Changes / Institutional / Retention

The Team

Colin Doyle | Tony McMahon, Romain Vincelot, Nathaniel Knight-Percival, James Meredith | Mark Marshall, Josh Cullen, Daniel Devine, Nicky Law | Billy Clarke, Jordy Hiwula-Mayifuila | Timothée Dieng, Filipe Morais, Recce Webb-Foster

There has been much talk since his return to Bradford City that Stuart McCall had changed as a manager and that talk was manifested for the first time as his team came from a goal down against Coventry City to win 3-1 at Valley Parade.

A goal down and not playing well one worried at half time that whatever the City manager was to say to his players it would make matters worse. This, after all, was the criticism most fairly applied to McCall in his first spell as City manager. That he has the capacity to take a disadvantage and turn it into an eight game losing run.

That was the McCall way. McCall created teams that played not just with passion but were fuelled by it. When that passion was applied the result was a team of flair and verve that – like some Hendrix lead guitar riff – worked not because it had passion but because it was passion. When it did not work one ended up with two month sulks.

Which contrasted with Phil Parkinson’s five years at City were the Bantams were bass guitar perfect in their rhythm never to be put off balance. McCall had – in his previous time at the club – sent out teams transformed from bad (or average at least) to good after the fifteen minute break but too often it was the other way around.

City trailed Coventry City to a debut goal from on loan forward Burnley Daniel Agyei who had turned Romain Vincelot and finished well following a frustrated attempt to clear the ball up the left hand side of a lopsided Bantams team.

McCall had sent out a three man central midfield with Mark Marshall given a single winger role that overstates his ability to have an influence on the game. Marshall provided an outlet on the right for attacking play but there was no mirror to that the left leading to the singular problem with clearing before Agyei’s goal and a general problem all first half that City were predictable in dysfunction.

Coventry knew what the Bantams would do and that when they did it it would not work.

Coventry City’s Tony Mowbray deployed his Sky Blues team – still looking for a first win – to press high up the field and lock on City player to player. They played at an intensity which was not sustainable for ninety minutes – legs would tired and tired soon – but that one worried at half time would have broken the home team’s resolve and need only continue to keep the Bantams at arm’s length.

But at half time McCall addressed the problem down the left by pushing Billy Clarke – rancid in the first half, much better in the second – alongside Jordy Hiwula and having one or the other break left when the Bantams had the ball.

This tactical tweak had two effects: It balanced the width of the midfield giving an outlet on the left and it stopped Clarke dropping deep and – as a result – allowed the three man midfield to push forward into the last third. It was the opposite of the charge of tactical naivety but I never bought into that charge anyway.

That the change worked was down to metronomically good displays from the likes of Vincelot, Josh Cullen, Nicky Law Jnr, and Daniel Devine. Players who were able to maintain a level of performance and – by doing so – provide a platform for those who were playing poorly to turn their performances around on on.

This was the hallmark of the Parkinson era and the thing one was most worried about losing when Parkinson left. No matter who took over the knowledge Parkinson grafted into his teams of maintaining a level of performance when performances around you after going bad had to be lost.

How that knowledge has been retained is a mystery or perhaps it has just been recreated. Vincelot’s clean through ball to Clarke after an hour came when the visitor’s legs were too tired to press but the Frenchman had not fatigued physically or mentally. Clarke went for goal but was pulled down and Tony McMahon’s penalty pulled the score level. It was simultaneously reassuringly familiar and entirely new.

Coventry City’s approach of going man-to-man on the Bantams failed following the dismissal of Jordan Turnbull for conceding the penalty and within minutes Mark Marshall arrowed in a diagonal long range strike which is as good as any seen at Valley Parade in recent years.

Marshall’s performance was still a problem though and one which may become pressing as City progress. He spoke following the game about how previous managers had not allowed him to play with freedom and there may be good reason for that. Marshall unleashed is as liable to land a 25 yard screamer into J block of the Kop as he is the back of the goal.

That Marshall is allowed a platform at all is a balance created by the metronomic midfield. My worry is that he does not create enough to provide weight in that balance. His improvement is slow but this goal and this game showed a step in it.

A second McMahon penalty came after Cullen was hauled down in the box – that the midfielders were getting in the box showed the turnaround caused by the switch McCall made with Clarke at half time – and the stand in skipper stepped up to score again before hobbling off injured.

