Taylor looks for a repeat of his best week

In the immediate wake of such a demoralising weekend defeat – leaving Bradford City anxiously looking over their shoulders at the form of clubs in relegation trouble – it seemed impossible to believe the players could get anything from a Tuesday night tussle with the League Two leaders. But then City stunned everyone to beat table-toppers Rochdale 3-1 on their own patch.

It was a truly special evening – one year ago this week – with the team benefiting from a spine-tingling level of backing from their own fans which helped them to hit the heights after experiencing the lows at Accrington. Robbie Threlfall’s free kick to make it 2-1 prompted wild celebrations that were only bettered after Gareth Evans smacked an unstoppable volley into the roof of the net with three minutes to go. It was totally unexpected, which made the evening all the more special. A few days later bottom-of-the-table Darlington were defeated 1-0 and the clamour to extent new manager Peter Taylor’s contract grew momentum.

How Taylor will be hoping history repeats itself a year on.

The pressure on the City manager was pushed back up a notch after Friday night’s loss to Port Vale, and with tonight’s game against leaders Chesterfield quickly followed by a visit from second-bottom Stockport this could be a defining week for Taylor. Should City fail to accumulate more than a point from these two games, it might prove enough for time to be called on his rein.

Undoubtedly the Board are in a difficult position at the moment. There was some speculation – not for the first time – that the Wycombe game 10 days ago would have been his last had the team not delivered a much-needed win. It seems highly unlikely Taylor will be offered a new contract in May, but in the short-term the Board needs him to get some results so they aren’t forced to take action sooner – causing financial ramifications for next season’s budgets. Taylor shows no inclination to resign any time soon, so it would cost the club to sack him and find a replacement.

The Board clearly want Taylor to remain in charge for now, but ongoing poor results put them in a difficult position in that they have to balance the budgets against the possibility of the five-time promotion winner looking increasingly less capable of keeping the Bantams in the Football League. Stockport don’t play again until Saturday, so if City lose tonight and then to the Hatters the gap to the relegation zone will be just three points. Panic would ensue.

So Taylor and his employees need this to be a good week, and though the prospects of this evening defeating a side which has lost only twice on the road all season look slim, events a year ago this week underline how quickly it can change. Taylor at least has to believe City can win, and then his next job is to convince the players.

Of course it was only three weeks ago that the Bantams almost did defeat Chesterfield, when they were just 30 seconds of injury time away from a notable victory inside the Spireites’ new stadium. Despite the joy of equalising so late, that draw seemed to trigger a mini-wobble in Chesterfield’s outstanding season as they drew three and lost one of their next four; but a comfortable win at in-form Lincoln on Saturday has re-asserted their dominance and they lead the rest of the division by eight points. They have only lost one of their last 13 games.

The continuing rate of change and injuries seen at Valley Parade all season means that only six of the starting line-up at the B2Net stadium for that 2-2 draw are likely to be in the 11 that kick off the game tonight. Jon McLaughlin has again been consigned to number two behind the more experienced – and certainly more vocal – Lenny Pidgley, A year ago McLaughlin was also watching on from the bench with the more senior but not exactly notable Matt Glennon between the sticks. McLaughlin can look back with pride at the last 12 months, but his progress has not been as spectacular as it appeared it would be when Taylor turned to him over Glennon at the end of last season.

At the back it is disappointing that Simon Ramsden has managed to get injured so quickly again, and one worries if he was rushed back too early to play the full 90 minutes against Wycombe. Beyond that though, and given how many injuries he picked up last season too, one worries that Ramsden’s contract will not be renewed this summer because the manager – whoever that is – needs greater reliability at right back than the 29-year-old’s body will enable him. Lewis Hunt will continue to deputise on the right with Luke O’Brien at left back.

In the centre Steve Williams and Luke Oliver both made mistakes on Friday that may leave Taylor contemplating restoring Shane Duff to the starting line up. Oliver has featured in all but two of City’s league games to date but remains unconvincing at times. Williams’ return to match fitness – results were improving until he was injured at Colchester last November – could make a difference to a defence which has under-performed all season.

Whether Taylor opts for 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or 4-4-2 in the wake of the Port Vale failings is yet to be seen, but whichever he decides it’s to be hoped he selects the right players to suit his system rather than the questionable midfield choices of recent weeks. Michael Flynn’s presence is massive, but despite decent performances in his last two outings there is more to come from him. Jon Worthington was quietly impressing up to the Wycombe game and, if his removal from the first XI continues, it will say much about Taylor’s high player turnover approach. Tom Adeyemi will feature somewhere from the start, Leon Osborne possibly not.

Up front Scott Dobie has shown some good things in his two games to date, but at other times has looked off the pace and in need of improved fitness. Kevin Ellison couldn’t make the same level of impact at Vale Park compared to his memorable debut, but will be a key player tonight. Jake Speight made a big impression on Friday and many will expect him to start, but Taylor may opt to keep the hard-working Evans in the starting eleven ahead of him.

How to approach this week? In a sense tonight is a game to get out of the way. A defeat is widely expected and, looking at the league table, it will be difficult to be too critical of Taylor if it goes the way of the form guide. Yet a second defeat on the bounce would really crank up the pressure on him and the team ahead of Saturday’s game, which is unlikely to prove ideal preparation.

So Taylor looks for some sort of positive result tonight in order to build some forwards momentum or – at least – slow the backwards impetus that is threatening to suck City into non-league. It can be argued that this period a year ago was the best of Taylor’s rein at City. He badly needs a repeat, because otherwise this week could prove to be his last in charge.

Pragmatic Taylor gets his first home win

While Peter Taylor was plotting to take Bradford City to two wins in five days Mark Lawn was considering pulling out the club to put the Bantams in administration.

Lawn’s ire came after his car was vandalised by some City fans following the Accrington Stanley game last weekend. Lawn’s upset abated as he described,

The general abuse shocked me and I won’t stand for it. It’s more than out of order. I talked to Julian (Rhodes) the following day and said that I felt like taking the loan back. Then Bradford City would be in administration – it’s as simple as that. We have all these wonderful fans but there are always some who want me out. But what would they do then? If I took my £1 million loan back, what do they think is going to happen to the football club? Never mind my share investment capital, without that loan the club would not exist.

Lawn wants the offenders to come to him to talk the matter over, and to be banned for life and to face criminal damaged charges and rightly so. The joint chairman is right to make a clear statement that such behaviour is unacceptable.

What to make of Lawn’s follow up statement is up to the individual fans – be they those who attack cars, those who turn up week in and week out for decades, who raise money to pay for today’s match winner James Hanson, those who kept the club in business twice in the last decade:

I’m a fan like them and I’ve two million more reasons to be frustrated.

The £5,000 donated to the club by a supporter via The City Gent paid for two thirds of James Hanson’s transfer represents a significant fan investment in the club and paid off handsomely for the Bantams today with the former shelf stacker turned City top scorer starting and ending the conclusive move of the match that saw Darlington dispatched from Valley Parade on the wrong end of a 1-0 defeat.

The result seemed in little doubt once the Bantams – who started the game effectively with new signing Mark McCammon and Hanson operating as a powerful two man battering ram – took the lead when Hanson played a smart ball deep to a confident Gareth Evans down the right flank who centred to McCammon only for Hanson to spirit in front of the new boy to convert.

Hanson should have doubled City’s advantage when a similarly well crafted move came to the striker who hit a good shot which was saved by young keeper Shane Redmond who – along with the central defender Ian Miller – put in superb performances that did much to keep the Quakers in with a chance of salvaging something from the match right up until the final whistle.

Not that the forward line of the visitors – well marshalled by Steve Williams – looked like taking those chances. The visitors lacked confidence and often lashed the ball on the slightest sight of the net threatening very little.

When Darlington did muster an attack they found Peter Taylor’s City more resolute than one would imagine they would have been under Stuart McCall but – as a result – a touch more tedious.

Twenty minutes from time and substitute Omar Daley played a fine cross field ball thirty five yards from his own goal and as Michael Flynn took the ball to attack Daley meandered forward more bothered about maintaining defensive position in front of Robbie Threlfall than joining the mounting attack. It was not uncommon over the afternoon and typified City’s approach to the game. Being hard to beat rather than beating the opposition out of sight.

Taylor’s side got a first home win for the new manager and the second win in three. His pragmatic approach to the game becomes clearer with his withdrawal of McCammon and introduction of Michael Boulding who spurned a last minute chance to set Hanson’s up for a double. Boulding’s arrival saw City’s midfield switch to a prescribed path of playing early balls to try get behind the Darlington backline. Flynn and Bullock would play the ball long – often without looking – to the groans of the supporters but Taylor was satisfied that the players were following his plan.

Sitting back, hitting a team on the break, and sneaking a win. It was a far cry from the expansive 433 and dashed hopes of Stuart McCall’s three years at the club but as Taylor takes his Bantams for three away games at Aldershot, Rotherham and then Port Vale on the road in in the next ten days such an approach could prove useful.

And three points won at Valley Parade is a welcome Saturday afternoon but it is an afternoon tinged with sadness and Peter Taylor and his practical football took over from Stuart McCall’s dream of glory and shows signs of reward. City have beaten the top and the bottom sides in the last week and done so with the same common sense, simple type of performance.

Drifting away was the dream of McCall for sure, but with it it seems goes that of a club in which the supporters who have done so much to keep the Bantams in football are at the heart of Bradford City. The club exists at the behest of the joint chairman – he makes that very clear – and feels things more times more than any other supporters.

One hopes that he fells he has 2,000,000 reasons to feel happier today.

Before Darlington City consider what is a good footballer?

After last Saturday’s game at Accrington Stanley Bradford City’s players were “simply not good enough” and Peter Taylor had to get rid of them. After the win at Rochdale on Tuesday night they were “brilliant and capable” and had beaten a team five points top of the league.

This weekend the same players face moribund Darlington. So which is the real reflection of the current set of Bradford City players?

The season has seen them wend a way to the lower mid-table for sure but also create a club record of games unbeaten. Rochdale made them looked hapless, they returned the favour and beat them when Dale’s lads were brimming with confidence. How good, or how bad, are the City players?

