Beyond revival, and revival

Two years ago to the day on Saturday, a goverment think tank suggested that Bradford, and other northern cities like it, were ‘beyond revival’, and that its residents should move south to places like Oxford, instead. Some people who may or may not be writing this match preview may or may not have had one or two things to say about that. It may have been some time in coming, but it feels like there’s a revival in this part of the city.

Bradford City have lost their first two games of the season. The team have a 0% record in the league, and have been knocked out of the cup by the team most of our supporters can’t even bear to say the name of, at least not without vitriol. In two games, the against column reads five.

I state these facts because, despite these, there is great pride amongst fans about the team — which should not be confused with misplaced optimism. After a shaky first match against Aldershot, the team played against Leeds on Tuesday in the fixture most of the squad had been looking forward to since the draw was made: and their interest in playing the game transferred into a good performance that, rightly, the fans have been proud of. The call of Saturday has returned for fans and players alike, it seems.

And so to this Saturday, where City take on an Oxford side who have likewise had two defeats. As we will hope that City will be galvanised by their spirit against Leeds on Tuesday, the U’s fans will be hoping that their side can also continue with similar spirit to that which saw them bow out in extra time against Cardiff. That town is looking for a revival of its own right about now.

In the preview of the match, this site’s editor spoke of what there was for City to lose out of the match with Leeds, and it seems that the answer to that was the impressive David Syers, down in a heap in the second half at Elland Road, after bossing the midfield, now seeking specialist advice on a knee injury, rather than a trip to the city we should all be living in this weekend. Steve Williams may also lose the chance to continue in a central defence that asks as many questions as it answers, after suffering a problem with his thigh. Ramsden and Bullock complete the list of the maladied.

This leaves Jackson with a choice of Premiership stoppers to stand between the sticks: if Williams makes it, the chances are that he will once again play alongside man-mountain Guy Branston, and it would follow that Jansson would continue alongside them, after their 90 minutes together in Leeds. Should Luke Oliver come in, a new centre-back pairing would give neither Jansson or Hansen the obvious communicative advantage. The impressive Liam Moore, who positionally is probably the most aware defender in a City shirt at the moment, will undoutedly continue at right-back, and it is likely that Robbie Threlfall will default to left-back, continuing to fuel the speculation surrounding Luke O’Brien’s availability and squad status.

On-loan winger Michael Bryan will hope to take a berth on the right-hand side of midfield. Whether he does or not will likely come down to his fitness relative to his new team-mates, as the extra half-hour of football played by on Wednesday by Oxford should be looked to be exploited by Jackson. Likely, Richie Jones will continue exactly where he left off on Tuesday in replacing Syers, and the Oxford midfield should look to bunch up around Michael Flynn, fearful of another strike like the one lashed in against Leeds. Compton will be unlucky to be dropped after putting in some hard work in both matches, and it will boil down to whether the team is to play wide (Bryan) or look for free-kicks (Mitchell).

Up front, neither of the burgeoning partnership of Hanson and Stewart are looking troubled by Hannah, Rodney or Wells, all of which have come on for a few minutes, and none of whom have yet to show their true mettle as yet, although there is a slim chance it could be Nialle Rodney who benefits from Syers’ absence, depending on whether the manager decides to use the impact player early, or late, on. It will be a huge surprise if his pace is not seen at all during the game.

For the yellow side (which means the excellent pink kit gets an airing), three of their employees took the think tank’s advice literally, and now ply their trade there instead of here: the manager, Chris Wilder, was part of the decent City 1997-1998 Championship-level side, as right back. Jake Wright was a youth-team throwaway who now captains the U’s, and Paul McLaren got paid far too much money for delivering far too little, far too recently.

Whether the revival bears fruit on Saturday or not, the change in attitude in City fans is refreshing to see. As with any study, a change in behaviour is only significant if it then goes on to be the norm. The think tank may have written Bradford off: but, despite many times thinking the team is beyond revival, the latest crop are showing that belief, passion, and pride are sometimes formed from more than the mere sum of parts.

