Taking back control of the result as Bradford City draw 0-0 at Barnsley

When talking this week about the need for Bradford City’s players to put in a Bradford City performance manager Phil Parkinson engaged in a little modesty, and a little evasion.

I don’t think there was enough out there in terms of the Bradford spirit and determination we’ve known – and that didn’t sit easy with me – Phil Parkinson

Four years ago on Tuesday saw the Bradford City manager who proceeded Parkinson go into a broad room meeting trying to justify a lifeless performance against Dagenham & Redbridge and failing. He resigned and within a week Parkinson came to the club after the cameo of a Colin Cooper 4-2 against Barnet.

Many wanted Cooper to have the job and Parkinson, less obviously attacking in his approach than Cooper, was criticised as he went about a process that made City more predictable and by virtue of that less interesting.

Jackson’s last side was as lifeless as one could imagine but it was not criticised for that having come after Peter Taylor’s weak outfits and Stuart McCall’s sides who famously could take an offside decision going against them in a win and sulk it up into a six game losing run.

This has been the way Bradford City have been perhaps since Paul Jewell left the club in the Summer of 2000. For those ten years we were a club often at the whim of external forces be they financial or on the field. To a greater or lesser extent until Parkinson arrived City were a club who seemed unable to control its own fortunes.

Unless one wants to journey back decades then it would be more accurate to say that it is not a “Bradford City performance” that Bradford City failed to show in the 2-1 defeat to Gillingham it was a Phil Parkinson performance.

Modus operandi

Having watched Phil Parkinson’s teams over the last four years it strikes one that first and foremost the City boss demands the level of effort which was lacking from his players on Tuesday night. For much of Parkinson’s time at the club he has been able to select a team from a squad who all were able to reach that level required.

That that situation was coming to an end has been obvious for some time. If one believes that the Gillingham performance would not have happened had Jon Stead been in the forward line, or had Andy Halliday been in the team, then one convicts oneself of the most idealised thinking.

On Tuesday night – and over the week – it became obvious that he did not have eleven who put in what Parkinson requires and so new faces were called in: Reece Burke on loan from West Ham United, Lee Evans from Wolves.

In the past four years Parkinson’s loan signings – as opposed to his loan to purchase deals – have largely been to decorate the fringes of his team. Burke and Evans came straight into the side recalling Parkinson’s first month at the club when the likes of Matt Duke, Jamie Devitt, and Andrew Davies were signed and put into the side.

Loan signings disrupt the flow of a team, but when the team is not flowing what is to lose?

Replacements in South Yorkshire

In the event Lee Evans turned in a fine performance in central midfield as the Bantams had more control of the central area than they had in any game previously this season. It should not be said that Christopher Routis is the sum of the problems at Bradford City but with him injured, and Tony McMahon ill, the middle two of Evans and Gary Liddle looked to have the kind of solidity which has been lacking of late.

Evans will be at the club for five months at least. He is young and has some ability. His signing on loan suggest is is an after thought but one finds it hard to believe that Parkinson can have thought that he could go into the season with such poor resources in central midfield and perhaps Evans’ two weeks sitting out games at Wolves focused his mind on how to progress his career at another club.

Only here for a month Reece Burke – 19 years old and having only played five games previously – slotted into the defence alongside Rory McArdle and never looked out of place. Burke put in a calm, assured performance as one might expect from a player on his debut but he seems to be a short term solution to the problem of replacing Andrew Davies.

Alan Sheehan – who has performed the role better than anyone else this term – was on the bench and is thought to be about to leave the club. Millwall defender Mark Beevers has had talks over a move but those talks came to nothing. Nathan Clarke is on the bench until such a time as Parkinson redeems him.

Redemption/reconstruction

While there were chances for Bradford City to win at Oakwell against Barnsley Parkinson’s City were not seeking a redemption so much as reconstruction.

Burke slotted into a back four which was supported by a central midfield who did not stray too far up field and most of the afternoon the full backs were supported by the corresponding wingers Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall.

Parkinson has made it clear that we are at a stage in the season were we can judge all the players (except for Brad Jones, once again absent having missed training all summer) but judgements on those two wide players – and a third Josh Morris – are not kind.

Anderson has – thus far – failed to live up to the hefty reputation he arrived with. His performance against Gillingham was risible and while he was defensively better at Oakwell he showed only very occasional abilities to go beyond the forward line and link onto what could be won by James Hanson.

There is much to do for Anderson.

Josh Morris – who replaced Anderson after just over an hour – has shown more in terms of the ability but is frustratingly easy to knock off the ball for a player with pretensions to take a central midfield role as well as a wide one. For defenders playing against Morris is about playing on the line of fouling and hoping that the Referee has no sympathy for the player who concludes every challenge looking back at the official and appealing.

More curious is Mark Marshall who has very good delivery of a ball when he happens upon the right position to deliver it from but getting Marshall into those positions seems to be a random process. Defensively he issues vague and wrong instructions to the full back behind him but such things are worked on in training and that could improve with time.

Going forward Marshall needs to position himself to take on defenders and go forward rather than to dribble past central midfielders and move sideways. A man who can beat a player is useful when attacking but dribbling through central midfield is dangerous at worse, and fairly pointless at best.

One understands Marshall’s frustrations even without agreeing with his way of venting them.

City’s trip to Barnsley was about keeping a clean sheet and in keeping a clean sheer starting building belief in the squad that it is master of its own destiny. The balance was in favour of defending and none of the wide players was given much of a remit to attack. Parkinson wanted to see if Anderson, Marshall, and Morris were prepared to dig in, that the team were prepared to do as told, and to be responsive for achieving an outcome, and the answer was a qualified yes.

In this context Steve Davies and James Hanson toiled up front with the latter often isolated and the former missing a great chance when one on one with Adam Davies in the Barnsley goal.

One doubts Parkinson will lose much sleep over that. He goes into training for the first time this season – and I would say the first time since Reading – with a team that can be said to have had control over the outcome of the game rather than been buffeted on the winds of occasion.

That was the first thing Phil Parkinson achieved when he arrived at City four years ago. He hopes to have won it back on Saturday.

I have in my hand a piece of paper…

…or rather a collection of a pieces of paper stapled together in the top left corner. It was passed to me by Archie Christie – it has his first name under the staple – as part of the day we spent with him as an illustration of the work that get done at City.

I’m not going to tell you what is in the papers for reasons which will become clear, dear reader, but I can tell you what it says on the front. Under a large Bantams’ Badge reads the words “Bradford City Match Assessment” and under that – written in pen (although this is a photocopy) read the names “Macclesfield T” and “Northampton T”.

The date reads “17th of September” which was – according to the inscriptions – a dry and windy day.

For years, decades, I’ve heard about football clubs who “do their homework” on the opposition, who “have them watched” and for the first time I have the information (or a part of it) which Phil Parkinson and Steve Parkin will be looking over to plan City’s team.

It is a coincidence that paper I got was between is City’s next two opponents but probably not that scout Nigel Brown who authored the document – it carries his name – took in the match. Nigel Brown and Archie Christie talked about arriving at City and finding a filing cabinet marked scouting reports which had sub-divisions for each league and each letter in that league but absolutely nothing in them. If someone had been doing the homework at Bradford City before Christie and Brown then the dog had almost certainly eaten it.

It struck me in the weeks after embedding with him that Christie’s role at the club split down three lines none of which were having that much attention paid to them before his arrival. The first and most obvious was the player recruitment and development side which is an all encompassing one taking in watching players as well as the activities with the Development Squad. Then, most celebrated, is his deal making as seen in George Green’s move to Everton. Potentially Green’s move is the largest transfer between the fourth tier and the top tier of English football ever. Finally there is the homework side and preparing information for the first team’s manager.

Christie started the operation from an empty cabinet and was taking in a game at Halifax Town when he bumped into Brown – Brown told us that most Scouts know each other – and Christie invited him to come in and help with the network. The pair of them assembled a team of around a half dozen scouts up and down the country. There is a private scouting network which clubs can subscribe to which provides information on any team for a fee which might account for where Peter Taylor was getting his information on visiting teams but Brown is sceptical about the merits of that. It struck me that if the aim of scouting teams is to find weaknesses then a report that is freely purchased by anyone will detail faults that a manager would be a fool not to fix. Christie and Brown’s scouting – if it contains a note on how a team can be got at – is known only to City.

The scouts (including Christie and Brown) go watch League Two games, non-league games, reserve games and fill in the type of form which sits in front of me today. The approach is detailed. Reserve games are important in case of suspensions forcing a change to the starting eleven while non-league games (and higher reserve games) allow information about players who may end up being recruited by the opposition. Christie tells a story of Dagenham being undone by a player who had not featured in the first team but cropped up on a Tuesday night on the south coast to frustrate the Daggers.

There was an obvious question about what Christie’s scouting network had thought about the City teams he had faced. Christie did not say anything against anyone who had stalked the halls of Valley Parade before him but the impression I got was that at Dagenham City’s team under Stuart McCall was considered to be nice to look at but soft in the centre and easy to get at, easy to beat. I loved watching Stuart’s side’s play expansive football but I’d have to agree with that analysis.

The empty cabinet is an interesting idea but we know that in the past managers at City have talked about watching clubs – Stuart McCall’s post-game interviews would often include a reference to having seen the team before – but the image remains. John Hendrie once talked about how City would often see unknown faces around the training ground who turned out to be the opposition scouts finding out the team for Saturday.

So one assumes that there must have been paper in this cabinet at some point, files on teams and players filled by McCall (who took a scouting role for Norwich after he left City), Colin Todd or whoever, but the open space tells a story of its own.

That story involves the recruitment of a scouting network to watch teams 70% of which are based in the South. It involves a network of contacts built up who fulfil Brown demanding criteria. Brown worked with Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn Rovers having a hand in the signing of Alan Shearer for £3.5m and the sale of him for “£16.75m” (which is not the figure widely circulated, but the one Brown told us) after “getting the best years out of him.” After working with Dalglish – “He never watched games, loved his videos” – Brown moved onto Wigan Athletic as Dave Whelan started building his tier three club built to compete at the top level from the ground up. Brown is the sort of man you hope a scout is, quietly spoken but deeply knowledgeable and with a steel in his eye for a player. While Christie believes that desire is the thing to look for in a player Brown wants acceleration over five yards. The two are a great combination – Christie calls Brown “Nigel Green” and Brown smiles back. “I can’t do the negotiations like Archie can” he went on to say.

The scouts who Brown and Christie got to join City were tasked with watching City too – the City they watched being the one which Mark Lawn commented on last week – and gave their opinions. Perhaps these informed Lawn’s comments and Parkinson’s changes since he took over. Certainly there were recurrent themes in the reports which Christie and Brown got back and it seems to me that those have been addressed, or have been attempted to be addressed.

The aim of the opposition scouting networking is to provide the manager with everything he could want. It is then up to the manager and his coaching staff to decide how much notice he wants to take of that information. Not all managers are interested but what I have in front of me makes fascinating reading and I could see no reason why a manager would not welcome this with arms open. The Damned Utd (not an historical source but a cracking read) has Brian Clough refuse to look at Don’s Dodgy Dossiers on the opposition, real life tells us he had Peter Taylor watching every inch of opponents.

Without showing the report it is hard to illustrate what it has in it but the circulated version of a report on Newcastle United written by Andre Villas-Boas when he was scout at Chelsea offers similar (although City use numbers and not pictures of shirts) and is indicative of the level of research which goes into preparing for a game.

There is no Bradford City Official Secrets Act (aside from Christie tell us not to go showing the report around, it has not left my office physically or virtually since) but I think it is best if what we know about them stays under wraps for now but I recall watching City over the past thirty years and seeing the odd event that would have been captured in this document and would not have poised a problem. The Paul Merson/Benito Carbone short corner that unlocked City in the Premier League, the wall of tiny Wigan players who created themselves in front of City’s wall at a free kick in the late eighties only to break off and leave many bemused and little else, Peter Jackson and Chris Branston’s antics from a corner at the McAlpine in the mid part of the decade.

Simple things like the fact that a number three might play in central midfield and not left back to more technical and detailed lore. The experience of watching City play Northampton Town at Valley Parade will, for me, come with a crib sheet and I wonder how that will change the way I see the game. When he was Coventry City manager Gordon Strachan was fond of appearing on Match of the Day saying how he and his players had worked all week on doing one thing and – for reasons of their own – the players had decided to do something else. I wonder if I will see the same.

Northampton Town arrive at Valley Parade on the back of a 3-0 defeat by Port Vale which saw questions asked but in generally rude form. They are seventeenth in the table.

City go into the game on the back of a disappointing result at Hereford United and have before them a familiar set of criticisms. Matt Duke is criticised because he could have been better positioned for the goals that Hereford scored (or so it is said) although the best position is always “in the way” and “not in the way” seldom has any merits. Duke’s single clean sheet was last time out at Valley Parade against Torquay United.

Luke Oliver and Marcel Seip are expected to retain the central defensive positions although Steve Williams is returning to the reckoning. Liam Moore and Robbie Threlfall will be full backs although looking at the report I might be… No, best not.

Michael Flynn’s two game suspension sees him sit out the match and allows Adam Reed and Richie Jones to take the middle positions with Kyel Reid wide left. Phil Parkinson could be tempted to drop Jamie Devitt to wide right, recall Mark Stewart for that position or give Chris Mitchell his place in the side back. City have missed Mitchell’s delivery in recent weeks. David Syers’ injury and Flynn’s suspension open the possibility of Scott Brown getting a place on the bench.

Craig Fagan is starting to be cemented into the forward line up in James Hanson’s absence though injury. Hanson may return and take a place in the starting line up although if he is not fit Parkinson may continue with his policy of having a man lead the line and another feeding off him and deploy Devitt or Stewart behind Fagan. All link men – the position in question – are judged by a standard of Peter Beardsley and Stewart seems most able to find space and move the ball on then make for an attacking position but Devitt’s game could be tweaked to do the same.