Certainly following the game Peter Taylor was clear about what he thought had transformed the team saying that the return to a 442 on Tuesday night with Michael Flynn up front alongside James Hanson – a function Taylor credits Wayne Jacobs for passing on to him – and an evening of hard work.

Said Taylor

There were so many good things but most importantly they realised that they got the result through hard work and togetherness.

So if the players are together and work hard then they are “good” divided – as they were following the departure of Stuart McCall and the communal lip out sulk – they are “bad”. So are they good or bad?

Perhaps the question is framed wrong.

The terms of good and bad in football have always been around but have come into a sharper focus in the digital era where games like Championship Manager and FIFA demand that players be rated and assessed. If you, dear reader, ever played one of the LMA series of management games you did so (in some years) with a Bradford City team assessed and rated by yours truly.

I recall opening the spreadsheet and being given a range – Bradford City players could not be rated over 59% or under 44% – and were scored in categories like shooting and passing. I wondered how one rated players like Bobby Petta in those stats. For sure the man could hit a ball, but only when he could be bothered and why award him the higher fifties because he once leathered a ball in against Huddersfield when Steven Schumacher scored more – albeit less impressive – goals?

The question asked in that instance really was one of “good” and “bad” but that is the world of clicks and buttons and the reality of football offers more depth. Robbie Blake – for example – was considered for long periods of his career a player who would be good enough for the Premiership if only he had the pace suggesting that his abilities would be spread between percentages, if they could be encoded at all.

The way that the good people at Codemasters created their game allowed an even spread of abilities up and down the game. There were as many players with the ability levels suited for the Premiership as for the League Two – linear distribution – and as City slipped down the leagues having risen up in double quick time the previous decade it struck me that that notion was wrong.

As the skill level of players at, and visiting, Valley Parade decreased from the days of Paul Scholes volleying in a David Beckham corner it became clear that there was a level of ability which rose and fell up and down the leagues but that as we fell down the leagues this quality did not drop off to the same extent. The difference between the second and third tiers of football were not as great as the drop between the top of the top flight and the clubs at the bottom.

The exponential growth of players able to play at a level as one descends the league means that while only one English footballer might have the abilities of David Beckham and ten are good enough for the Champions but a hundred Englishmen are good enough for the Premiership on the whole and thousand able to play at the next level down which encompasses an area I’d say is roughly the half way down the top of the Championship to the middle of League Two.

It is crude analysis for sure but it explains how a Paul Jewell or a Peter Taylor can take clubs like Wigan and Hull and take them through the leagues to the edge of the Premiership play-offs. The players who were idling either at those clubs or to be bought up from rivals of a similar standing did not improve in natural ability – the did not become “good” having been “bad” but they certainly improved.

Improvement that is put down to coaching and to motivation. The latter being shown in Paul Jewell’s ability to build a mental toughness in his players in which they believed they were capable of beating any team at any level and the former being in team drilling and understanding of the roles and responsibilities on the field and the pattens built up.

The average player in League One when promoted would be expected to get on in the division above, when relegated to be able to play in the one below. The same group of players who seem hopeless at one point can seem brilliant at others when they have the right approach to the game and to each other.

Which brings us back to Bradford City and the difference of three days between Accrington and Rochdale. Assuming the players have not simply “become good” over the space of three days and that Taylor requires more than a couple of sleeps to have the players won over to his tactical approach or his mental position how have the Bantams improved?

Probably the change has much to do with the depressed mood at the club that came as a result of sacking Stuart McCall being superseded as a worry by the idea that if a team cannot complete with Accrington then it is likely that that club would be relegated. The players had a sulk, they were upset, but professional pride – or perhaps the mental toughness they have – kicked in and they raised the game in keeping with the raised noise from the away end.

Add to that Taylor looked at simple basics of the team and noted that – since Paul McLaren left – we have had no quality delivery. That problem has been fixed by loanee Robbie Threlfall. Threlfall’s delivery played a part in all three goals against Rochdale. A small practical fix which allowed Luke O’Brien to move forward to balance the left flank and set City for victory.

Threlfall makes his Valley Parade début against a Darlingtonnnn side managed by Steve Staunton who was himself a Liverpool left back loaned to City and is set to be joined as a temporary transfer at the club by Gillingham’s Mark McCammon,physicalcal striker.

McCammon seems likely to partner James Hanson up front as the club praised The City Gent for raising £5,000 to pay two thirds of the transfer fee for the player. The last two weeks has seen much debate over the club and the owners of that club and acknowledgement is given to the joint chairmen for the investment they have made but The City Gent’s – in effect – buying a player is another of many examples of the supporters of Bradford City funding the business of Bradford City and when calls are made to the joint chairmen for clarity it is done in the knowledge that frankly amazing actions such as Jeremy White’s fund raising is done by people who should be considered more than consumers of the Bradford City product.

The McCammon/Hanson combination sees Peter Taylor go about the business of making the no nonsense attack that his Wycombe side had and will allow Michael Flynn to slot back alongside Lee Bullock in the midfield alongside O’Brien on the left and Gareth Evans on the right although a return for Omar Daley or the inclusion of Scott Neilson is possible, but would be harsh on Evans who is returning to form.

The back four of Simon Ramsden, Matthew Clarke, Steve Williams and Threlfall will continue in front of Matt Glennon.

Good players, to a man.

A muted victory

From a fixture Stuart McCall couldn’t feasibly win, at least the Bradford City manager was able to enjoy the satisfaction of three points.

Against an already doomed home team which has lost its last two games 4-0, only a similarly convincing scoreline for the Bantams would ensure victory would truly be considered a victory. That Steve Williams’ 23rd-minute strike was the sole occasion the ball found the back of the net will have done little to ease the darkened mood triggered by the midweek Rochdale humbling. Indeed the sight of City players’ blatant attempts to time waste long before the final whistle was due offered a clear indication that, while the win ultimately reduces the gap to the play offs, a vast improvement is needed for the season to conclude with a top seven place.

Not that Stuart seemed to be overly-perturbed after the final whistle. A victory is a victory and the points reward for winning 1-0 is the same as winning 4-0. Darlington showed a degree of spirit in the second half – on the evidence of this and City’s recent trip to Blundell Park, there is more hope to be taken from the Quakers’ efforts even if the League Two table makes it implausible to argue they can avoid relegation – and with City wasteful in front of goal for the game’s first two-thirds, the home side might have snatched a late point due to endeavor if not ability. In the end it was an afternoon for getting the three points, climbing back on the coach and moving on.

A more convincing victory still appeared on after a first half easily controlled by the visitors. Back to playing 4-4-2, Matt Clarke took the place of the injured Zesh Rehman, and a more solid performance from the former Darlington centre back alongside Williams was the platform for a 45 minute period where possession was dominated by claret and reasonable chances were readily created.

James Hanson came close early on with a shot deflected over, Simon Whaley almost scored direct from a corner, the recalled and impressive Scott Neilson might have done better after charging into the penalty area and seeing his low drive blocked by home keeper Nick Leversidge.

Lee Bullock, Hanson and Williams continued to go close and soon after Williams was rewarded after popping up at the back post to head home Neilson’s corner. It was a good moment for the former non-league defender after the difficult evening he’d endured midweek, it was also the third away league game in a row he’d netted. City continued to press and Hanson headed just wide.

At the other end Darlington’s efforts to pass the ball around on the deck were admirable but largely impotent. That the half chances they created almost all came on the counter attack said much about their lack of authority on the game.

But it was during the second half where the promotion credentials of the Bantams could again be doubted. City have held a 1-0 lead at half time in eight of their 20 league games this season, but the dilemma of whether to continue in the attacking manner which had earned that advantage or sit back and protect it is one which is leading to uncertainty and awkwardness.

Initially City’s intent was to get that second goal with Hanson again twice going close, but slowly the team began to drop back and ambition became limited. Stuart attempted to encourage fresh impetuous by introducing the dropped Gareth Evans from the bench for Michael Boulding, but the former Macclesfield striker’s confidence has clearly taken a dip of late, and he did little to reignite purpose to the attack.

Though questions must again be pointed at Boulding, who was well shackled all afternoon by former City defender and Quakers captain, Mark Bower. His introduction from the bench against Accrington helped City to pile on late pressure and he almost won the game late on with a shot that hit the post. Boulding can consider himself unfortunate not to have started the next game against Grimsby, but having got his chance at the Darlington Arena his failure to again take it was mystifying.

Often Boulding is excused for anonymity by relative poor service, and while he was provided few sights of goal, he must surely be prepared to work harder. Boulding looked unhappy to be subbed and went straight down the tunnel, where he was followed a few minutes later by Stuart for what may have been a tongue-lashing.

James O’Brien was shortly after brought on for Whaley – the on-loan Norwich midfielder again looking the best player on the park in terms of ability, but often failing to make the most of many opportunities to cross the ball with some poor deliveries.  As the home side finally starting to exert some pressure, Simon Eastwood had to tip one effort round the post and blocked a shot from further out which was straight at him. By then the visitors’ time-wasting got too much for referee Neil Swarbrick, who booked Neilson for unsubtly kicking the ball away. City’s ball retention was poor and will not go unpunished if it continues during the next four league fixtures, all against promotion rivals.

When the final whistle was blown it was met by a faint smattering of boos in the away end, but the overall cheering and chanting of Stuart’s name suggested the general mood was that, while dissatisfied with the performance, at least a difficult week had ended in a positive way.

There are still plenty of issues for Stuart to ponder – the return to playing 4-4-2 may have made City look more solid, but the high work rate the 4-3-3 formation has been built around was curiously lacking. Little confidence can have been taken from the second half display, though the clean sheet is not to be sniffed at.

So a muted victory, and one which may be best judged retrospectively in a few weeks. The hope for Stuart must be that this the game acts as the springboard for a run of good form going into the second half of the season, rather than proving a blip which had more to do with the Darlington formbook. Perhaps, in a week where we at BfB have looked back to the last promotion season and how the team ultimately benefited from losing 3-0 at home to QPR late-autumn, this win will have provided the tweak which makes the difference.