McMahon will miss four to six weeks after history maker Kyel Reid trolled into him leaving him with a dead leg he pushed too far. Reid had a very Kyel Reid type of game. He ran a lot, fell over too much, and should have scored a couple of times but did not and on each occasion recognised his failure with a big smile.

But Reid looked different from a distance and playing for another team: more dangerous sometimes, more cynical sometimes, more desirable maybe too;

Which is enough to make one think on a wet summer August afternoon where what one worried about losing with Parkinson and regaining with McCall began to evanish.

Phil Parkinson and the team of tautology

The Team

Ben Williams | Stepgen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Lee Evans, Josh Cullen, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Filipe Morais | Billy Clarke, Jamie Proctor, Nathan Clarke

It seemed odd twenty minutes later but at half time I waxed lyrical about how good Walsall were.

Walsall were, after all, the first team to put the ball past Ben Williams in over eight games when they scored in what would be their manager Dean Smith’s final game in charge at the Bescot Stadium back in November and they had won that game.

At half time – defending City’s noisy North End – they had gnarled their way through the opening forty five minutes with the type of performance that City’s Phil Parkinson would have been proud of from his players.

Indeed Walsall’s James O’Connor typified the Saddlers approach to gutsy determination to not allow goalkeeper Neil Etheridge’s clean sheet to be dirtied. Away from Valley Parade during the transition period between City’s early season floundering and that eight games without concession it was exactly the sort of determination that O’Connor showed that Rory McArdle was dragging out every game.

But that was then, and this is now.

Transition

Turning this Bradford City team around this season ranks alongside Chelsea, Arsenal and Wembley twice in Phil Parkinson’s achievements as Bradford City manager.

So meek in surrender earlier in the season, and so aimless at times, this was to be a fallow year for Bradford City.

It was a season where signings did not work out – Paul Anderson watches from the bench, Mark Marshall nowhere, Brad Jones elsewhere – and where even the signings that did work didn’t work. How strange does Devante Cole’s decision to join a relegation battle in preference to staying at City look now?

Which is impressive is not just that Parkinson has spun this season into something when it threatened so often to be nothing but how he has done it.

Parkinson has created the team of tautology: A committed group of loan players.

Shut up Wesley!

Josh Cullen, Lee Evans, Reece Burke were a good chunk of the spine of Bradford City in the 4-0 win over Walsall and have been crucial in the transformation of the team. Indeed Cullen’s arrival allowed the much loved Gary Liddle to exit for Chesterfield and another relegation scrap and while one doubts Cullen (or Burke) will be starting next season in the Olympic Stadium with West Ham neither of them are committed to City in the long term.

But in the short term they are? And why is this? Loan players are as Wes Thomas has been. Oddly out of sorts perhaps, and stuck in their ways. Thomas was to the Bradford City support what Jamie Proctor became: The alternative to James Hanson;

Nevertheless Thomas’s unwillingness or inability to play a high pressing game – which resulted in opposition side’s getting an easy route out away from their own goal – has seen the player confronted with two choices: Parkinson’s way or no way at all. Being a loanee and able to ride out the rest of his deal Thomas seemingly did not care for the former and ended up with the latter.

Which has been City’s experience with loan players since their presence went from odd novelty to (apparently) a necessity in the last two decades of the game. If one includes Kyel Reid and Jamie Proctor as loan players (as they initially were) then half of City’s team could not be around next season.

So how are they not a team of Wes Thomas’s?

The fault is not with the stars

The answer to that question probably resides in Rory McArdle and James Hanson, who both returned to the side for the Walsall game, and with other long time servers like Stephen Darby, James Meredith and perhaps the aforementioned Reid.

There is an adage in football – which is attributed to Brian Clough but I’m sure pre-dates him – that a club is as good as its senior players. It seems that Parkinson believes that to be the case. There is a circle of players like Hanson, McArdle, Darby, Meredith, Reid, and perhaps extended to Ben Williams and Tony McMahon who create a tone and an atmosphere at the club which has in its way become a repeatable pattern of success.

To that circle – an inner circle perhaps – Parkinson trust everything. It is to those players who the manager turns when defeat to Coventry City and a draw at Shrewsbury Town has questioned the club’s play off credentials. And with rich reward too. Hanson scores his first professional hat-trick and remains the club’s top goalscorer while McArdle returns the club to clean sheets. The 24th of the season.