Such talk is the talk of scribbles on paper though – attacking diagrams done on beer mats – and football is played on grass and not paper. Some pieces of paper, however, certainly are worth a read before the boot sets foot on turf.

Archie Christie Day: Part 3/3

Continuing from Archie Christie Day Part 2 and started in Archie Christie Day Part 1. See also Remember the name: George Green.


The stereo remains off on the journey from Woodhouse Grove to Valley Parade, enabling us further opportunities to ask Archie Christie more about why he is here at all, given he is unpaid. “Julian Rhodes said last night ‘if nothing else, just get things done for the club’,” revealed Christie. “I can make money off the back of the club but I don’t make a penny. And the club know that and they like that.”

We talk about a description of Christie that has been repeated by almost everyone we’ve spoken to that day – he gets things done. “That’s what I do well. I get things done,” he nods. “I get the preparations done, I get the opposition done, I get the budgets done and I get the deals done. I get things done. I don’t have any arrogance and I don’t have any ego, I don’t take the criticism so I don’t take the praise. The plaudits are for the players and the manager. I just get things done for the club.”

But why this club, and what possesses him to take on such a massive challenge? “I want to do it because I want to turn Bradford City into a giant. At Dagenham we went from the bottom of the conference into League One. We beat Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday and Colchester. Bradford City can go to the Championship, and we can compete with Leeds. And on an equal footing. Not as second term neighbours, but as equals. Our 20,000 against their 20,000. Our 11 versus their 11. That’s what I want and believe.”

The conversation turns to young players at the club that he rates, and how far they can go at City and beyond. For someone who has been at City for such a short time, his level of knowledge of all the players – from first team to junior – is impressive, and one wonders whether previous first team managers would have such a detailed overview of the club. As we tell him the stories of Geoffrey Richmond and the excesses of that era, he is interested but unsurprised having already been filled in by Julian Rhodes.

“If we got back to the Championship I would then come up with a new strategy,” he comments as we pull into the Valley Parade car park. “So that we never have to worry about the bad times ever again.”

A first Bradford pint

The 1911 Club inside the Main Stand is marketed as a venue for business lunches during the week, but today (1pm) the beautifully decorated restaurant is empty of customers. Julian Rhodes is talking to the Yorkshire Post’s Richard Sutcliffe, with the pair about to head off somewhere so the Chairman can be interviewed. Julian is warm and welcoming to us both, trendily dressed while sporting a pair of beach sandals. “I’ve never seen him without sandals,” quips Christie.

In the corner sat reading the paper is another director, Graham Jones; a kind and softly-spoken man who is very friendly as we chat to him for two minutes. There’s a Board meeting at Valley Parade due to start in half an hour, which Christie has to attend. We don’t have much time left with him, so we follow him as he takes us outside into the padded seats that provide a terrific view of Valley Parade.

“I’ve not had a beer in Bradford up to now” Christie reveals, as he hands us each a pint that he’s just bought for us from the bar and begins to sip his own. The sun is beating down and the view feels familiar yet always engaging. We talk about recent games and about the potential crowds we could enjoy if the club was to climb back into the Championship. The here and now – getting some results quickly – is clearly vital, but Christie’s ideas and plans are more focused on further down the line.

“We’re starting to put together an infrastructure and mechanism into place that will stand this club in good stead for years to come,” Christie explains. Do you feel like when you joined you had a blank canvas? “Totally. Before I joined I wrote the Chairmen a 16-page report, on ‘if we want to change this is how we have to change’. Doing the same things and expecting different results, that’s a sign of madness, someone once said. We have to change, and this is how we change.”

Selling young players is clearly going to be a vital part of that strategy, but Christie doesn’t believe it should detract from the bigger picture. “Dagenham sold three players this year for one million and fifty thousand pounds,” he points out. “Who did we sell?

“We need to bring in boys that we can sell on and sell on at the right price. Along the way we have to sell some of our kids to generate revenue, in order to get to the Championship. By putting mechanisms in place, we can build sustainable income for when we are in the Championship.”

Of all the things we’ve seen and heard, the fact Christie joined a club with no scouting structure remains the most shocking. “Every Saturday we’re now watching games, and then two or three nights a week. We’ve got scouts covering the whole UK now. We’ve even had a fan from Romania who wants to set up a scouting network for me in Romania. A fan! We’ve got a proper scouting network now.”

And suddenly he jumps to his feet and leads us back into the 1911 Club, where he’s arranged lunch. It’s a good job we can eat fast, because in no time at all he’s back to work.

“I look like a fat Fabio Capello!”

Past the club shop and beyond the ticket office booths, a small door take us into the Bantams Business Centre where the offices of the joint Chairmen, youth development, finance and other admin staff are based. On the opposite side of the long and narrow corridor are small businesses that are providing vital rental revenue to help the club, and you get the impression City’s own staff will be moved to alternative rooms inside the stadium itself as and when demand for their small-but-homely offices increases.

Archie’s office is at the end of the corridor, and around five other staff members share it including the club’s press officer, Mark Harrison. Christie’s desk seems small and humble – amongst the other staff, rather than hidden away on his own in plusher surroundings. He clearly gets on well with everyone as they swap catch up stories, while he logs into his computer to check emails. These emails include a written transfer bid for George Green from a major Premier League club which he needs to print out and take to the Board meeting. He’d quickly spoken to Julian Rhodes about this offer – which had been made on the phone earlier – back in the 1911 club. We were witness to the surprise in Julian’s eyes regarding the bid’s size.

The sheer number of letters, emails and DVDs Christie receives from footballers looking for a trial at Bradford City is mind-boggling. CVs run for three or four pages each, coming from players stuck in reserve teams at other League Two clubs to kids knowing they are on their way out of a big Premier League club and in need of a break. And those are just the applications from players in this country. There are others from as far away as Australia.

Kath Brown, the club secretary, pops in to finalise the Dominic Rowe paperwork and discuss a range of different queries for Christie to sort out. “When are you back in?” she asks. “Not until next week” is the answer, as he lists the range of tasks he’ll be undertaking around the country on behalf of the club (mostly related to Green and securing the best possible deal for the club in view of the number of clubs chasing him). It seems he does not do days off.

Julian calls him twice. The Board meeting has started, where are you? He’s heading to the door with various bits of paperwork to show them, but all the while having banter with staff, who seem to enjoy his company and are giving some back. A fresh-faced work experience kid is helping Mark Harrison with content for the official website. “Please do me a new stock image to appear on the website, will you?” orders Christie. “The one you use at the moment, I look like a fat Fabio Capello.”

“This is my Manchester City”

We walk out with him as he heads to the Board meeting back inside the stadium, and we head home feeling utterly exhausted. Christie thanks for us for coming, and hopes we’ve got plenty to write about. Hopes that fans will have the chance to appreciate what he actually does. Hopes the criticism will recede. “People keep saying I’m just waiting to move to Man City. I’m not, this is my Man City.”

He starts to walk off, before turning back to us and pointing upwards at the giant Main Stand that towers high into the blue Bradford sky. “This place is a cathedral. I want to turn it into a fortress.”

And then his phone rings yet again.

In conclusion

It was 11:30pm on a Wednesday evening two weeks ago when I – Michael Wood – first talked to Archie Christie about myself and Jason spending a day with him. I was watching some a really bad movie on ITV4, he was still working. That is the first recurrent theme you pick up when dealing with Archie.

He works hard – to a level I’ve never seen before in any of the businesses I’ve worked with or for – and he is entirely focused on Bradford City. Only once during the entire day did Christie involve himself in something other than Bradford City – a thirty second call about a problem at his home – and unless directly asked he would not talk about anything other than Bradford City, his plans for the club, and how he intends to achieve those plans.

It was startlingly single-minded and it was exactly what I want at Valley Parade.

Hard work is a virtue of course but it would be wrong to let you, dear reader, go away with the idea that Christie brings only effort to the club – although do not doubt that he brings that and in abundance. There is an efficacy to Christie’s efforts and an aim to everything he does. During the day we were able to see deals (and other structures) put in place which will help City for years to come and I can put hand on heart and say that without Christie some of those deals – and one especially – would not have happened. Or had it done, would not have happened in the massive way it has.

All these deals will come out in time. Scott Brown will play for the club, as will Terry Dixon and Andrew Burns, and other people at Bradford City will have taken a share in those achievements, but from what I have seen, and who I have talked to, Christie is the start of those things. General George Marshall once said “There is no limit to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Christie would appreciate that point. BfB has talked in the past about the need for Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes to bring a football expert to the club and so – as our day wound down – I asked Christie if he would consider himself that football expert. He flatly rejected the term. “I bring business planning to football, that’s all.”

Football businessmen – which is to say people in the boardroom of clubs – have a reputation for not being the sharpest you will meet, but talking to Christie he shows an intelligence at odds with the profession he is in. When speaking about the criticism and abuse he has had from a section of the City “supporters” (quotes mine) he offers us the explanation “I am Jean Valjean.”

Christie speaks five languages, and has fluency in four of them. “English is the one I’m not fluent in” he jokes in a gnarled Scots brogue. He has built up and sold his own business – retiring at forty – and been a part of £800m deals to sell one company. His last board meeting, before joining City, was with NCP before that multi-million pound sale.

At some point one’s cynicism has to admit defeat.

Archie Christie does not need Bradford City as much as – and I mean this most sincerely based on ten years of decline and having seen plans coming to fruition in the course the day – Bradford City needs Archie Christie.

Which begs the question as to why is he involving himself at all? He could have been a Premier League scout – “I’d be bored” – so he is not looking at moving on. He seems financially well enough off to not need money from the club and does not get any anyway working for expenses as he does. He confirmed that he does not get a commission for selling players, be they Development Squad, youth or first team. When his achievements bubble to the surface – and they have so far – they often do with someone else’s name attached.

How to get to the core of a man’s motivations? Why does Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan own Manchester City? What does Abramovich get out of Chelsea? Neither make a profit. Why does Sir Alex Ferguson carry on at Manchester United having already done everything he could ever hope to?

Why etch your name in stone? The restoration of Bradford City offer someone a great work to carry out which is beyond the scope of what could be offered as a cog in the machine of a Premier League club. No other club in football can match City’s potential while being so obviously in need of new ideas. After watching fifty years of football perhaps Christie just thinks he can do football better. I know I would do it.

Swimming lengths and treading water in the shallow end at half seven in the morning we talked to Christie about Carlos Tevez who had refused to play for Manchester City in the week – he was none too complimentary – and later at breakfast in front of the gathering of young players he looked with disdain at the headlines about Titus Bramble.

Looking out over Valley Parade later in the day he talked about moral absolutes. His most offended moment is when he talks about having read that following Craig Thompson’s suspension for Hearts for sex offences against children that City would soon see Christie draping a City shirt over him and announcing him as a new signing. “I have daughters,” he says, “why would someone say that?”

There is a morality to the man but it is not worn falsely. After talking about Marlon King we ask him about Jake Speight who was jailed after signing for the club for assaulting his former girlfriend and who was not in Jackson’s plans. Christie sold Speight on his first day at Valley Parade after the club had had no interest in him previously and got back what Peter Taylor had paid for him. We asked him how he did it and his answer is matter of fact. “I knew Dean Saunders needed a striker.”

Another player – signed to the Development Squad and talked about by Christie when he arrived – was sacked on his first day having been arrested for an assault, and lying about that assault on a woman. Christie checked out the situation and tore up the contract just signed. “A seven stone lassie,” Christie says, “but the fans don’t see that. They say ‘He promised us this player.'”

Perhaps that is why he is involved at City. Essentially a blank slate on his arrival, Bradford City offers a chance for someone to build a club almost from new, and to do so in a way which does things the right way.

“Spend a day with me…”

Archie Christie made us a promise before we started this endeavour. “Spend a day with me and if at the end you don’t think that I’m the hardest working man, working so hard, for the good of Bradford City then I’ll walk away.”

He is that hardest working man. But it is not just an appreciation of the effort which one takes from a day next to Archie Christie – it is the purposefulness of that work, and how utterly convinced we were that what he is doing is absolutely what needs to be done at Bradford City if the club is ever to turn around.

The things which I (Michael) have been talking about for the twelve years I’ve been writing this website Christie is doing. Everyone involved with Bradford City since Geoffrey Richmond has talked about wanting to get promotions, wanting to turn the club around, but until Christie none have ever had the objectives to go with those aims. No one has ever convinced me that they know how to do what they are setting out. Until now.

It is a great credit to Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes that they saw Christie and recognised that he could bring to the club what had been lacking in the past decade (and no slight on them) and we applaud them for taking his advice.

If, reading this, you are thinking that the acclamation is coming a little too thick, we would appreciate that – without experiencing the day we have – it is not easy to see just how hard working, and smart working, Christie is. You will just have to take our word for it. If you have been waiting for Bradford City to return to direction of the mid-to-late-1990s then the wait is over, or at least I am convinced it is.

If you seek to criticise Archie Christie then we’d wonder what you want from a person involved in Bradford City? The man works very hard and – on the basis of what we saw – gets a very good return on that work which without him we would simply not have. And he does it for expenses only, while generating the club in his first three months (by rough maths) enough to pay for the Development Squad five or six times over. Any idea that Christie and his Development Squad cost the club money is a lie. Any idea that Christie had Peter Jackson sacked is a lie. Any idea that Christie is taking money out of the club is a lie.

Christie’s origins before Bradford City have an element of mystery in them. There is talk about how much he actually did for Dagenham following some clarifications the Essex club issued, but their manager John Still talked on the phone to us about the long standing relationship the two have had and he was not alone in his admiration for Christie. From City’s young players to our manager to the manager of a top Premier League club to that manager’s chairman. The meshing together of the day told its own story.

