Matt Clarke, unearthing a diamond

We have had some pretty decent goalkeepers in the last 20 years at Bradford City.

There have been one or two disasters – The £125,000 spend on Robert Zabica and ‘that’ home game against Sunderland that followed. And perhaps the Russell Howarth (now a paramedic) spring to mind.

But generally the Goalkeeper position at the club has been mostly positive through the 90’s and not really been the cause or a factor of our recent ‘ten years of decline’. Mark Schwarzer, Mark Prudhoe, the legendary Gary Walsh, Paul Henderson, Scott Loach and Donovan Ricketts (look where his career has taken him!) are some notable successes both during their time at Valley Parade and after.

But one particular ex City keepers’ spell between the sticks at Valley Parade holds strongest in the memory.

Matt Clarke was brought in as understudy to City legend Gary Walsh during our first season in the Premiership (’99-00’). After an excellent 4 years at Rotherham in the early nineties, where he was nicknamed ‘Matt the Cat’ for his excellent agility, Clarke moved on to Sheffield Wednesday where his career seemingly came to a halt after failing to displace the evergreen Kevin Pressman at Hillsborough.

But despite his unremarkable spell at Wednesday, where he managed only 4 appearances in 3 seasons, Paul Jewell spotted his potential when he was scouted in Wednesday reserve games.

Initially, Clarke was to play second fiddle to Gary Walsh. Then part way through City’s debut season in the Premier League, former Manchester United man Walsh suffered an injury that gave Clarke a chance to press his claim for a first team spot. He never looked back.

He made a massive impression from the first game he was put in. Inevitability, City’s defence were very frequently ‘under the cosh’ against much stronger opposition teams and time after time Clarke was called into action to save the concession of a goal – and memories of those saves serve well in every City fans’ memory who were supporting the team at the time.

My personal favourite was away at West Ham in our second season in the Premier League. I had just started University near North London and so jumped at the chance of seeing my beloved Bantams play away in the capital. I went along with a friend who had just got a job in London and she was dying to find out what my passion of following Bradford City was all about and to take in a Premier League game.

Despite some very high profile additions to the City squad in the ‘six weeks of madness’, we were massively on the defensive from the first whistle to last at Upton Park. David Wetherall was colossal that day, but it was Clarke who really caught the eye. Di Canio, Freddi Kanoute, Joe Cole and Micheal Carrick et al were causing us all kinds of problems at the back.

Mid way through the first half, youngsters Cole and Carrick played a neat one-two which put Carrick striding towards goal with intent.

He released a rasping drive that was certain to fly in to the bottom corner in the goal behind the City fans. But Clarke got an unbelievable reflex tip to the ball that touched it onto the post, and he was quickly up to block the follow up from Kanoute. It was the best save I had ever seen in live action.

Performances like that made bigger clubs have a look at this talented goalkeeper. There were rumours that Arsene Wenger was poised to make a bid to strengthen the Gunners goalkeeping department. City fans created a ‘Clarkey for England’ campaign to try and persuade Kevin Keegan to give Clarke an England call up. Some might have viewed the campaign as ambitious and maybe a bit ‘tongue in cheek’, but Clarke’s performances in the Premier League most definitely deserved a lot of recognition.

It felt like we had a real superstar in the making in our squad and that was a really fantastic feeling at the time. Watching him in between the sticks really serves well in my memory. He was excellent at crosses, commanding of his area, and of course he made his name with his spectacular shot stopping.

Clarke went on loan to Bolton in 2001, where he helped them get promotion to the Premier League, and a £1m move to Crystal Palace followed. It didn’t quite work out for Clarke after that and injury meant an early retirement.

I will always look back on his time at City with fond memories. He hasn’t been mentioned much, if at all, around Valley Parade in the following years, which is a shame as he provided us all with such great entertainment and excitement in a very short period of time.

Empathy but no space for sympathy for Southend United

Southend United have fallen from above the leagues and arrive in the bottom division struggling to stay alive, get a team together and with three games and one draw behind them struggling to get a win. It is a situation which City have found themselves in a number of times and it is hard not to feel some empathy.

Sympathy though will be in short supply. Bradford City need to win.

Not need to win in the two points to stave off relegation or win promotion or need to win in the “win or you get fired” way but with the team having put in a good performance in defeat on Tuesday after three unimpressive displays in the League – and the City about to get a good kicking in the media on Saturday – the early season malaise can be lifted with victory in this Friday night game.

Southend is home to Peter Taylor – he was manager too – although he harbours a reduced affection for the town he called home lamenting the decline of the centre. Empathy.

That Taylor’s time at Bradford City has so quickly started to sour is worrying. The best manager available to the Bantams is being criticised because his team have lost two away matches and heard a parting shot from Scott Neilson about PTs playing style which was booed against Stevenage in the last outing in the league at Valley Parade.

One cannot help but wish that Mark Lawn would occupy himself in stating for all that Taylor is the best manager for the job, that he is here for the long term and that he has the full throated backing of the board but alas Taylor’s remit presently only lasts until such a point where it is considered he will not take City to promotion and – for some people – that point has already been reached.

As curious as it maybe to some but wandering around the places where Bantams fans talk after the Torquay United game already the season had been written off – there is a ludicrousness to that assuming a great team gets three points from home games and one from away leaving the Bantams able to win the next two and be back on a perfect track – and for all one might say that only a madman would sign his name to such a comment those men have started to talk and Taylor’s job is already questioned and who is anyone to silence them?

The Tuesday night performance was a fillip. Taylor’s beamed with pride after the performance of his players on Tuesday night – they played hard and were beaten by a couple of long range laser guided shots – and perhaps most pleasing was the performance of some of the fringe players.

There is a speculation that Taylor has brought quantity and not quality to the club and that may be true – although few would have suggested that Tommy Doherty does not represent quality – but Taylor is betting on the idea that a good team comes not from having a higher eleven inked into your team sheet but from having one and a half dozen players who could all feature at any point.

It is experience like this that convinces all about Taylor. He knows football at this level and how to win at it and part of that is – he seems to say – ensuring that you have a depth of player who all can be used. I would agree with the manager. The notion that – at League Two level – there is an ocean of quality to choose from simply does not agree with the football we have seen over the last three years or longer.