For younger players who arrive on loan at the club the message is obvious. Take your cue from that inner circle in how you play, and how you train, and learn the lesson about how far that sort of attitude will take you in football.

What do you learn

One wonders what a young player gets from League One football. Dele Alli – named PFA Young Player of the Year – started last year scoring against City for MK Dons. The intelligentsia have it that it is his blooding as a child in the lower leagues that maketh the man. As if the sort of cold Tuesday night in Crewe that the football media so often sneer at is actually of crucial importance in some way or other.

If it is then Cullen, Evans and Burke have those lessons which are attributed to Alli, and to his partner Harry Kane who wandered the lower leagues as a part of the loan system. Parkinson’s approach to the game involves making sure you are never out of a game – never cast adrift two or three goals behind – and keeping the competitiveness for ninety minutes.

To not lose easily perhaps sums it up best and contrasts with a Walsall side who saw the tide turn away from them on Saturday and did not want to get their feet wet in it. From dogs of war to puppies in the space of fifteen minutes and incapable of stopping the game from going away from them. Parkinson’s approach would have been to close the game down at 0-1, and he has been criticised for that, but only once or twice have City been out of matches all season.

That approach has become the season and there is something about Parkinson’s approach – about following Parkinson’s approach – that is instructive to young footballers. Certainly they show the trappings of players who understand the nature of league football. Burke is committed against Walsall ensuring nothing goes past him. Evans has a poor first half but Cullen carries his team mate through a bad forty five minutes and the pair emerge imperious at the end.

Cullen carries his team mate. A 20 year old loan player prepared to put some of his performance into making sure his team mate’s performance can recover. If that does not tell you the scale of Parkinson’s achievement with this group of players nothing will.

And the achievement is in the approach and the approach relies on the inner circle of players who maintain an attitude throughout the club.

After all these years City have finally got good at loans.

Do you remember the last time?

Just as City start to master loan signings then loan signings disappear. The loan system as we are used to it in the Football League is changing and next season loans are restricted to transfer windows. No emergency bringing in Kyel Reid after an injury to Paul Anderson, no drafting in Lee Evans because things are not going how you want them.

Next season’s summer recruitment has to be more fruitful than this year or the club face a long slog to Christmas but the same was true this season and when Hanson wandered off with the match ball – two headed goals and a powerful right foot finish – one might have wondered if Parkinson were forced to work with the players he had would he have been able to get them to the play-offs this season? If Paul Anderson had not had his leg broken would he be doing what Kyel Reid is now?

In this case retrospect does not have to provide an answer.

The character of Bradford City’s goalscoring problems

To understand the problems Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City are having scoring goals at the end of the League One season – a season which has gone far better than one would have thought for much of it – one has to go back to the problems that marked the start of the season.

By August 2015 Parkinson had put the final nail into the coffin of his 4312 playmaker formation by signing Paul Anderson to add to other recruit Mark Marshall to give his team two out and out wingers.

Marshall and Anderson would be Jamie Lawrence and Peter Beagrie for the 2015 generation and City would rampage through the division with an attractiveness which joint chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes have asked for previously.

However in the opening week trips to Swindon Town and York City, and the game at home to Gillingham, Parkinson’s plans faltered and they faltered because his team were vulnerable to counter-attacks and crosses and these vulnerabilities were caused by a hole in City’s defence.

Joke Hole

That hole was an key. The hole was a gap between goalkeeper Ben Williams and the centre of the defensive line. Whenever a ball would come into the City box Williams and the defenders would struggle with one being too far from the other and as a result opposition strikers being given the freedom of the penalty spot to exploit City again and again.

This coupled with the counter-attacking problem in that Swindon Town exploited ruthlessly. When a City attack broke down the opposition recycled the ball past the wingers and brought the ball into dangerous wide positions challenged by only the City full back, or took it past the central midfielders.

Parkinson’s first solution to this problem did not work.

Brad Jones came and left very quickly and is widely considered to have been a failure at the club. After Jones’ exit a kind of media spin was given to the remaining keeper Ben Williams – that he had “seen off” the more experienced Jones – and so could be considered solid number one material. Williams bought into that and his grown since.

Williams’ record breaking run of clean sheets has written him a paragraph in the history of Bradford City and he deserves credit for it. But how those clean sheets came about is the root of the current goalscoring problem.

