The song remains the same

Italy are struggling to get a win against Romania and David Pleat is waffling about what a good player Dan Petrescu was – I remember a different Dan Petrescu – and no one every says that the World Champions are not the team they were before the match fixing thing was exposed but should the Eastern Block side get a winner in the next 18 minutes then expect the words “The favourites are going home” to be heard more than once.

Italy are one of the favourites along with a group of teams that could be dubbed a set of usual suspects; Germany, Holland, Spain, France. All short odds and talked about in glowing terms. The entry of Portugal into that set of teams has more to do with their abilities from twelve yards against Sven’s England but as the fashionable Western Europeans of the moment they join the group with ease.

A Chester City website has started previewing next season’s League Two and they speak in glowing terms about Bradford City and William Hill have the Bantams as 9/1 favourites for the Championship but the last time I looked at the plaers currently at Valley Parade their were barely enough to make an eleven.

As with Italy, Germany et al though it is assumed that whomever the club can field will be better than the rest of the division. We are a big club at League Two level and we do have the resources to put out a better side than most.

The Romanians have just missed the chance to take the lead once more but Croatia did not when they bat Germany 2-1 in what was dubbed a suprise result. How it could be a surprise to anyone who saw Slaven Bilic’s team in qualifying keeping the ball and probing superbly as they bested England is amazing but their is a habit of ignoring England’s oppositions quality to focus on assassinations of the national side.

Nevertheless Croatia are not into the group of favourites and – as with The Czech Republic – are constantly picked out as suprise teams in the media at least and – one may think – by the German management.

Stuart McCall’s job at Bradford City next season includes making sure that this sort of surprise package never happens at Valley Parade. The bookies and the media may favour clubs like The Bantams before a ball is kicked but McCall will know – has been a part of – the kind of surprise package City were in 1999 and he will know the danger of under-estimating the unfashionable.

The fixtures for the year come out next week and City need to make sure that the quality of teams, not the history or weight of the names – is prepared for and that as favourites the players know that no game is won without the effort and application that the unfancied sides like the Croats put in.

Eight years of hurt

The relative irregularity of international tournaments helps them become memorable experiences through life, and I often find the beginning of a new one sees me look back at the last to measure how things have since changed.

Four years ago when Euro 2004 was taking place in Portugal, I watched games in between working two jobs; neither of them what I wanted to do with my life. I feel happy with subsequent career progress and even the current disputes over TV watching, which will largely consign me to following Euro 2008 from an old TV upstairs, is a nice way of appreciating the fact I’ve got married since Greece improbably became European Champions.

An examination of Bradford City’s fortunes since Euro 2004 leaves a big question mark over whether things have progressed during the past four years. That summer City had just been relegated from the-then Division One and were facing up to a first campaign in England’s third tier for eight years. Since then a first basement division campaign in 25 years has occurred and with it high, but typically unfulfilled, hopes. The term ‘disappointing’ is usually the politest used to describe a City season in recent years, with lowlights including that 3-0 home defeat to Accrington, getting relegated after loaning out the top scorer and Bobby Petta.

When looking further back at where City were during Euro 2000, the current position seems even more dismal. The ‘most exciting signing in the club’s history’ was unveiled a month after David Trezeguet’s golden goal won Euro 2000 for France, reputedly earning in a week what City would seven years later pay as their first transfer fee since 2001. We supporters were relishing another campaign of visits to Old Trafford, Anfield and Highbury; compared to next season’s trips to Moss Rose and Christie Park.

But as Euro 2008 kicks off with Holland and Spain throwing down early markers, something will be achieved at Valley Parade later this month that hasn’t occurred since those Premiership days – the club has broken even. It might not be earth-shattering news to turn the national media’s focus away from debating where Ronaldo might be playing next season, but it should be a worth a pint or two celebration for City fans. After years of rising debts and the struggle to merely keep going, plans for the future are being laid on more solid foundations.

And if nothing else, the thing to look back on when recalling Euro 2008 in future years should be that we were free to watch it without distractions over our team’s continuing existence. Anyone remember who Portugal and Greece had to beat in the semi finals to reach the Euro 2004 final? I couldn’t without looking it up (Holland and Czech Rep by the way). While the rest of the country debated David Beckham’s quarter final penalty shootout miss, we were wondering how we might cope without Bradford City.

At the end of June 2004 that looked reality as the club were minutes away from closing. If there’s been nothing major to celebrate since, that we were saved at the eleventh hour is something that shouldn’t be forgotten. After all, will supporters of Rotherham and Halifax care whether Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s goal for Holland was offside the other night?

In the four years since we’ve had two and half years of mid table mediocrity under Colin Todd, before a calamitous and avoidable relegation to League Two. New investment was promised by Peter Etherington but delivered by Mark Lawn, and now a club legend is charged with delivering Julian Rhodes’ ambitious aim of a return to the Championship before the 2010 World Cup kicks off in South Africa. It’s easy to scoff, but then four years ago no one was talking about City returning to the Championship anytime soon – and that was just after we’d exited it.

So far this summer City fans’ focus has been on the increasingly unlikely chances of the season ticket offer reaching its target, but even if it fails average crowds next season are still likely to be higher than the three post-Euro 2004 years in League One. Stuart McCall has a transfer budget bigger than most in League Two and is apparently aiming in high with his targets. Lofty expectations are justified and, a year into the job, there is confidence in Stuart to deliver.

All of which is due to the hard work of Julian Rhodes and others in bringing City back from the brink in 2004 and keeping the club afloat before Mark Lawn came on board and helped the club finally break even.

There may be no England to cheer, but Euro 2008 should be a more enjoyable tournament for us to sit back and watch knowing there aren’t any doubts whether City will be part of the big kick off August 9.

The next four years before Euro 2012 in Poland/Ukraine should be very interesting.

The Dutch score but they are no masters

The technical debate – the reasons why a decision has been given or not – I love. I got my teeth into Aaron Wilbraham’s almost goal against City at the end of the season loved the debate between fans. The reasons why. The knowing the rules. The knowing football.

So when The Dutch squared a ball to Ruud van Nistelrooy who stabbed in I though offside. My attention was drawn to a player on the floor behind the goal, the replay showed that he would technically still be involved in play – according to rule 14, got to love rule 14 – and thus the goal should stand.

A remarkable bit of refereeing. The correct decision. Justice is done.

Yet something does not ring true and for a while I change the Blue shirts to Claret and Amber in my head and try empathy and it comes to me. Last season City were forced to defend with a man down in our own six yard box – technically the Referee should have stopped the game because playing on was dangerous – and that player played all onside.

I recall at the time talking of the technicalities of the decision that should have been but was not made then and were I Italian I’d no doubt be speaking of the same today. Of course Rudd van Nistelrooy – the master of offside – is allowed to stab the ball home and is rendered onside by a prone Christian Panucci but should he have?

Morality has little sway in football but using an injured player to gain an advantage – while legal – is hardly fair and certainly not laudable. Van Nistelrooy is technically right but wrong in so many other senses.

The pain of football is that were Ruud to ignore the chance he is equally likely to have seen his team suffer from similar. Least we forget that the Italian team that claims the crown as World Champions represents a League and an FA which allows AC Milan to represent it in the Champions League the season after they have found them guilty of match fixing and hands out punishments to Juventus that would hardly prevent a repetition of the systematic and persisting cheating of the Old Lady of Turin.

The woe of football is that rules have to be constructed around the idea that cheating them will become inevitable and that no one expects fair play. Should Ruud pass that goal up because Pannuci is injured? Pannuci played on.

The tragedy of football is that we expect so little from it.

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