When pre-season is not pre-season

If you missed Bradford City’s 4-0 win over Stambridge United last night then you are not alone. BfB did little to cover it and a straw poll of City fans responding to news of the opening goals on Facebook seemed to show that they knew that some games in Essex were coming, but they did not know when.

City won the game with goals from Leon Osborne, Scott Neilson, Omar Daley and James O’Brien – a second four goal win in as many days following the 5-1 victory over North Ferriby United – and word came from the South that City had been given a good game by the part-timers from Essex although many would debate how much of a game non-league footballers at the level of the club’s City gave played so far can give professionals.

Indeed there is a charge at Peter Taylor’s door that his pre-season preparations are weak and that is is no benefit to the players to have easy victories over poor opposition. Certainly Taylor’s aim is not to create an interesting and exciting set of games but is he creating a useful set?

Sadly – or perhaps not so sadly – no answer can be reached for some time. Since the days of Chris Kamara – if not before – every City manager has looked at pre-season as if it were non-competitive league matches to be treated as significantly as Johnstone’s Paint early rounds or end of season dead rubbers (which is to say as lightly as a professional club every takes a game, but still as if it were a “proper” match) but Taylor seems to take a new approach.

Taylor is doing everything he can to ensure that pre-season matches – at this stage – are not taken seriously by his players and that the games are re-contextualised as a part of training. A means to an end and not an end in itself.

Which is not to say that there is not a seriousness to the training that Taylor, Junior Lewis and Wayne Jacobs put the players through – quiet the opposite – but that Taylor is keen to ensure that his players know the difference between training time and the business time of the season.

Matches kick off at three in the afternoon, seven forty-five in the evening in proper games but Taylor breaks this association moving the kick off around an hour here, two there and ensures that games are presented to players and to fans in a different situation.

Eccleshill United aside the games – up to the race trim of the final week – are all far flung keeping the Bantams away from City fans who season on season extrapolate the entire league’s nine months or play on the basis of the first game they see in July. Rightly or wrongly players are judged in their rawest form. I never – and still don’t – think much of Michael Symes based on watching his first performance for City at Farsley Celtic. The likes of Stambridge might get a few extra people to have a look at the Bantams but in all likelihood two men and a dog will be watching City rather than the backing of an active travelling City support.

These things break the link between what happened at Stambridge and what will happen at Shrewsbury on the first day of the season. Breaking that link says to the players that they are in build up now suggesting that they are preparing for something in August not playing for the tiny glory of winning in a pre-season game.

Not that winning is in question. The teams are a distance below City’s standard but win, lose or draw one doubts Taylor would care any more than he would care if the Red Bibs beat the Yellow Bibs at Apperley Bridge. The aim is not to show how good – or poor – City are by winning games over the best opposition available it is to prepare the players.

Taylor believes this is best done by taking the pressure away from these games, making them more like a practice match than what we now know a pre-season games. It is building relationships between players, patterns of play on the field, understandings and partnerships. In a way Stambridge United, North Ferriby United and Eccleshill United are doing the job of human traffic cones to be trained against but not designed to challenge the City players in any way other than not allowing them to fail.

I mean that with no disrespect. Taylor approach presents City’s players with the opportunity to play against an opposition which as long as they approach the game in the correct way they will benefit from it. City played Didi Harmann and Joey Barton in a Manchester City midfield five years ago in pre-season and Steven Schmacher and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson spent the afternoon having passes picked off which – while purposeful practice – was unrewarding and represents a slight return. If Lee Bullock and James O’Brien play as they can then they spend games in possession, using the ball, building confidence.

The merits of Taylor’s approach will be evidenced in the season itself but – rarely in modern football – City have a manager who wants to approach pre-season as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

First day back

Like the final stages of the return journey from a lengthy holiday, where the streets and surroundings suddenly become recognisable, Bradford City’s opening pre-season friendly at Eccleshill this evening delivered a mixture of joy and surrealism at the familiarity of it all. Life as we know it is just around the corner again, but the freshness of the ordinariness makes it all seem hard to imagine. Soon we’ll be uttering how it feels as though we were never even away.