The tweak being the change back to 4-4-2 and return of Clarke, who has surely earned the right to now keep his first team spot. It wasn’t spectacular, but the first game after the tweak in the 1998/99 season, a 1-0 success at struggling Oxford thanks to a header from a set piece in the 23rd minute, offered few clues of what was to come then.

Anything similar this time around, and this will be later judged a fixture Stuart won in more ways than one.

The loop continues at Darlington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The blank space

Last week we saw freedom of speech taken to an extreme and it is it is an odd week where people are asking each other “did you see Question Time last night?”

Nevertheless the rights and wrongs of politics aside we can – on the whole – agree that free speech is to be welcomed and that attempts to stop someone saying something because you do not like what they are saying is not.

So there is something worrying in the news that David Conn and the newspaper he writes for The Guardian are no longer welcome at Elland Road because of Conn’s revealing articles about the ownership of the club who went down 2-1 to Millwall.

Conn’s writing had untangled a web of financial strands around the Leeds United chairman Ken Bates and the administration they went through which he emerged as owner of a debt free club following. The complexities are near mind boggling and commenting on them directly would be a presumption that I understood the detail but one thing becomes very clear when looking at stories of Cayman Islands-registered Forward Sports Fund and Guernsey accountants that the world of Leeds United administration is very different to that of Bradford City’s.

Likewise Bradford City’s two administrations were different from each other and both were different to Leicester City’s infamous debt shuffle which is a million miles away from what happened to AFC Bournemouth which was nothing like the Rotherham United into and out while still spending money which could never be afforded at Darlington.

Every administration is different, has different causes, ends in different results. When Bradford City struggled to stay afloat it was said at a supporters fund raiser that it might take the Bantams twenty years to recover from the woes but recover we would. I am of the belief that that statement was in essence true and that last season’s finishing a place higher than the previous season was a significant – if slight – sign of that recovery.

Other administrations see clubs like Rotherham United pleading poverty one year and then the next making offers to players like Nicky Law Jnr and Adam le Fondre whose former chairman Chris Dunphy has a thing or two to say about good governance in the game but oddly allowed a club that did seek protection from creditors to take le Fondre for an “undisclosed fee“. The people who had debts written off in South Yorkshire would probably be keen to know how much cash The Millers were able to find this year that was not there last.

The ownership of Leeds United is unclear but Conn’s articles would seem to suggest that the ownership is structured in a way that preferred Bates in the process and thus is not only illegal but would also be against the promises made by Bates and Leeds to the Football League. The punishments for the legal side of things – should Conn be accurate – one can only guess at and the football sanctions are rumoured to be as stiff as given out to any club in my memory with the Elland Road side facing a two division relegation should it be found that Conn’s conclusions are accurate.

The reaction of Bates to these allegations is troubling for Leeds United supporters as he attempts – one assumes – to give a lesson to those journalists who would dig too deep into his dealings that they will no longer be allowed to carry coverage on his team. Leeds are big business and newspapers – especially regional newspapers who struggle to keep going – can hardly afford to upset the local football side and Bates is infamous for enforcing a hegemony in the local media.

Of course Bates has a right to allow whomever he wants into Elland Road – as Conn attests he owns the League One club – but one doubts that will assuage any worries Leeds United supporters might have at the thought of getting promoted this year only to step backwards and be forced to find a new owner during a financial crisis. They would do well to follow the example of the Liverpool supporters who demand answers from their owners rather than doing as the Notts County fans do as some happily ignore things off the field and the muddiness of that club’s ownership.

Every administration is different, this is a point that is maybe lost on some, but in footballs age of rapid change of ownership the constant which is bought and sold is the good will of supporters. In our administration that was manifested by the half a million pounds raised because there was no other money to keep the club going but in but other clubs cases less scrupulous people – yes less scrupulous even than Gordon Gibb – have become involved and as a result supporters have suffered.

So The Guardian resisted the proposed riposte of leaving a large blank square in the sports pages to highlight the “ban” they are facing but when chairmen start stopping a newspaper from investigative reporting – and when such a ban is allowed to pass without comment from the rest of the media on the whole – then alarm bells need to ring for supporters.

Supporters should want the questions that need to be asked to be asked by the likes of David Conn and that every newspaper does not boycott Elland Road in protest is shame on them. The right for supporters to have their serious questions answered when asked by the highest quality of journalists is something that needs to be protected and when it is attacked by one is should be defended by all.

League Two preview – what’s the right way to get promoted?

There was something symbolic about the transfers of Ben Davies from Shrewsbury Town to Notts County and Nicky Law from Bradford City – indirectly – to Rotherham United.

The Magpies and The Millers have taken on the mantle of possessing the division’s biggest playing budgets from The Shrews and The Bantams, coming with it the expectations of League Two domination. The balance sheets point to both County and United celebrating promotion come May, though the fact City and Town were unable to press home such advantages, while apparent lesser teams succeeded instead, should as a cautionary tale.

Typically for a division which saw four of its 24 participants the subject of points deductions last season, matters in League Two are far from clear. Just like the Premier League’s so-called big four, who have each managed to rack up huge debts despite the advantage of Champions League revenue year-on-year, the good news stories that emanated from teams who finished at the top of League Two last season were in limited supply.

Exeter and Gillingham’s elevation aside – the former stunned everyone including probably themselves by taking the third automatic promotion spot – and behind each manager’s words of praise for “a great set of lads” was a bank balance in the red. Andy Scott rightly received plenty of plaudits for leading Brentford to the title, but the growing debts acquired along the way suggest it came at a price that must surely slow progress eventually.

Then there was runners up Wycombe, a club previously well-regarded as one of the pioneering supporter-owned clubs, who changed their rules a few years ago to allow businessman Steve Hayes to loan significant money in return for running the club as managing director. Wycombe have subsequently run up a £7 million debt, owed to Hayes, by seemingly spending beyond their means. Hayes graciously agreed to write off £3 million of it in return for 100% ownership of the club, ground and training facilities. He is also the owner of London Wasps and has announced plans to build a new 20,000 capacity stadium for both clubs, moving them out of the 11,000-capacity Adams Park which neither can fill. Somehow it seems unlikely Hayes will ultimately end up out of pocket from writing off that debt.

At least Brentford and Wycombe succeeded through less-than-prudent financial planning, the same can’t be said of Darlington. While most football fans will have sympathy for a club saddled with a white elephant of a stadium which is compromising their existence, the mood locally is less charitable. As with many clubs who go into administration, like City, the local community is suffering from the Quakers’ latest spell in financial limbo. The St Johns Ambulance charity is reportededly again left out of pocket – by £2,500– while one local hotel owner claimed she could go out of business as a result of the club failing to pay money owed for accommodating loan striker Liam Hatch.

All of which leaves the question of what price promotion into League One at the end of this season is worth? While we can all cast envious glances at Meadow Lane and the Arab-based consortium now in charge, few Notts County fans will surely believe the new owners’ motivation is anything less than a healthy return for the investment within five-ten years. The media glare will fall on City’s visit to County this Saturday with Sven Goran Eriksson appointed as Director of Football, but he and County’s success will be judged by how long he holds that role. Will the new owners take the approach Man City have so far in backing the manager, or will it be more like at QPR? It’s not difficult to envisage Eriksson in the away dug out when County come to Valley Parade in January, a scenario which would suggest things weren’t going to plan. As Stuart McCall can testify, it takes time to learn what it takes to succeed in League Two.

County have made some decent summer signings, but finished 19th last season – 10 points above relegation, 22 points from the play offs and 38 points off the title. A huge improvement is needed to live up the pre-season hype and this season looks set to be more of a transitional one.

A far better shout for promotion is Rotherham. But for their 17 point deduction, the Millers would have finished fifth. Mark Robins is proving himself to be a determined and talented manager and has a great chance to bring the title to South Yorkshire. As valued as that would be for the supporters, there is still much long term work needed for a club which has been on the financial brink too often in recent years. The Don Valley stadium’s un-football friendly set up is a good home advantage to have, but a horrible place to watch football. As important as money on the playing squad is, the new owners may need to find money to build a new stadium back in Rotherham as part of the council’s plans to build a community stadium.

Two clubs expected to be in the hunt again with no such off the field concerns are Rochdale and Bury. Both were beaten in the play off semi finals, but have good managers who can ensure they bounce back from such disappointments. Bury continue to hold onto the talented Andy Bishop while Dale striker Adam Le Fondre is blossoming into the sort of striker Keith Hill’s talented side of two seasons ago lacked. Other contenders will probably include Chesterfield, now managed by John Sheridan, and Bournemouth who picked up so well at the end of last season to avoid the drop.

Newly promoted Torquay will hope to replicate their Devonshire rivals Exeter in sailing through the division, while of those who were relegated from League One last season, Cheltenham may be in the best position to bounce back. Northampton are struggling financially, while Crewe no longer appear to be the stable club others aspired to be of a few years ago. City and Shrewsbury may have had to cut budgets, but should both still be strong enough to feature in the promotion-hunting pack.

Last season’s relegation battle was something of a non-event, with points deductions allowing many to sail through a nothing season in the comfort of mid-table. It might have been a great opportunity for some of the division’s traditional strugglers to build and move away from the dangers of non-league, and some may soon be kicking themselves should they be sucked back into such trouble this season. Accrington, Macclesfield, Aldershot and Barnet all appear likely contenders to be scrapping it out at the bottom, though newly promoted Burton’s momentum from previous manager Nigel Clough may continue to slow as it did towards the end of last season, ensuring their league status is short lived.

Hoping to be free of such matters and in the safety of mid table, with more than an eye on the play offs, are Lincoln, Hereford, Colin Todd’s Darlington, Grimsby, Port Vale and Morecambe. Dagenham were close to a play off spot last season, but have lost some of their star players and may struggle to hit such heights again.

Selling players – one of the traditional ways lower league clubs thrive. With two of last season’s four promoted teams succeeding by spending beyond their means, the question of who has the largest playing budget isn’t perhaps the most applicable when predicting the division’s promotion winners. Hereford were promoted two seasons ago largely due to bringing in loan players that they could never otherwise afford, but last season spent nothing and were relegated while Stockport, who spent beyond their means and ended up in administration, stayed up.