So the performance of David Syers and Jake Speight – non-league signings awaiting their first start for City in the league – will be heartening with both showing their usefulness in the League Cup. Speight is itching to go and his header in the week seemed to bury the last of the decent that surrounded him while Syers performance was understated and on the whole unrecognised.

Syers is a rare thing. A player who shows his enthusiasm through his disciplined play, who shows his passion by sticking to his man. He has filled a huge gap in the side that would have been left when the last of the ideal midfield three of Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn and Tommy Doherty departed on Tuesday and as resources in the middle are thin his first start seems to be imminent.

Seeing Taylor deploy Syers as well as Chib Chilaka on Tuesday night in a team which also contained James Hanson and Steve Williams showed the current manager’s commitment to continuing the recruitment of players from outside the League structure which shows an added depth to the squad. Without wanting to afford the plaudits to Syers before he has even started a game in players like Syers, Hanson and Williams Taylor gets a resource in the squad previous managers have not.

These players are the Danny Forrests, Craig Benthams and Jake Wrights of City’s past who have learnt that when you exit your league club you end up in a Supermarket or cutting hair and having been given the second chance you work for need to work harder to maintain it.

There is a lesson for many players who are in the squad, or have been, about attitude and one which Syers is testament to. Work hard and good things will come, and more power to his elbow in that.

Assuming the main midfield three are out then Syers will be alongside Tom Adeyemi and perhaps a press ganged striker or defender although probably Bullock or Doherty will return to action. The three in midfield are to be expected to have more work to do with the two wider players deployed on Tuesday night in a 451 being the strikers of a 433 if you will allow me the vagueness of tactical talk.

Gareth Evans is expected to be one of those strikers, Jake Speight hoped to be another with Omar Daley dropping down to the bench. There are few things in football that thrill me more than watching a winger like Daley charging at men but this season, and this set up, do not suit the Jamaican and one worries about his place in the squad.

Certainly Taylor recognises that as a player Daley offers an abundance of energy which can make an unplayable winger but the restrictions on his play and requirement to have him tuck in to the midfield and come back defensively weight heavy – certainly Taylor does not share the love of wide, wide men that his predecessors Stuart McCall and Colin Todd did. Daley represents is a tough call and one that assumes that City will both carry on with the 433 and Taylor for the foreseeable future.

James Hanson seems to be far too useful to not play in every game he can but he has been carrying an injury all season and Chib Chilaka represents an alternative in holding the ball up up front.

The backline will hope that Southend don’t bring Preston’s laser guided football ad that keeping the opposition to thirty yards will be as successful as it was against Stevenage. Zesh Rehman moved to right back to replace Lewis Hunt and will continue alongside Steve Williams and probably Luke Oliver who seems to have a much worse reputation than his performances suggest. Then again failing him coming onto the field and slaughtering a chicken then bathing in its blood in front of the family stand it is hard to see what Oliver could have do to live up to the reputation that the adequate no nonsense player seems to be developing.

It is said of Oliver that he is without skill – he is a central defender – and that he his a big turning circle which is true but as the defender tasked with going to the ball rather than tidying up behind he is hardly needed to spin on a One Euro coin. The fact that he does what he does and little else seems to take away – in some people’s eyes – from the fact that he does what he does to such a point where he is criticised after the Stevenage game where he is the heart of a clean sheet.

Perhaps he can juggle, dance and sing and that could win him friends but as long as he gets his head to what he can as often as he can and lets Steve Williams tidy up behind him I’m happy. Effort is all in the game but manifests itself in different ways.

Luke O’Brien will continue at left back in front of Jon McLaughlin. Bradford City goalkeepers and Southend United have previous history and perhaps it was that which prompted the move of the game forward an evening considering Saturday’s situation.

Certainly the racist Southend fans who left me threatening messages on my answerphone following the Donovan Ricketts sending off and the ructions that followed would be able to make a weekend of the trip to Bradford but never are the whole collection of football supporters represented by the thoughts and actions of a subset.

Empathy for the plight of Southend United then, but City, City fans and especially Peter Taylor have little room to offer sympathy.

Trusting your goalkeeper

A day after Jon McLaughlin signed a three year contract at Valley Parade, former Bradford City keeper Simon Eastwood completed a free transfer to League Two newboys Oxford United. For six months last season, the pair were rivals for the number one shirt under Stuart McCall, and hindsight suggests it was a call he got badly wrong.

Eastwood left Valley Parade at the turn of the year after a loan spell from Huddersfield that was decidedly mixed, but his place in City’s history has been quickly written up as a failure. A disastrous debut at Notts County set the tone for a spell where he was fiercely under the spotlight, and his position was debated by fans after every game.

Excellent performances – such as at, Rochale (JPT)Shrewsbury and Morecambe and at home to Chesterfield and Notts County (JPT) were often only begrudgingly acknowledged. Mistakes in other games, most notably the opening goal at Macclesfield, where he was angrily barracked by fans behind his goal, attracting heavy criticism.

Eastwood will celebrate his 21st birthday later this month, and the old adage of goalkeepers only truly realising their potential when they get to 30 suggests he might yet have a bright future in the same. Sure Eastwood displayed weaknesses at City, most notable his reading of crosses, but his shot stopping was sometimes phenomenal and he showed great mental strength to keep going at City under heavy criticism.  

But for the excellent Alex Smithies and the fact Huddersfield are financially well enough off to keep their best players, Eastwood might even have had a future at Huddersfield. It will be interesting to see if the move to Oxford proves to be a short term downwards step or the beginning of a decline, but Eastwood has the raw ability and mental strength to ensure it’s the former path.

At City, Eastwood was the victim of circumstances that saw McCall have too low a budget – £500-600 a week for wages – for a shot stopper and the failure to be able to afford a more experienced keeper on loan. It was far from ideal for City to rely on a youngster who’d played only one senior professional match prior to be the first team keeper for 22 games, but McCall didn’t have the finances to give him much choice.

Though he did have reserve keeper McLaughlin. Two months after McCall’s exit, Peter Taylor gave McLaughlin a chance at Burton and the former Harrogate Railway stopper seized it to produce a breathtaking display that earned him a run in the side and the recently-signed three year contract. McLaughlin will begin next season as City’s first choice keeper, and some fans have being quick to slate McCall and argue that the goalkeeping position was a blind spot for him.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and maybe if McCall could turn back the clock he’d have done it differently too, but the history being written about it isn’t quite as clear cut.