We could understand people saying that Christie could be difficult to work with by virtue of the fact that in the late afternoon we were shattered and knew that he was carrying on working for another half a dozen hours or more. He demands commitment from the people around him but we have no problem with that, and in fact we’re glad that someone who will not put in that effort finds it hard to work at Valley Parade.

Conspicuous by its absence during the whole day was the sense that there was any disharmony around Christie’s role at the club. Director Graham Jones – who we bumped into at Valley Parade – could not speak highly enough calling the job that Christie was doing fantastic. The three young players – when talking about Christie – did so with a genuine affection and did not flinch from saying how much Christie had done for them. Scout Nigel Brown and Youth Supremo Peter Horne both talked about how Christie had given them remits to work and – in the case of Horne – that Christie made his job easier by taking some of the tasks he did not feel he was as well suited to on.

We’ve seen with our own eyes what Archie Christie is doing for Bradford City, and in turn for us supporters, and we could not fail to be impressed.

Third bottom of the Football League, no win in six games and we have reason to be optimistic.


With special thanks…

In addition to thanking Archie Christie for being so welcoming and open to Michael and Jason, BfB would also like to thank everyone else who kindly took the time to speak to us over the course of the day. In particular this includes Andrew Burns, Scott Brown, Terry Dixon, Peter Horne, Alex Llevak, Steve Parkin, Phil Parkinson, Nigel Brown, Julian Rhodes, Graham Jones and also the staff who share an office with Archie.

Everyone we talked to we were given the chance to talk to without Archie Christie being present and everyone we talked to was as open as you could hope for. There is a level of privacy which had to be respected but that was not especially stringent or out of keeping with any professional environment.

Candidate Three: John Still, a manager with proven success in a less desirable style

Had Gordon Gibb’s Family Pension Fund been more obliging when Bradford City approached them in their hour of need, it is entirely plausible that John Still would have been installed as Bantams manager during this summer.

The battle to ultimately succeed Peter Taylor had become a straight fight between Still and Peter Jackson. Having achieved five promotions in an 18-year career as manager – including taking Dagenham & Redbridge into League One in 2010 – Still was a strong candidate who ticked many of the right boxes for Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn. His great skill had been in unearthing hidden talent in non-leagues and selling them on for profit – while the Daggers prospered on the field.

Perhaps City’s Board would have gone on to choose Jackson over Still, but when the Londoner ruled himself out of the reckoning on account of the uncertainty over City’s future at Valley Parade, the options were suddenly reduced.

Five games into this season, would Still be willing to change his mind? As Lawn today revealed that City’s three-person shortlist includes a candidate already managing a club, it appears highly likely the Dagenham boss remains strongly in the Joint Chairmen’s thoughts. The fact his more street-wise side were able to win at Valley Parade less than a week ago may have further strengthened his appeal – particularly as the Board can be confident he would get on well with the other key appointment they made last summer.

As the debate and gossip over Jackson’s shock departure rages on, extremely credible claims that he did not get on with chief scout Archie Christie continue to surface (though it should be noted other equally reliable sources have provided other reasons for Jackson’s departure). It’s speculated bad blood between the pair had influenced Jackson’s team selection, while Christie is said to have been critical of the tactics employed by the first team manager. Christie, of course, rocked up at Valley Parade this summer after moving from Dagenham. It is said he and Still were interviewed for the City job together, presented as a team; and – although Still ruled himself out of the running – Christie was snatched to revamp the scouting network and implement the Development Squad initiative.

Quite who appointed Christie is unclear, with sources close to the club claiming it was Jackson’s decision to select him. Certainly Jackson was responsible for the other coaching staff who were brought in this summer – including Wayne Allison, who has a key role with Christie’s Development Squad. Many of the summer signings were presented as influenced by Christie, but with Jackson having the final decision.

It’s clear that, for the Development Squad idea to work, the first team manager and Christie need to be working closely together. Both have differing goals, but are working for the same cause. Whether Lawn and Rhodes decide to appoint Phil Parkinson, Dean Windass, Still or someone else, the relationship with Christie is going to be a crucial consideration. In this area at least, Still is the frontrunner.

Beyond that, is Still the right man for City? His track record of buying cheap and improving players is one that will be welcomed at Valley Parade with money likely to remain tight for the rest of this season and next. The fact he has proven he can get a club promoted from this league is an achievement that commands great respect. However the success he has delivered didn’t happen over night – and the instability of the City hotseat may prove extremely off-putting.

Still took over Dagenham in April 2004 and in his first two seasons the club finished mid-table, but he was afforded time to get it right. To put that time into perspective, Bryan Robson was City’s manager when Still took over and five gaffers have followed him in and out of the Bantams. Jackson was only offered a one-year contract at City – just like his predecessor Taylor – Still is unlikely to accept such a short-term deal in return for giving up what’s he built.

Then there’s the style of play Still has instilled at Dagenham. While some criticised the direct football employed by Jackson and Taylor, Still takes it to another level. I still recall – with shivers – the physical, long-ball style Still had his side following in a 1-1 draw with City back in December 2008. Other visits to Valley Parade saw similar crude football. Far be it from me to cast an opinion on the reasons behind Dagenham’s relegation from League One last season, but the direct football Still coaches is clearly limited and will only get any club so far.

Still can bring peace and harmony behind the scenes at City; he can coach current players to produce far better than they have offered to date. Yet with the club’s long-term focus firmly in Lawn and Rhodes’ minds – on BBC Radio Leeds today Lawn reiterated the aim vocalised by Christie in the summer that the club aim to be in the Championship in five years – there must be serious doubts over how capable Still would be at fulfilling that journey.

Peter and the resources

At the end of a week that promised much after the performance at Leeds United and delivered only a point at Oxford Peter Jackson was left declaring that he felt that his Bradford City team deserved more following the 1-0 defeat to Dagenham & Redbridge.

It was hard to imagine what else Jackson could say. He had seen centre forward Ross Hannah barged over in the penalty area in the last minute which seemed to be as obvious a spot kick as one might imagine and was cursing Daggers keeper Chris Lewington who saved a fine strike by the same man minutes before. At that stage – and a point Jackson might want to avoid – Luke Oliver has been thrown into the attack and City had resorted to throwing the ball forward.

Forward to Nialle Rodney who – for twenty minutes – got to live the life of James Hanson. Rodney had the ball fired at him at various hard to control speeds inaccurately and struggled to even get near to holding play up. Hanson had been withdrawn by Jackson after an afternoon where he won more than his fair share of headers – although struggled to link up with Ross Hannah effectively – and certainly won more than the unfortunate Rodney.

The substitution of Hanson seemed well received and one hopes that Jackson enjoyed the glow that comes from such a sop to popularism but on his exit Jackson’s team continued to lump the ball forward, used neither Rodney or Ross Hannah’s talents and were left resorting to throwing a central defender into the forward line.

Increasingly the story of Peter Jackson’s Bradford City team is that of resources – however limited – being used poorly. The midfield of Michael Flynn and Richie Jones performed well in the middle but far too often were watching the ball go over them. The two widemen Jack Compton and Michael Bryan were all but wasted. Compton found some room later in the game but Bryan saw little of the ball and seemed to request it less.

Ross Hannah and James Hanson – then later Nialle Rodney – had virtually no supply from the flanks either deep or at the by-line and – with Mark Stewart a later comer from the bench – the team ended as a very static 442 with no movement between the lines of players, nothing hard to handle, and little inspiration.

As such – and down to a goal by Jon Nurse after half an hour when a corner came in and seemed to be pushed around the back four like kittens patting a wool ball before the Dagenham striker converted it – it was hard to see the Bantams getting into the game and more worrying it seemed that there was no real understanding on the basis of this game and the previous four about how City should go about their business.

For the odd cat call aimed at Peter Jackson the players are the most common target of the ire of supporters that saw the Bantams booed off but it seems that the City manager is no closer to knowing his best eleven today as he was at the start of pre-season. That is acceptable – a young team is full of inconstancy – but there also seems to be no real idea of how City should be playing.

As Dagenham offered little other than defensive solidity City deployed two wingers but seldom used them, had a pair of midfielders ready to go past the strikers but not strikers who came back to engage in interplay for the ball, a striker who is winning things in the air being given hoofs forward rather than crosses into the box.

So while Jackson can say that his team deserved more he might be correct in that they applied the effort but one struggles to recall the moments where City could have had more. Hannah’s two late surges towards goal aside there was no tempo or flow to the Bantams performance.

That can come. Four league games gone is nothing against a plan that is to develop over years but at the moment the players are being jeered and booed while being thrown onto the field without the organisation needed to win games.

Jackson veers between Kamara and Jewell

When the opening weeks of the season were put together by “the fixture computer” – which is to say some ludicrously complex set theory and a few blokes making sure that Hartlepool United get as long a trip away on Boxing day as possible – few people looked at the Bantams’ opening four games with any relish at all.

Aldershot Town looked like they could be tough – they were – and Leeds United away promised little. Following them up with trips on the road to Oxford United and Accrington Stanley and there was a sense that in these opening two weeks it would become apparent if the instant team alchemy which football managers dream of had taken place.

It had not.

Brighton and Hove Albion – now resplendent in a new stadium – and Chesterfield – then resplendent in a new stadium – both seemed to be touched by that alchemy last season with neither favourites for their divisions but both teams clicked quickly and they romped to titles. For everyone else it seemed there was but hard work.

And so there is for Bradford City. As everyone at the club and many in the stands talked about how this season the club would be starting to build long term and to create its own future rather than going all out for promotion. However an unhealthy – but not entirely unforgivable – hope that that future might start with a lightning strike of a team coming together instantly.

The 1-0 reversal at Accrington Stanley confirmed that City have – as was commented within my ear shot on Tuesday night – a long way to go. Having started that “long way” four matches ago that is hardly surprising and is sobering. Those looking at the Stanley team which finished fifth and lost a half dozen players miss the point of what the Bantams – and other clubs – try to build.

A half dozen players leave Stanley but the structures which have had the club progress to the level it enjoys remain, the culture remains, the team spirit remains. In short there is stability which enables Accrington to continue plodding along. This is very much the sort of thing that Bradford City are trying to build.

Bradford City and Archie Christie who arrived at Valley Parade from Dagenham & Redbridge in the Summer as the Bantams interviewed Daggers boss John Still and his backroom team before deciding that Still was the goods in the window and Christie the merchandise out back.

Christie’s plans are the dose of sense which has been missing from Valley Parade for over a decade. The Scot sees City as – perhaps – a better location to repeat what he had done in Dagenham on a bigger scale. The Daggers – fresh from League One – have come far with Still and company at the helm but getting it right at Valley Parade promises more than being a dot on the map of London football.

So Christie builds his development squad with the aim of bringing through three or four players a season who are good enough to press into the City squad. Logic suggests that might have to wait a two or three years to judge such long term plans rather than – as some seem Hell bent on doing – writing them off after that many weeks.

Christie’s work behind the scenes aims to create a stability for City to aid the manager who has struggled in his start to the season. Jackson – the man of Jose Mourinho action at Huddersfield Town – seems a reduced figure in the City dug out at the moment. What – when looking at in the Town dugout – seemed like calculated master strokes (Paul Barnes’ entry in 1998 which turned a 1-0 defeat into a 2-1 jumps to mind) when viewed in the home dug out seem to be random flailings.

Having played a tight passing game in pre-season Jackson’s side too often favour a long punt to James Hanson and while the switches in formation are more noticeable it seems as if Jackson has yet to decide a shape for his midfield.

Consider – if you will – Chris Mitchell who for all the talk of his only being in the team for set plays spend an hour of Tuesday night making sure that when a blue shirt came forward he was standing between ball and goal. He delayed, he stood up, he made sure that Stanley would not get through and all to the tune of people talking about how he should tackle more, even when doing so and failing would have left a bus sized hole in the midfield.

And so it was when Jackson went to a midfield that more evenly distributed the weight between Michael Flynn and Richie Jones rather than had Flynn forward and Mitchell back that Stanley wandered through the middle of the Bantams to get the goal which won the game.

It is hard to find anyone who could say that Mitchell has played well but taking him out of the position he was in brought problems and a pragmatist such as Jewell would see that as justification to have him in the side while the Chris Kamaras – given to flights of fancy – would think that another player who could add more going forward might be trusted to that role on the hope that both could be done. It was such a fancy which Jackson gambled, and lost, on on Tuesday night.

So Jackson flits between: a defensive midfielder behind three more attacking players, a tight three midfield with one winger and the unit of five which worked well at Elland Road; but so far he struggles to maintain a shape in a way which gains the upper hand in games. The first half against Leeds and Jackson had everything going right, when Leeds changed he seemed inactive.

On Tuesday night with scores level Naille Rodney came on for Ross Hannah to play a withdrawn role and the midfield to press on which seemed to leave City with far too many players drifting between the Stanley midfield and defensive lines and no one grabbing the ball. Bit by bit Jackson drifts towards Kamara and his hit and miss deployments of players and tactics and one worries that – like Kamara – it might be possible that Jackson finds the right combination at times and then moves away from it not knowing what is good.

In that one recalls the dogmatic Paul Jewell who stuck with the team he wanted to play after it had returned two points from twenty one in 1998. Jewell had an idea of how he wanted his team to play, and who he wanted in that team, and the same at the moment (and at the time) can not be said about Jackson.

So the City manager goes into the game with injuries ruling out David Syers, Lee Bullock and Simon Ramsden but with pressure to make changes to a team which has but one of the five points Jackson might have targeted.

Jackson is under pressure to drop James Hanson for reasons much discussed but doing so would strike one as popularist rather than practical – especially considering the team’s tendency to hit the ball long. Mark Stewart played no part against Accrington a week after looking superb against Leeds United but Naille Rodney – willing worker – has staked a claim and may get the chance. Ross Hannah was praised for his rewardless efforts on Tuesday but one doubts that he will be selected against Dagenham. Perhaps Jackson will use a 433 having tried it against Carlisle United in pre-season.

