When the immoveable object met the immoveable object and Bradford City and Reading agreed to a replay in the FA Cup sixth round

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott | Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Andrew Halliday, Mark Yeates, Francois Zoko

Balls in bags

On Monday night, at Old Trafford, something well happen that has not occurred in over one hundred years. Bradford City will be in the draw for the FA Cup semi-final. The goal-less draw at Valley Parade in the FA Cup sixth round with Reading guarantees that the Royals will be in that draw too.

The immoveable object met the immoveable object in the first of the four quarter final ties and while City will look back to a chance or two which could have resulted in more the game which mustered only a single shot on target had the hallmarks of a pair of teams more concerned with losing than committed to winning.

Which is not to criticise either side for that approach – I spoke recently about how Phil Parkinson’s approach puts importance on not being out of a game – but to explain the dynamics of a game which promised everything and left tension unresolved.

Each side enjoyed a half of the game. The first forty five minutes Reading edged possession and hit the post through Pavel Pogrebnyak although the seemed to be a fast and loose being played with left hand touchline calls by a linesman who gave the benefit of geography to the Royals.

Nevertheless Pogrebnyak’s shot – along with a deflected effort by Hal Robson-Kanu – was all that Ben Williams in the Bradford City goal had to do. Williams’ inclusion over Jordan Pickford was a surprise but a pleasant one. Williams kept goal for every Cup tie while Pickford was tied to Sunderland.

“The guy that brung her”

That Parkinson kept faith in the keeper that had got him to the sixth round recalled Paul Jewell’s decision at Wolves in 1999 to go for promotion with the eleven who had been his most regular starters. “A girl dances with the fella that brought her”, I said then and I think it now.

Indeed after watching Ramires burst from the Chelsea midfield to put the Blues into a 2-0 lead Williams has not conceded a goal in the FA Cup. Thinking back to that day one recalls how Chelsea were lacking a Claude Makélélé in holding midfield.

While Chelsea had allowed the Bantams to build in the forward midfield positions Reading deployed a man to sit in front of their back two and make sure that Billy Clarke’s influence on the game in the first half was as minimal as possible. Nathaniel Chalobah sat next to Clarke and forced a gap between Jon Stead and James Hanson which split City’s forward options leaving the Bantams disjointed in the final third.

Chalobah put in a very impressive game – especially in the first half – and looked as if he may be the decisive difference between the sides until Phil Parkinson tweaked his approach at half time to play more through left and right midfielders and less through his front man. Chalobah – oddly – is on loan from Chelsea. He has a very brought future.

Tweak

Parkinson’s tweak was to have the ball played through Billy Knott and Filipe Morais – and to have Knott and Morais pick the ball up deeper – and then allow Clarke to drift left and right effectively taking himself and Chalobah out of the game.

And so City enjoyed more of the game in the second period. Morais had a chance just after half time which he passed when he could have shot – he seldom is accused of “making the wrong decisions” as a Kyel Reid or Omar Daley was although he probably does as much – and James Hanson swept a ball the wrong side of the upright after good work by Jon Stead.

The best chance of the game presented itself when Morais bent a free kick in and Andrew Davies connected but watched his headed chance take the paint off the post as it skimmed wide. Davies’ reaction suggested he knew that the best chance of the game had gone, but that the tie would have more chances in it, and so it will prove on Monday week.

Reading’s Pogrebnyak tried to handle the ball into the goal in the last moment. That was all the City defend had to cope with in the second half.

It would be easy to miss

In the swirl of a crowd of 24,321 at Valley Parade and the first FA Cup sixth round since the mid-1970s, and in the media coverage which seems to have decided that this game was not worth watching, it would be easy to not give credit to Phil Parkinson’s team. (Hob Nob Anyone? can give Steve Clarke’s team credit.)

That City went toe to toe with a Championship side is impressive. If one were to ask which side regularly played at a higher level one would be simply guessing an answer. There was a character needed from City’s side today to handle being favourites and there was a character needed to turn the performance around at halt time.

That good performances and great character are common does not make them less impressive.

Looking forward

One wonders what City have to do to win the second game which was not done today. Away from Valley Parade the Bantams have a tendency to replace Billy Clarke with Billy Knott and play Andy Halliday – a late sub today – to create a different shape to the midfield and that shape seems more effective.

City have won more games away from Valley Parade this season in League One than at home, and on travels to Chelsea, Millwall and Halifax Town have shown character in different ways. The Valley Parade turf was better than it has been (which is, of course, not down to Roger Owen who is not responsible for the pitch) but is heavy and the ball bounces little from it. A better surface will not suit City any more than it does Reading, but it will allow for City to play the tight triangles that much of Parkinson’s attacking play is built around.

City face trips to Coventry City and Gary Jones’ Notts County in the nine days before Reading. In League One today City slipped to tenth and the expereince in the build up to this tie did not suggest that the Bantams will be turning games in hand into three points.

