rochdale and the manager must decide which of these two games is reflective of his formation’s effects.

Simon Eastwood will keep the gloves after an athletic display on Tuesday blotted by having the ball placed through his legs for the first goal. The defensive four will probably remain as it was – or at least it would if I were manager – but some would switch Simon Ramdsen into the middle with Steve Williams and put Jonathan Bateson in at right back while others favour Ramsden and Rehman rather than Williams. O’Brien is unchallenged at left back save other young players but has put in a good level of performance this year and certainly is forgiven Tuesday night.

Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock emerged from the mid-week game without criticism – indeed perhaps it is tribute to their strengths that Rochdale played the game on the flanks rather than through the middle – and will keep the middle of field although that could be with one of James O’Brien/Chris Brandon in a three of with Scott Neilson and Whaley/Brandon on the flanks in a four.

Neilson looked lively coming on on Tuesday night – an admirable attitude that deserved more than an ironic cheer for his header at goal in the last minute – but will probably be restricted to the bench. James Hanson will almost certainly start and will match himself against Mark Bower and – as Foster cannot play and Ian Miller is injured – someone from the Quakers youth side. Knowing what we do about Mark Bower one might expect McCall to keep Gareth Evans alongside Hanson – Bower struggled with powerful players – and leave Michael Boulding on the bench. A three would have Whaley/Hanson/Evans along the front.

Darlington – despite the trails – represent a tough game approach the match with nothing to lose and written off before kick off. City start rebuilding confidence once more – stuck in a kind of loop between bad results leading to unbeaten periods interrupted by bad results. It is midtable form and needs a kick start to move it onto being play-off contenders.

Darlington – who attempted a kick start last season living beyond their means – offer a start warning about trying to break that loop.

Football in the eye of the beholder

A lifetime ago I stood in a half time queue to buy an expensive pie at Old Trafford as Chris Hutchings put out a Bradford City side playing 442 against a Manchester United team which was sweeping all before it. Hutchings had put Ashley Ward and Benito Carbone up front and at half time we were struggling.

“We need to drop Carbone back into the midfield and go to 451.” I said matter of factly as I edged closer to my £2.50 pie. “I’d rather see us get beat 5-0 than play wit’ one up front.” came a voice from the queue in front – someone I’d never met but his point was valid. Nevertheless my riposte proved to be precedent: “Well tonight you will get your wish.”

I was right – City left Old Trafford having been stung by a 6-0 defeat – largely because we were utterly incapable of getting the ball in the midfield but so was he because the idea of watching a rear guard action with a ball being hit to Ashley Ward is no one’s idea of a good night out. Yes we suffered a heavy defeat but, at least, we tried to play some football and there was a certain pride in that, braggadocic pride at best, but pride.

On Saturday – ten years on from Old Trafford – the Bantams had 26 shots at goal and played some wonderful, entertaining, enjoyable football – we even got an apology from a Referee – in an luscious football match but we lost.

The Bantams are not getting poor results but sit in mid-table having played in some brilliantly attractive high scoring draws. Trips to Northampton and Barnet brought 2-2 results which were great to watch as were the wins at Cheltenham and Shrewsbury but were the Bantams to put up the defensive shields of Port Vale or Lincoln City would we have had eighteen points on the road not nine.

Likewise at home we have eight of eighteen points – a draw with Crewe which we would have had had it not taken Referee Carl Boyeson three days to see the penalty we all saw at the time would have given us the same home record as we have away – but have been treated in the last few matches to the most enjoyable football since Peter Beagrie, Robbie Blake and Lee Mills graced the side.

In manager speak City need to “tighten up” which is to concede fewer goals while scoring the same amount but one had to wonder when taking an ale in Fanny’s at Shipley talking to five or six smiling strangers all of whom were joining me in waxing lyrical about the admirable effort and plentiful enjoyment of the Crewe defeat if a tightened City side would illicit such fanfaronnade.