The midfield could see Jack Compton on the left and Michael Bryan on the right with Michael Flynn and Chris Mitchell in the middle but Richie Jones looks like a capable player waiting to find a role to fill and should Jackson not want a defensive minded midfielder then he may slot in next to Flynn. Bryan started Accrington well but faded.

At the back Liam Moore and Robbie Threlfall are making good at full back – Luke O’Brien’s continued absence is the stuff of conjecture but it seems that Threlfall has made good his chance and is playing well which is more than can be said for Guy Branston who has struggled to put in consistent ninety minute performances since arriving. He is partnered by Luke Oliver who played a superb game at Stanley and if Steve Williams does return to fitness then dropping Oliver would be a very tough decision, although one Jackson would make if he had a clear back two in his mind the excluded the former Wycombe man.

Martin Hansen continues in goal. He shouted on Tuesday night, a couple of times, and that is an improvement and something the keeper can work on. A young lad Hansen has years of improvement in front of him and should not chuck his gloves over just because he has let in a few goals.

Nor should the rest of us.

2011/2012 IV/IV: The teams

Following last season’s disappointment a new air of optimism currently surrounds the much changed, younger City squad compiled by Peter Jackson, but what can we expect from those who the Bantams will line up against in the new season?

With the loss of Bury, Chesterfield, Stockport and Lincoln from League 2 last time out, the division this year has taken on a very Southern feel with the addition to the League of Plymouth, Bristol Rovers, AFC Wimbledon, Crawley Town, Swindon and Dagenham & Redbridge. It seems that away day dedication will be pushed even further this year, with City set to clock up the miles – where are the Peter Taylor over night stays when you need them!?

The Favourites

For the first time since City were relegated to League 2 they have not been tipped for automatic promotion, that acclaim has gone to the league’s big spending new boys Crawley Town. Following last season’s romp to the Conference title and lucrative FA Cup run, only ended by the champions of England, Crawley have flexed their financial muscles once again signing the likes of Wes Thomas (Cheltenham) and Tyrone Barnett (Macclesfield) on huge salaries. Although popularity amongst other teams and fans will be in short supply, this is unlikely to phase Steve Evans who appears to have unlimited funds to see that the Red Devils make it back to back promotions. And with the likes of Dagenham and Stevenage proving that it is not impossible to make that immediate leap, it is unsurprising that the club have been highly backed at the bookies. Former Bantam Scott Nielson is still on the books and will no doubt be on the end of a ‘warm’ welcome when returning to VP, following comments he made after his City exit.

Hot on the promotional heels of Crawley are fellow league new boys Swindon Town. Over the summer they have introduced some Italian flair on the touchline following the appointment of Paolo Di Canio. Expect much gesticulation and passion when the Bantams meet The Robins in the final game of the season (and that’s just from Jackson!). In the close season Di Canio has signed the relatively unknown Oliver Risser and appointed him the club’s captain as well as several established League 1 players. Also don’t be surprised if a few hot prospects from the Premier League turn up on loan over the coming weeks – I’m sure Paolo will still have Mr. Redknapp’s phone number!

Former Torquay boss Paul Buckle will be hoping that he can use his League 2 experience to guide league newcomers Bristol Rovers back into League 1 at the first attempt. Signing the likes of Chris Zebroski (you may remember him drop kicking Matt Clarke in the face!) and Joe Ayinsah (Charlton), expect attacking football from The Pirates who visit VP in September.

As well as the new boys, League 2’s bridesmaids Shrewsbury Town have also been tipped to go well again this year. Following play-off disappointment for the past three seasons “Salop” will be hoping they can go one better and achieve automatic promotion this year. In the close season Graham Turner has signed proven League 2 players such as: Marvin Morgan (Aldershot); Andy Gornell and Joe Jacobson (Accrington) and will be hoping that these will provide the extra ammunition to get The Shrews over the line.

“Local” Rivals

With the loss of so many Northern teams from the division, local rivalries are few and far between for the Bantams this year. Nearest geographically are Rotherham United, who despite the loss of player maker Nicky Law to McGod’s Motherwell, will be hoping for a strong season under relatively new boss Andy Scott. Scott’s first priority will be to keep hold of the much coveted Adam Le Fondre, whilst quickly hoping he can get the best out of hard-working City reject Gareth Evans (‘The goal is that way Gareth…’). The Millers will be trying to make sure that they don’t fall away as they have in previous years despite promising starts. City host Rotherham in November, with the away leg early in the New Year.

One time City managerial target John Coleman, will be hoping that Accrington Stanley will be able to maintain their strong form of last year despite losing their best players to other teams (Ryan, McConville, Gornell). Coleman will have to manage once again on a shoe-string budget and has so far snapped up the likes of defender Danny Coid (Blackpool) and young striker Kurtis Guthrie, whilst former Bantam Rory Boulding still features in the squad. Expect Stanley to finish mid-table this year as the loss of quality players will surely take its toll.

Morecambe (Bradford-on-sea) are entering the new campaign with a rallying cry in the hope to recapture the ‘fortress’ mentality of Christie Park at their new home ‘The Globe Arena’ (incidentally it’s not an arena, it has 3 sides!). Shrimps boss Jim Bentley will be hoping the combative style of former Bantam loanee Kevin Ellison will help them improve on a disappointing 20th position, achieved last time out. A big City following will once again will flock to Morecambe in early September, with the return fixture at VP in mid-January.

Conference Call

Gary Simpson’s Macclesfield Town have been made favourites for relegation to the Conference this year. Despite a comfortable 15th place finish last season The Silkmen are tipped to struggle, with bookmakers offering them at 2/1 to drop into non-league. The Moss Rose outfit will be hoping that new signings Waide Fairhust (Doncaster), former Bantam Jonathan Bateson (Accrington), along with others like the quick forward Emile Sinclair, will be enough to steer them clear of trouble.

Second favourites to face the drop are Cheltenham Town, following their disappointing second half to last season, which left them with a 17th place finish – one place above the Bantams. This is not a sentiment shared by the Robins new signing Sido Jombati, who claims the club should be aiming for promotion. Cheltenham have invested mainly in non-league players, much the same as City, with the hope of bringing success to Whaddon Road next season.

Once again Barnet have been backed to struggle this term, despite retaining the majority of their top performers from last year. Lawrie Sanchez continues as boss as the Bees aim to gain compensation for the move of last year’s demi-saviour, Martin Allen, to Notts County. With plenty of forward options in the form of Izale McLeod, Sam Deering, Steve Kabba and Mark Marshall (remember him embarrassing City last year?), Barnet will be hoping that they can sort out their defence which saw them leak 77 goals last season.

Hereford United will be hoping to make things a little more comfortable this year following their close shave for survival last season. Former ‘physio’ boss, Jamie Pitman, has signed the likes of Delroy Facey (Lincoln) and Stefan Stam (Yeovil) in the hope of playing attacking, entertaining football next term. The Bantams travel to Edgar Street in late October, with the Bulls coming to VP in February.

League Newcomers

Cash-strapped Plymouth Argyle will face a race against time to assemble a squad before the big kick-off on the 6th of August. With the likely take over by Peter Risdale not yet finalised and the club selling off the ground and its land to a third party: ‘Bishop International’ (sound familiar!?) it will be a success just to put a team out for the Pilgrims next season. Already potential signings have swerved away from the financially stricken club, Antony Elding (Rochdale) opted to sign for non-league Grimsby despite initially agreeing to sign for Plymouth. Survival will have to be their first priority and it is hoped that with the re-signing of influential defender Stephane Zubar, others will follow to sign up for Peter Reid’s cause.

The Crazy Gang return to Valley Parade next season and it is expected that they will bring more than 53 fans when they visit Bradford in late-September. Following five promotions in nine years, since their formation in 2002, AFC Wimbledon will take their place in the football league once again. They will start the campaign without last season’s top goalscorer Danny Kedwell, who has signed for Gillingham, but have retained the services of their player of the season Sam Hatton. Boss Terry Brown has signed up several new recruits: Jack Midson (Oxford); Mat Mitchell-King (Crewe); Chris Bush (Brentford) and Charles Ademeno (Grimsby) in hope of maintaining the club’s position in League 2 next year.

John Still’s Dagenham & Redbridge return to League 2 following only one season in League 1. The one-time City managerial target has managed to maintain the majority of his squad, but has lost key man, and former Bantams’ target, Ramon Vincelot to Championship new-boys Brighton. The Daggers are expected to finish mid-table this time out and will face the Bantams at VP in August, with the return fixture at Victoria Road in March.

Familiar Faces

Burton Albion boss Paul Peschisolido has signed several attacking options over the close season with the intention of pushing the Brewers further up the table than their 19th place finish last season. The Nottinghamshire club will be hoping to avoid the fixture congestion that plagued them last year. New signing Justin Richards (Port Vale) should be the main attacking threat and City play Albion away in October, with the home fixture in January.

Dario Gradi will take charge of Crewe for his 26th season at the helm. With the loss of Clayton Donaldson over the summer, Alex striker Shaun Miller will be hoping to fill the former Bradford youngster’s boots and build on his own 19 goal haul last season. Crewe have been internally backing themselves for promotion this year and will aim to get there playing attractive, technical football, the likes of which the Bantams experienced on the last day of the season.

Gary Johnson’s Northampton Town will once again carry high expectations into the coming season, with their expectant fans insisting that they improve on their disappointing 16th place last season. With a glut of new signings, including big striker Adebayo Akinfenwa, the Cobblers will enter the 2011/2012 season with aspirations of reaching the play-offs. City face Northampton at VP in late October and travel to the Sixfields Stadium in April.

Former City man Chris Wilder will be entering the new season in the hope that his Oxford United team can build on their promising first season back in the football league. Ex-City flop Paul McLaren will take his place for the U’s next season and will hope for more consistency in League 2 this time out. Experience seems to be the order of the day for Wilder who has also recruited former Leeds player Michael Dubbery and ex-Bury goal keeper Wayne Brown.

In a repeat of last season, Micky Adams will lead out Port Vale and will want to finish the job he started before leaving for a forgettable stay at boyhood club Sheffield United. Marc Richards remains the main danger man for the Stoke club and will hope that he can find sufficient support from new signings Gary Roberts (scorer for Rotherham from halfway at VP) and fellow striker Louis Dodds. Vale face the Bantams at Vale Park in September and at VP on Valentine’s day.

On the Buses…(or coaches)

Industrious Aldershot will be hoping to build on their solid 14th place finish last time out. The Bantams play host to the Shots on the opening day and will have to be wary of the goal-threat of defender Antony Charles who had success against the Bantams last year. Dean Holdsworth will be hoping that the recent loan deal for Reading’s attacking midfielder Jake Taylor will help get the Shots off to a flier… obviously after losing to City!

Gillingham have made several signings over the summer and diminutive boss Andy Hessenthaler will be hoping that by signing non-league success stories like Danny Ked well (AFC Wimbledon) will be enough to push the Gills one step further than their play-off spot last year. Hot striking prospect Adam Birchall, signed from Hessenthaler’s former club Dover, is already facing a 6 month lay off with knee ligament damage, which will leave the Priestfield club on the look out for another ‘Cody MacDonald’ type player from the loan market.

Southend will enter the new season hoping to gain the consistency that saw the play-offs elude them last year. Shrimpers boss Paul Sturrock has made several signings to complement last seasons top performers Antony Grant and Barry Corr. City will once again travel to Roots Hall on a Friday night (Decemeber) and will host the Essex club, again on a Friday night, in April.

Torquay boss Martin Ling will want his side to go one better this year to soar into League 1. In order to replace target man Chris Zebroski the Gulls have signed former Morecambe hitman Rene Howe, and have strengthened their midfield with the signing of left-sided trickster Ian Morris (Scunthorpe). City travel to the English Riviera in mid-February (Brrrr…) and host the Gulls at VP in early October.

The development squad and a plan to improve the club

Blame it on Silvio Berlusconi. Back in the early 1990s the man who would bring the term bunga bunga into common usage was the flamboyant chairman of an AC Milan team which sported Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard as the allowed three non-Italian players.

UEFA and Serie A rules mandated that a club could only have three non-Italians and so the practice was that the Lira went to a chosen trio of outsiders. Clubs were defined by the foreign players they had and Milan were the Dutchmen, across the City Inter were German with Jürgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthäus and Andreas Brehme. It was a simpler time to watch football, and to be Silvio Berlusconi.

The future Italian PM announced though that Milan would be signing three more World Class non-Italians and – starting with the unfortunate Gianluigi Lentini – eight more Italians to create a second team which would play in European competition in the week. The one would be fresh for the weekend, the other fresh for midweek, and players would swap between the two teams.

And so modern squad football was born.

Bradford City’s own Phil Babb was a part of the emergence of the squad in the English game. in 1994 Babb and John Scales joined a Liverpool side managed by Roy Evans who already had the beloved Neil Ruddock at the heart of the back four and the maths did not match. Was Ruddock for the chop? Would Babb be out at left back (or up front, as he was at City)? What was Evans doing signing more than two top quality central defenders?

“Moving to a back three and wing backs” turned out to be the answer to the question poised by the question itself was illustrative. Growing up in the eighties my brother and myself could name the one to eleven of every team in Division One and that one to eleven was set in stone, seemingly unaffected as today’s line ups are by loss of form, injury and failing super-injunctions.

A team like Liverpool seemingly had no need for a spare defender – one sub, four four two and all – but soon the idea verbalised by Berlusconi would make the sort of questions that Evans face irrelevant. Within two years and in the run up to Euro ’96 Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United were signing Tino Asprilla when they already had Les Ferdinand, Andy Cole, Peter Beardsley, Alan Shearer, Super Mac, Wor Jackie Milburn et al.

In 1981 Aston Villa won the League using only fourteen players all season. The modern football squad demands eighteen per match and a host of others to insure that even the League Two player is not required to take the field with the sort of injury which was played through in earlier eras after which players retired at thirty, and could not walk.