McLaughlin is two years younger than Eastwood, and as impressively as he performed during the final five games, he has not yet had the same level of testing as the 22-game run Eastwood enjoyed mixed results from during the first half of the season. Hopefully the six-game end of season spell will act as the springboard for McLaughlin to make a better fist that Eastwood of performing consistently week in week out next season, but there are no guarantees.

Indeed McCall wasn’t exactly presented with compelling evidence to believe McLaughlin was ready last season. I typically take in one or two reserve games per season and, in the games I saw, McLaughlin did not perform convincingly at all – lacking presence and conceding saveable goals. Regulars of City’s reserve games have indicated this was typical during his first season at City in particular.

Finding your feet is what reserve team football is for, but the point is that while McLaughlin was ready to don the gloves at the Pirelli Stadium in April, it doesn’t mean he was last August, when McCall opted to stick with Eastwood.

But beyond this debate, the goalkeeper position is universally one of trust between player and supporter. If we fans trust a goalkeeper, we just let them get on with it. Cheer their name when they make a save, direct the blame elsewhere when the ball ends up in the back of the net. Unless they make a really obvious mistake, the goalkeeper’s performance won’t be scrutinized. McLaughlin quickly won the fans trust at Burton and at home to Morecambe, so for the moment he is only praised.

In contrast, Eastwood never had our trust. We just didn’t have confidence in his ability, which meant every time a goal was conceded the first reaction was to question whether the young keeper could have done better, rather than if the defence was marking tight enough or if it just simply good opposition play. His heroics were often greeted with surprise, and even after a good game there’d be one or two supporters who’d point to a moment where he almost missed a cross or “got lucky” to prevent the trust reaching adequate levels.

There was once a time we fans confidently talked about our strong recent history of goalkeepers. Mark Schwarzer, Gary Walsh, Matt Clarke, Aidan Davidson, Alan Combe, Steve Banks, Mark Paston, Paul Henderson, Donovon Ricketts. Sure, during the Premier League days and the immediate few years after, we had many problems on and off the field, but aside from injuries a poor keeper between the sticks wasn’t one of them.

Many of the above were far from perfect, mistakes were made; but even if some endured dips in form there was general confidence in the incumbent of the goalkeeper jersey most Saturday afternoons.

Even since Ricketts lost his form in the 2006/07 season, trust in goalkeepers has been lacking. The fantastic Scott Loach, who may be a Premier League keeper next season such is the top flight interest, was heavily criticised by a small minority of fans when at City. Rhys Evans came as close to anyone to gaining the full trust of fans, but few were too sad when he was allowed to leave.

It’s fantastic that McLaughlin has earned the trust of supporters, and the hope is it continues into next season and beyond. But if he does prove himself and the praise is showered down upon him, I hope it can be concentrated on his ability rather than as another reason to slate a City legend.

McCall may have helped the keeper by not picking him before he was ready, but above all else McLaughlin wouldn’t be receiving the recent praise and trust had Stuart “goalkeepers were a blind spot” McCall not discovered and signed him from obscurity in the first place.

What We Can Learn as the Dust Settles on the Season

The dust has settled on the season now and Stuart McCall has decided City were not good enough saying we were a four out of ten team.

The dust has settled on the season now and everyone is getting ready to not be interested in the European Championships and Euro 2008 but Stuart McCall is sat behind his desk at VP trying to find out how to make his four our of ten team a nine or tenner. He hasn’t asked me for suggestions but I’m going to give them anyway.

First I’d tell him to have not made as many changes as he has which is not like me at all cause I normally favour throwing out bathwater and babies on the hope that we might get cuter babies but Eddie Johnson, Darren Williams (Who seems to have done nothing wrong except remind people of Holloway) and Tom Penford were used to the way that Stuart got City playing. The big problem this season was that it took City four months to get into the zone and get used to each other so letting go of the players who were used to each other was not a great idea.

Second I’d say that he should look again at that four out of ten. Chop the first four months off the season and take the season half of it and City are a playoff team. A good start to the season and we could end up being the best side from January to January (not that that gets you promoted) which says to me that we need a couple of tweaks and not a load of changes.

The changes we need are about smarts. We need to get smarter and stop giving the ball away so much (getting rid of Paul Evans goes half way to this) especially when we are away from home. At home we just need to make sure we understand that the best way to attack is to get the ball as often as possible so we need a guy in the midfield to win it back and that guy is not Lee Bullock or Kyle Nix. Stuart needs a Stuart and he needs one who can come in on the first day of the season and be good. Everyone in football is looking for one of them.

Third he needs to change the law so Donny Ricketts can come back. Scott Loach did nothing Ricketts couldn’t do and made the same mistakes. People were just less bored of him is all so he didn’t get groaned at. Shame to see Donny go and I don’t think he got enough of a send off.

Lastly Stuart needs to fix his team in his mind before the first day and stop the chopping and changing of forwards. We need partnership and understanding to get out of this league.

BfB’s Top Five Review of 2007/2008

www.boyfrombrazil.co.uk Player of the Season

  1. Peter Thorne
    The If Only… Had Peter Thorne been fit all season and the Bantams been scoring and winning then who knows what the result of Stuart McCall’s first season would have been? He is the predatory poacher we missed without Dean Windass and as soon as he returned to full fitness with his intelligent play and able striking abilities City started to win. More please.
  2. Kyle Nix
    Plucked from the season string at Sheffield United Nix has everything that a young player should have. He plays with equal measures of heart and skill and is a joy to watch with his vivacious and effective style. The finish on the end of Willy Topp’s turn aganist Shrewsbury lives long in the memory.
  3. Joe Colbeck
    To say opinion was divided on Colbeck last season is an understatement with blows almost being exchanged over the winger who after returning from a loan Darlington ripped up League Two. Getting that form out of Joe Colbeck again next season is key to City’s promotion push. Keeping him long term may prove difficult.
  4. Barry Conlon
    How many players turn around the Valley Parade crowd from the angry mob to the appreciative whole who may have debated his abilities but saluted his commitment and effort. If anyone has ever deserved a contract extension it is Barry Conlon.
  5. David Wetherall
    The sentimental vote? Perhaps but David Wetherall organised a back four as well as he ever has done. The legs might have struggled but the brain was in full effect and it is that brain that will be behind the Bantams next year.

BfB poled eight contributors to get these results. The follow top fives are written by (one of) Jason, Roland, Michael, Omar and Paul.