The ones celebrating promotion next May might prove to be the ones prepared to take the biggest gambles, though the same might apply to anyone who ends the campaign with points deductions or an uncertain future.

No football for us but plenty for others

On a day when the team who finished in the top 10 of Division 4 with the worst goal difference gets promoted to Division 3, we, the Bradford City supporters can only think of what might have been if our form had been better in March. Well done to Gillingham for beating Shrewsbury Town 1-0 in the play-off final. We can only think back to 1996 and our 2-0 play-off final victory over Notts County.

At this time of the year when we have no Bradford City matches to go and watch, what else is going on in the world of football? Well, I’m sure that many of you who have taken the effort to read this article will know that our club has offered professional contracts to Rory Carson, Luke Dean and Lewis Horne. I must confess that I know very little about this trio of players but it will be interesting to see if any of them make their first team debut during the 2009/2010 season. Most supporters love to see a home-grown player forcing their way into the first team so lets hope that at least one of these three players can follow the like of Dean Richards, Graeme Tomlinson, Andy O’Brien, Joe Colbeck and Luke O’Brien.

An article has already featured on this website about Colin Todd taking charge at Darlington but now a player who could have been securing Hull City’s Division 1 status tomorrow is now been linked with a move to Darlington. Dean Windass could be a player-coach at Darlington next season. We are all aware of Dean’s love of playing football and following his loan spell at Oldham Athletic earlier on this season and now been unable to play for his beloved Hull City, Windass is looking to continue his playing career else where.

Whilst Windass has the relevant qualifications to manage in Divisions 2, 3 and 4, there will be two unqualified managers tomorrow trying to save their teams from relegation into Division 2. Much has been written about Alan Shearer taking over at Newcastle but why was he allowed to when he doesn’t have the relevant qualifications? I also believe that Gareth Southgate will have completed his relevant coaching qualifications but not until after the season has finished. Why do the supposed people who govern our game allow clubs to break the rules?

Speaking of breaking the rules, I’m sure that there are plenty of Sheffield United supporters who haven’t forgot about Carlos Tevez and West Ham. If Sheffield United can overcome Burnley with former Bantam Robbie Blake, on Bank Holiday Monday, I bet that the first fixtures they will be looking out for are the two against West Ham. But don’t count against our neighbours from over the Pennines. Whatever your thoughts are on Burnley, you have to say that for a town with a population of about 73,000, they attract fantastic support. It’s hard to imagine that this famous Lancashire club nearly slipped out of the football league 22 years ago. But Burnley beat Leyton Orient 2-1 and Lincoln City slipped into non-league football.

So as we, the Bradford City supporters can only watch the various play-off finals, find out if Hull City can preserve their top-flight status at the expense of two North-east clubs and see if David Moyes’s Everton can overcome the cash-rich Chelsea in the FA cup final, other supporters have much to look forward to over the next week or so.

Todd, Robson and some unresolved history

Those who tuned into watch Manchester United lift the Premier League title on Saturday will have seen shots of Bryan Robson in the stands before and after the game. Now assuming the role of Manchester United Ambassador (nice work if you can get it), the TV director cut to the Red Devils legend at irregular intervals so the commentators could point out he was captain of the first of manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s 11 title triumphs. On the day he even had a role in presenting the trophy to the current players, receiving a warm reception from home fans as he walked out onto the pitch.

What the commentators didn’t find time to reflect upon was how Robson was once considered the air to Ferguson’s managerial throne. His early managerial career appeared to offer great promise, with two promotions and two domestic cup finals with Middlesbrough, but his inability to lift the North East club above the lower echelons of the Premier League would eventually cost him his job. A tarnished reputation appeared to have been rebuilt after pulling off the great escape with West Brom in 2005, but he ultimately lost his job after adding another unwanted blemish to his CV – three clubs managed, three clubs relegated.

The other club in that trio was Bradford City, who five years ago he turned his back on. After taking over six months earlier he was tasked with preventing City’s relegation from then-Division One, but such were the financial difficulties which threatened to kill off the club that even Sir Alex wouldn’t have been able to overcome such insurmountable odds. Robson did okay, but the impression he wasn’t exactly displaying the level of courage and commitment he exhibited as a player was difficult to shake off. A comparison of the hours he and Stuart McCall put in would be unlikely to reflect well on the former England captain.

So Robson seems destined to spend the rest of his life shaking hands with important guests in the Old Trafford boardroom, while the man who worked under him at Valley Parade and who took on the challenge at City he eventually baulked is back in English football. The similarities in the situation Colin Todd inherited at City to that he faces at Darlington have been talked up by the North East media and the reaction of the fans is likely to be comparable too. With all the anxiousness over the club’s ability to even start the next season, a new manager isn’t going to cause much excitement. Great to have you Colin, though in all honesty who else would have taken such an unattractive-looking position?

Todd’s time at Valley Parade is viewed differently by many. The fact he worked with such limited resources seen by his biggest critics as a poor excuse for accepting mediocrity. The entertainment factor was questionable at times, though was arguably masked by the fact his appointment coincided with a drop down a division where the difference in quality was particularly notable. I know of people who gave up watching City during Todd’s reign.

Yet for a club which had suffered such dark times, the more stable footing he achieved should not be discounted. There was enough of the wrong type of excitement for a period of calm to be needed, and the consecutive 11th place finishes he guided City to included signs of promise. Todd’s ultimate failing was his inability to take the club forward, though the transfer strategy of relying heavily on loans during his final season did much to undermine such hopes of progression. The time was coming for new direction, ideas and enthusiasm – but history suggests that time was called prematurely.

For while many will disagree, I don’t believe City would be in League Two right now had we not sacked Colin Todd when we did. The club was on a poor run of form just as the axe fell, but a similar scenario had been the case the season before and Todd had been able to avert the nose dive. Instead David Wetherall took charge, moaned about the fitness levels and declared intentions for City to play a more high tempo style of football. The subsequent results and wretched performances suggest he didn’t have the right players for such a philosophy to work.

Had we kept Todd until the summer before taking the decision to look for a new man we’d probably still have ended up with Stuart as manager, but in a higher division which we’d be sharing with Leeds and Huddersfield and from which, with Mark Lawn joining, we might have been able to mount a more realistic promotion challenge than Todd was ever able to. Instead the depths of League Two are proving troublesome to climb out of and the first target is just to get back to where we were under Todd.

For next season, Todd will be back at Valley Parade and the reception he’ll receive is likely to be mixed. It’s a chapter of City’s history that will never be universally agreed upon, but one for which Todd deserve at least some appreciation given his undoubted high efforts towards moving the club out of the mire. I for one will applaud Todd when he walks down the touchline and starts leaning on the dugout in a manner which so wound some fans up.

Some will say he’s still got the stomach for a tough challenge, still got the belief he has something to offer. Others will argue the 60-year-old’s not even good enough to get an ambassador’s job.

City pensive in a worrying limbo

John Hendrie is telling Bradford City’s players that were offered contracts by the club that they should sign now knowing that the offers on the table at Valley Parade will not get any better and better offers will not be found on anyone else’s tables either.

So the likes of Lee Bullock and Matthew Clarke are told to sign and while the offers for them will not get better so – one assumes – the offers elsewhere for Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee, Michael Boulding and Chris Brandon are not going to improve. City might want to get these four off the wage bill but it is almost impossible to see all four of them exiting.

Rochdale – always keen to press for good governance in football – have decided they need to trim ten from the squad and like City ask three players to find new clubs. The Spotland club have fallen in the play-offs first legs and have decided that next season they need to be more frugal. They are not alone.

All over Leagues one and two players who are out of contract are not being offered new ones and set about trying to find comparable wages elsewhere. At the back end of July one can expect the League Two footballer with a family who picked up £60,000 last year to be ready to take £40,000 and pay the mortgage but for a few months at least they will try get at least comparable terms. Who wouldn’t?

The likes of Rhys Evans – released by City last term after an impressive season – is primed to be picked up by someone in the bottom two divisions but considering twelve months ago he was free to sign for City it is hard to see a queue of people forming at his door to pay through the nose for a player they passed up on previously. Wage offers are lower all around football and Evans – like many players who performed well last season – will be lucky to get an improvement in terms.

How long Evans, Paul Heckingbottom and similar waits to accept comparable or worse are personal concerns and could provide an interesting type of out of window transfer option for clubs next season. Should an Evans opt not to take a reduced deal in the summer after getting no interest then once the transfer window closes he – being out of contract and free to be recruited at any point in the season – becomes a limited and thus more valued commodity.

Evans would be in a better position to dictate terms to a team looking for a keeper after a poor September then he is in the summer presenting the option of paying that bit extra for a good player now rather than spending months until Christmas without.

Such a risk though has two significant downsides for a player. Firstly they spend the first Saturday in August watching football rather than playing it and – in essence – have become ex-players, retired footballers, people who used to be pros and while one does not want to damn all those who kick balls in anger they do not easily move into other professions. If the football season kicks off and you are sitting at home how long is it before you start to look for a brickies job? After all Ian Wright and Dean Windass both had to work brick after becoming ex-footballers in their twenties.

Secondly there will be a feeling that while the slump in the wider economy drags football down it is impossible to predict either where the end of the recession is or what state football will be when it returns to ruder health. Darlington FC are struggling to kick off next season, Fisher Athletic will not do having gone bankrupt this morning. Less money in football over a longer period could mean that the contracts offered today may be higher than those offered in six, twelve or eighteen months.

All of which could create curious quirks in football. Shrewsbury Town are – we are told – profitable and to collect the £500,000 from Manchester City should Joe Hart play a competitive England game. When that deal was signed £500,000 was a significant sum now it would be a King’s ransom – enough to collect the likes of McLaren, Lee and Boulding to your club.

In such a situation a team that swam against the downturn could expect to have the levels of dominance in League Two that Peterborough United and MK Dons had two years ago. Money does not maketh the team – we know that from last year and years before – but not having it certainly does not help either. It is not so much that you are able to take huge steps forward just that everyone else takes a step back.