So we have a situation where Manchester City have over forty players in their first team squad as an extreme example and most teams could put out something approaching Berlusconi’s two teams a week. If you are on the edges of one of those huge squad – and Bradford City’s is 21 strong at current assessment – then you seem a long way from the first team. Unless you get to do something special from the bench you are a long way from the first team.

So while the dozen and some who regularly feature in the first team focus on getting from game to game the players on the edges – especially the younger ones – should be focusing on improvement. Enter the development squad.

It seems to have come from Archie Christie who came to Bradford with John Still when the Bantams interviewed the entire Dagenham and Redbridge backroom staff for roles at Valley Parade. Something had powered the Essex club’s rise from non-league compound to League One club and it seems that Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes believe that Christie is it.

Chief scout and he brings in some young lads from Falkirk which seems a sensible move but not an unexpected one but as Head of Football Development Christie’s Development Squad offers something new.

Wayne Allison approves and has been recruited to coach “The Developments” as they shall be hamfistedly dubbed with his aim on taking players who have signed professional contracts after their two year apprenticeships but are not in the first team picture week in week out, or who are falling in the limbo between young player and first teamer, and concentrate on improving them as players over getting them ready for matches as the first team squad do.

Squad sizes have increased massively in the last fifteen years, but the focus of training is on preparing a group of players for the next game leaving those who play ready, and those who do not having wasted that time. The Development Squad offers a chance to make better use of those players allowing the first team to focus on preparation, and the fringe on improvement.

Of course the idea could be a failure. Dag & Red’s success might be down to something else entirely, Christie’s ideas might not be relocatable, it all just might not work but for once Bradford City have come up with a plan to improve the quality of the footballers at the club rather than trying the tried and failed method of trying to buy in promotions or assemble squads on a season by season basis.

A plan on improving footballers is a plan to improve the football club and, in effect, the first time since the Premier League that Bradford City have had a plan to improve the club that might work.

Will City Still be looking for the magic manager?

If you believe Simon Parker of the Telegraph and Argus then Bradford City are trying to decide between two managers: Interim boss Peter Jackson and Dagenham & Redbridge gaffer John Still.

One of these two men – it is said by Parker – will be appointed as City’s full time manager in the Summer. Extrapolation theory has it that if the job is Jackson’s then he will be given a contract at the end of the season while if it is to be Still then he will not arrive until after the end of Dag & Red’s fight against League One relegation and Jackson will remain in charge until then. Either way it is Jackson until May.

For those who do not know him John Still is a one game Leyton Orient defender turned non-league manager who took Maidstone United into the football league before exiting and then ended up as the man in charge of the merged Dag & Red (being the Redbridge Forest manager) taking them into the league and then up from League Two last season.

That is the headline on Still’s CV – that he took a team with limited resources to promotion – and it is not hard to see why such a quality would impress the Bradford City board although it is hard to compare that with Peter Taylor’s record. Indeed many things about Still suggest that as a candidate the only thing he offers which Taylor does not is that he is not Peter Taylor. His football is similar, his track record equally hit and miss, and like Taylor he would be accused of being out of touch by virtue of his age. He is sixty.

Ten years younger is Peter Jackson who has performed in a way which describes adequate perfectly. He has sorted out the basics of the team quickly: a 442, a holding midfielder, a big man little man forward line up; and that has been shown in the move away from relegation. He is all the things one suspects and more and there is something about his opportunism which endears, although for how long one wonders.

Certainly Jackson would have been upset with his charges on Saturday. Two players were given chances to impress and failed to do so. Gareth Evans – most obviously – seemed to choke when given the chance to lead the line while David Syers was not able to control central midfield in the way that Michael Flynn does. Jackson will have been disappointed with both.

Disappointed and frustrated no doubt by the fact that having given Syers that chance the manager will not – should he not be appointed – get to build on what he saw in Syers on Saturday. It is obvious to say that consistency allows a manager to work with his players and improve them and I’m sure that no one reading this article would be in much doubt to the importance I would place on giving the manager a long term contract and allowing him to build.

However assuming that – as the philosopher Jagger says – you can’t always get what you want then what sort of manager is perfect for City? What sort of manager do City need? One who can make an instant impact, build a team before the season starts, is able to conjure something out of something which some would say is nothing.

Some would be I – and Luke Oliver – would not. After four years of League Two football I am convinced that the difference between the top and the bottom is which team gets the odd break and goes for the odd pint. Togetherness, team spirit, a willingness to be brave and to take responsibility for your performance and the collective display are what matter far more than the ability to bend a ball in from thirty yards.

Looking at Still’s record – in common with most managers – there is very little to suggest he is a man of instant impacts while Jackson’s impact has already been felt. One would shy from criticising either manager’s ability but one would question their ability to turn around the team in the time frames which seem to be demanded from the Bantams.

For, it seems, the perfect manager for the Bantams is the magician. The magician like Chris Kamara who can take a team going nowhere and some how take it on a seventeen game run that ended at Wembley, the magician like Terry Dolan who could take a team heading for relegation and win sixteen of his next twenty games. Neither of those could repeat their magic trick.

So City can’t get what they want but – on occasion – they get what they need and what they need is the magic manager.

Who is the best side you’ve seen at Valley Parade this season and who deserves promotion?

Notts County and Rochdale were both promoted over the week and with the former having blasted five past City on the first day and Rochdale impressing at Valley Parade few City fans would say that either does does not deserve promotion but with League Two offering three automatic promotion spots one wonders who deserves to be in League One next season and so The Barry Articles asks…

“County and Dale aside – who is the best side you’ve seen at Valley Parade this season and who deserves promotion?”

Jason Mckeown City Gent & BfB Writer

I’m not one of those people who endlessly bang on about how League Two is a poor division. Of course it is short on quality compared to the upper echelons of English football, but personally I still enjoy lower league football. There’s a fantastic competitive nature to every fixture and no team gives you an easy ride. It’s a scrap, which can get ugly at times, but it’s an enjoyable scrap.

That said, apart from Notts County and Rochdale I’ve not been impressed by any visitors to Valley Parade this season. Rotherham arguably stand out for their over-physical approach that so often teams at the top earn success from, think back to the MK Dons two years ago. However their 4-2 December success on our turf was aided greatly by referee Lee Probert. Burton and Crewe looked good sides on the day, but aren’t in the promotion shake up. Port Vale impressed in the Valley Parade JPT encounter if not the league game, Bournemouth were solid if unspectacular and Dagenham brilliant for the last half an hour of the recent 3-3 draw.

From the away games I’ve attended, it’s been a similar story of teams looking decent but not amazing. Notts Forest in the League Cup tie were terrific, I do hope they go up into the Premier League.

In terms of who deserves to be promoted with County and Dale, Bournemouth are certainly good value for third. Eddie Howe is clearly an outstanding manager who deserves to go far. The race for the play offs is too close to call, and my preferences for who goes up from and who comes down to our league is always centred on having more nearby northern teams, for easier away travel, the following season. This year I also want everyone who cheated us in league games to get their just desserts and slip up; so I guess overall I’d like to see Aldershot promoted on the basis they’ve not upset me and it’s a bloomin’ long journey to their ground – with Rotherham, Bury, Morecambe and Shrewsbury enduring miserable failures.

Dave Pendleton Bantamspast Curator & Former City Gent Editor

It’s difficult to judge who deserves to make the final promotion spot. We only get to see most teams in the flesh once at VP – and some twice if we go away. Bournemouth look fairly safe in third place and, given their travails, one hopes they cling on for promotion. Directly behind them are Rotherham. I did wonder whether this entire question was another excuse to have a laugh at Rotherham’s expense? Something I’m only too happy to do.

Our old friend Ronnie Moore, someone we love to hate ever since he City should be thrown out of the League for going into administration. Of course, since then his beloved Rotherham went into administration and lost their ground. I should feel for the Millers given their predicament, but the season after a points deduction they suddenly have cash to throw about, whereas many clubs who suffer administration take years to recover. They might have got lucky, or there might be a hint of a downmarket Leicester or Leeds about them – I often wonder what Julian Rhodes makes of these scenarios.

The other contenders are former FA Cup winners Bury, Aldershot, Dagenham & Redbridge and Chesterfield. We are more in the territory of play off winners here. I’d like to see Aldershot do well, as a reformed club they were in the equivalent of the Northern Premier when we were in the Premier League, now they are poised to pass us. That probably says more about Bradford City than it does Aldershot Town, but good luck to the Shots, I hope they do it. Chesterfield were, last time I checked, still owned by their supporters, so again, I tip my moral hat to them. In truth though, I’m more likely to support southern teams in the play-off race, simply to save on travel costs next season. Good luck to all involved, just wish it was us sweating on the final games.

Michael Wood BfB Editor

Many of the things that I’d like to see Bradford City follow have been forced on AFC Bournemouth and manager Eddie Howe who has taken the curses forced on the club by administration and money issues – however deserved they may be – and made them into boons.

Howe’s side are hardly allowed to sign players but they use that to make a tight squad. They cannot bring in a senior professional to replace the experience of Steve Fletcher so they ask him to stay and are rewarded with a good few goals and a good head. They are forced to blood young players like Joshua McQuoid, Danny Hollands and Brett Pitman who have grown into a very capable bunch.

It goes without saying that in this situation they have been cherished the stability they could. Manager Eddie Howe has been at the club since 1994 – save an unsuccessful sojourn to Portsmouth from which he returned smartly. Things have had to stay the same – and in staying the same they have improved.

The triumph of Howe and The Cherries this year is not to be the best team in the division but to be the best team they could be – so much more than the sum of the parts – and a stark contrast in a league which has seen teams like Shrewsbury, Bradford City and even considering they paid Sol Campbell £400,000 while struggling in mid-table Notts County spend big and achieve little.

The budget

Grey haired man outlines the options of the future in a time of growing austerity not knowing if he is going to have a job in a couple of months Peter Taylor did not come out of his contract negotiations holding a red box aloft but his discussions with Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes are all about cuts and spending.

The two sides have the same aim – promotion – and Taylor’s discussions on the role centre around his judgement on if that aim can be achieved with the resources the club can make available to him.

The wages given to Chris Brandon, Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne – Brandon never have taken a pay cut from the £1,500 a week he signed for City on – are freed up giving Taylor wiggle room but he would struggle to do as Tuesday night’s opponant’s Notts County did and assemble an expensive squad that trundles on to promotion.

The fact that Taylor’s City players went toe-to-toe with the likes of Kasper Schmeichel and Luke Rodgers and got a creditable draw shows the belief that the new manager is building in his team. Belief is everything in football at this level and while Rodger’s looked like – perhaps – the best player to appear at VP this season has as much to do with his confidence as it does his abilities on the ball.

Taylor’s job is to try build similar confidence into the likes of Gareth Evans and – when he returns – Scott Neilson it is a tough job. County seemed to improve the performances of their squad using the tried and tested Clough/Francis (see below) method of telling the players who did not cost a lot that they are as good as those who did by virtue of being in the same team as players who are used to operating at a higher level.

Taylor – looking at the scouting network, the current squad, the money available in the summer – has to decide if he can do something similar without the ability to bring in the headline grabbing players. If anyone can, he can, but it is an ask.

John Still – manager of Dagenham and Redbridge – is not so much used to making silk purses from sows ears but the sows ears he stitched are very effective with the Daggers hanging just outside the play-offs having just beaten Macclesfield 3-1. Still’s teams are known for the willingness to play the ball long and Saturday should illustrate the difference between Taylor’s directness and the long ball game.

Matt Glennon plays for a contract and did well on Tuesday. Simon Ramsden hopes to be at right back although Jonathan Bateson looks to fill in with Zesh Rehman not impressing during the week. Luke Oliver and Steve Williams have both impressed and should retain their places with Robbie Threlfall at left back behind Luke O’Brien on the left side of midfield.

O’Brien’s future at City is on an edge at the moment. Does he revert to left back next season or keep in his midfield role? Certainly his time out of the backline seems to have allowed him to rebuild his confidence and built a stronger flank – the oddity of League Two is that good left footed attacking players tend to get snapped up to move to a higher division sharply so one ends up with right hand side’s being attacking and lefts being defensive.

Lee Bullock is still suspended leaving Adam Bolder and Michael Flynn in the middle. Omar Daley found it hard to put a foot right on Tuesday night but his effort and heart was in the right place and to build his confidence he needs to be played through bad games.

Mark McCammon has gone home so James Hanson will start and Ryan Kendall may get a start over Gareth Evans if only to allow the manager to have a look at him as he assesses if he, Bolder, Glennon and others are part of his budget for next season.

The excess approaches as City look to start again at Dagenham & Redbridge

I was asked by the wife “Who are City playing next week?”

“Dagenham and Redbridge.”

“That is not fair,” she said “having to play two teams at once. Do they have 22 men on their team.”

Mrs Wood’s cheekiness aside Stuart McCall may soon start to wish he could field two teams on the field as after he saw his side’s ten game unbeaten run come to an end last week against Crewe and was left in the rare position of wanting to reward – rather than make corrective changes to – the side.

None of the City players left the 3-2 defeat with anything other than gold stars leaving the City skipper looking at excesses of talent in all areas of the field.

Up front – for example – Gareth Evans has returned from a highly unjust sending off at Morecambe which interrupted him in excellent form but in his absence Michael Boulding has three goals in three games and the principal of motivation by visibly rewarding achievements says he can not be dropped despite the odd dereliction of duty in the endless chasing role against the Railwaymen.

James Hanson’s ball winning abilities are endlessly useful and he scored a superb goal last week making him hardly droppable and Peter Thorne – well Peter Thorne has the luxury of being able to be benched at the moment which considering the club practically put his left arm up his back until he signed for another season with his right I’m sure he appreciates.