Yes, we all want to win but would we give up the football of the last week for it? Hopefully the choice will not have to be between one and the other. It was Sexy Football, but Sexy Football went out of the window at Chelsea when they wanted to win something. The talk between supporters is a quantum leap away from last season’s back biting and while last season was characterised by disagreement this is increasingly admired for the beauty, or sexiness even – in what is beheld.

Nevertheless after two seasons of the football of expectations after eight seasons of constant narrow decline it is good to have a new criteria on which judge the side: Pride, and the swell of it on a Saturday night.

McCall needs to create a Jerk-Free zone

What makes Everton a good team? According to Tim Howard the Toffee-men are “a Jerk-Free Zone.”

The keeper has sung the praises of the squad around him that prepare for tomorrow’s FA Cup final and for his gaffer – David Moyes – who has build a squad without egos, at least at the moment. Tomorrow the Jerk-less meet up with the likes of Didder Drogba – a bigger jerk in football it is hard to find – as Everton play Chelsea for the FA Cup.

Coin-throwers, phone-in callers, with sixteen year old affair havers. It is tempting to characterise Wembley tomorrow as Jerkless vs Jerks but doing so fails to recognise the duality of “Jerks in the locker room” – as Howard might say – and the effect it has on clubs on the whole and Bradford City last season especially.

The Jerkless Everton are a team without egos who get along well and one doubts the same could be said about City last year who’s relations can be summed up by the phrase attributed to Paul Arnison – although rumours have a way of being divorced from fact and Arni may have said nothing of the sort – that he didn’t want to move to Bradford because “none of the rest of the squad like me.”

For sure the Mexico four may have gone on holiday – Swine Flu seemed to stop when MPs started expense claiming – but as John Hendrie said in his T&A column

I know three or four of the Bradford lads are going on holiday together this summer but every year we’d go away as a whole team – even the club secretary would come along. That’s how close we were.

Hendrie notes that current City boss Stuart McCall would love to build something similar – a look at the reaction to a lad’s night out shows it is not as simple as getting the players to drink together once or twice – and no doubt he would but it was not the presence of jerks (or lack of, in Everton’s case) that were the problem at City but rather the split that characterised Chelsea’s fall from Premier League Champions to the third place they occupied this season.

The figures were ludicrous to think of but Michael Ballack and Andrei Shevchenko’s wages near doubled the next highest earners who were no mean players to begin with. Even at that level the likes of Frank Lampard were looking in the direction of Sheva and asking them to do twice as much to earn twice the wage.

Think back to Michael Boulding, Graeme Lee, Paul McLaren last season and compare them to Barry Conlon, Dean Furman or Nicky Law. Disparity in the dressing room always causes problems regardless of the jerk factor of a club. Benito Carbone was a really nice chap but the fact he was paid almost five times the average wage was a massive problem and one the team of 2000/2001 never looked like coming to grips with.

With Graeme Lee reported to be interesting Oldham and Paul McLaren raising looks from Rotherham McCall might have some movement in his team next season and should he then it is important not only to bring in the right type of player – good spirit comes with wins but having a set of nice blokes in training helps – but also to avoid created a two tiered dressing room again.

The dream you’d no longer want to live

There was a sense of vulgarity to the whole thing.

Man City supporters, trying their best to ignore reports of a poor human rights record and corruption charges this past year, had run out of patience when their ‘ruthless’ owner Thaksin Shinawatra was suddenly unable to buy new players. On transfer deadline day he was ousted, collecting twice the money he’d paid 12 months earlier – by the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG).

Man City fans were celebrating suddenly becoming the richest club in the world.

In the few remaining hours before the window closed, the new owners managed to cause enough of a stir to suggest the Premier League’s natural order might be threatened over the next few years. “We can win the Champions League in 10 years” has been the cry, amongst boasts of signing the world’s best players in January. Despite having just broken the British transfer record – £32 million – to lure a confused Robinho to Eastlands, the club will apparently have no problems – financially or ethically – spending £120 million on one player to help make those dreams come true.