Because as Jones left and Williams stayed Parkinson changed City’s approach to games, or their tactics if you will.

Mints

(Brian Clough used to say there is a lot of nonsense talked about tactics by people who could not win a game of dominoes and I’m very aware that I may add to that but I’m not a believer in the reductionist view of tactics which had taken hold at all clubs in modern football where tactics can be boiled down to how the ball is delivered to the final third of the field: long pass or series of short passes; and I’m not a fan of making the word synonymous with the word formation which is also too inexact for our uses. For the word tactics to be of use it has to be nuanced, else it is a nuisance.)

Staying with his philosophies on the game Parkinson changed how City played to stop them conceding goals. His five years at the club have shown us that Parkinson works from a solid defence forward. To this effect the midfielders would take a step back in the course of play and not commit to attacking in forward positions when City had the ball.

Flash your mind back to 1999 and Jamie Lawrence crossing from the right. In the box Lee Mills would be in the six yard box, Robbie Blake would dally at the penalty spot and Peter Beagrie would be just past the far post, just out from the touchline. That season Mills, Blake and Beagrie scored 75% of City’s goals. In addition Stuart McCall and Gareth Whalley – one forward one back – would offer short options and there would be a full back in attendance.

attacking-1999

Consider last night at Coventry City when Kyel Reid had the ball and in the box was Jamie Proctor, and that was it.

Billy Clarke offered a short option but staying outside the box and both Josh Cullen and Lee Evans were back down field. The support from the full back was there but on the opposite side of the field Tony McMahon was not in the box looking to add to the forwards, or forward if one were more honest. Instead McMahon is stepped back making sure that if the keeper catches and throws the ball out City are not exposed.

attacking-2015

Reverse the wings and the story is the same. This is not an issue with personnel it is a part of the way that City are playing. Everyone is a step further back than they could be, and the are further back because when they stepped forward at the start of the season they left holes which were exploited and results were terrible.

That Williams and the back four can claim a record number of clean sheets is a function of the fact that they are not fielding as many crosses, or taking on as many shots, because the midfield is balanced towards making sure that defensive holes are plugged.

Being Reice Charles-Cook

zones-on-a-field

When Reice Charles-Cook – the Coventry City goalkeeper – caught the ball on Tuesday night he looked to get play started quickly for the Sky Blue team that make a fetish of possession but the quick throw to a midfielder on the wing or a player in central position in zones 4-6 are not possible because Reid, McMahon and Clarke are already in zones 4-6 getting back to zones 7-9 while – by contrast – Blake, Lawrence and Beagrie would be in zones 1-3.

Likewise when City attack Cullen and Evans do not need to venture to zone 14 – Billy Clarke lives there – so they stay in zones 8 and 11 making sure that any breakdown of play does not leave the defence exposed. No counter attacks through zone 8/11, no wide attacks leading to crosses through 4/7 and 6/9.

This approach has done wonderful things for City in the last few months – the move from struggling in lower mid-table to third in League One is a result of this approach – but were Parkinson to alter it now for more of an attacking focus then the defensive issues that mandated the approach would no doubt reappear, or at least Parkinson might worry they would.

The defence – and specifically the control gap between Williams and the defensive line – has not been solved just been filled up with players sitting back. It is control through numbers. Shrewsbury Town’s equaliser will remind you that that issue between Williams and his defensive line has not gone away.

And Parkinson knows this.

Character and confidence

He knows that if he were to add – for example – Filipe Morais to the right flank over McMahon with instructions to get into zone 17-18 then the team would return to the same concession problem it had at the start of the season. He knows that if he had Billy Clarke (or someone else) press alongside Proctor in zone 17 rather than staying in zone 14 then the result without be that Cullen and Evans came forward, making the entire defensive unit harder to control, and the concession problem would emerge again.

Parkinson might try beat opposition sides in a scoring contest a la Kevin Keegan trying to win games 4-3 but considering the statistic talked about about City’s forwards scoring one goal in thirty shots over the last two games – which I would argue were low quality shots, because of the options in the zone 17 mentioned above – one doubts that the manager will change his approach so drastically.

And why should he? That approach has taken a team which struggled badly at the start of the season into genuine contenders for the play-offs. That prospect did not look likely at Gillingham when the third goal without reply went in back on the 2nd of January. Parkinson has shown that he can build confidence from teams that do not concede, and that is what he has done this time.