Three players and – should the City manager keep the formation that sees a tight three in midfield with one lose on the wing that worked so well, or should he retain the diamond that looked great going forward in the opening half hour against Crewe but let in two goals – then he has two slots in which to place them or the option to start fudging players out of the positions which seem to suit them such as dropping Boulding into the advanced midfield role where Scott Neilson has sat and where Chris Brandon played last time out for the latter two thirds of the game.

The solution is to play three forwards.

McCall gave Neilson great credit for his performances since he arrived at the club from Cambridge City despite giving the toothpaste smiler a bench place only on Saturday which allowed Brandon’s return. Brandon had performed well – a late goal against Notts County included – and won his place in the side despite a nagging feeling that as a player he does not put in enough “work”, “work” being defined as running around chasing the ball and tackling people which while simplistic has been an important addition to City’s arsenal this year that was lacking last.

Of course the figure of Omar Daley – looking at a return at the end of October in a Tuesday afternoon reserve game against Leeds United – looms large over the pair. Opinion on Daley was divided but his injury and the decline and fall of the promotion campaign are linked post hoc, ergo propter hoc and my breath is baited at the thought of this side which needs a tiny bit more to win games having a player who does that tiny bit more that wins games in it.

For the moment though the solution is to play two wide midfielders.

In the middle Michael Flynn – who put his hand to scribbling this week revealing that he used to be a postman and Peter Thorne enjoys surfing (the sea probably, not in the way that Bobby Petta used to enjoy surfing – is the definition of an undropable player impressing more and more with every game and spending the time out to applaud the supporters at the conclusion of ninety minutes. Lee Bullock has also made himself undroppable having switched from a passable if somewhat frustrating attacking midfielder into a defensive lynchpin. Bullock allows the play around him, moves the ball on, makes himself available. Any success the team has at the moment is in no small part down to him and the management’s belief that he could be switched to that more rearguard position.

Stephen O’Leary made a cameo and impressed before losing his place through injury – he is back soon – but James O’Brien is in good form keeping up the running, harrying and work rate of the squad. Should O’Leary’s come back prove as impressive as his first game then one might expect to see him in the side again soo but as it is the solution at the moment is to play Flynn, Bullock and James O’Brien. Three in the midfield.

The back four is settled although Jonathan Bateson knocked firmly on the door with Simon Ramsden currently an immensely impressive right back and cover for the central defensive roles filled by Steve Williams and Zesh Rehman. Williams continues to wobble in a single minute of a game while looking like a player with ability above and beyond for the other 89 making him the Rio Ferdinand of Bradford City. Luke O’Brien is proving that the season after being player of the season need not be a problem.

Four at the back. Simon Eastwood in goal. No problem then. City need only play thirteen players and considering the opposition have twenty two that will not be a problem.

More seriously though as Stuart McCall challenges his team to put together another ten game run the difficulties of his position having more than a team of players who deserve a team place. The likes of Boulding need to be rewarded for coming onto the team and doing what is asked of them in the same way Barry Conlon did last season but doing so would require other important players to be left out.

The balance, and how to cope with and maintain excess, is the challenge now.

Stuart’s biggest failure

There are only 25 miles between Dagenham & Redbridge’s Victoria Road and Wembley – but after this crushing defeat Bradford City manager Stuart McCall might as well to start working on that trip to the moon.

An image of the front page of the first upload of BfB

to fans at te final stle.

This was one mustn’t lose game too many, one which pushes City below the victorious Daggers, one which puts City below the in-form Morecambe, one which, after Shrewbury’s surprise away success at Rotherham, leaves City four points off the top seven with two games to play. Mathematically it may still be possible, but only if a sequence of results so improbable they would be rejected by the writing team for Doctor Who occur.

Which won’t happen, because this lot aren’t good enough.

City weren’t particularly poor for the first 58 minutes that preceded Sam Saunders’  opener, but just like recent weeks the wheels fell off too quickly. Of all the failings which have been on evidence during the end of season collapse, it is the poor response to conceding which has hurt the most. There was a spell of ten minutes after conceding where possession was surrendered more quickly than ever and ideas to come back were in short supply. Testament to a lack of confidence, but most tellingly it betrays desire and passion.

Because just like other recent defeats, most notably at Morecambe, the opposition simply wanted it more. Dagenham were not a bad side but their direct approach made them predictable and defendable. Yet when they did not have the ball, home players harried and pressurised those in white shirts for it back. Their workrate was best summed up by a second half City corner which they not only cleared, but chased up the loose ball that went to Luke O’Brien, forcing the younger defender to pass it back to Rhys Evans. Even then the City keeper found his attempt to launch the ball back into the area compromised by a Daggers striker charging at him. This level of work rate was not shown by the visitors.

For a time that might not have mattered as City started reasonably well and created two glorious chances for Chris Brandon and Peter Thorne, which were both headed over. Steve Jones was initially, at least, a threat on the left and the recalled Paul Arnison looked comfortable bringing the ball forward at right back. With Dagenham giving a debut to 20-year-old on-loan Tottenham keeper David Button, who looked nervous with his catching and kicking, the initiative was waiting to be taken.

Dagenham, starting the day with faint play off hopes, were a threat going forward and Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke were kept occupied by the dangerous Paul Benson and Ben Strevens respectively. Work had clearly been done on defending set pieces with Paul McLaren assisting Lee in cutting out Benson’s flick-ons from throw ins and corners. Evans had to make one good save from a scramble in the box and the first half ended with City needing to step things up.

They did just that, with Thorne having a goal disallowed after Paul Mullin tangled with Button and City’s top scorer had an empty net to head the loose ball into. Stuart was angry about the referee’s decision not to award a goal and the list of close refereeing decisions against City in recent weeks is growing. However, unlike the chalked off strike at Morecambe, the two penalties at Rochdale and the foul in Lincoln’s opener, this was the least convincing case to feel aggrieved.

Shortly after Saunders struck for Dagenham after cutting inside on the flank and firing a curling shot from the edge of the box into the corner. Hardly great defending in closing the impressive winger down, but the strongest emotion was one of envy at how few current City players seem incapable or unwillingly to try something as opportunistic.

The response was slow and Benson rattled the bar, but eventually pressure at the other end began to start up again. Nicky Law was introduced for the disappointing Brandon, while an injury to Lee saw Mark Bower brought on for a first City appearance since September. I hope City’s longest serving player is supposed to be our vice captain. The alternative, which saw Lee pass the armband to McLaren, who looked at it with disinterest and waited for Bower to run past so he could pass it on, doesn’t bare thinking about.

Law was a typical menace on the left and set up a chance for Mullin, while another cross resulted in Lee Bullock heading against the post. Stuart gambled by going 4-3-3 and bringing on Michael Boulding for the long-since anonymous Jones, but the City sub is in poor form and failed to make any impact.

Instead Benson beat the offside flag and fired low past Evans to put the game out of sight and, after a terrible mix up between Bower and Evans, Strevens was left with the easiest of chances to make it 3-0. Maybe that flattered Dagenham, but such was the poor response from City’s players it’s difficult to argue they even deserved a lift back to Bradford after the final whistle.

As scores were relayed around the away terrace there was one which stuck out more sorely than even Shrewsbury’s success; Grimsby’s 3-0 win over Port Vale included two more goals for Barry Conlon. There are good reasons why Conlon was shipped off, but his replacement Mullin has not worked out. We hope loan players can put in as much effort as the rest, but it’s hard to believe this is the best the on-loan Accrington striker can muster. Caught offside continually and casual in his distribution, Bradford City may look like a nice addition to his playing CV but the words “going through the motions” should appear next to his appearance record. Jones is equally guilty of a lack of commitment and cannot be relied upon to always deliver when the chips are down. Law and the injured Dean Furman are loan players who give their all, but when Stuart allowed Conlon to leave he needed to sign a player to match the Irishman’s commitment.

But that isn’t Stuart’s biggest failing. At the final whistle the City manager ran over to us away fans, which took courage and character. The anger from some fans was temporarily suspended as we listened to what he had to say.

He asked us if we thought Thorne’s disallowed goal should have stood, he apologised for the performance and when a “Stuart, Stuart” chant started he asked us not to, saying something like, “I’m sorry lads, I’m not good enough and I’m sorry.” A typically up-front assessment from the City legend, but it is an accusation which first and foremost should be directed at those in the dressing room.

And that is Stuart’s biggest failing as manager. Two years ago, in his first interview after taking the City job, he told the Telegraph & Argus,

“I think back to the first time I was here when we signed people like Greg Abbott, John Hendrie and Chris With…no one had ever heard of them but they went on to be great servants for the club and loved being part of it. You still see them coming back because of that special bond. I want to bring in players like that who will hopefully develop and grow with the club.”

Stuart apologised to us supporters at the end, but Thorne was the only player who bothered to come over and thank us at the final whistle. The rest half heartedly clapped by the half way line and scuttled off. Let their manager take responsibility, let them hide away, let them treat supporters who have travelled some 250 miles to cheer them with no respect.

If anyone is leaving the club during the summer, let these players be first in the queue.

Return To Form Needed Fast

Bradford go into the game tomorrow knowing a loss could seal the fate of their season and Stuart McCall’s tenure as manager for good. City’s opponents, Dagenham & Redbridge, would themselves leapfrog Bradford should they secure all three points, with a game in hand still to come. With the teams surrounding Bradford seemingly happy to throw away points along with ourselves, we are still in a good position to sneak into the play-offs with the possibility of fighting it out with Chesterfield on the final day for the crucial seventh place.

Monday’s result against Lincoln may not have been the best tonic to our recent run; another home draw is the last thing the fans wanted to see. Nevertheless, there were positives to be taken from the game. Lee Bullock returned to the heart of the midfield in the continued absence of Dean Furman and grabbed himself a goal in the process. Bullock can count himself unlucky this season to have been the forgotten man, with injuries and the form of loan duo Furman and Nicky Law putting in excellent performances even when others around them were not doing likewise. Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke looked a little more confident and were unlucky to concede the goal in the manner it came with referee Fred Graham failing to spot two fouls in the build up to the game’s opener.

Dagenham & Redbridge showed in the reverse fixture this season that they are a team that like to get the ball down and play through the midfield. How tempted Stuart McCall will be to field a five-man midfield remains to be seen, as he will undoubtedly shuffle the pack. Michael Boulding may be one of the unlucky few that depart from the starting line-up with Paul Mullin impressing as part of a three man strike force that completed the last half hour or so against Lincoln. For all his persistence, Boulding has shown a tendency to be played off the ball a little easily at times, though, as against Lincoln, he was playing against a beast of a defender in the shape of Janos Kovacs.

City fans will be hoping that City can match the result from last season when Nicky Law grabbed a brace, though on that day the final score flattered what was otherwise an average performance. Dagenham are hampered by the loss of experienced goalkeeper Tony Roberts and have signed David Button on-loan from Tottenham as cover. Bradford are boosted by the return of Mark Bower are Luton terminated his loan following their losing battle against relegation. Bower was unfortunate to miss out on a place in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, with his only start for Bradford this season against Leeds in the competition restricting his first taste of action at Wembley. The Bradford stalwart will be hoping to force himself into Stuart McCall’s plans in the final few games and possibly even get his own victory at Wembley.

Realistically, Bradford need all three points just to stay in touch with Chesterfield, who face their own tough challenge against Gillingham. Optimism may be at a low with the fans at Bradford, but a win at Victoria Road could just be the tonic that the travelling supporters need to keep the belief going into to the final few games of the campaign.

A Chronic Illness

I’m really looking forward to the Dagenham game. I may not have the best of reasons for making that statement and I hope that BfB readers will at least understand my feelings, but the one reason for my anticipation is that I won’t be at Dagenham. It will be the first game I’ve missed, home or away, since Barnet back in February and I just feel the need to do something else.

In the run of eleven consecutive games since then, I’ve seen just two wins, both at home, and I’ve travelled more miles than I care to tot up. You have to bear in mind that I travel over 150 miles just to get to a home game. At least Chester brought some reduction in my mileage, although it hardly balanced out the trip to Exeter and Bournemouth.

For those of you who don’t drive any distance to get back home after a game, I should point out that the journey lengthens according to the result and the performance. The 70-odd mile trip back home was reduced to about 30 miles, or so it seemed, after the Aldershot game. On other days the same trip has felt like 200 miles.

It’s not just the travelling, though. I’m well used to that by now. I think I’m just generally worn out. Sometimes I think I’m not the only one showing signs of weariness. I think there are plenty of others more closely connected with Bradford City who display the same symptoms.

And it’s not just a question of being tired with the poor performances, although much centres on that issue. I’ve seen poor performances many, many times. I’ve watched years of fourth division football at Valley Parade and plenty of meaningless end-of-season games. If you go back to the end of the 1980-81 season, City finished 14th in the fourth division and played their last game at home to Hereford. Now there’s meaningless for you. And the crowd of 1249 remains a record low for a league game at Valley Parade. I could have reduced it to 1248 by staying at home.

I’ve seen City twice finish 23rd in the fourth division, a final placing that today would get you into the ‘non-league’ league. In one of those seasons they even managed to lose 7-1 at home (their second consecutive 7-1 defeat) to the team then bottom of the fourth division. I never felt quite as bad in those dark days. So it’s not just losing (or not winning) that brings on this malady.

I think I know what the cause is and, even if some fans don’t share my little delight about being given some brief respite care, I think plenty of the Valley Parade regulars will recognise my diagnosis. In a word, I’m disappointed.

In that team that played Hereford we had one or two decent players. There was a young kid at the back called Peter Jackson. There was a slightly older hand in defence by the name of Ces Podd. And up front there was a player in his first full season at Valley Parade. His name was Bobby Campbell. They all had character. OK, one or two of the rest of that team were hardly household names and fourteenth in the bottom division is no claim to fame. But I wasn’t as disappointed as I am now.