What to swear when you are in Rome

Bradford City want to talk to Accrington Stanley’s John Coleman about being the next Bradford City manager. Coleman wants to talk but it seems that Accrington Stanley want compensation for their manager and City do not have that sort of money. Insert your own comment about paying interim managers here, dear reader, I’m all commented out.

Nevertheless it seems that Coleman would like a word with the Bantams too making all the noises around the idea that City – as a club – can take him where his ambition drives. After 526 games at The Crown Ground the 48 year old believes that he has something else to give at a bigger club.

He is right – or rather he is right that Bradford City are a bigger club – but how much he has to give is probably not his decision. Third in the list of the longest serving managers to Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger Coleman has been in his job since 1999. Peter Taylor was in his for forty six games.

Taylor’s replacement – on what if John Coleman or fellow interviewee John Hughes had their way would be a very short term basis – by Peter Jackson has been greeted with some considerable delight in some quarters. It is a generational thing of course and to those who are of a certain age then Jackson alongside Stuart McCall, Ces Podd and John Hendrie in the club’s pantheon. The image of him kissing the curiously tube like Canon League Division Three trophy in May 1985 is no one’s enduring image of the day, but it is the one we would all prefer to remember one.

Replacing the five time promoted Taylor Jackson – as with Stuart McCall compared to Colin Todd – pales into insignificance for experience but it is hoped that his connection to the club will steer him good. That in having the club in his bones his belief will be a more powerful agent than anything that the hired hand could muster.

In his bones, perhaps in his blood. There is much made of the colour of the Oh Neg that flows through the man’s veins. If Stuart McCall was the wounded idealist feeling every result – even his next job saw him with claret and amber – and Peter Taylor the academic unhurt by scores then Jackson is the opportunist able to find the right thing to say at the right time.

When in Rome swear you are claret and amber, unless talking to Lazio supporters then you bleed blue and white.

Which is not a criticism of the man just a recognition – were it needed – that if one wants to have a career in professional football one needs to be flexible about one’s passions. George Graham managed Arsenal, John Rudge went to Stoke after decades at Port Vale. Matt Busby played for Liverpool, John Hendrie for Leeds. Perhaps Jackson is Bradford City’s Brian Clough ousted from one rival to lead another.

Certainly if he is the opportunist then this short term role he has at City is his opportunity and opportunity that has been presented because of his connection to Bradford City. It is not easy to imagine the likes of Andy Richie or Mel Machin (The shoulder’s to Jackson’s time at Huddersfield) being given the Valley Parade job let alone being well received in it. Jackson’s prior connection serves him well.

We should not speak ill of this shield of popularity – it was that shield and its ability to allow the manager space to build the club which had me excited about Stuart McCall’s appointment – but with John Hughes and John Coleman interviewing and rumours that the club has set its sights on Keith Hill (Quote Mark Lawn: “We would all like a Keith Hill”) or Rochdale or Alan Knill of Bury (Para-Quote Mark Lawn: “But even there I’d be thinking play-offs three times and no promotion?”)

In Jackson City have one of the better qualified and highest profile of any of the people considered to be connected with the club in a significant manner – although Carlisle United manager Greg Abbott and the guy at Motherwell who did what Rangers could not might be considered above and Ipswich’s Paul Jewell certainly is – but considering the Bantams alarming turn around of players per season in the last fifteen years it is not surprising that a whole host of managers have some Bantams connection.

Chris Wilder – the Oxford manager – meandered to Valley Parade at some point in the 1990s before exiting for the team he supported in Sheffield United but one has to wonder if three months at a club a decade and a half ago is even worth considering as a prior connection to the club.

And so City’s joint chairman are presented with a choice between Jackson – who represents a significant link to the club’s past – and one of the interviewed managers who has no connection but (in some cases) great track records. In short, it seems, they have a chance to decide between the club hero or the CV. There is an irony there.