The five best results and performances of the season

  1. City 3 Rotherham 2
    Oh what a Tuesday night. We proved in this game that we can actually play well against a very decent side.
  2. Darlington 1 City 3
    Stunning away victory against a promotion chasing team
  3. City 3 Notts County 0
    One of the most comprehensive victories we have seen in some years.
  4. City 4 Shrewsbury 2
    Another excellent Tuesday night, with Mr Willy Topp annoucing his arrival in Bradford with his first start, and setting up Nixy for the first goal.
  5. Dagenham and Redbridge 1 City 4
    Superb away victory – what a reward for those of us who made the trip down to London down. Nicky Law Jnr made sure of the points with an excellent late brace

Five moments when we thought we might be going up…

  1. Beating high-flying Peterborough at Valley Parade in September to go seventh.
  2. Stoppage time at Bury in January, City are 2-1 up and they have a harmless looking throw in…
  3. Luckily beating Macclesfield when they dominated second half. “Sign of a good team playing rubbish and winning,” we thought. If only…
  4. Billy Topp beautifully setting up Kyle Nix to score, six minutes into his full debut.
  5. When Joe Colbeck broke through to net the third goal at Darlington.

…and five moments when we knew we weren’t.

  1. Watching Accrington play us off the park at Valley Parade in October.
  2. Being the better side at home to Brentford but watching the Bees have two shots and score two goals.
  3. Half time at home to Rochdale, somehow it was 1-1 but the opposition were on another level.
  4. Barry Conlon’s penalty miss against Dagenham.
  5. Must-win game at Rochdale in April, 1-0 down inside 24 seconds.

Top five that the gaffer got in – McCall’s best signings

  1. Barry Conlon
    The example for everyone. Put in effort, get rewarded.
  2. Kyle Nix
    Skillful, talented, young. Fingers crossed we keep hold of him.
  3. Peter Thorne
    Showed class.
  4. Ben Starosta
    Looks like the sort of full back who can defend well and then add to the attack.
  5. Scott Loach
    They say that he will be England keeper one day. A way to go but impressive so far.

No Thanks – Five disappointing signings McCall made

  1. Paul Evans
    What gives Evo?
  2. Alex Rhodes
    Caught in the act of making Omar Daley look like a winger who tracks back.
  3. Willy Topp
    So much fanfare, so much wait ’til next season.
  4. Darren Williams
    Good, but like having Darren Holloway back.
  5. Nathan Joynes
    Barnsley said he was great, he was not.

We will miss you – Five players who impressed but have gone

  1. David Wetherall
    A legend.
  2. Donovan Ricketts
    Capable of making blinding saves.
  3. Tom Penford
    A favourite of this parish
  4. Nicky Law Jnr
    Who looked like a very good player. Better than his Dad for sure.
  5. Eddie Johnson
    Because the lad deserves credit for effort.

That went well – Five great things about 2007/2008

  1. The atmosphere, and home performances, at Valley Parade improved thanks to proper priced tickets.
  2. Stuart McCall back is great. Having him answer critics in the second half of the season is better.
  3. Barry Conlon turned around the fans with some gutsy displays proving that it is possible to turn around the fans with gutsy displays…
  4. …and nowhere was this better seen than Joe Colbeck who tore down the right wing brilliantly for four months.
  5. We broke even for the first time since the Premiership. Now that is progress.

Next year – Five things to get excited about

  1. Stuart McCall is up to speed.
  2. 20,000 supporters in Valley Parade? Would be great if it came off.
  3. Willy Topp is resting in Chile as we speak and raring to go at League Two next season.
  4. Should Joe Colbeck continue his form from the end of this term then expect dewy eyed thirty somethings to compare him to John Hendrie with every other breath.
  5. Promotion. You know its gonna happen someday.

The Dogs of Winter

Managers should know their own position – at least that is the theory – and for sure Stuart McCall seems to have started to learn a lesson about his position holding the Bradford City midfield together.

As he wakes this morning McCall has his first win as Bradford City manager in eight games – a 2-1 victory over Chester City – and when pieces fall together one hopes the correlation between the return of Paul Evans and his pairing with the industrious Eddie Johnson and the spirited Nicky Law will not be lost. McCall put out a midfield with a remit to work hard and keep the ball and the desire to do both seldom flagged.

It is impossible to under estimate the impact that the return of Evans has had on the side. As an engine in the midfield he equals McCall in spirit if not ability and as an exemplar to the rest of the Bantams he should be lauded from the rooftops of Manningham. If every player in the side showed the effort that Evans puts in – playing every ball as if it were his last kick in the profession – then we would see more performances like Omar Daley’s best of the season last night.

With engines engaged the likes of Daley – shifted to a forward role for long periods last night to allow a tight midfield four of Johnson, Evans, Law and Nix to control the game – improved immeasurably. Daley’s opening goal – a screamer from distance – had been coming for some time and arrived with an implicit challenge for McCall to raise the levels of the winger’s performance that high on a weekly basis.

Confidence is the key – it normally is – and City seemed to bloom with the confidence of having the ball courtesy of the ball winning midfield. With some control of the game and the returning Peter Thorne intelligently holding the line confidence started to flow through the team. Passing movements – lost in recent months returned – and Paul Heckingbottom and Kyle Nix began to craft chances on the flank which built to a corner which resulted in a clumsy tackle by Mark Hughes on Eddie Johnson after the City man had stepped around him and a penalty that – curiously – Young Nicky Law decided to take and took weakly for keeper John Danby to save. I always admire a player who has the cahoonas to take a penalty but like David Batty circa 98 before him I’ll never understand why non-goal getting midfielders take the job on.

Law’s weak attempt was but a memory after Omar Daley gave City the lead that first half deserved – and let us not forget the context of the 19 of 21 points Chester City had picked up on the road – and even a curiously given second half penalty against Matthew Clarke for fouling Kevin Ellison on the edge of the box could not dent City’s gathering of a win.

The foul seemed a mirror of a free kick given against Chester for a foul on Thorne in the first half and one supposes the Ref Andy Hall saw a significant difference in the two but the sense that justice was done when Donovan Ricketts saved the spot kick was clear. Ricketts deserved it on his return.

A mention also for Matthew Clarke for whom Mark Bower was dropped and who provided the pace and power that allowed a more able display from David Wetherall with the older man’s pace problems less readily exposed and the younger man’s presence working well.