Disappointment in my case is a measure of outcome against ability. In real life, that is to say in places that are not Valley Parade, I have always tried to assess what I and others are capable of achieving and then to measure outcomes against that assessment. It’s no good expecting the youngster fresh from school to know how the business works. But the senior manager with twenty years in the job has greater expectations on his shoulders. Among many other factors, that’s why he’s paid more and why I expected more. The newcomer can hardly disappoint at first, but can do after a while if he shows no sign of progress. The senior man can disappoint a whole lot more quickly, simply by not living up to his capabilities.

And so it is in football. Nobody expected Bradford City in the 1960’s to win the league title or the F A Cup. We were a strictly fourth division outfit with, by and large, strictly fourth division players. (Yes, I saw the exceptions, like Bronco and young Hockey long before he could grow a beard.) Even that team of 1981 needed a few more, slightly better players to come into the side that would win promotion the following year. And if you want to see the other side of the expectation coin, there is no finer example than the team that one famous ex-player dubbed the worst team ever to play in the Premier League. (I wonder, how long did it take for his hair to grow back?) Exceeding expectations was what they did best.

You can’t be a Bradford City supporter for too long without being disappointed. Sometimes it’s just one or two games. Sometimes it’s a longer period, but maybe the disappointment is slight or moderate. But this time it’s over a very long period and, because the outcomes are measured against the proven capabilities, the disappointment is about as deep as it comes.

Back in January I wrote ‘At our best, we are truly better than this league. When we’re not at our best, we need to work hard just to match most of our opponents.’ To illustrate that point I cited two goals, one scored by Michael Boulding, the other by no less than Barry Conlon. Those goals had two things in common. They were both team goals, as opposed to examples of individual brilliance, and they resulted from open play of a quality several steps above this league. Indeed, I haven’t seen any opposition team match either of those goals this season.

I doubt very much if anyone at City regrets the fact that we scored those goals. The only reason for regret is that they set a standard that has not been attained for many weeks now. There were plenty of other moves earlier in the season that, while they weren’t finished off with goals, showed how good these players can be at this level. Again, the standard was set; the capabilities were revealed; the justified level of expectation was created.

At the start of the season City were among the bookmakers’ favourites for promotion. There was much hype and many column inches were spent on creating what I then saw as an unjustified expectation. This was, after all, a very new squad. We had not seen several of the signings, except as members of opposing teams, and we didn’t really know how good a team they might make. But by mid-season we knew what they were capable of and we also knew they would have occasional lapses.

As we near the end of the only 46 games that matter, those of us who have watched so many of those 46, in particular this one who has watched all of the last eleven, wonder where it has all disappeared to. If the pre-season expectations were mere words, the performances and the results soon showed what could be achieved. And therein lies the measure of the disappointment, that for so long now performances have fallen so far below what the players are clearly capable of achieving.

The inevitable question is ‘Why?’, but I’m far too tired to even attempt an answer to that one just yet. Let me have my respite, if you will. Let me stay away from Dagenham, if I promise to be back for Rotherham. And then let me try to think about ‘Why?’, even if it may all be a bit late by then.

Watch the videos to see where Bradford City went right

I missed the Christmas games through illness and I was never likely to be able to make the Brentford trip. So at kick-off against Accrington I hadn’t seen City score a goal since Dagenham. I thought that was one of the best footballing goals we’d scored all season. And the Accrington goal was of similar quality.

I said after the Dagenham game that, despite all the possession and chances our opponents had, they could never have scored the goal that Michael Boulding finished off.

They were just not a good enough footballing side. Accrington were not as good as Dagenham, by a distance. I don’t think they would claim to be the best footballing side in this league. I hope I’m not doing them an injustice and, if they feel aggrieved, then I’m sorry.

But yet again City failed to win at home against a team that, whether you look at their style of play, their technical ability, their league record or any other reliable guide, ought to be beaten by serious promotion candidates. That Accrington joined the long list of teams who have come away from Valley Parade this season with a point (or three points in AFC Bournemouth’s case) was attributed after the game by our manager to too many players having an off day at the same time. I wondered if this collective ‘off day’ explained why I considered going home at half time, when I would have at least made it on time to meet my wife’s 5.35 arrival at Liverpool airport.

Within a few minutes of the restart I was glad I’d stayed, because this time it was Conlon’s turn to finish off another fine example of what City do better than virtually every team in this league. Another sweeping move, end to end, side to side, at pace, ball on the ground, with Nicky Law an essential component, brought the equaliser that should have given City every reason to say ‘That’s how you beat time-wasting, defensive-minded teams on your own pitch.’

Instead of repeating the medicine, City looked more and more like they’d found the cure and didn’t need to apply another dose. Possession was given away – and I do mean given – far too easily yet again. Any complaint about the wind making things difficult would most easily have been answered by looking at the goal we’d scored. The ball never got high enough for the wind to play any part in that brief glimpse of football worthy of a higher league.

Not for the first time this season, such excitement as there was came not from the players, but the referee and his assistants. I don’t go in for the ‘corruption’ theory of referees; I’m prepared to allow for the ‘bias’ theory, although most of the time I reckon it’s subconscious, at worst an unnecessary resolve not to be swayed by the unaccustomed size of the home crowd; as in many other areas of life, I prefer the cock-up theory to the conspiracy. That I can recall half a dozen quite dreadful decisions, going against both sides in fairly equal measure, supports my view that referees no longer understand the game. Sadly, that I can recall these crass mistakes rather than some moments of excitement from the team leaves me thinking about what is going wrong.

In the end I shot off as quickly as I could after the final whistle to make that airport pick-up. When Herself asked how the game had gone, she soon wished she hadn’t bothered. The depression that usually fades during the 75 mile trip back home hadn’t dimmed enough for me to create the façade of cheerfulness. Her account of a severely windswept landing couldn’t match the disappointment of wondering yet again what our promotion prospects really are if we don’t work hard against teams that are working hard; if we give away the ball and don’t fight hard enough to get it back; and if we don’t learn, not just from our mistakes, but from our achievements.

Yes, watch the videos to see where it went wrong. See how that wall disintegrated; see how often we pumped the ball up from back to front; see how little impact our wingers had; and see how many loose balls went to a hard-working opposition. But watch those goals against Dagenham and Accrington to see where it went right. See how, when we pass the ball along the ground, at pace and using the width of the pitch, we can outplay any team in this league and score quality goals. Remind ourselves what we achieved early in the season when our wide players frightened the opposition by running at them with the ball at their feet – and let’s hope that Joe Colbeck can return soon and reproduce the work rate and form he was in before his injury.

If we want to be convincing when we talk about a team worthy of promotion, let’s point to the best football we play and keep playing like that. No team plays like that for all ninety minutes, but, even when too many players are having an ‘off day’, the team will be forgiven if they display the one commodity that ought to be seen even in the fourth division – commitment. At our best, we are truly better than this league. When we’re not at our best, we need to work hard just to match most of our opponents. And no matter how good we may be at times, that work ethic should always be obvious, if only because a crowd loves a trier. A trier with ability is even more appreciated. Just ask Joe Colbeck. Equally, even the most able players will suffer the wrath of the crowd if they appear not to be working hard. No names, no pack drill, eh?

The four corners – Brentford vs Bradford City preview

The Bantams travel to the football ground with a pub on each of the four corners looking at the four corners of the midfield as the return to fitness begins.

Paul McLaren was back for last week ahead of time and the extra week should see the playmaker building up match fitness. The number four’s impact has been lessened by injury since his arrival in the summer and an unbroken period from now to May could go a long way to seeing City promoted.

Lee Bullock – McLaren’s partner has been missed more than he was appreciated and is back in training with a return expected for the Christmas games. Dean Furman is further away but is also expected to be starting 2009 fit. When all three are in the running for places – should it happen – it will be interesting to see which two are considered corners of the City midfield. McLaren and Bullock is the accepted wisdom but Furman impressed.

Such a problem exists on the flanks too with Omar Daley returning to the side for this weekend’s clash while Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon wait until the new year to be back in contention. Daley’s performances this season – in the face of a criticism which would see him “got rid of” despite his obvious advantages – have belied the fact that in the dream City midfield on paper in August he was on the bench and Brandon and Colbeck were in.

As with Furman, Daley’s performances have made him undroppable and away from home watching the winger sprint puts the fear of God into the opposition. His return is anticipated.

No return to date for Paul Arnison who was not popular in the position where no player is every popular – right back – but since losing his place to TJ Moncur the momentum has build behind him. Moncur’s mistake last week added to his critics but no calls for his exit owing to that will come from this quarter rather a belief that Arison supported his winger better than Moncur and was a route to goals and that is why we prefer the one over the other. Moncur, however, is expected to take right back opposite Luke O’Brien – roasted a little last week – at left back and Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke in the middle.

A point on last week is that Dagenham celebrate the game as their best performance in recent years if not – truly – ever and look at the 66% possession stat with glee. In this context the defending of Lee and Clarke with the full backs and the goalkeeping of Rhys Evans was exceptional and did not get enough credit. Yes, the mistake cost a goal but the draw was saved by some sturdy backline duties.

And the draw came from some impressive attacking play by Nicky Law Jnr and Michael Boulding both of whom are to feature in a team that should read Evans, Moncur, Lee, Clarke, O’Brien, Steve Jones, McLaren, Law Jnr, Daley, Boulding and Peter Thorne. They face a Brentford team doing well in the league in 8th position but coming off the back of a 2-1 defeat to Barrow in the FA Cup and in the midst of a goalkeeping crisis.

Lies, damned lies, statistics and Bradford City

Wasn’t it Paul Jewell who said ‘There are lies, damned lies, statistics and Bradford City’? Oh no, it was something else that Jagger said. Back to that in a minute. No, according to Mark Twain it was Benjamin Disraeli who made that comment – or at least he would have done if he had still been alive back in 1903.

But have a look at the official club website and you’ll see some quite alarming statistics from Saturday’s game. They say, for example, that City, starting a home game as second in the league, had just 29% of the possession, had just half of the number of shots on target as the Daggers and won 4 corners as against their opponents’ 13. Those are the kind of statistics that don’t lie.

At least now I know why the manager keeps his hair as long as it always has been. It’s so that nobody realises how much of it he tears out whenever we gave the ball away – which happened roughly every thirty seconds yesterday. He will soon be as follicularly challenged as the rest of us, especially when we concede possession about 25 yards from our own goal.

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded the Daggers’ corner count being 14, if the extra one had been the ball TJ could just have knocked out of play instead of letting it be put back across the face of Evans’ goal, thereby setting up the equalizer. But come on, be fair to Evans. He’d kept us in it and there was very little he could have done to prevent that goal.

Of course, what the statistics don’t tell you is that, for all that City were outplayed up and down the pitch, there was only one team who were ever going to score that opening goal. I don’t suggest it was fated or anything like that. What I mean is that it took a passing team, operating at pace and a real quality goal scorer to create and score a goal like that. We’ve done it before – Rochdale comes to mind – and we’ll do it again this season. There are ways of soaking up pressure and still scoring goals and we seem to have some of the best ways. They’re called Boulding and Thorne.

Even allowing for the justice in the equalizer, City could have lost the point gained. Apart from the referee, who else thought it wasn’t a penalty? And what about the reaction of the Dagenham players? The last time I saw that sort of scrum round the ref was when Andy D’Urso had the temerity to award a penalty against the home team at Old Trafford and Roy Keane’ eyeballs were several inches away from the sockets. Wasn’t that exactly what the Respect campaign was all about? So how come not a single yellow card resulted from the cavalry charge?

Ah yes, that was what Paul Jewell said. After the recent Derby game against Nottingham Forest he gave the referee 100% in his report card, because he wanted to see if anyone actually read the numbers awarded by the managers. That was the game where the ref gave a penalty for a handball that wasn’t, where quite literally a one second pause would have solved everything, that being the time it took for Derby to put the ball in the net. The penalty was saved and even the second time Derby put the ball in the net the ref found a push, although he couldn’t say by which Derby player. Replays showed two or three from Forest, none from Derby.

And why was I reminded of Paul Jewell? Easy really. That Derby ref was none other that Mr Atwell, he of the phantom goal in the Watford and Reading game and he of the non-penalty and no respect at Valley Parade yesterday. (I gather Derm Tanner’s substitute on Bantams World needed the prompting of John Hendrie to point out that this was the phantom goal ref. Still, given that he also insisted that the cross for Boulding’s goal came from Jones, maybe he could give up the day job and become a linesman.)

I just wondered how a Premiership ref couldn’t book anyone for that confrontation. Then I thought of the absolute howlers he’s made already this season, each of which has cost points for different teams and, for Aidy Boothroyd, a slap on the wrist for his reaction. But yesterday there were no TV cameras, save for the highlights package which will never show the incident. Or maybe Mr Atwell finally figured that, when you have just dug that hole a little deeper, there really must come a time to stop digging. I could almost wish for the return of Graham Poll.

Well, almost.

Reduced choices – Bradford City vs Dagenham and Redbridge – League Two 2008/2009 preview

There may not have been any further injuries to emerge from last weekend’s FA Cup defeat to Leyton Orient, but Bradford City manager Stuart McCall has still found himself with two less players to choose from for tomorrow’s important league encounter.

Willy Topp and Tom Clarke have both departed Valley Parade during the week and, while each leave with most fans best wishes, it’s the latter one which causes the most immediate concern. Clarke looked an excellent proposition in the middle of the park and has been growing in confidence after a long spell out injured, but was recalled back to Huddersfield in time to face Walsall. He was initially signed to provide defensive cover, but leaves having successfully performed a role in the team it previously did without.

There’s been much debate at City in recent years about the merits of using a holding midfielder and, for much of this season, Stuart’s preferred to line up minus one. Lee Bullock and Paul McLaren started the season in the centre, largely sharing the defensive and attacking responsibilities. That continued when Dean Furman and then Nicky Law came in when injuries struck. After McLaren limped off at Rotherham, Clarke was brought in and the effect was a more balanced looking midfield and licence for Law to roam further forward.