The question is an open one. What, if there is one, is the benefit of a club appointing a manager who has a previous connection with that club?

1999, and all that

It’s 10-and-a-half-years since Oxford United last visited Valley Parade – but the remarkable period in City’s history which that end-of-season game was part of ensures the memories remain vivid.

Oxford home was Bradford City’s penultimate fixture of a Division One campaign on the brink of ending in glory. A week earlier, the Bantams had defeated QPR 3-1 at Loftus Road while promotion rivals Ipswich Town incredibly lost at home to bottom-placed Crewe. Fantastic news for City – lifting them into the second automatic promotion spot on Goals For with two games to go – but the Portman Road result was not so good for Oxford, who were battling with Crewe and five other clubs to avoid the drop.

With City facing Oxford at Valley Parade a day before Ipswich’s tough away encounter at 4th-placed Birmingham, there was genuine optimism this was going to be the weekend that City – with a far superior Goals For total (Goal Difference wasn’t used back then) – would seal promotion to the Premier League. The easy part of the bargain seemed an inevitable victory over a struggling Oxford who hadn’t won in five. What could possibly go wrong?

That day was almost a living nightmare. I still have video highlights of the disappointing 0-0 draw, taped from Yorkshire TV’s Goals on Sunday, and even watching years on you can still feel the tension that was rife among the sell-out home crowd. City struggled to rise to the occasion, Oxford refused to lie down. They even created the better chances, forcing Gary Walsh into a couple of superb saves.

The Valley Parade clock seemed to tick by worryingly fast, the atmosphere was flat – we all just seemed too nervous to even attempt a chant. I felt sick in my stomach as the growing sense of realisation we weren’t going to win – and therefore might have messed up our promotion chances – sank in.

In a cruel and horrible twist, deep in stoppage time Stuart McCall was presented with the easiest of chances right in front of us in the Kop. He headed the ball over the bar, and the split-second we allowed ourselves to believe we’d got out of jail gave way to crushing misery. McCall was inconsolable as he left the field – the TV highlights capturing a shot of a ball boy attempting to hug him, only for the skipper to brush him off.

It all worked out wonderfully in the end of course: Birmingham beat Ipswich the following day to leave the Tractor Boys a point behind. A week later came that stunning victory over Wolves, which sealed City’s promotion and lead to wild scenes of jubilation in the away end and back in Bradford. And in hindsight we could look back on the Oxford draw and feel glad we didn’t win, so we got this never-to-be-forgotten moment at Molineux. Oxford were relegated, despite winning 5-0 against Stockport in their final game.

Although I still look back on that afternoon against Oxford and feel sick at the despair we endured, with each passing year of disappointment there’s part of me that longs to experience such disappointment again. True we’ve had some truly miserable times over the past decade, but for City to be up their fighting for promotion and to have some many sleepless nights hoping they could cross the finishing line is a different kind of emotion – and one we’ve struggled to come close to experiencing since.

It’s impossible to find the words that do justice to just how much promotion meant to us that year, but perhaps things have now become so bad that, if and when success does return to this club, we’ll feel just as happy as we did then.

For much of the club’s subsequent fall, there’s been a feeling promotion should be our right rather than the astonishing achievement 1999 was. As such, if we had achieved promotion from League One in 2006 or League Two in 2009, the celebrations would have probably felt more reserved. A sense of entitlement that we were simply fulfilling our right, rather than delirium that our lives could be blessed with something so remarkable.

Perhaps the ongoing frustrations of League Two life and never-ending despair that we can’t seem to bottom out now mean that a promotion from League Two would leave us feeling just as happy as Wolves 99. While the twists and turns leading up to it would at times leave us as emotionally-traumatised as the last time we played Oxford.