So City are in limbo waiting for the four players to leave – which they probably won’t – or the offered players to sign which they probably will or both. One hopes that Stuart McCall does not feel the need to ape Jim Jefferies failed attempts to rid the club of high earners shown when he dropped Benito Carbone and Stan Collymore to the reserves for three months and that if the quartet of high earners at here in August they are in the team.

With that in mind it seems entirely possible that the Bantams could kick off next season with seven or eight of the regulars from last term. A team of McLaughlin | Arnison, Lee, Clarke, O’Brien | Colbeck McLaren Bullock Brandon | Boulding and Boulding would be possible and while we might not have bee massively impressed with those lads last year if the rest of the division is weaker then it would seem harder to not get promoted than to go up.

These are famous last words. City cannot afford such a situation with the current cash flow situation and without a cash boost. If the likes of Peter Thorne were not kept then the £600,000 lost last term would be lessened but where would City find £400,000 – £500,000?

Martin O’Neill is rumoured to be joining 36,999 other people at Elland Road to watch what Fabian Delph can do to help get Leeds United promoted tonight and to prepare a bid of £6.5m for the former City youngster and depending on who you believe the Bantams could pocket 10% of that.

Get you boots on John

John Hendrie uses his column in the T&A to say that he believes that Bradford City should sign another forward and that we are – pun coming up – a striker light.

Hendrie is right of course, but utterly wrong at the same time.

City could do with another body up front since the failure of Willy Topp at the club and Omar Daley was – in essence – that extra forward. Now he is injured leaving us with Barry Conlon, Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding we are Hendrie’s “striker light.” So far so bloody obvious.

Considering we play two up front and have one on the bench we would seem to have the required three bodies for the role. An extra one would be good for cover but the point of having cover is that it is deployed when you have injury. Barry Conlon is cover for Willy Topp not working out.

What Hendrie seems to want is for us to have cover for the cover. To follow the route of Darlington who signed a loan player because another loan player was injured.

Hendrie should look what has happened to Darlington, what happened at City in 2002 and 2004, and rather than suggesting the Bantams should be making signings “just in case” give the club some credit for not going after cover two deep for a position at the expense of the budget.

John Hendrie can go write for a Barnsley paper should City hit the skids for a third and final time because we take advice like that and spend more than we have or perhaps he could go write a column on one of his other former clubs like Middlesbrough, or Leeds United.

Unless that is that a forward who can score a hat full of goals, is in good form and can blend into a squad in the last two months can be found but who loans them out? Great strikers – and one assumes that Hendrie means that and not that City need to sign another Chris O’Grady to come keep a place on the bench warm – are rare. Great strikers who go on loan to League Two clubs are hen’s teeth.

Perhaps – and with some irony – going to the administrators at Darlington and easing their financial problems with an offer to loan a costly striker would bare fruit but of course their goals come from a player who does not belong to them and it is wasting funds like that that have got them in the state they are now.

Bradford City do not need another striker rather than to get the three strikers playing better and to ignore the advice of people like Hendrie who – when confronted with a problem – have the solution of throwing money around that clubs like City can ill afford.

I’d rather he offered to get his boots on again. Then at least he would feel the effects of his advice.

How fragile is this life as City prepare to face Notts County

If perspective were needed on last week’s 4-1 defeat by Barnet then City did not have long to wait for it with Darlington’s unexpected fall into administration on Wednesday.

As the Bantams navel gazed the Quakers stared into the abyss counting the cost of ambitious plans and living beyond their means.

The defining sight of more football financial madness – for me at least – was Liam Hatch the on loan striker who the club could ill afford coming off the bench to try score against an injured Rhys Evans.

Evans was not to blame for the goals at Barnet but in the context of another administration it is not hard to see why City decided not to have another senior professional keeper on the bench. If that decision costs City on the field then perhaps it – and thinking like it – saves the club off it and thus it should be applauded.

Notts County turn up in financial talk often. The club that once lent Juventus a kit saw investment plans fail this week and have a murky future but as Bantam fans take a seat at Meadow Lane it is worth remembering that the yearly rent as set by the council there would pay for City at Valley Parade for just four days.

Notts struggle this season but are probably not to be troubled by relegation and the resurge of AFC Bournemouth which makes the foot of the table interesting. Last week though proves that if you think the three points are there for the taking they are almost certainly lost.

Lost too for City is Omar Daley who will probably not play again until Christmas and is a huge miss especially away from home where his pace sprung many a counter attack.. Steve Jones fills his place in the squad and sympathy for the over aggressive Darlington declines.

Jones and Joe Colbeck will take the flanks although there is some suggestion Nicky Law may go on to the wing to allow Paul McLaren to return alongside Dean Furman with the South African being considered to have come out of last week’s game with head high.

The back four seems to pick itself but Paul Arnison will hope that a shakeup would see him back at right back. The full back will probably sit out again to allow Zesh Rehman’s power to be deployed opposite Luke O’Brien and alongside Bradford City’s tribute to the Huddersfield boss Graeme and Matthew. Rhys Evans is believed to be fit enough to keep goal and kick goal kicks but the City press officer – Mr. S. McCall – is perhaps understandably keeping quiet about that.

Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne – the scurge of County with a hat-trick at Valley Parade, one at Meadow Lane and two in the first game of the season – will be paired up front. Daley’s injury and reports from the reserves on Rory Boulding suggest that Barry Conlon’s usage as third striker aside City have little pressure on the front two with Steve Jones being perhaps the only option outside the three regulars.

Such is life though living life within one’s means. City – in this week – should be celebrated for this.

Why I feel empathy for Darlington fans but anger at Darlington as they go into administration

The news that Darlington went into administration at 15:00 on Wednesday and the ten point penalty that comes with that helps City’s promotion bid no end but as a development in football it could not be less welcome.

The Quakers are doing well in League Two but struggle to be financially viable with a massive stadium – it is bigger than Valley Parade – and low attendances making the business of football in that corner of the North East especially hard to manage.

The club were in administration as recently as 2004 and – as with City – are having their second slump into enforced financial controls is a result of falling attendances blamed on the credit crunch and an inability to maximise rental revenues from land around the stadium both of which – while regrettable – were too predictable to reliable part of the last CVA which they (one suspects) did.

Oddly enough Bradford City have found a way to address the falling attendance revenue and maximise the size of the stadium although Mark Lawn has recently cast doubts as to the long term viability of the cheapest season tickets in football should they not be taken up by an enlarged mass of the Bradford population.

That Darlington could have learnt from City’s example in the way that Huddersfield Town have is more than an annoying hindsight and it would seem that the supporters of the Quakers are once again suffering from an unrealistic boardroom that assumed that the future of the club would be different by willing it to be so and shouting enough at the 97,000 or so in the area who do not follow the club.

Darlington are reported to need a crowd of 5,500 to break even and attract under 3,000. Without a change as City have done, a promotion or something else of significance it is simple mismanagement to expect that number to be added to by two thirds. Dave Penney’s sides are robust, sturdy, work hard but they played at Valley Parade two weeks ago and were not nice to watch. The lesson of precedence from other clubs coming out of administration suggests that to expect another two thousand bums on is naive to say the least. Yes, credit crunch and Yes, Premiership stealing supporters but when costs of running a club are planned to be offset against extraordinary activity then mismanagement is not far away.

All of which is a nightmare for Darlington’s supporters and a sobering for all football fans who would like to consign the era of administration to history. That no club in the Football League had suffered this fate this season was seen as progress and build confidence that ebbs away. Even the loss of ten points – while supposedly good news and arguably fair redress for a club living beyond its means – is scant recompense for continued damage to confidence that clubs being managed in this way does in the wider community in Darlington and beyond. For football’s economy to gain any internal parity or stability clubs in League Two level need to be run more correctly.

The Darlington side that played at Valley Parade had loan players like Liam Hatch – a £100,000 rated striker on the bench. Ambition and striving for promotion is a good thing but not when it is paid for by speculative ideas of increasing gate revenues. This is the kind of management that damages us all by association just as paying £55,000 a week for Benito Carbone in the expectation of him establishing Bradford City as a Premiership club or borrow against twenty years of Champions League money to let Leeds United “live the dream” became phrases used to describe the lack of realism in football planning.

What is bad for the tea and biscuit company is bad for me. I want a strong division and a strong Darlington who do everything within their powers to win promotion up to the point where they start risking the long term future of the club for the medium term aim of a promotion which – if not won – leaves the club in danger. Are Darlington risking their future to try get ahead or to keep up? At this stage it probably does not matter any more.

Today we talk about Darlington – and I feel empathy for the fans – while League Two leaders Brentford are reported to be in £10m which they hope to pay off with promotion. Hopefully Mark Lawn and many other chairmen have their clubs living within their means but to a lesser extent Darlington and certainly Brentford are creating a situation while clubs have to join in in risking their futures just to compete or accept playing on an unlevel playing field.

City lack the steam to go the distance against Darlington

If there was a time for Bradford City to win the evening’s clash of promotion chasers at home to Darlington then it was in the opening twenty minutes when the visitors – who has not played since the end of January – looked in danger of being swamped by a bright Bantams side looking to carry on with the three game winning run.

At ninety minutes most City fans were happy with a point.

City’s early flourishes seemed to push through a rusty Quakers side with Peter Thorne looking mobile and enjoying some dominance over Steve Foster and Michael Boulding probing dangerously but the Bantams bluster never found a way through and was met with some aggressive challenges by the visits with Neil Austin and Jason Kennedy both pushing the boundaries of a lenient Referee in Staffordshire’s Tony Bates.

Bates allowed rustic lunges to go in checked and Darlington – either to their credit if you have come down from Durham or not if you like your football matches to contains as much, well, football as possible – played those rules the fullest.

The tackle that ended Omar Daley’s night – and with medial ligament damage perhaps season – was Austin going in my opinion past what should be considered fair but not in Bates’s. Certainly Daley’s being carried off on a stretcher seemed to signify a drop in the Bantams game and the shaking off of the rust of the visitors. A couple of minutes later when Rhys Evans reached to stop a ball going out for a corner and limped back to goal matters were worse.