The arguments over Billy Clarke’s missed goal at Coventry – it never looks any better – or his goal should have stood goal at Shrewsbury – it never looks offside – can continue but on a longer timeline City’s goalscoring is not about players missing the target but rather about decisions made to patch defensive weaknesses and to give the team the chance to build confidence by not being beaten.

Like it or not that is the character of Bradford City 2015/2016.

Smiling a little bit as Bradford City draw 0-0 with Coventry City

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Nathan Clarke, Greg Leigh | Tony McMahon, Billy Knott, Lee Evans, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Devante Cole | Jordan Bowery, Devante Cole, Gary Liddle

If football is about making people go home happier Bradford City’s scoreless draw with Coventry City at a cold Valley Parade was probably the net best result for all concerned.

For the visitors Coventry City they exit the stadium still top of League One and reflecting on the adage that any point away from home in league football is a good result.

The Sky Blues players left having worked hard and both given out and taken a few lumps as Referee Nigel Miller allowed both teams to be as physical as they wanted to be. Billy Knott and Gael Bigirimana battled hard, Lee Evans and one time City target Romain Vincelot battled hard. It was a hard battle.

Coventry City manager Tony Mowbury will be happy enough that his team stuck to a plan to try stretch out Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City by playing the ball across the backline to draw City players forward and break the team’s shape. Parkinson will be pleased that his players did not break their shape, and looked solid all evening.

Parkinson should be especially pleased with the emergence of Rory McArdle from able deputy to defensive leader. It was obvious that McArdle would have to make this step up in the absence of Andrew Davies and worrying that it seemed that he would not be able to but – mouth on and arms pointing – McArdle had taken responsibility for the positioning of the defensive unit which has not conceded a goal in the last six games.

Which is not to underplay the role other players have in that – this is the evening where everybody emerged a little bit happier – but McArdle has answered the biggest test of his career to date in moving from a good lieutenant to a leader and against striker Adam Armstrong who had twelve goals this season his unit did not even blink.

Which is not to say that there were not chances. Coventry hit a post while Reice Charles-Cook made a superb save from a Tony McMahon low shot. But at the final whistle Coventry City were top, Bradford City had entered sixth position and the play off berths, and neither team had lost in the league in November or October.

So everybody goes home a little bit happier, or should at least, knowing that more definitive games are to come.

The superb and stupendous success of Scunthorpe United

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Nathan Clarke, Greg Leigh | Tony McMahon, Lee Evans, Gary Liddle, Kyel Reid | Jordan Bowery, Billy Clarke | Luke James

There were probably more Bradford City fans in the stadium applauding off their side than there were supporters of Scunthorpe United following City’s 2-0 victory.

The Bantams had scored a goal in each half with Kyel Reid being fouled after his own shot was saved to allow Tony McMahon to score his second penalty of the week. Greg Leigh scored his second mesmerising run and finish from left back of the week too. Which was good, if you like that sort of thing.

City drafted in Jordan Bowery on loan from Rotherham United to cover Steve Davies in covering James Hanson in the forward line. This caused some upset with some supporters aghast that the Billy Clarke/Deavnte Cole partnership would not be given a chance, others that Bowry’s training would be to have Rory McArdle kick the ball at him very hard, and others that Luke James would be furious. The irony of Parkinson being called out for overlooking long term loan players in favour of short term loan players is not to be lost.

But so it was that Bowery – a willing runner who ran up with cramp towards the end of the game – played target man and Billy Clarke fell deep from the forward line to bolster a midfield which was already bolstered by favouring the more defensively minded Gary Liddle over in form Billy Knott.

City dug in and delivered the ball quickly to the final third. It was the first Wintery day of the season and – at times – one half expected to hear the old stand-by that the ball would come down with snow on it.

Oh to be a Scunthorpe United supporter

By contrasts Scunthorpe United are a joy to watch. Set up with a 433 with one fulcrum midfielder they deployed the insanely talented ballplayer Gary McSheffrey on the left side of a three up front and he drifted between the lines perfectly.

The Iron midfield moved and played short balls well – or tried to – and the forward play of Darius Henderson was all about him dropping deep and trying to turn balls on the floor into him, into passes to supporting players. Henderson ended up isolated and isolated because after a team the belief seemed to seep out of Scunthorpe.