City were comfortable winners this evening – eventually. A less than steady first half performance had all the hallmarks of that first day back in the office after vacation, where we’re more keen to show off our suntan and share holiday stories than settle back into the humdrum of work . City struggled to pass around the ball on a ridiculously bumpy surface, and found their non-league hosts more eager and focused to make an impression.

Though that thin line between competitive and combative was sadly crossed in the middle of the first half, where an over-the-top challenge by a home player left City youngster Luke Dean laid on the floor for over five minutes – eventually departing on a stretcher and straight to hospital. The half time queue for the Gents included a City director who told us supporters how Dean not long since recovered from a broken leg (the same one now badly injured) and we all hope a promising career has not just come to a premature end.

Fresh from warning friendly opponents to play these warm-up games in the right spirit, a clearly livid Peter Taylor ordered his counter-part Ian Banks to substitute the player who made such a reckless challenge. Those within earshot of the City manager claim he threatened not to bring out a team for the second half if the change wasn’t made.

But there was a lack of justice about withdrawing the player similar to that seen in the Burnley game two years ago. Why are such actions excused on the grounds it’s a friendly when they carry such potentially significant consequences? Despite Eccleshill hosting City’s reserves this season, if Taylor is still City’s manager next summer there will be no pre-season return to Plumpton Park.

But aside from a few other over-eager first half tackles, the game was played in the spirit it should and Eccleshill deserve credit for an industrious first half display which saw Jon McLaughlin much the busier keeper. City’s new number one tipped one long range effort onto the crossbar and palmed away another shot as the midfield badly failed to grasp control. If there was one minor positive of Dean’s withdrawal, it is that his replacement James O’Brien immediately exerted more influence in the middle of the park.

Going forward City struggled to make an impact. Matthew Tipton made his debut up front and within the first two minutes began lecturing Omar Daley about how he expected to be supported, in a manner you wouldn’t assume a guy from Macclesfield hoping to impress would talk to an experienced international. Daley looked tentative and failed to make much impact, a few dribbles ending with the wrong option taken.

The relative quietness that pre-season games are typical of was interrupted at one stage when Tipton unsuccessfully kept in an over-hit pass. In a league game opposition supporters would sarcastically cheer such a moment, so Tipton decided to produce the sound effect himself. A character, as they say.

Gareth Evans put City in front shortly before half time, when he hurriedly closed down a dithering keeper, who’s attempt to clear the ball upfield smacked against City’s number nine and bounced into the net.  The keepers’ embarrassment was shared by Evans, who looked uncomfortable celebrating that he’d shown him up. The impressive Luke Oliver almost made it two from a corner, as the second half City team warmed up on some grass behind the goal in preparation to take over.

Only the two O’Briens continued after half time, where a much stronger performance ensued. Michael Flynn took over alongside O’Brien in the centre and the visitors dominated the play. There can be few meaningful lessons to take home tonight, but the first half midfield without Flynn and the second half with the Welshman offered a visible reminder of his importance to the team this season.

The forgotten Scott Neilson also impressed, taking players on for fun and regularly bursting into the box. On the opposite flank the development of Leon Osborne seems to continue as he showed glimpses of his talent. It’s a big season for both players, but the early signs are encouraging. With second half captain James Hanson looking sharp and second trialist Lee Morris showing a few nice touches, the play was almost entirely in Eccleshill’s half. Numerous good chances were created with clever football, the woodwork was called into action twice.

Although not really tested, Shane Duff and Robbie Threlfall both caught the eye at the back, and a clean sheet was never in doubt. With a few minutes left, Hanson latched onto a rebound and powerfully fired the ball into the roof of the goal. Full time whistle blown seconds later, the handshakes between rival players and coaching staff was notably warm given the anger of an hour earlier.

So City up and running, but still with a long way to go. The first friendly is always a novelty which quickly gives way to tedium and anxiousness for time to pass more quicker. But there’s something hugely enjoyable about visiting friendly non-league grounds at this time of year, and the chance to drink beer while watching the game in the evening sunshine was a too-rare opportunity.

Football without the anxiousness, worry and inevitable pain. Joyful and surreal indeed.

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