Evans struggled for the remainder of the game and Luke O’Brien – putting in an uncharacteristicly sloppy if still solid performance – started taking his goal kicks. City went close to scoring when Peter Thorne saw a shot loop off a defender and bounce back off the bar and Michael Boulding seemed shot shy when trying to squeeze between the two big defenders of Durham in the Bantams other chance of note but dominance that had started the game had gone into a game shared.

Nicky Law Jnr and Dean Furman struggled to keep control in the midfield in the second half as the visitors got up to speed and then began to show the reserves of energy they had and while Furman performed manfully once more Law was out battled and shoved out to the left wing for Lee Bullock’s return in the middle.

Darlington’s shift up through the gears showed their freshness over a Bantams team playing another in the march of matches that is League Two but resulted only in a single chance of note – Pawel Abbott forcing a great save out of the hobbling Evans – and some approach play that was snaffled out by a masterful three of Zesh Rehman, Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke.

One can only imagine what Dave Penney – Darlington manager – made of his teams attitude to Evans’s injury which seemed to provoke a series of long range and rather weak shots. Either he told them to play that way or he will have been tearing his hair out at the wastefulness that saw them have 11 shots at goal but only one that could seriously be considered a chance. “Evans has a bad leg”, one could have summed it up, “But he has arms!”

Clarke has an odd time at City. He chunks the ball long to groans but would argue that he is no one’s David Beckham or Glenn Hoddle and that what he does do – superb chance saving tackles and providing strength at the back – he does very well. He was my man of the match tonight for sure and is part of a back four that has gone four games without conceding.

All of which looked unlikely at half time when Lee Bullock was practising saving shots from Barry Conlon and a shirt was being prepared for the number eight to make him number one. Back then very few City fans would not have settled for a point come nine thirty.

A point is what we got.

Darlington face City on a night where promotion breeds excitement

Two weeks and three games ago people were talking about Stuart McCall and City as if this season was a goner after the defeat to Bury. Three games, five goals, nine points and no concessions later and everything in the garden is a bit more rosy.

On Saturday City beat Wycombe to show how serious our promotion credentials are although I’m not really sure why anyone would thing they were not. Come to think of it I wonder how Peter Taylor and the Wycombe fans are handling the 1-0 defeat on Saturday. I wonder if they are going through the same teeth-gnashing and self-abuse that some City fans did after the Bury defeat. I wonder if the people in whatever county Wycombe is in (Buckinghamshire) are so ready to give up on promotion as those City fans were? I wonder if people down there are saying it is time for Peter Taylor to go?

Whatever people around City seem to think about the way things are going the team itself ticks along nicely with a nice blend of aggressive and attractive pay seeing of the absurdly named Chair heads, or boys, or people on Saturday. The inside midfield pair of Nicky Law and Dean Furman looked the business and Steve Jones finally started to do something to suggest that he might not need to be recorded as a third team in any game.

For a month or two Jones looked as integrated into the City team as a pair of tusks next to the trunk on a VW Beetle and if Saturday had been reported as Bradford City 0 Wycombe Wanderers 0 Steve Jones 1 then it would not have been far off the mark but the Irishman seems to know that he can play with the other guys in the striped shirts and is all the better for it. Funny how Jones, Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley all get accused of being greedy or arrogant or not making the right decisions but all three of them are ten times more worth having on the pitch than Bobby Petta ever was.

I keep hearing about Omar’s decision making but he gets involved unlike Petta who made the decisive decision to decide to not get his boots dirty. Two of Jones, Colbeck and Daley will play and while my money would be on it being the latter two I cannot say that I would mind seeing any of them. This says a lot for how a goal and a good performance can turn you around on someone.

Options at the back are more perm four from five but City look strong there too. Paul Arnison looks like being the man to miss out with Graeme Lee coming back in the middle and Zesh Rehman going to right back with Matt Clarke, Matt Clarke’s head that has had to be registered as a new player since its seperation from his body on Saturday and Luke O’Brien at left back. Rhys Evans in goal is an unsung hero.

I worry constantly about the strikers who used to score a hat-trick each, every week and had scored a million goals each at Christmas or at least that are what my memory tells me but it could just be playing tricks on me. I worry because Peter Thorne has not scored in ages but he set up one on Saturday and as long as we are not conceding then we can win games with the odd goal.

Darlington would like the odd game let alone goal. They used to play football matches but these days just turn up to see Referees call games off and as a result will be champions of the Premier League should they win all their games in hand. They last played on Saturday, 31 January and beat Dag & Red but who knows what they will be like after three call offs in a row. They could be a team lacking match fitness maybe? They were in good form before and the break is all very unfair on them to be honest. This is a league about points on the board and they have to come to City and go to Lincoln as well as play Wycombe so 27 games played with 47 points could easily become 30 with 47, or 56, probably not though.

A win for them shoves them back into the play-off picture. A win for us could put us second. All this gunning for promotion, exciting, innt?

The game that was never going to be

This is not easy for me to say, but for once I actually support something the Football League have said. Worse still, I have to say that I don’t think that the club I have supported through thick and thin (mainly thin) for the better part of fifty years has given sufficient thought to its fans. I can get out of the second difficulty by blaming the ref. That usually works in any event. But the evidence also points to the club and I can’t ignore it.

Back on 6th January, under a heading ‘It’s Snow Joke for Travelling Fans’, the Football League said ‘It is important that clubs do everything they can to prevent supporters making wasted journeys to postponed fixtures.’ The League’s guidance was perhaps primarily intended to meet the needs of away fans, but even in the fourth division some home supporters travel quite a distance. Especially when your home ground is so near to The Pennines, a club must expect a number of fans to have to encounter steep hills in even local journeys.

The postponement of the Darlington game was announced somewhere after 6.20, less than an hour and a half before kick off. I say ‘announced’ because I saw it on Sky Sports News. Sky, of course, were on the spot, ready for a live broadcast. The club website a few minutes later still said nothing more than a further inspection would be held at 6.00 and that team news would be posted at 7.15.

As it happens, my decision had already been made. Even on a fine midweek evening I have to set off no later than 5.30 for a 7.45 kick off. Kind friends who live much nearer were sending weather updates from early morning. I was checking forecasts on the internet – wonderful tool, isn’t it? – and by 10.30, once I’d read that the club wanted volunteers to shovel snow, I’d sent an e mail to my mates saying this would be wasted effort, since the forecast for Bradford was heavy snow by 6.00 p.m. and for the rest of the night. Whichever site I looked at for the next few hours, I got the same message. I mention that specifically because the Football League guidance does indeed allow for ‘the unpredictability of the British weather’ and the prospect of late postponements.

This weather was entirely predicted. Whichever internet weather forecast you used, they all said the same. City, I gather, have two supporters who are actually weather forecasters for television stations of the terrestrial type. Maybe somebody should have asked them! But, whoever it was the ref consulted, Mr D’Urso explained in a pitch side interview that he had been told there would be a small amount of snow before 6.00 and then nothing until 10.00. With the customary vision some of us expect from referees, I could do a better job from 75 miles away!

What troubles me about the whole business is the lateness of the decision compared with several other matches, not due to be played for a further 24 hours, where postponements were announced hours earlier. None of these other games was due to be televised, but I’m sure that’s purely coincidental. One of my informants tells me that Mark Lawn was heard on local radio as late as 4.35 asking for more volunteers. Was that a live request or a pre-recorded interview that should never have been repeated at that time of day?

The whole affair smacks of insufficient regard for travelling fans. It ignores the fact that those fans have to get back home from a game scheduled to end at 9.40 or so and that, even on the ref’s laughable version of a weather forecast, by that time there would be heavy snow. Or perhaps the Football League’s guidance is meant only to prevent wasted journeys to games and does not take into account return trips. I do hope not. At this time of year it is often the return journey that is the more hazardous.

The Darlington game will have to be re-arranged, of course. It may well be that Sky will try again next time and the income will not be lost to the club. Whether it is or not, if Bradford City really wants to be seen to care about football’s fans, wherever they are travelling from and whichever side they are supporting, they will have the chance to sell tickets at no more than £10 a head to all fans. Those of us with our season tickets will gain nothing personally, but the club will gain the respect of thousands, especially those who do not live within easy travelling distance of Valley Parade.

Worry about it next season – Bradford City vs Darlington – League Two Preview

There is snow in Bradford so City’s game with Darlington might not even take place but let’s assume it is doing and look at the Bantams chances of winning on Sky tonight.

City lost the away version of this fixture 2-1 at Darlington in front of Sky’s cameras after a last minute goal cancelled out Omar Daley’s great equaliser and at the time it was said that City were not doing that well. Fast forward to now and the Bantams are rooted in the play-off and want to be back in the top three.

Darlington are in a similar position having gone from that game to a spell in the promotion places but now are fourth. A win for them would put them top three. A win for City would see them move about the Quakers into fourth.

City are fresh from a 2-0 win over Grimsby at the weekend in what was an odd game. A late goal gave City a score line that flattered them but great goalkeeping stopped it being a thrashing so perhaps 2-0 was the right result. Either way City never looked like not winning the game over the Marriers and Dean Furman’s return in the midfield had a lot to do with that.

Ah Furman. “He is our best player” someone told me on Saturday which isn’t true really cause he is not out player at all but while he is here he can play some commanding football and is good value for a place in the team. The same can be said about Nicky Law who scored and makes a good partnership with anyone really. What we do next season when these kids have gone and the likes of Paul McLaren and Lee Bullock are a year older who knows but I’m tempted to say that is next year’s problem and if these two bright young things want to take us to promotion then let them.

Joe Colbeck is back and he set up Barry for what should have been the second goal on Saturday which Steve Jones ended up with instead. Jones should step down for him although Omar Daley having a real stinker on Saturday doesn’t help his cause for staying in the side. What do you do about Daley? He scored the goal at Darlington he scored the goal against Rotherham last year, he does some brilliant stuff but when he isn’t on song he is frustrating to watch and sucks the ball away from the side.

He will probably get the nod tonight and that is a good thing. Heavy pitch, snow on the ground, Daley running at defenders who are falling on their backsides. Might work.