It won’t work in every game, but the benefits of having a defensive midfielder on the books was shown in Clarke’s excellent showings against Chesterfield and Leyton Orient. Compare the more solid platform provided with the home games against Gillingham and Barnet, where the lack of protection provided by those in front of the back four played a huge part in the amount of pressure City wase put under. Clarke maybe gone but, with a new manager with new ideas set to take charge at the Galpharm, Stuart might be keeping tabs on how much he figures during the next few weeks with the January transfer window approaching.

Until then City will go back to a central midfield pairing sharing the roles. McLaren is expected to be fit enough to return and, though question marks over his start with City remain, his calm passing and dead ball skills will be welcomed back. Law will be reined in slightly but still expected to put his high energy levels to good use in the final third. They will sit between two widemen with much to prove. For a spell on Saturday Kyle Nix sparked City and it’s to be hoped he can recapture last season’s form as we wait for Omar Daley, Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon to regain fitness. Steve Jones makes his home league debut having impressed in patches against Orient. More will be expected of him as he finds his feet.

Up front the competition for places is fierce with Barry Conlon expected to be fit enough and Michael Boulding looking more like a player worth all that effort pursuing during the summer. Peter Thorne has been benched partly because of fitness but also partly on merit. It’s fair to say that the early season spark has been absent from his game recently, but it’s testament to the relative ability of City’s squad that, unlike two years ago when an out of form Dean Windass was still too good to be dropped, Thorne is kicking his heels on the bench. How it can be argued Topp deserved a run in the side at the expense of two of these three is beyond me.

Defensive failings still occupy many minds and last weekend’s showing was only marginally improved. There are calls for Mark Bower to return at the expense of Matt Clarke – who actually played okay last week. I can see the argument, but when some fans go to the extremes of listing Bower as our best defender and slate Stuart for ignoring him one is left wondering why it’s been so quickly forgotten that a year ago many were demanding Bower be dropped for Clarke. Lee will certainly start alongside one of them, with TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien taking the full back roles in front of Rhys Evans.

Valley Parade is joint top with the New Meadow in League Two in terms of how many goals have been scored this season – and a visit from League Two’s top scorers is unlikely to slow that. England C international Paul Benson has led Dagenham’s surprise promotion challenge with 10 goals, though strike partner Ben Strevens isn’t far behind on eight. Twice they’ve hit someone for six but they’ve lost almost as often as they’ve won. Last year they triumphed at Valley Parade on route to avoiding relegation.

It will mean another tough afternoon for a back four which has lost some of its protection, though for much of this season Stuart has chosen attack as the best form of defence.

Only the usual conclusion can be made

Just like video goalline technology, winter breaks and the declining tradition of the FA Cup – the opinion “it’s a poor league” is one uttered on an annual basis.

In City’s case, it doesn’t seem to matter which division we are in – even during our second season of the Premiership the national media spent a few concentrated weeks deriding the standard of the top flight – or how well we are doing, the opposition are always poor and City firmly part of such mediocrity. It’s a viewpoint the vast majority of supporters also hold no matter who their team is, every league is always poor.

When looking at this season’s League Two table it can be tempting to trot out such well-worn phrases. Discount the points deductions of Luton, Bournemouth and Rotherham and the gap between top and bottom would be a measly 22 points after a third of the season. Everyone can beat everyone and, while that makes for an exciting and unpredictable league, it also leaves the playing standards open to accusations of poorness.

It’s been said that, unlike last season, there are no outstanding teams going to runaway with it like MK Dons and Peterborough; though a look at the League Two table this time last year offers few clues that was going to be the case. MK Dons had its noses in front, but Peterborough was back among traffic. This year Darlington and Wycombe hold the same advantage of the Dons, though the chasing pack remain closely on their tails. The six-point advantage both enjoy over ninth-place Bury is in contrast to a year ago where fifth-place Peterborough was seven behind MK Dons. Meanwhile the eventual Play Off Finalists, Stockport and Rochdale, were 15th and 17th respectively, a fact which will give Aldershot, Port Vale and Notts County inspiration this season.

Above those three are 12 clubs which retain credible aspirations of promotion, which illustrates just how competitive a league it is. That Wycombe remain unbeaten is a great achievement and the Buckinghamshire club will be hoping to turn a few more draws into wins to build on its impressive start. It remains to be seen how they will react to that eventual first defeat, but Peter Taylor has clearly been able to take the club forward after the good work of Paul Lambert last season.

Like Wycombe, Darlington lost in the play off semi finals last year but have responded strongly. Dave Penney is rumoured to be interesting Huddersfield and isn’t universally popular with Quakers fans, but on the evidence of games against the Bantams they look stronger this season. Much depends on if they can keep the impressive on-loan Billy Clarke, who’s Ipswich contract expires in January and is seemingly surplus to requirements.

Currently top of the of the six clubs on 27 points is Shrewsbury. Having spent big money on Grant Holt during the summer the Shrews are looking particularly strong at home and have a manager experienced enough to guide the club in lasting the distance. Rochdale has climbed after a slow start, though don’t quite appear as strong as last season. Brentford’s Andy Scott is cementing a reputation as one of the game’s bright young managers and Gillingham, relegated last season, are improving. The biggest surprise is Exeter still being up there, though the newly-promoted Grecians have suffered heavy defeats to City and Chesterfield suggesting they aren’t strong enough to last the pace.

Doubts which were also raised at Bury and Dagenham, which seem to be coming true as both fade away following impressive starts. Chesterfield and Lincoln, who both started slowly, are closing in and have the expectation and quality to force themselves into the top seven above.

Which just leaves the Bantams. Predictably Saturday’s defeat has lead to some fans writing off our chances of achieving anything better than a play off spot, but the injury situation which Stuart McCall is currently contending with is clearly going to slow things. Omar Daley is the only out-and-out winger fit and, while the Jamaican’s performances are remaining highly consistent, the lack of a similar threat on the other flank for a team which bases much of its style of play on the widemen is reducing chances for the forwards.

There are question marks still over the defence but, in general, the team has been able to respond to weakness at the back with potency going forward. The next few games may be a battle and not wield as higher a number of points as we’d like, but if City can approach Christmas in a similar position to now, with Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon due to come back, the prospects of a good run of form at the turn of the year are good.

It would take a brave man to bet on who will finish in the top three spots come May right now, but clearly the next segment of the season will be vital in reducing the number of possibilities. Next Saturday Lincoln entertain Shrewsbury; the Tuesday after Gillingham face Rochdale, who’s game after is Darlington away; City travel to Brentford the following Saturday; the Saturday after sees Shrewsbury host Wycombe. With the Christmas fixtures including Rochdale v Shrewsbury, Darlington v Chesterfield and Gillingham v Wycombe, the chances of anyone running away with it seem unlikely.

It’s a league where you don’t want to take your eyes off anyone, even if we are all ‘poor’.

The rest of League Two – Preseason 2008/2009 [II]

The numerous season preview supplements produced at this time of year act as a reminder, if it were needed, that the hopes and expectations we City supporters have for the coming season are not dissimilar to the majority of League Two fans.

Much has been made locally about how last season’s promotion of the MK Dons and Peterborough has left a more levelled playing field, but we aren’t the only ones thinking such sentiments. Some clubs will look to Hereford’s unexpected promotion last season and be confident they can emulate it, others may be hoping it’s emerging young talent can push them forward in the manner of Stockport and Rochdale, while others are upping the wage budget in a bid to go for it. League Two may look weaker without the presence of the Dons and the Posh, but it’s likely to be just as competitive.

When considering who might be in the promotion shake up it’s typical to start with the clubs who have spent money, those who lost out in last year’s plays offs and those relegated into the division last season. The club record £170,000 that Shrewsbury Town has spent on Nottingham Forest striker Grant Holt stands out like a sore thumb compared to everyone else’s summer recruitment. Last season was one of underachievement for the 2007 Play Off Finalists but manager Paul Simpson will begin his first full season with expectations not much lower than at Valley Parade.

Holt made his name at last season’s play off finalists Rochdale, who are likelier to be up there come May. Keith Hill has worked wonders at Spotland and their counter attacking approach impressed last season. Arguably lacking a decent striker, the Dale will hope Halifax’s Jon Shaw can make the step up; especially as midfield playmaker David Perkins, twice the thorn in the side of City last season, has left.

Wycombe Wanderers parted company with manager Paul Lambert at the end of last season and welcome Peter Taylor – with more than a point to prove following a difficult couple of years. They will probably do better than the other semi-finalists of last season, Darlington, who have lost star players David Stockdale and, while not confirmed yet, Tommy Wright. Dave Penney spent big last summer but doesn’t appear to have significant funds this time around.

Elsewhere big things are expected of Lincoln City, who prospered last year under Peter Jackson before his time off through illness. New keeper Rob Burch was sought after by others, including City, while Frank Sinclair could prove a clever buy if he still has the legs. Chesterfield fans seem to dislike their manager Lee Richardson but have one of the best strikers in the division in Jack Lester, Alan Knill will be looking to continue his rejuvenation of Bury and they could be dark horses, while Grimsby has strengthened defensively and will hope young striker Danny North can fulfill his potential.

It’s a sad state of the continuing financial problems many clubs in the lower reaches of the Football League are suffering from that this year’s League Two relegation battle could be determined by point deductions. Three seasons ago Luton finished 10th in the Championship, but the odds are heavily stacked in favour of a third successive relegation and drop into non-league following the 30 points taken off them. Play off form will be needed just to stay up and, with the club still in a mess, that seems unrealistic.

Bournemouth and Rotherham’s hopes of merely beginning this season are still in the balance and respective 15 and 17 point deductions look like a best scenario. That may allow other clubs to breath easier but Chester City, another club with money problems, won’t be counting their chickens as they remember how last season’s dramatic collapse in form almost cost them their league status. Some of the division’s smaller clubs, such as Macclesfield, Accrington and Dagenham, will also be targeting the 50 point mark rather than any loftier ambitions.

Gillingham’s recent financial difficulties make it difficult to imagine they can achieve much beyond midtable but Port Vale, under former City defender Lee Sinnott, will be a better bet for an instant return to League One. The league’s new boys, Aldershot and Exeter, arrive with romantic stories of rebirth and should both be good enough for midtable, where they will surely be joined by Notts County, Barnet, Brentford and Morecambe.

The quality of League Two is derided by some, while others trumpet it as featuring real football and real fans. Last season many clubs enjoyed better form on the road but the ones who did make it to the division above were strong at home, too. This season’s League Two promises to be unpredictable, ugly and beautiful; and those successful in realising their pre-season expectations next Spring will probably be all three.

Seething and Learning

The question before us, Dear Reader, is one of motivation as Bradford City lost 2-0 at Valley Parade to Dag and Red after a week of two impressive wins seemed to set up the play off charge for the Bantams.

80 minutes gone when Ben Strevens finished off a tidy move for the visitors taking advantage of Stuart McCall’s laudable efforts to play a fullbackless 3412 to try get back on level terms those play off ambitions seemed lost. In fact they probably were before kick off but confidence after wins and good performances can be as much an enemy at the start of a football match as the habitual losing pattern McCall found his team in earlier in the season.

With two fine wins this week on the back of a run stretching back to Boxing Day which has seem good results and good performances Valley Parade turned up expecting and hands were sat on – football supporters have this way of flipping between an attitude of dark pessimism and massive expectation at the recording of two wins – but more crucially the equivalent performances were put in on the field.

Bradford City emerged from the dressing room in the mistaken believe that the win would flow in following previous results and that – in essence – they did not have to put in the effort to claim victory. This game was lost in the dressing room at 14:59.

Bill Shankly would tell all is Liverpool sides of the 1970s were first tasked in a season with avoiding relegation understanding that every game in football had to be won over the course of 90 minutes and that domination in football comes from an ability to not assume those victories against any opposition.

There is a line between confident and arrogant; between thinking and expecting; and City were too far the wrong side of that line. Alex Rhodes is an easy to pick out offender as he hung on the last man waiting for the perfect pass that would free him for attacking play rather than playing with the endeavour that saw him achieve in recent games. Omar Daley showed the same entirely forgetting that it was his harrying and chasing that brought about his goal against Rotherham last week. Joe Colbeck could hold his head up and say that he put in the same effort to try get this win as he did previous but no doubts anyone else could.

The same cannot be said for Dag & Red who at one point had Scott Griffiths block three shots in a minute – one with his face – and showed the sort of work rate that deserved a victory. It is simple to say but very true: They wanted it more.

All of which sounds damning and the margin of error today was slight – Barry Conlon’s missed penalty at 1-0 could have seen City back in the game and go on to win – but this ability to keep a team focused while winning is one of the most difficult things in football and something that even the best managers the game has seen have to learn and get wrong.

The balance McCall must build is on the one hand he must let confidence grow and let his players think they are winning games because of their excellence and on the other hand he must break them down and remind them that they cannot expect to beat anyone without putting in the effort. It is a conversation that goes “You are the best footballers in the world and can beat anyone but if you don’t run yourselves around then you can’t beat anyone” and if I knew a good way of putting that to a bunch of men then I would be doing it and not writing about doing it.

So McCall faces the inconstancy of over confidence and looks to learn what he can as he did that caused by the lack of confidence earlier in the season. One thing that his rookie year in League Two will have done is provide a lot of learning experiences for the ginger one but it should be noted at this point with a quarter of the season to go that League Two in 2007/2008 is freakish.

Today of the twelve games played five were home wins and five away victories which continues that balance as being seventeen more away wins than home wins this season. It is a season in which – for whatever reason – it is more common that the away side picks up the victory than the home side does. To put that in context in the 120 years of English League Football over all divisions ever run it has never been the case that a season has finished with more away wins than home. Never happened before.

City and McCall’s problems are far more common. Over confidence, players putting in 75% thinking they can stroll to wins, feet off the ground and people not thinking that winning game three on a run requires less effort than winning game one did. Something to work on before any side is able to mount a promotion campaign.

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