Not so long ago, as Kevin Keegan will now have time to tell you, football clubs succeeded through clever management, shrewd buys, developing youngsters and adopting better tactics than others. In the modern day, the way to succeed in “the most exciting league in the world” is to have more money than your rivals. For how well the likes of Martin O’Neill, Harry Redknapp and David Moyes have managed their respective clubs, the glass ceiling just above their heads means they’ll achieve little more. After a superb season last year things are unravelling at Goodison, due to money of course. Everton can’t match others’ spending power and their Chairman, Bill Kenwright, offers the solution that the club needs a billionaire owner themselves.

Do billionaires grow on trees? One can only respect people who have built up vast fortunes during their lives, but also question why they would want to invest in a football club. Do they just have so much money that they want to get rid of some by donating it to clubs, or is it more likely that what got them to the level of billionaire in the first place will play a part as they eye up TV money, loyal fans and corporate facilities? Sure, come in and spend £80 million to get your new ‘toy’ into the Champions League cash cow, but ultimately most will collect a profitable return.

Man City might be the exception, just like Chelsea with Roman Abramovich, but the price of success will be felt somewhere. Without a hint of sorrow, Man City Assistant Manager Mark Bowen has warned his club’s youth players that they’ll largely be ignored in favour of paying over the odds for the world’s best players. As Man City start rising, so to will their worldwide fanbase. They already joke about overtaking their neighbours but, after years of self-smugness at been the club true Mancunians support while Man United’s followers hail from Essex, their die-hards might have to get used to the people sat next to them at games having funny accents. If Man City were a band, they’d be accused of selling out.

Last week someone asked me if I was jealous no billionaires were eyeing up Bradford City and I surprised them with my negative reply.

Suddenly having the relative fortune to buy the best players and rise up the leagues might seem exciting, but the price is one we’d more than likely have to pay. Would a billionaire appreciate the virtues of offering supporters cheap season tickets? Would they think there was a point to the youth team? Would we bother harbouring links in the community? Already Mark Lawn has uttered the ‘brand’ word when talking about City, but it’s a long way removed from the rampant commercialism of his Premier League counterparts.

Of course the Bantams were guilty of throwing money in pursuit of the elitists’ dreams eight years ago and the consequences are still with us. The aim, during those six weeks of madness, was to speed up the club’s growth beyond its natural resources but, unless you have an Ambromich or ADUG to soak up the losses, it’s a huge gamble.

We learned some harsh lessons when reality set in but for all the misery it has caused, not just to us supporters but the people who lost money due to our actions, one also wonders how happy we’d really be had it succeeded and we were now a regular Premiership club, when even the wildest of ambitions would stretch to no more than touching that glass ceiling.

Back in the big four, Arsene Wenger has made laudable noises about ensuring Arsenal becomes self-sustaining in a few years, rather than relying on the pocket of a rich owner. He’s pinned his faith in a youth system which, while not above criticism, has reaped great rewards. Their impatient fans might not agree but, if the team takes a few years to succeed, it will still be all the more worthy for doing it the right way. Some ran off into the sun at the whiff of more money, but Arsenal are building a team of players fully committed to their club’s cause.

Stuart McCall did not use money to persuade those who joined this summer; he used his own ambitions for glory and the club’s biggest asset, its fanbase. Last week Stuart revealed that promotion this season would surpass anything he has achieved in his football career.

“I have been lucky enough to realise a few dreams in football but promotion this time around would mean everything. How much? Put it this way, I can’t see Alex Ferguson getting more pleasure than I would from taking my team into League One. That might sound daft but it illustrates just how deeply I care about Bradford. This club is in my heart and soul. Every win we get gives me so much satisfaction, it’s unreal.”