All of which seems a long distance away as City welcome Oxford tomorrow while 20th in League Two. Wins over Barnet and Cheltenham lifted spirits and breathed new hope into a season heading down the pan, but the setback at Burton last week has again dampened the mood. There’s less anger than post-Morecambe, but things still feel very on edge. Another defeat tomorrow – or even a repeat of the outcome when City last played the Us – and the pressure will rise again.

The task in hand is far from easy – the Oxford of 2010 do not represent anything like the home banker to City that the 1999 match-up suggested. Like City the last decade has been hugely difficult for United, with the 1999 relegation quickly followed by demotions to League Two in 2001 and out of the Football League in 2006. For three seasons the club enjoyed the highest gates in the Conference but failed to climb out of a division they appeared too big for – sound familiar, eh? – before beating York in the play off final last May.

The manager is another reason to look in the past. Chris Wilder played 45 times for City during the 1997-98 season, before moving to hometown club Sheffield United on transfer deadline day.

After impressing as manager at Halifax, Wilder guided Oxford back to the Football League and is a name who often crops up when debating a managerial change at Valley Parade. Wilder and Oxford have started well and lie in 11th place ahead of their trip to West Yorkshire – though their recent league form is just as inconsistent as the Bantams.

Jon McLaughlin will continue in goal for City – despite another bout of public criticism from his manager after Burton last week and the added pressure of Lenny Pidgeley arriving on trial. The defence will see two changes as the departing Man United loanees Reece Brown and Oliver Gill leave gaps that will be taken by Zesh Rehman and Luke Oliver.

Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien will keep their places, but the disruption to back four selection throws questions over the value in signing the two youngsters for a month and looking to build with them. Or to quote Rehman, “No disrespect to the two lads coming in (on loan), but I don’t think they did anything that I felt I couldn’t do.”

Lee Hendrie is fighting to be fit after missing last week, with Tom Adeyemi set to return and battle with David Syers to play alongside Tommy Doherty. The early signs are that Syers provides the midfield with greater balance, and his last two performances make him difficult to leave out. Leon Osborne is slowly developing into a decent player, but continues to be the target of some supporters.

Up front, it’s hoped Omar Daley will be trusted to return to the free role position he was performing so well, with Jason Price and James Hanson vying to start alongside him and the other making a very good sub. Price has so far won plenty of praise, but Hanson’s return makes him less needed than he was a few weeks earlier when Oliver had to play up front. Timing is everything in football, and it remains regrettable Taylor couldn’t have signed a loan striker earlier than he managed.

Jake Speight, Louis Moult, Robbie Threlfall and Lee Bullock are all battling to return to the side, and could yet play a significant role in the season. And as the visitors remind us of our enjoyable past, it’s perhaps the last trip City made to Oxford which should provide the greatest inspiration.

City won 1-0 in December 1998, to reverse a two-game losing run. That paved the way for a superb run of form – eight wins from the next nine matches – and solved the final piece of then-manager Paul Jewell’s promotion squad conundrum which had seen the team selection evolve after a dreadful start. Robbie Blake was switched from right winger to partner Lee Mills, it all fell beautifully into place. The immediate challenge for Taylor is to shape his squad in a similar fashion and unearth the right formula that will turn an under-achieving team into promotion contenders.

Tomorrow will hopefully see another positive step towards fulfilling that aim – so in time we can party like it’s 1999.

The sightings of Manningham start today

Tell someone that you have seen the Yeti wandering around Thornton and they will not believe you. Talk about seeing Little Green Men wandering through Idle you will be looked at in a curious manner. Say you saw Spaceships over Shipley you will be considered wrong in the head.

Today – however – if you claim to have seen Sir Alex Ferguson wandering around Manningham you will be believed and you will have started a rumour.

For today is the day that – some days too late in the opinion of this writer – Bradford City step up the search for a replacement for Stuart McCall holding interviews for the position of Interim Manager.

