Buying Bradford City and worrying

The deadline for Gianni Paladini’s exclusivity on a bid to buy Bradford City will expire at midnight tonight and by tomorrow morning the club could have a new owner.

Should that happen Mark Lawn, Julian Rhodes and David Rhodes will leave the club – taking the rest of the current board with them – and be replaced by Paladini and his friends who seem to include a number of the London mega-rich. The numbers water the eyes: £10m for players, more for wages, and Valley Parade bought back.

But there is worry.

…be happy

Any change of ownership brings a worry for the supporters of a football club with good reason. David Moores – the owner of Liverpool during good times at Anfield – was only prepared to sell the club to people he could trust but ended up saying of “I hugely regret selling the club to George Gillett and Tom Hicks.” The recent history of Manchester United is the story of an aggressive takeover making the supporters pay for someone else to own the club.

At the other end of the spectrum at York City John Batchelor was happy to attempt to strip any asset he could from that club. He died aged 51 and his epitaph was his frank statement “I fuck businesses, its what I do.”

The annuals of football club ownership since the 1980s are the story of opportunists taking what they can from clubs like ours. Like the generally held view that all politicians lie, all football club chairmen are out to rip off the fans. While it is cynical to admit it people who want to buy football clubs are considered guilty until they can prove themselves innocent.

The third way

There is an alternative of course and it is one that was briefly considered during Administration in 2004. Supporter owned clubs are some of the success stories of the modern game. FC United of Manchester, AFC Wimbledon, Exeter City. Stupid names but stories of the sort of community commitment that we would all can only dream of at Valley Parade.

Restarting Bradford City as a community club at the bottom of the pyramid did not happen but Julian Rhodes pulled the club out of administration promising that the fans would be at the heart of the relaunched Bantams as a kind of middle ground. This manifested itself in a season ticket pricing policy. More on that later.

That third way of fan ownership exists for the clubs most abused. If City could not have been saved as a business in 2004 then an AFC Bradford City would no doubt have sprung up. It is always the final censure for anyone looking to buy a club.

End of aside.

What to worry about

There are worries about what Paladini would do at the club – worries caused in no small part by the film Four Year Plan – and how he will fund what he does and the reason that he does it. We – the Bradford City community – need to listen hard to what is said and not be distracted by the promise like £10m on players.

The sleight of hand that focuses the eyes on the field while distracting the mind as money is taken from the club is the realism of modern football. The Glazers did this at the biggest club in the UK. It happened in 1999 when Bradford City went into the Premier League and (approx.) £9m were taken out in dividends by the Directors.

One of those Directors was – of course – Julian Rhodes who has since ploughed money back into Bradford City. He was also on the board when one of the board members sold the club’s biggest asset (Valley Parade) to his own Pension Fund.

The price Valley Parade was sold for – considering the rent paid by the club to play there – was an amazing deal for the then chairman Gordon Gibb. Ostensibly this was a deal done to “save the club” but the club was not saved and less than eight months later the business failed.

Anyone can understand the worries that a new chairman and a new board could work against the interests of the club as an institution and of supporter but many of those worries have been manifested at the club in the last few years.

Mark Lawn loaned the club money at a nine per cent interest rate above the Bank of England base rate. The board then sanctioned that money to be spent on what could best be described as player gambles. Large wage budgets for Stuart McCall and Peter Taylor (remember the phrase “push the boat out”) which the board acknowledged it could not sustain and resulted in teams being built and ripped up in the space of weeks were the board’s way of showing ambition but they could never be described as being necessary spending as evidenced by how the club finally found promotion when the budget had been reduced.

That is a point worth recalling. Bradford City did not need the money which it borrowed from Mark Lawn to stay in business, it borrowed it to try improve the business with promotion. Mark Lawn did not “save the club” as he seems to be credited with. Without him the club would have had less money to spend on players but still would have had a larger wage bill than many others in the League Two we took part in.

The boardroom borrowed money – from one of its members, and at a great rate – to take gambles on winning promotion that failed only to pay that money back later from the club’s winnings on the field from Wembley 2013.

And I’m not complaining about that but what I am saying is that if Paladini were to arrive at Valley Parade tomorrow saying the he would lend Bradford City £10m to pay for players and he would take it and more back when the money rolled in he would probably be viewed as an opportunist looking to make what he can and gambling with the club’s future.

You either believe that situation is risking the club’s future, or it is ambitious football business, but it would be the same for both and not different because as far as we know Paladini does not have a Bantams tattoo.

Not worried about

This is what I am not worried about.

I’m not worried that he will rename the club and change the colours because Vincent Tan did. I’m not worried he will try change the name of the club because Assem Allam did. I’m not worried that Paladini will do what Massimo Cellino has done at Leeds. I’m not worried that he will do what Francesco Becchetti has done at Leyton Orient.