Should Stuart succeed, we’ll be looking back and noting promotion was not achieved because of throwing pots of money at it; but by using the club’s resources to build a hungry team desperate to succeed, having gone through years of hardship as punishment for going down the route of spending beyond our means. In it’s own way that will make the achievement seem greater and be celebrated wilder – the feeling we’ve earned it after years of punishment.

Two years ago this site looked at how the club could arrest itself from the decline and, while there has been more misery since it, some of those ideals have been followed. Success can be an overnight thing when money’s thrown at it, and of course it shouldn’t be forgotten that the investment of Mark Lawn has speeded up our recovery, but it can be hollower and raise headaches further down the line.

It might be a long time before we play Man City on merit again, but if they are now living the dream it’s not one all of us are interested in pursuing anymore. Reality could prove far more enjoyable.

The man with the knife

South Leeds is the part of the City that fashion has forgotten but it is in this refuge of the non-business man that having walked from work I looked for a haircut and settled onto a barber who had the most important thing one can find in this search – an empty chair.

I got snug and looked around catching a glimpse of the odd United poster – to be expected – before doffing my glasses and waiting for the cut. The rule with barbers is small talk and so we killed time before inevitably getting onto football and the Champions League final on Wednesday.

“Coke vs Pepsi” I offered attempting to close down the conversation. I sensed he wanted more so I continued “But I guess Man United, what with being Northern…”

“I hate Man Yoo,” he replied, “Because I am Leeds.”

He was and in the middle of Leeds he has a right to be. He snipped well and quickly so I tried to press him for more saying “I thought Leeds hated Chelsea too.”

He said that he would rather both teams lost the game – if only that were possible – and that if the fans were all sent to Siberian prisons then he would not be upset. It amused me and I laughed only for his hands to roughly grab me ensuring even sideburns.

“I don’t care.” he declared “I’m going to Wembley and we are going up.” and for a moment a rush of conversation ran though my head. We should be kin – this barber and me – for we have no interest in this Moscow Show and we long for the success of our own clubs.

We are the best of rivals but not enemies. We can agree on this point and build common ground from there. The interests of clubs outside the less than a dozen that make up the haves in football are best served by recognising that Leeds United, Bradford City, Ipswich, Yeovil Town, Exeter and on and on have more in common than we do separating us.

Here in this barbers shop in South Leeds we could join on this point.

“Perhaps a bomb will go off and both Man Yoo and Chelsea will be killed?” he smiled and started to finish my hair with a razor.

His cutthroat razor flicking down the back of my neck.

We are the two of us alone in his shop and bomb idea hanging in a pregnant pause between us. A long, sharp blade flicking my neck as he asks me “Who do you support?”

Well what would you say?

Premiership Boring? Ask The Supporters of Halifax Town

Kevin Keegan was wrong to describe the Premiership as boring.

Today Manchester United square up against Chelsea and the winner could be decided by goal difference – the tiny margin between success and failure – and right up to the last kick of the game the season will stay interesting.

All a far cry from Chelsea’s days in the second flight of English football and I remember City would have played off with Chelsea for a place in The First Division back in 1988 had we beaten Middlesbrough.

I also remember Manchester United going to play Halifax Town in a League Cup game at The Shay. United Town took the lead I think but Halifax came back to win and won 2-1. Halifax Town beating Manchester United seems a long time ago today.

Halifax Town are virtually gone from football. A meeting on Friday in Leeds left them with virtually no hope of a CVA or of any sort of a reprieve from the debtors. They are about to go into liquidation very soon and then there will be no more Halifax Town.

Supporters of Town – and there are not many one supposes – will lose the football club they have followed. Football is a strange thing and hard to understand for most. It is a metronome for the supporter’s lives ticking off weeks and years in the same way that any anniversary or regular event does.

I heard once that humans use rituals to mark out time – why celebrate a birthday anyway? – in manageable units and my better half does not really understand how I can recall dates because they fall within certain seasons but I can.