Peter Thorne? Where is Peter Thorne? What happened to him? He used to score and look dangerous. Now Barry Conlon gets more goals and on Saturday’s form more chances to miss. Thorne needs chances making to do much good but I worry. Both Thorne and Michael Boulding plays thier parts on Saturday but neither bagged goals or looked like doing and considering the dominance that worries me. I wasn’t that worried with Boulding put in Jones for the second of when Thorne pulled of the defender to give Nicky Law space to go through for the first but I’d like to see Peter Thorne doing more than pulling off defenders.

Stop tittering. This is serious. Peter Thorne is probably not an automatic choice any more but he and Boulding are still good for the front two places.

Also serious is Zesh Rahman who came in to add another big guy for heading away duty and should keep his place alongside Graeme Lee, Matt Clarke and Luke O’Brien. Rhys Evans was bored on Saturday. Probably won’t be tonight.

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’.

Stuart is gone for his tea

Real football isn’t Championship Manager I keep reading but if it was what would Stuart McCall be doing after last night’s defeat 2-1 to Darlington?

He might say it was unfair that the home team got a later goal when their tiny midfielder out jumped Matt Clarke. “As if that would happen!”

He would probably say the same out Kevin Austin’s free kick five minutes from time that looped over Rhys Evans but maybe he should take a look at Evans who made a couple of great saves but was beaten too easily by this free kick.

He might do that thing where you clear all the players and pick your best eleven again but if he did would he include Barry Conlon who was booed by the home fans because he was playing so well cleaning everything out at the back.

He might wonder why his team has started letting in two goals a game in the last six games and look to the game before this bad run started. The difference is in the full backs. Luke O’Brien is coming on well but TJ Moncur and the way he ignores Joe Colbeck in front of him is huge problem.

The pressure on the ball on the flanks has been lessened as has the amount of possession City enjoy in a game and much of this is down to the full back positions and how those who play them play the game.

Dean Furman almost had another impressive game alongside Paul McLaren who looked good but it was Furman who was caught in possession allowing the home side a second goal as he looked for a perfect pass rather than doing the simple ball.

City did some simple things well for most of the game but were caught out trying to ease out a draw and now go to Grimsby down on luck and looking for a win at a team that haven’t got three points all season. Stuart has been watching players who know better and who has has seen play better make mistakes in the last few games and that is depressing. Darlington was different and most of the defensive mistakes of the past few games were ironed out for most of the game but still at the end the Bantams resistance was undone by errors.

How will Stuart approach the game on Friday? How will he turn things around? If life were like Championship Manager he’d probably turn it off and go for his tea instead.

In the air – Darlington vs Bradford City – League Two preview

Following Saturday’s defeat capitulation the Bantams head North for the first of two games in a week – Grimsby follows on Friday – with an added onus to collect a positive result.

The perceived loss of two points and short turn around between games poises problems for McCall who has Michael Boulding struggling with injury and may use Barry Conlon against his former club to partner Peter Thorne.

Tiredness was expected in Omar Daley’s game following his mid-week international jaunt but the winger seemed spritely and along with another former Darlington man Joe Colbeck he is expected to keep his place in the midfield at the side of Paul McLaren and Dean Furman.

Graeme Lee and former Darlo man number three Matthew Clarke had an uncomfortable second half on Saturday but both are to retain their places while TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien compete with Paul Heckingbottom (a fourth former Quaker) and Paul Arnison at full back. Rhys Evans stays in goal.

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.

New season, new excitement – Pre-season 2008/2009 [III]

So the wait is nearly over and the 2008/2009 season is nearly ready to begin. Thousands of football supporters up and down the country are looking forward to the start of a new season. August 9th for a football supporter is like January 1st to a non-football supporter with many hopes waiting to be either realised or dashed. Forget the Premiership and the latest WAG getting photographed and appearing in a newspaper or magazine, the real football stories are going to come from Division 4 (not League 2) this season.

We, the Bradford City faithful, are expecting big things this season with many seeing a top 7 finish as a minimum. I for one would love to see us get promoted for one man and one man alone and that is David Wetherall. The loyalty that David showed to our club is a rare commodity experienced in football today. Stuart has made alot of signings this summer bringing in the likes of Rhys Evans, Michael Boulding, Chris Brandon and Graeme Lee. It will certainly be a different looking starting 11 this Saturday when compared with the team that started against Macclesfield on the opening day last season. Gone are the likes of Ricketts, Williams, Evans, Johnson and Ndumbu-Nsungu.

Once again we should average the highest home attendances in our division but big crowds doesn’t automatically equate to success on the pitch. For example, take Accrington Stanley who averaged less than 1,700 for their home games last season and came to Valley Parade in early October last season supported by 149 people in a crowd of 13,346 and thrashed us 3-0. We are one of the favourites to gain promotion this season but after nearly a decade without experiencing a promotion I’m taking nothing for granted. Call me a pessimist or a realist.

Make no mistake there are plenty of other teams in the same division as us this season who believe that they’ve a good chance of promotion. Aldershot and Exeter City, both promoted from non-league, will be looking to maintain their upwardly momentum. Wycombe with Peter Taylor, Lincoln City with our former captain Peter Jackson and Shrewsbury with Paul Simpson all have managers with a proven track record in the lower divisions. Rochdale and Darlington will both be looking to repeat their play off form from last season too.

One thing is for sure this coming season, there will be highs and there will be lows and it will be interesting to see if Michael Boulding can replicate his goal scoring record from last season with a team that got relegated too. Matt Hamshaw was probably the provider of many a cross for Boulding to latch on to last season so let’s hope that the likes of Colbeck, Nix and Daley can supply plenty of quality crosses this season (although let’s remember that Colbeck is suspended for the first 2 games). What about Evans, our new goalkeeper. He played 4 games on loan last season with us and although we didn’t win any of those games, he certainly played steadily against Darlington at home, Morecambe away and Grimsby away before being forced to retire at Blundell Park.

Bazilliant

So this is where City need to be.

A trip to fourth placed Darlington, who harbour strong ambitions of automatic promotion, was an excellent opportunity for manager Stuart McCall to measure how much work is needed to improve his existing squad with the aim of being up there next year. At 3.45pm it looked as though City were someway off as they went in at half time fortunate to only be a goal behind, yet an hour later those players were heading to the changing rooms as deserved victors following an enthralling second half turnaround. It will have left Stuart with some unexpected questions to chew over, not least why aren’t City in Darlington’s position?

The closing stages of this superb win saw away fans chanting songs about going to Wembley. For the first time since September City are in the top half of the table and, with two games in hand on seventh placed Chesterfield, there’s suddenly renewed hope of making the Play Offs. This was City’s first league visit to Darlington’s impressive new stadium and the three points they’ve taken home from it mean there remains a slight chance we could be returning to it in May as part of an extended end to the season.

Not that this looked remotely possible at half time. Trailing automatic promotion rivals Hereford United, who weren’t playing this weekend, by a point; this was an important game for the home side who started the game brightly and took a tenth minute lead. A corner was swung into the City box and the ball seemed to strike Barry Conlon’s arm which prompted referee Darren Drysdale, he of chatting to Dean Windass in the car park fame, to point to the spot.

It appeared as though the Irish striker, recalled in place of Billy Topp who curiously didn’t even make the bench, had his arms by his side and contact seemed accidental at best. Clark Keltie sent Scott Loach the wrong way with the penalty to put Darlington into a lead that, against the best home record in the division, would be difficult for the visitors to turn around.

Conlon could feel hard done by but it didn’t stop a lot of City fans singing some less than complementary songs about him. For the rest of the half little went right for him as City struggled to forge any meaningful efforts on goal other than a bad miss from David Wetherall. The home side were in control and passed the ball around well on an awful playing surface. City largely defended reasonably and Loach saw most efforts on goal go wide of his post, although the on-loan keeper has begun displaying worryingly Donovan Ricketts-esqe difficulties with crosses which won’t impress the many rumoured Premiership scouts watching his every move.

Half time was a welcome relief and, after such a disappointing first half display, the future of many out of contract City players was looking more bleak. With a small minority of City fans seemingly having already written off Stuart’s abilities as a manager, no doubt there were mutterings of discontent around the watching City cyberworld and in the huge half time pie queue. Let’s give him credit where it’s due though, whatever he said to the players at half time to inspire such a turnaround must have being masterful.

City started the second half with much more urgency and began knocking the ball around better. Kyle Nix and Tom Penford, who both particularly struggled during the first half, began to have more of an influence. I discovered shortly after half time that Nix’s sister was apparently sat just behind me and I can only hope she didn’t hear my quiet mutterings of discontent regarding his first half efforts. I certainly enjoyed hearing her scream hysterically whenever Nix got a sight on goal!

The equaliser came within four minutes of the restart. A long ball was launched towards Conlon, who displayed some superb close control to bring the ball down and play it into the path of Peter Thorne on the edge of the box. City’s top scorer took it to the byline before crossing for Penford to coolly finish for his first ever City goal. Just eight days ago Penford’s name was surely pencilled in on the list of players to be released this summer; now, after three brilliant performances, Stuart will be reaching for the eraser and sanctioning a new contract.

The initiative was now with City and Thorne should have scored when presented with a one-on-one chance against home keeper David Stockdale, who saved well with his knees. It could have proved a costly miss, but soon after a deserved second goal followed. A free kick was floated into the box and Conlon rose at the back post to send a powerful looping header into the far corner. This was Conlon’s seventh goal of the season and he’s now scored more goals from open play than penalties. His detractors have so far being able to point to poor goalkeeping and a lack of the offside flag for his previous goals, but there should be no attempts to belittle this brilliant header. Chants aimed at Conlon continued, but they were now much more positive.

It must have been especially hard to take for the home fans to see their former player strike such a potent blow to their promotion prospects. What they needed was a strong response and manager Dave Penney brought on Michael Cummins who inspired a fight back. City were forced under some heavy pressure and Loach made a couple of decent saves. The most miraculous escape came when Penford sliced a clearance against the City bar.