Promiscuous manager Mark Robins has created a Scunthorpe United team who try to – underline on the words try to – play football “the right way” and while the two best chances that the home side created came from raked balls forward on the whole Robins deserves whatever credit swirls around for playing passing football to focus on him.

Yet nobody stayed to applaud his team off.

What you say you want

What Scunthorpe United do is what you (and it should be obvious who the “you” referred to is) say you want. You say you want to see Bradford City play passing football. You say you want City to stop playing long balls to a target man and play through the midfield. You draw little pictures of formations with Devante Cole on one side of attack and no Tony McMahon.

This is what you say you want. Players with deft touches trying to create the perfect chance. The passing game. If you are brave enough to match the courage of your conviction and utter the phrase “I’d rather see City lose than play like this.”

This is what you say you want.

And I wonder if you would stay behind and applaud off a team that lost 2-0 and lost heart when the deft touch was bitten down and the team fell short in effort as well as quality despite the desire to do the right thing.

The evidence of the home supporters suggests that the superb and stupendous success of Scunthorpe United is not all it is cracked up to be.

And perhaps you should stop saying it is.

And onwards

There was a sense of hopelessness in the air when Phil Parkinson brought back Kyel Reid and put McMahon on the right at Rochdale but City have not lost a league game since.

McMahon talks about a team meeting that turned the season around and brought the squad together. That togetherness is – to me – what is worth watching in football. Seeing players enjoying working hard for each other, and enjoying the rewards.

It is what elevates the game from twenty two grown men running around a bit of grass taking everything too seriously.

Stern tests await. Coventry City are top of the League One table and arrived at Valley Parade on Tuesday night. They used to have McSheffrey and now have Joe Cole in his position.

One can not imagine that if reading that all the Bradford City players would smile and note that McSheffrey’s position is somewhere deep in Stephen Darby’s pocket.

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?

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.

Suddenly it all seemed simple

When Phil Parkinson got ready to go in at half time at Brisbane Road to give his team talk to a City side that were beating Leyton Orient 1-0 he must have been thinking about how simple this game of football really is.

At a corner the ball was delivered deep to Aaron McLean who spun off his man and ended up at the back post on his own. One touch and City never really looked back all afternoon against a Leyton Orient team who are much vaunted in third place but never really looked capable of breaking down the Bantams defence.

And while City had choked badly on Tuesday night against Walsall there was an ease to the play in a game in which the Bantams were not asked to make the attacking running. The same problems were obvious but they mattered less once McLean had got his second goal in City colours.

While a goal ahead and with the ability to sit deep and try use the power of McLean and Jon Stead up front or the pace of Adam Reach or Kyle Bennett to get behind a team which needed to win Parkinson could watch the second half confident that his team would win.

Sit deep, make possession difficult for the opposition, hit from set plays. It worked against Leyton Orient, it worked against Arsenal. Wry smiles all round.

But smiles from afar form Parkinson who was sent from the stand after a scuffle in the Orient tunnel following a handball by Andrew Davies which occurred after the half time whistle. It was Clive Thomas refereeing but it was as much as City had to cope with.

Stead’s arrival to cover the injured James Hanson and Andy Gray who – while also injured – did nothing to impress on Tuesday night gave Parkinson the luxury of an effective target man on Saturday without the worry of not having one for Tuesday night’s trip to Coventry City.

City go to Coventry City and both teams are on 48 points which would – last season – have ensured League One survival. One point is probably enough to rubber stamp survival for both and is perhaps the simplest outcome of the game. That The Sky Blues have achieved this from administration and The Bantams have done it from 7th in League Two will give both managers a chance to have something to smile about.

Not that they will smile at each other. Coventry City boss Steven Pressley called Phil Parkinson’s tactics after the 3-3 draw at Valley Parade earlier this season “dark ages football.”

The enlightenment of football probably eludes both these teams but neither have done as well as the slick passing of Leyton Orient who tried pass and move and ended up as thin waves ebbing away from a solid Bantams defence and beaten by a set play.

Pressley’s point is not lost but it assumes much. It assumes that Parkinson – a football manager given to elements of coaching modernity – has not looked at the way the game is played in League One and concluded that the most simple way of playing football is the most effective. That the enlightenment of football analysis tells him that dark ages football works.

On afternoons like Leyton Orient away it is worth reflecting that the simplest answer is often the best.

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