Nevertheless despite increasing second half pressure and a rather bizarre switch of Law and Johnson which seemed to nullify both Wetherall and Clarke will have more busy evenings.

Alex Rhodes made the result sure with a run that probably included a bit of the stands as well as the left wing so far out it seemed but that did not seem to matter when Rhodes finished off the move with a smart finish. Two minutes later Kevin Ellison made it interesting with a diving header that seemed a good way offside – League Two Referees have a way of levelling things out – but the final whistle came and McCall had that much awaited win.

From the win though come the lessons. The passion that Paul Evans brought to the team raised the games of many around him – as McCall did for City – and as with the ginger midfielder’s ball winning of old the more that the Bantams had the ball the more chances came. Perhaps the real lesson is that while Stuart could perform the role solo it takes two men to replace him.

Rubbish

If you want to read about which players were to blame for yesterday’s defeat and who we should ‘get rid’, you’d be better advised reading the numerous City message boards instead of this. Most of these will be filled with views of who is the biggest disgrace, which players aren’t fit to wear the shirt and how it’s also Stuart and the Board’s fault. A lot of these opinions will be hysterical rubbish, but are likely to satisfy the need of the many fans who consider everything disgusting.

They’re right of course; Saturday was indeed disgusting. I left Valley Parade feeling appalled and pessimistic about the future. However, it wasn’t the performance and attitude of the players that left me feeling angry – it was those in the stands.

What happened? To date the efforts of supporters has been largely fantastic, but on Saturday I felt it was us who didn’t turn up. From the moment the teams came onto the field and Donovan Ricketts, back in the team after his four game ‘rest’, failed to receive a good reception, the atmosphere felt odd. The game kicked off but there was no chanting, no cheering and little support offered towards the players. The place felt flat and at one stage I could hear the players shouting at each other on the pitch – I sit close to the back of the Midland Road stand and I’m half deaf! In a ground with 13,000+ supporters that simply isn’t good enough.

I’m sure you’re backing will be fantastic again. I can’t ask for any more than that – Stuart McCall’s programme notes

The fans in the Kop have been fantastic this season, but only seem to find their voice when the players kick off towards them in the second half. Why don’t you start chanting from kick off? The support in the Midland Road stand was even more pathetic, save for a handful of fans in C block attempting to start chants. As fans, we expect the players to show 100% effort and commitment for the cause – yet we can’t even be bothered to sing a few chants.

No one was getting behind the team, who after a slow start began to get on top and created some decent chances. Everyone appeared more happy to moan and find fault with the team’s efforts, no matter how tedious their complaints were. After a few good passing moves into the Brentford area didn’t quite result in a goal, City played a long ball which went through to the Brentford keeper. “You see!” said one fan a few rows in front of me, “all we do is launch long balls up, we’re so predictable!” Yes, of course that’s all we do.

I wouldn’t argue City were fantastic in the first half, but we were the better side and desperately unlucky not to take the lead. Then Brentford scored with a wonder strike. At half time the boos came down from all three stands, undeserved in my view. Walking around the concourse with steam coming out of my ears, one fan decided to helpfully tell me that City were going to be relegated this season. Thanks for this insightful knowledge, now I know not to bother with the rest of the season. Maybe we should tell the players and management this so they can give up on the season as well?

In the second half City came out all guns blazing and fans finally started getting behind the team. Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu hit the bar with a header and Barry Conlon wasted the rebound. When Conlon missed another easy chance minutes later, the boos started again. At one stage there was the ridiculous situation of Conlon being booed while in possession, as it appeared he was about to lose it. The Irish striker then did well to keep the ball and play it to another City player, the silence from these fans was deafening! Where’s the “good play Conlon, come on City!”?

They were soon booing him again when he was subbed though, which I thought was completely unfair. Conlon was guilty of missing some excellent chances and didn’t play well, but he gave everything and hardly meant to miss.

After Brentford scored the second, again against the run of play which most fans chose to ignore, we had more boos and anger. A friend in the main stand told me that a couple of fans in the Kop threw their season tickets onto the pitch in disgust. At the final whistle, despite City almost coming back after Mark Bower scored, there were more boos from the fans who hadn’t already left. Some stayed back to wait until the players had shaken hands with the Brentford players and began walking over to applaud the fans, so they could boo the team again. The players just turned away and walked off and who can blame them?

Let’s put this into perspective. I think City were very unfortunate to lose this game. It wasn’t a great performance, but they were on top for large spells and created some excellent chances. The ball just wouldn’t go in, while Brentford created two chances and scored them both. The only time I thought the players were poor was in their response to going 2-0 behind. Their heads dropped and they looked beaten, despite there been 30 minutes still to play. But as supporters had given up – on both the game and the season – who can blame them?

I’ve seen worse performances from City this season and to receive such a high level of abuse was unjustified. We’re on a really poor run of form and confidence is low. Understandably we’re all really frustrated, we expected to be around 4th in the league – not 4th bottom! But for how bad our recent form is I really don’t believe we should write off the season like this. There’s a long way to go and I still think we can sneak a play off spot this season.

Fans demanding we get rid of certain players are being simplistic. Should City really throw money away cancelling contracts of players not performing? Where do they think this money will come from? More than likely it would be from whatever transfer budget Stuart has for improving the ability of the playing squad. We can demand some of the younger players come in, but would they have the mental strength to cope with the boos from 13,000 people? It could destroy them.

I continue to be both astounded and humbled by the level of support both at home and away and I can only hope your patience is rewarded eventually – Julian Rhodes’ programme notes.

The simple fact is that, until January, we have to persist with the playing squad we have. Of course changes have to be made for Tuesday and Stuart will do so – a recall for Paul Evans is surely a must. This current squad can do much better than present form and we should get behind them in attempting to do so. There’s no magic wand to make it all better, they need to keep working hard and give their all and eventually our luck will turn.

As fans, we have a huge role to play. I really think that the reaction and atmosphere on Saturday harmed the team far greater than Conlon’s misses. It felt like the day the fans wrote off for the season but this shouldn’t be the case. On Tuesday we should be getting behind the players from the first whistle to the last. Players will make mistakes and there are times we all groan but, if we stick with them and save the moaning until half time or the pub after, our support can make the difference.

We’re all sick of losing and being where we are in the league, but everyone needs to take responsibility in turning the situation around. That especially includes us supporters.

The long road back

This was how it all started for Donovan Ricketts with Bradford City.