There were over 10 minutes left to hold out so the delirium of another City goal eased the pressure. Conlon again played a significant role after another ball was launched up to him and his hold up play caused panic in the home defence. The loose ball fell to Joe Colbeck who ran through and coolly slotted home.

The young City winger spent six weeks on loan at Darlington earlier in the season, of course, and his spell away from the glare of Valley Parade was clearly beneficial. He’s returned a more confident and effective player but, back at the club who did so much for his career, the fear was the still relatively inexperienced winger might try too hard to impress and make bad decisions in possession. There was nothing to worry about as the 21-year-old performed with great composure; something lacking in Darlington striker Richie Foran when he produced a ridiculous two-footed lunge on him. A red card was the only option and the game was won.

Realistically City will need to win almost all seven remaining games if they are to gatecrash the Play Offs. Given we’ve so far failed to win more than two league games on the bounce it may prove beyond this current squad, but any player with ambitions to still be around next season should now view this as a great opportunity to show they can produce consistent, promotion standard form between now and the final game at Wycombe. If the team can keep up their recent improved efforts, who knows what it could lead to?

Tuesday night’s trip to Spotland certainly looks very interesting. Rochdale also have games in hand and look a better bet for the Play Offs. It’s another opportunity to measure where City need to be.

Point Made

It was not feeling miserable when leaving, that was the best part about Saturday.

After four weekends where City have lost, not to mention the midweek Accrington debacle, that empty feeling that stays with you most of the week and leaves you not wanting to think about football had become all too familiar. I walked down Midland Road after the game feeling a little disappointed that City had failed to turn their superiority into a win and felt worried about the lack of goals and decent service running through the team, but I also left feeling much more positive about City’s prospects for the season and had renewed belief that happier times were not that far around the corner.

A lot of people came out of Saturday with credit. Stuart McCall and Wayne Jacobs have clearly worked hard on the training ground at lifting sagging spirits and raising confidence. Stuart has recently commented that it’s going to take a while to build a team that he is happy with, but the one assembled so far competed much better to belatedly demonstrate that fourth bottom of the entire Football League was a false position.

There wasn’t much different about the way the team lined up against Darlington than in previous games and Stuart resisted the urge to make wholesome changes. He was rewarded by those he kept faith with and seems to have a clear vision of how he wants his team to play. The sight of a second place team clearly time wasting and settling for a draw in the closing stages showed just how effective that play had been.

Credit also to the supporters who got behind the team. I was partly dreading Saturday’s game for fear of another defeat, I also feared the reaction of supporters to another loss. After the first 20 minutes there was barely a moan to be heard among supporters, apart from at the officials anyway, as everyone seemed to recognise that the 11 in claret and amber shirts were giving their all. The atmosphere felt a bit flat in the first half, but those in the Kop again got suitably behind the players as they attacked towards them in the second.

Having the biggest crowds in the division can be an effective weapon, but it can also be a hindrance. 12,000 moaning and complaining is a lot louder than 7,000 and we’ve already seen certain players disappear into their shells when the grumbles get louder. It’s hard to stay positive at times, but it was heartening that the crowd really got behind the players and encouraged them to keep going forward. It’s extremely rare for a 0-0 draw to be recognised with a standing ovation and it seemed clear the players really appreciated the support, by the way they held back to applaud the three stands. I don’t think they could have got off the pitch quicker at the final whistle against Accrington!

But credit most of all should go to the players. Their performances and general attitude have been openly questioned in recent weeks and deservedly so. We all know they can do better than five defeats in a row, but the criticism must have hurt. Only a year ago a couple of defeats became a crisis and performances got worse, as those paid to represent City struggled and failed to handle the pressure. Stuart spoke before the Darlo match of expecting no one to hide and every player responded well. It was hard to find fault with anyone’s performance, if only one of the numerous chances created could have been put away.

I arrived at Valley Parade expecting little, I certainly didn’t imagine I would witness City’s best home performance of the season so far. To an uninformed observer, it would have been easy to be confused over which team sat second in the league and which was near the bottom. The quality of the final ball still leaves a lot to be desired and I can’t remember a City side who have ever put in so many awful corners, but we weren’t far away from giving Darlo a real spanking.

Perhaps the most heartening thing about the display was the work rate from everyone, something lacking in recent weeks. Omar Daley has excited and then frustrated all too often, but has barely tracked back into his own half during the last few defeats. On Saturday he was helping his defence and getting up and down the pitch really well. We know he has plenty of skill and pace, but it’s the end product and desire to work hard when City don’t have the ball that’s been lacking.

Omar was often back in the City penalty area on Saturday helping out Darren Williams, who was outstanding, while he also looked a threat going forward. On the other winger Kyle Nix looks a really impressive player and a winger who can also tackle. He’s not the quickest, especially compared to Daley, but his dribbling is excellent and he showed a cool head to work the ball into good positions and find a team mate.

Up front, Barry Conlon has looked a different player the last two games. Yes he should have scored at least twice and he does seem to hesitate when a chance comes his way, but as a target man holding up the ball he was phenomenal. Players could clear the ball up to him, when under pressure, and the ball would stick there. He helped lay on some excellent chances and also has a reasonable first touch.

It’s hard to imagine Conlon reaching double figures for us this season, but if he can get a goal from open play his confidence will surely go up another notch. The challenge for Conlon is to maintain and perhaps better his last two performances. Should he keep it up, he will be a regular name on the team sheet regardless of how often he finds the net.

Defensively City were much better and, while Mark Bower and David Wetherall have performed much better the last three games, the protection the whole midfield gave them also helped. Watching recent games, to me it has felt too many forward players were expecting the defence to win the ball back and waited up field for a pass. Against Morecambe we often appeared outnumbered when the home side attacked so it was good to see Nicky Law and Eddie Johnson working hard in both boxes. Paul Heckingbottom also bounced back well after a series of poor displays.

Ultimately it’s down to the players to turn around the slump and get City into winning ways. Saturday was a great start and hopefully confidence and belief will have returned. The performance was heartening and we should have won, but it’s important the result becomes something to build on rather than a high point. It’s worth noting that Saturday’s failure to find the breakthrough means it’s over 300 minutes since City last scored at Valley Parade.

On Saturday City travel to face a Grimsby side which has lost four on the bounce and so won’t be feeling too confident themselves. It’s important City stand up to the challenge and come away with something. After our own dismal run it’s fair to say that our players will know how Grimsby will be feeling right now – and also know why we shouldn’t underestimate them. Hopefully Darlo will be the turning point but, for how well City’s players performed against the high flying Quakers, it’s a level of performance and effort required every week.

So we left Valley Parade much happier than we arrived, with more confidence about our season and the hope that the slide has been arrested. After four Saturday’s in a row feeling miserable, let’s hope we’ve had our quota for a while and can enjoy the rest of our weekend once more. Surely it’s time the footballing gods started sharing out the misery, starting with that lot t’other side of Pudsey.

Frustrating Revelations

Despite dominating the game and play for the most part, City were forced to settle for a point in this frustrating encounter at Valley Parade.

A point against a team placed second at the start of play today looks like a half decent result – But the overwhelming feeling of the home support walking away from the ground was a feeling of two points dropped rather than one gained.

That said , many positives have come out of today’s game. City looked very assured and comfortable in defence for the first time since the Peterborough game, with Mark Bower particularly outstanding in a whole hearted performance. Rhys Evans, on his home debut, looked commanding from set pieces and corners but was never properly tested by a very disappointing Darlington side.

A revelation today was young Nicky Law. He gave an accomplished performance throughout – doing the simple things well, getting stuck in and hardly misplacing one pass throughout the 90 minutes. He was tenacious defensively and was clearly thinking through every attacking move he initiated – reading the game brilliantly.

If Darlington are a benchmark in this division, then City must think they have a chance of getting into the playoffs despite recent turbulent results. They offered hardly a scare going forward, whereas City carved out numerous very presentable opportunities. The best of which fell to Barry Conlon in the first half, when Kyle’s Nixs’ clever cross floated across to the big Irishman who was totally unmarked on the right hand side of the box, but he drifted his header wide of the target.

Conlon did not do anything in this match to persuade his growing army of critics at Bradford that he can do a job at the club. He shows some OK basic control when the ball is played up to him, but he wins hardly anything in the air (despite his large presence) and never seems to have the cutting edge in front of goal.

Prowess in front of goal was the key missing link in this performance and highlighted City’s lack of a regular goalscorer. Pre season hopes of a 20 goal a season striker in this league were pinned on Peter Thorne, who is yet to find the mark or his form, and we must be concerned about his proneness to injury given his history over the last two years. And with the Willy Topp deal appearing to have gone sour, a City striker needs to step up their game and become a consistent goal scorer week in week out, or any playoff hopes this season will certainly be banished. Ndumbu-Nsungu is an exciting front man, with bags of ability when he gets the ball to feet, but it was fully evident against Darlington that he needs a strike partner who is going to smash away the goals consistently so the pressure is taken off of him, allowing him to create and put in all the effort that is guaranteed with him chasing down channels and putting defenders under pressure.

In the final stages of the game, City nearly won the match with a freak goal, when a routine, wayward cross from the left was astonishingly dropped by the Darlington keeper, and just as it looked it was certain that the ball would drop in, it drifted wide and out for a corner. Such is our luck at the moment – had we been on a winning streak, it would have been the goal that won it for us 1-0.

But the attitude and commitment from all the players in this game was something to be proud of, and the appreciation for the players was shown by the home crowd after the final whistle. The performance was excellent, and a neutral watching the game would have been shocked to learn of our lowly position in the table compared to Darlington.

The next three games are huge for us. All very winnable, and the most optimistic fan will hope for 9 points out of the games which will really get us back on track. Losing five in a row really hurt (especially the Accrington game) but this performance has given us renewed hope.

A regular goal scorer in this team will get us shooting up the table and I really do not believe we need to worry about any other teams in this league. Macclesfield, Wrexham, Wycombe, Peterborough and Darlington have all come to Valley Parade and looked nothing short of poor. Sorting out our home form, and winning every match where the opposition has nothing to offer will turn the table on its head so that we are looking up from the right end of League Two.

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