1911, and all that

But those worries are for another day. It will be the 16th of March and City will still be in a cup competition and that has not happened in over one hundred years.

Not for Parkinson though. The manager who has as a modus operandi not being out of a game is not out of a tie. Nine days to assess Reading, and the game that passed, and to plot a victory which will make City more than a name on a ball in a bag.

Nine days cannot pass soon enough.

The definitive redefined as Bradford City beat Chelsea 4-2

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Andy Halliday | Billy Knott | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Mark Yeates, Christopher Routis, Billy Clarke

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.

How far with the lesson of Germany reach?

Self flagellation has always been popular in English football and when the national side returned home from a World Cup 4-1.5ing by Germany the press and players had already begun to whip itself in a freeze of internalised loathing showing the defining characteristic of the media approach to the game: That the game is played by England and other sides are the subject of that.

So when England play well – nine out of ten in qualifying – it is because of our abilities and when we lose it is the lack of those which is the problem and credit is never extended to the opposition. Watching Germany ram four past Argentina though could cause cause for a pause. However poor one might feel England were either Argentina (and Australia) were equal to that or – perhaps – there is something worth noticing going on in Joachim Löw’s side.

There has been a consensus that the Germans – who played a central five in the midfield with an average age of just under 23 years old – have stolen a march on the World because of that youth and freshness and there is much to be said for the way that they have blooded their younger players. 25 year old Schweinsteiger is on his second World Cup. So is Wayne Rooney, scratch that idea then.

Much is also made about the formation which Fabio Capello – and Diego Maradona – employed compared to Löw’s Germans and suddenly the word “fourfourtwo” is becoming something of a negative in the English game. One can almost hear now managers up and down the country being charged with the idea that they – like Capello – lack the imagination to play a more exotic tactic and one can expect three months of randomly thrown together formations up and down football.

Freakish results will mark the start of the season as teams who deploy something more “characterful” than the 442 which has fallen from fashion. As Clough said “There is a lot of rubbish talked about tactics by people who would not know how to win a game of Dominoes.”

Not that this will effect Peter Taylor who has signed the players and settled on a 433 at Valley Parade and City can make hay as League Two players are deployed in fanciful ways to little effect. Finding a way of playing and sticking to it is perhaps the most important thing.

On the fourfourtwo one can say that while it may have faults when playing three games every four years in the World Cup in the cut and thrust of two games a week for nine months the simplicity, adaptability and ease of the approach is the reason for its enduring popularity. Week to week football requires not a surgeon’s tool but a Swiss Army Knife, which is what fourfourtwo is.

The German’s 4231 – originally a formation played in Portugal because of the freedom it gives to the kind of attacking midfielder that that nation excels in producing such as Luis Figo, Joao Pinto and his brother Sergio – is nothing especially new.

The lesson of the Germans is not in tactics but in the deployment of players within those formations. The heart of the German side is Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira who play the deep set midfielder role in a revolutionary manner. Popular conception has it that the two in a 4231 should be holding midfielders and ball winners but Löw’s pairing are more box to box players capable of tackling and getting behind the ball for sure but also able to be used as a spring board for attacking play.

For Schweinsteiger and Khedira there is no need to look for a passer after taking the ball – the pair are equipped to play in the three more forward midfielder – increasing the speed of the counter attack and its accuracy. What they loose in not having a Claude Makelele they gain in rapidity of play creating a nod to total football ideology. As Schweinsteiger plays the ball forward so Mesut Özil or Lukas Podolski or Thomas Müller can drop back and tackle.

This is a stark contrast to the approach that many – myself included – have to for example the English midfield which agonises over the choice between attacking players like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard and ball winners like Gareth Barry. The roles are as split as centre forward and full back but not for Löw’s Germans.

There is a plan for sure and positions – this is not total football Dutch style – but the less rigid assignment of player roles gives a fluidity which England, Australia and Argentina have been incapable of living with. The jobs are done in that German engine room but – crucially – the players who do them have the ability and remit to do each other’s tasks.

Even Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano – as fine a pair of specialised players as one could see – looked old fashioned and stolid in comparison and as Schweinsteiger surged to the left touchline and set up a second goal it seemed obviously that if Germany could prevent Messi emulating that then Mascherano simply would not attempt it.

The granularity of positions – especially in the midfield – has become something of a mantra for modern football and one recalls Lee Crooks and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson but struggles to think of them both as “midfielders” rather one as a holder, the other as an attacker. The same could be said about Dean Furman and Nicky Law although perhaps not about Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock.

Indeed whatever lessons are emanating from the German side at the moment Peter Taylor seems to have adopted. His midfield trio next season are Flynn, Bullock and Tommy Doherty and none of them fit easily into the idea of being players only able to – or only ready to – performing a single role.

It remains to be seen what lessons the game as a whole take from World Cup 2010 and if those lessons create a path to success but City seem to be ahead of a curve that is coming and should that bring the same rewards for the Bantams as it has for the previously unfavoured Germans then next season could be a good year indeed.

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