After been signed by Colin Todd in July 2004, a wait for a work permit meant his place in the team was initially taken by trialist Paul Henderson. Ricketts was consigned to a near full season playing for City’s reserves before finally earning his chance when Henderson rejected a longer contract.

Through everything that has happened to the Jamaican international in recent weeks, that original determination and patience to wait for a chance with City should not be forgotten. As Ricketts lined up for City reserves against Nottingham Forest on Tuesday night in front of the very goal where a week earlier he made a mistake too many which cost him his place, there’s a sense that the Jamaican goalkeeper won’t be pushing to exit the Valley Parade door just yet.

The long road back from zero to hero in City fans eyes began with a decent clean sheet against Forest’s second string, with The Don putting in an encouraging display and making three excellent saves. With just a smattering of fans present to analyse his every move, Ricketts’ confidence will have improved a notch as he successfully dealt with everything Forest presented him with. He was even able to loudly berate others for not doing their jobs so well.

Another of City’s recent villains was also in action for the second string. Last Saturday’s substitute cameo against the MK Dons saw Joe Colbeck claim two unwanted assists as 70 minutes of good work by the team was thrown away by some kamikaze defending. Joe to probably benefited from playing away from the glare of a growing army of critics and looked lively once again, if lacking an end product. Defending is clearly a weak part of his game and twice he switched off to allow Forest to roam forward, fortunately without the same consequences as Saturday.

As with any City team on a bad run over the years, supporters start chucking in the names of players not featuring and demand to know why they aren’t been given a go. Of those in the second string available right now, Craig Bentham gave a confident and assured display in the middle of the park to suggest he could do a job. His route to the first team is currently blocked by several others, but against Forest Bentham bossed the middle of the park. He got his foot in, can pass the ball and did the simple things really well. Given the captain’s armband, he dictated the play and was at the heart of City’s best efforts.

As for a striker coming in to score the goals lacking, supporters shouldn’t be expected too much from those not in the team. Nathan Joynes held the ball up well but didn’t seem to take up many threatening positions. Luke Medley came on as a second half substitute and, while his touch was fantastic at times, his attitude didn’t seem quite there. Luke appeared to be playing for himself and on a few occasions good moves were broken down by Luke’s desire to do bits of skill that made himself look good, rather than play the ball to others in good positions. He has some talent, but his performance made it understandable why Stuart isn’t throwing him into first team duties just yet.

The Chilean striker Willy Topp did play and showed some excellent touches. He clearly has some talent on the ball and produced a couple of exciting twisting runs while beating defenders for skill. He also seems to have a good first touch, although it might take him a little longer to adapt before he’s ready to make an impact in the first team.

Other youngsters showed some promise on the night as City should probably have won the game. They created the better chances in the second half, although were grateful for a blinding Ricketts’ save in the final minute.

If those on reserve duty can maintain their decent performances, keep improving and show patience; their chances of a first team spot will surely come around. If they need any inspiration they need only ask Donovan Ricketts.

Rock bottom?

During City’s post millennium slump from the riches of the Premier League to the slums of League Two, the club have always retained that special capacity to prove us wrong. Just when we don’t think they could possibly sink any lower, they go and surprise us yet again.

Ever since Southampton recorded a 1-0 Premiership win at Valley Parade in September 2000, we’ve had matches described as the ‘worst ever’ with increasing regularity. The worst City performance ever has since become an annual event – Southampton was followed by Stockport, then there was Sheffield United, Sunderland, Wimbledon, MK Dons, Oldham, Huddersfield and Chesterfield. All moments in recent times when it was felt, performance wise at least, that City had hit rock bottom.

On Tuesday the latest rock bottom moment occurred but the fall out and awful taste in mouth that this defeat left will take some time to forget. It’s all very well getting stuffed by Sheffield United or Sunderland – but Accrington Stanley? Let’s be honest, they played us off the park and the 3-0 scoreline probably flattered us. But with the greatest of respects we were playing Accrington Stanley, not a team of world beaters. And while the current crop of players wearing Claret and Amber wouldn’t get near those who lost to Southampton seven years ago, they should be far better than the school boy efforts they provided us on Tuesday.

There’s no where to hide, the pressure and expectation is not going to go away. The players need to learn to deal with all of this and will hopefully emerge from the Accrington debacle much stronger characters.

Defensively we were a complete mess. Only two-and-a-half weeks ago City earned a clean sheet and defensive plaudits after a hard thought win over much fancied Peterborough. Since then eight goals have been conceded in just three games. Donovan Ricketts has taken most of the blame and our Jamaican keeper’s Valley Parade days appear numbered with Stuart McCall announcing a new keeper is being sought urgently.

Ricketts was undoubtedly at fault for the second goal when he came out and allowed a five foot striker to out jump him and head the ball into an empty net, but his back four must shoulder much of the blame too. Paul Heckingbottom was looking an assured player up until Hereford and his performance on Tuesday was dreadful. Time and time again he was caught out of position, continually beaten by wingers and cheaply giving the ball away. His free kicks were awful and, on one occasion during the second half, his feeble free kick effort almost turned a chance for City into a goal for Accrington.

In the centre the lack of pace was badly exposed. David Wetherall, the only survivor from that Southampton defeat, will always be loved by City fans, but doubts about his ability have been surfacing for a while. He is ageing fast and is simply not the force he was even two years ago. A tough decision over the captain’s place in the team may have to be made by Stuart and Jakes.

Wetherall has seen the whole sorry slump over the last seven years first hand. As he kicked the ball up pitch in frustration when the second goal was scored, I wondered how many times he has watched opposition put the ball into that net over the years and whether the psychological affect of been part of such an underperforming club has taken away some of his dogged determination. Mark Bower also had a poor night and some fans are calling for both to be dropped now, although I still believe that our longest serving player deserves a chance to redeem himself.

Midfield? What midfield? Eddie Johnson’s careless back pass that allowed Stanley to score after 90 seconds was the worst moment of a forgettable night from those in the middle of the park. Eddie continues to split opinion among fans with some believing he simply isn’t a midfielder. Scott Phelan has followed the Steven Schumacher path to City but has failed to make the immediate impact his predecessor managed. Some times Phelan has been excellent, but he too set the tone for an awful night by giving away a free kick five seconds into the game. To say we missed the injured Paul Evans is an understatement.