For football supporters that is one of the functions of the game – to allow a common and shared set of events that we use to mark out the paths of our lives. It is not the only one of these things society holds – I remember other things by which albums I was listening to around that time – but they are important and special and for the people of Halifax they are gone.

Today of all days I say this. Today 11th of May 56 people lost their lives watching Bradford City play Lincoln and we mark that tragic anniversary as we mark the joyous, the sad, the silly, the mundane ones around supporting football in a way that weaves into the fabric of our lives.

I doubt that the armchair supporters watching the Premiership “showdown” have even the faintest idea what I mean. I think they think these point of view to be outmoded and old fashioned. I think they look at supporters of clubs like Bradford City and Halifax Town as being part quaint and part dull following the unsuccessful bloody-mindedly as if community and kinship means nothing.

Manchester United vs Chelsea is Coke vs Pepsi. Whichever wins it makes very little to the rest of football which looks to crumbs to live on while at the top table they gorge.

The Premiership – Thatcherism gone to horrific extremes – will be settled today and at some point someone will mention that Chelsea have not scored enough goals despite paying a man £130,000 a week to do that. £130,000 a week as Halifax Town go to the wall.

Kevin Keegan was wrong to describe the Premiership as boring. It is not boring, it is obscene.

The best losing team always wins the league

Bradford City and Colin Todd took a kicking on Saturday in more ways that one. Fans went to offices to be tormented by Town Terriers and the T&A told a tale of City’s defeat. It was not the worst day to be a Bantam but it was probably the worst we will have this season.

Aside from the losing aspect the Town jeers were all the more sweet because we knew that that knew that they did not deserve the three points they emerged from VP with. For every talk of a one sided games and robberies came the calm smile back that that really was football and teams need to know how to defend as well as attack.

And so it went and so it will go and so it will play on the minds of the City squad and management. Questions will come? Are City that good? Are we that good without Jermaine Johnson? Have we hit a limit when we get towards the top of League One? Questions, questions, questions and all undermining confidence but pointing to a truism of football.

The best team at losing always wins the league.

And there it is. The big secret of football at any level. The champions at every level are always the team that handles the inevitability of losing the best because losing – as much as winning – is the fabric of football and while it is important that a team can get three points on a regular basis it is also crucial that on weekends such as City’s when good runs are halted by frustrating and upsetting defeats that those defeats are not dwelled on, that they dwindle and do not dwarf the achievements.

Bradford City – unbeaten at Valley Parade for thirteen games. Worth remembering.

Bradford City in the play offs for League One after recording impressive wins and putting in good performances. Worth remembering.

Worth remembering and worth bringing to the attention of the players to underline the quality of the season thus far that does not evaporate because game thirteen is a poor display compared to the previous ones. The teams that can lose the best win championships and promotions. If Huddersfield at home is looked on as a defeat in singularity and as different from the rest of the season and if lessons are learned and if we move on then this game becomes a minimised downturn in an otherwise successful season.

If defeat is dwelled on then one risks it becoming endemic at the club. One risks a defeat chipping away at morale and becoming a bad run, becoming poor form.

Let us look, if we will, at the Arsenal team which went 49 games unbeaten but went to Old Trafford and lost one game. One game defeated in fifty is nothing but for Arsene’s men it became all sending them into a downward spiral. Confidence all gone after one defeat in fifty and all because the defeat was handled badly.

Contrast that with Chelsea of now, Manchester United of the 1990s, Liverpool of the 1980s. Teams that took losses in isolation. I only once recall the 1980s Liverpool side losing two games on the bounce and I often remember them roaring back from a defeat to give someone a spanking. Even without impressive returns following defeats the likes of Chelsea stop any rot before it happens and that is what Colin Todd and Bradford City have to do now.

Defeat is bad, Saturday’s defeat worse but in context it is only a single game for a side picking up points on a regular basis.

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