The role is a curious one. It promises “pole position” for the job as it is appointed in the summer but is distinctly a fixed term contract. Achievement is touted as impossible in the role with joint chairman Mark Lawn making it clear that he believes that that club is not going up or down this season. Julian Rhodes – who thought similar when appointing David Wetherall three years ago as a prelude to the sink to League Two – could not have kept a straight face saying the same thing.

If the financial situation at the club did not then the nature of this interim position – as opposed to the caretaker role Wayne Jacobs has presently (he is taking care of the team, that is why they are called caretaker managers) – precludes the idea that one of today’s appointments will be with a manager who currently has a job ruling out swathes of names. Alan Knill, Keith Hill, Fabio Capello; these are just some of the people who despite no doubt frequent sightings in BD8 would almost exclude themselves from the process should they show poor enough judgement to leave one club for such a transient position.

The timing of the change also precludes the idea of bringing in a player manager unless the player with ambitions is currently without club in which case they are probably no longer to be considered player-managers but rather rookies which would not seem to be the type of person the club are looking for. The irony in this is that this would have excluded Roy McFarland, Trevor Cherry, Chris Kamara and Paul Jewell from the job who are the only City managers who have achieved promotion in my life time, and I ain’t as young as I was.

Nevertheless Mark Lawn has talked about bringing in an experience manager and some have suggested that this means Terry Dolan which perhaps is a definition of the word experience which might not be as expected but is accurate. In the same way that when fans talk about a team needing to be consistent they do not desire a side that always lose so when they talk about experience do they mean someone who has failed often and at many levels.

One recalls the words of Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling: “I have learnt from my mistakes and I could repeat them exactly.”

Not that that is to suggest that Dolan is especially worth mentioning as being an poor candidate over and above the no doubt hundreds of names who have failed often at clubs similar to City. Expect Peter Jackson to be sighted around the club looking to bring some of the “magic” that he showed in his previous appointments to Valley Parade. He should be used to the journey by now having been interviewed and accepted the role of Bradford City manager in December 2000 only to decide that he would give backword a day later.

Not that every manager who has been sacked can automatically be assumed to have failed. Mark Cooper – son of Leeds’s Terry – was sacked from Peterborough by an increasingly mad chairman while Gary McAllister’s record at Leeds United of 25 wins in 50 games certainly does not suggest that he should have been put out of work.

Experience managers who are out of work are not uncommon and should they have every worn claret and amber in action then they will probably be mentioned as meandering around Bedlington Terrace sometime this afternoon.

The obsession clubs have with appointing managers who have played for the club is always a curious one. Chris Wilder – the manager of Oxford United who aside from going well in the Conference would also be able to reunite with Jacobs who was his assistant at Halifax Town – played for the club for months more than years but still this promotes his name above Graham Westley or Martin Foyle who manage the clubs above and below the Us.

One would hope – and it seems that these hopes are to be dashed – that Mark Lawn will have looked to low risk appointments of managers who can point to a repeated track record of success such as Peter Taylor or Paul Jewell but were that the decision then there would have been little reason not to appoint the man on Monday. Jewell – incidentally – is still being paid by Derby County as part of his severance from Pride Park a year ago. That contract expires in the summer when Jewell is looking for work.

Expect Jewell and Taylor to be sighted though, and hope that the sightings are true.

For while Lawn is confident that the season is done for the Bantams one cannot help but recall Wetherall’s fourteen games at the club and think that how a similar return of one point of every four from the next nineteen games would give City 14 more points to add the the current 33. The aforementioned Cooper got a single win and four draws in thirteen games at The Posh this season despite his being brought not from the dole queue but from a job he was excelling in at Kettering Town and City cannot afford that sort of performance and, as with Peterborough, would find it hard to predict it.

47 points is normally enough to avoid relegation but the whole endeavour seems to pile a level of risk onto the club for little return considering that in four months time the process, the sightings, the looking for a new manager will start all over again.

Only rather than having a manager who knows the players names we will be left hoping that the one sighting that turns out to be accurate can manage to quickly get to the level of being average and stay there for a few months.

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