Omar Daley was awarded ‘Man of the Match’ by the sponsors. What game were they watching? The one I witnessed included a City number 7 who put in minimal effort and was wholly ineffective. No tracking back to help the often outnumbered defence, dribbles that led no where and no awareness or thought to pass the ball to a team mate. On the few occasions that he did look to pass, he played balls so ridiculously ambitious and risky that attack was turned into defence. I don’t know where Daley thought he was playing but his first half performance in particular was nothing short of disgraceful. Alex Rhodes at least started brightly but the front two were both starved of service all evening.

Ultimately, too many had an off night. What we were left was a displayed blighted by defensive howlers, woeful passing and players with heads down. Free kicks, corners and crosses were truly appalling. On a night full of frustration, the six minutes of first half stoppage time and final 20 minutes were perhaps the most telling. During these periods, the players had clearly given up, were shying away from touching the ball and were just waiting for the referee to blow his whistle. As supporters we can forgive players having an off night, they’re only human. But when we see players clearly not trying and giving up so feebly, it really hurts.

As for where it leaves the rest of the season, Stuart has plenty of work to do. A trip to the league leaders is arguably the last place we want to be heading and we travel to the MK Dons on Saturday as genuine underdogs for the first time this season. A fourth defeat in a row seems unthinkable but highly plausible. Yet perhaps facing opposition that has played such a significant part in City’s darker days (both as Wimbledon and MK Dons) can be the launch pad for brighter moments.

The players ears will have recovered from the boos, the anger of Stuart and Wayne will have had some form of impact. The players will surely have realised they have let a lot of people down. Through all the misery of such a horrible evening, the fantastic backing that many fans (Kop especially) still gave the team should act as a spur to get their act together. This level of support only reinforces the belief that Bradford City are too big for League Two. That doesn’t guarantee us promotion and it certainly doesn’t guarantee wins over Accrington, but playing for this club comes with responsibility that those in the dressing room need to face up to. There’s no where to hide, the pressure and expectation is not going to go away. The players need to learn to deal with all of this and will hopefully emerge from the Accrington debacle much stronger characters.

Is promotion a forlorn hope? Not yet. City may be 19th as it stands, but are only four points off the play offs. Now is the time for those being paid good money to represent Bradford City to show their mettle and prove their worth. Speaking on the radio after the match, Stuart sounded as devastated and miserable as the rest of us who suffered such a wretched display. He can drop half the time and try to bring in new faces, he can shout and rant that they are disgrace and haul them in for extra training. Ultimately it’s down to those players who continue to represent us to ensure that they don’t let down their club and its supporters down so badly again.

So surely this is what rock bottom feels like and hopefully this is the last time City prove us wrong. I don’t want to find out how we can possibly sink any lower.

Boo

Two things. Thing number one: Very little could not have been better about Bradford City’s 1-0 defeat at home to Wycombe Wanderers.

The refereeing was appalling – if the standard set with Omar Daley’s fifth minute booking had held through the game then the match would have ended with eighteen players on the field – as was City’s defending for the goal of the game although anyone looking to blame Donovan Ricketts is very generous to the back four that dropped so far back into the six yard box that the keeper was amongst them rather than behind them.

Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu’s header in the opening minutes from Tom Harban’s cross should have been better executed – free headers in the six yard box are not to be wasted – as should Omar Daley’s dribble and shot although Stuart McCall was rightly incensed by the Referee’s refusal to give a corner as the man in black seemed set to give Daley nothing all day long.

The creativity City showed was poor. If City have played well then Eddie Johnson has completed many passes. If we have been bad then Johnson gets the ball in midfield and the likes of Daley, Ndumbu-Nsungu, Peter Thorne and Kyle Nix are all hidden or have run off behind defenders as if the ball cold be spirited to them rather than passed over a short distance well. If Johnson is looking to make killer balls to find a man – and he was forced to – then the forward players are not making themselves targets well enough.

City failed to test the Wycombe keeper seriously until a Paul Heckingbottom free kick late on although two or three good shouts for penalties were obviously turned down cause – well – they always are aren’t they? Searching for penalties is always the sign of a bad display.

It was a bad display. Very little that could not have been improved on in some way.

Thing two: Very little that would not be better without the stream of barracking and booing that has plagued City for years and still does. Half time and the Bantams are booed and those who do applaud effort are barracked, Donovan Ricketts is ironically cheered for fielding the ball, Barry Conlon is booed when he comes on although why I have no idea, full time and City are booed once more and while the performance was not good it is hard to see that being rectified with jeering.

It is just this simple. This is the last chance for Bradford City. Mark Lawn, Stuart McCall et al. Last chance. If we do not make a go of this then the club – which having seen the books myself I can guarantee you has been dangerously close to closing about a half dozen times in the last three or four years – will go out of existence.

Atmosphere? Getting behind the team? Trying to raise the players? These are not options any more if we want a club. Everyone has a right to an opinion I’m told as a justification for the kind of barracking that has plagued City for years now and if that is true then this is mine. This club is on it’s knees and rather than trying to help us get back up there is a not insignificant section of the Valley Parade “support” who want to hack those knees away.

Very little at Valley Parade would not be improved if those people found something else to do with their Saturdays.

The Cost of Doing Bad Business

Facts of football. You don’t go away from home and let in three soft goals and win. It is just that easy and everyone who saw City 3, City 2, Hereford 1 at Edger Street this weekend knows that the Bantams beat themselves and if they can get over that habit then this division will be over with soon.

Hereford are second in the table after this win and that says everything you need to know about League Two. Not tat they are not a decent side but that is all they are. Decent. Not good and not great and not stunning and they are considered to be some good and if City can stop the silly goals then games like this will be good away wins.

Which all comes down to Stuart McCall stopping the silly goals of course. McCall knows this too and barks it from the side of the pitch and every time Donnie Ricketts, Omar Daley or very oddly Paul Heckingbottom did a wobble then McCall would throw his arms away and turn to Wayne Jacobs as if to say “Didn’t we just sort that out during the week?”

Up front Peter Thorne and Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu are showing signs of a good partnership. Thorne is a class above the League and when he gets a goal loads more will follow and Ndumbu-Nsungu grabbed two today that should have been enough to win the match and would have been if it was not for some rubbish defending.

It was Omar Daley fannying around with the ball in his own penalty area, when does Joe Colbeck cost goals? that cost City the first and then it was Ricketts pushing the ball into his own goal for a second. Ricketts is a great keeper having a bad time of it and the bad time is cause by the chaos that erupts in front of him too often.

Heckingbottom pulled down someone in the box after Gee had pulled one back and at the end Theo Robinson got a goal that Hereford deserved to give the two goal lead back after a bit of a good goal by Gee but by then the trip back was looking long and not too bright.

Following City is normally great fun and has been for a good few fruitless years but when the lads could win but throw it away it gets annoying. This is not being outplayed by better sides it is shooting ourselves in the foot and it needs to stop if we are going to go forward.

Back to back homers against Wycombe and Accrington give Stuart the chance to get six more points and things back on track. Keep the faith but work on this Macca.

Strength on the road

Stuart McCall unleashed his secret weapon on Lincoln City last night – and it wasn’t the belated debut of an injury-plagued number 10.

1,064 members of his barmy army had made the 90 mile trip to Lincolnshire and provided a 90 minute non-stop performance of passionate noise to help City come from behind and earn their first away win of the season. Our contribution in the away section might not have been as significant as the fantastic run and pass of Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu that set up Joe Colbeck’s winner, but it was no less meaningful on an evening that offered the strongest evidence yet that City can challenge for an immediate return to League One this season.

Much has been made about the huge home crowds City will be enjoying this season, but less has been mentioned about the power of our away support. It’s hard to imagine another League Two side bringing as many supporters and making as much noise at Sincil Bank all season – and that includes their local rivals Grimsby and Mansfield. This will be the same at so many other grounds and this level of support can make a huge difference in where City end up come May.

It was a certainly a large factor in this deserved win as City fans out-sung and humiliated their Lincoln counterparts. As balloons, beach bags and mini footballs were tossed in the air among City supporters before kick off, you sensed it could be a special night. An emotional tribute to the events of 22 years ago was impeccably observed before the action began. The chanting continued from the start and didn’t even let up when Lincoln took the lead, although the fact it was in controversial circumstances undoubtedly helped keep up the wall of noise.

The home side started the match much brighter, a decent save from an Eddie Johnson shot aside, and created several good chances. In defence, City looked strong with our back four reacting well to the busy night that lay in front of them. “Don-don-don-don-don-don-don-don-don-don-Donovan Ricketts!” (to the tune of No Limits’) made two smart stops but then City fell behind from a corner. Ricketts made a great save from a header but the ball was still scrambling around in the area. Louis Dodds stabbed the loose ball goalwards only for Ricketts to make another brilliant block on the goalline. Yet incredibly, as the ball was finally cleared, the linesman put up his flag to signify the ball had crossed the line.

The goal was awarded and City’s protests were waved away. It looked like a very poor decision but, thankfully, City didn’t let the injustice affect them as they clawed their way back into the game. With Eddie Johnson and Scott Phelan beginning to control things in the middle of the park, City got back on level terms after some great work from Omar Daley.

Since signing in January, we’ve been waiting for Daley to hit his best form and in the opening 35 minutes he continued to frustrate with his tendency to always cut inside rather than stretch the opposition by running down the channels. On this attack he finally did stay out wide, knocking the ball past a defender and then showed his incredible pace to reach the ball before another defender. Now level with the penalty area, he cut inside and continued his run into the box before squaring the ball for Ndumbu-Nsungu to fire home.

“1-0 to the Bradford Boys” we sang matter-of-factly. Daley’s reward for his assist was taking a knock from the challenging defender which threatened to end his evening and rule him out of international duty. Thankfully he was able to carry on and his subsequent performance was that of a player who had reached a new notch in self confidence. Daley continued to look a threat everytime he got the ball and trigged some of City’s best moves.

In the second half the level of noise in the away section was kept up with our versions of White Stripes, Beatles and Johnny Cash songs, and City began to get on top. Eddie Johnson went close with a brilliant free kick that was tipped away by Alan Marriott, Peter Thorne linked up well with G on his debut and the defence continued to keep Lincoln’s increasingly sporadic attacks at bay. The Imps did come close to retaking the lead when a long range shot rattled the post. Given how many times City have struck the woodwork in the opening six games, it was somewhat satisfying to watch another team rue their luck.

It looked like a winner might allude City but they finally made the break through 12 minutes from time. Lincoln were on the attack when City cleared the ball up to G on the half way line. The Congo striker produced a devastating first touch to lift the ball past a defender and then had the speed to charge forward. Two defenders chased him, blocking his route to goal. But no one picked up Colbeck racing clear in the middle. G’s through ball was inch perfect and Colbeck charged forward and beat the advancing Marriott with a low shot that rolled slowly into the corner. Cue pandemonium in the away section.

It was fair to say that the recalled Colbeck did not enjoy the best of nights and he consistently struggled to beat his full back, either by running at him or whipping in early crosses. But his goal was reward at least for his undoubted level of effort and may just give him that added belief to perform better. Joe can often look tentative and unsure of himself, although the subtle, unnoticed stamp he executed on the full back while he was on the ground showed that he isn’t intimidated by the opposition.

Apart from a couple of late scares, City stood firm to claim the three points and end a difficult week on a high. Lincoln might not have made the best of starts themselves, but they’re a wise outfit who know what it takes to be successful at this level. They certainly gave City a tough game, making this result and performance even more impressive.

“You’ve only come cos it’s Bradford!” we chanted at the home fans. Probably not true but, as Stuart’s Bradford Army marched into an away ground and made sure they were noticed by everyone, you suspected it was an evening that won’t be quickly forgotten by either side. The high number of away fans for a Friday night fixture was impressive and, temporarily we hope, it feels quite nice being the big fish in a small pond.

On a personal level, the non-stop chanting and stunning atmosphere, plus the result, contributed to one of the most enjoyable City games I have been too in years. The evening felt special and I left proud to be a City fan and being one of some of the best fans in the country (best in League Two without doubt!). The strength and enthusiasm among fans can be partly attributed to Stuart and Wayne’s return, but ultimately it’s about a passionate bunch of people finally able to dream of better things. Something feels special about supporting City right now and hopefully its going to lead to big celebrations come May.

Stuart’s Bradford Army makes trips to Hereford, MK Dons, Morecambe and Grimsby in the next two months. If we fans can maintain the high standards of this away performance we should help City become stronger on the road.

Although the level of noise we’re making means that Stuart’s secret weapon will not be staying secret much longer.

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