Do we assume that Paladini will turn up to board meetings drunk, or high, or boasting about which of the club staff he is having an affair with which are all things which English chairmen at the 92 clubs have done.

We don’t assume he will threatening legal action against you own clubs fans. Or be banned from driving for being drunk. Or cheer the opposition during games. Or call the team rubbish to their faces. Or call them a waste of money. Or racially abuse one of his own team’s players. We don’t assume he will do any of these transgressions which were all done by English chairmen of Football League clubs and we do not read concerned articles worrying that a new owner at Valley Parade is liable to do them.

Too much of the debate about Gianni Paladini is framed in a context of his nationality with unpleasant undertones. When you start suggesting that Paladini will want to change the the club name or colours you probably need to ask yourself good questions about why you made that comparison.

We continue

The Rhodes commitment to supporters as seen in the low season ticket prices has been held over fans frequently as being on the verge of ending rather than being enshrined as part of the club putting the fans first. The weekend when Mark Lawn decided, then changed his mind on the club being put into administration following his car being damaged. Allowing the Valley Parade pitch to get into such a poor condition that it is laughed at by other teams managers. The much talked about ban on The City Gent from Valley Parade. This week’s unveiling of a new shirt which was not Claret and Amber stripes.

I’ve heard arguments about all these points: the finances dictate prices, why not wind up the club if your car is vandalised, its not our fault the pitch it bad, the City Gent should be supportive or what is the point of it, Nike control the shirt design; and you can decide for yourself how valid those defences are but as you do imagine if they were not coming from the “proper Yorkshireman” and others on the current board, but from Paladini, and how reactions would differ.

My point is that we should worry about that Mr Paladini might act in ways which are against the best interests of the Bradford City community, just as I believe we should worry more about what the current board do, and I should have worried more about what Geoffrey Richmond’s board was doing back when I started BfB back in 1998.

I am worried about what will happen to the club in the future if it is taken over, but I am worried about what will happen to it if it is not. The Football Association and the Football League have singularly failed to do anything to control the owners of football clubs. Most of the time most of the chairmen in football act in their interests and not in the club’s interest.

I’m worried about that.

Hopes and expectations

So here it is, the dreaded promise that pre-season brings and as a result, usually for Bantams anyway, the increased disappointment come May. Already on various message boards, across the web, fans are claiming how promotion is a must this year, as it was last year and what seems like every year since we tasted Premier League football and decided we were a big club.

In fact the last campaign I remember, outside the top flight, where fans weren’t widely expecting a successful season was 11 years ago. That year around this time I was sat in a pub in Wales with my dad and a high profile football magazine had predicted Bradford City would finish 24th out of 24. Being a naive young boy I refused to accept the prediction and the following conversation ensued;

‘They’re wrong dad, I bet you we get promoted’ a bold statement to which my dad replied ‘Unfortunately there’s not a chance’

Ever the optimist I insisted, ‘I bet you we do’.

‘Ok then, if Bradford get promoted this season I will buy us season tickets for the Premier League.’

That season a 3-2 win against Wolves on the final day secured promotion to the Premier League and the most expensive bet of my Dad’s life was lost, but unsurprisingly he didn’t care one bit.

Other than being young and not yet having faced the cruel realities of the footballing world, that year I had no reason to be sure of promotion. What reason have Bradford fans now got to be so sure of promotion this season?

Perhaps it is that the wage budget from a side who failed to win promotion last year has been halved? Or perhaps it is, as I suspect, that Bradford are too ‘big’ for this league. Surely the past few years have taught us, and also our neighbours down the road that this means nothing. I am sure there is very little that the fans can tell us about signings such as the ‘Barber from Bamber Bridge’, Steve Williams, or the possible signing of Guiseley’s James Hanson yet at the same time these two are expected to come from non league football and hit the ground running on the way to promotion to the third tier of English football.

Manager Stuart McCall one of the biggest culprits of this pre-season optimism over the past two years has told the fans to get real. He has told us the funds aren’t there to make dream signings such as Nicky Law, Dean Furman and Lee Hughes, the sort of players that will get you promoted from this division. The sort of players teams such as Notts County and Rotherham have got the funds to secure.

However, on the bright side a word of caution to these clubs and their newly found riches. Money meant nothing to the likes of ourselves and Shrewsbury Town last season as promotion was unable to be secured and little Exeter City – freshly promoted from the non-league – went up in both our places.

This is a reason for the optimistic Bradford fans to keep the faith. It is possible that James Hanson and Steve Williams could prove to be real gems and should we stay clear of injuries to key players such as Peter Thorne and Omar Daley, two of the major reasons for the collapse last year, we should be fighting at the right end of the table once more. Perhaps then come 8th May 2010 we will be sitting pretty in one of the top 7 spots.

I hope that these fans expecting promotion have those hopes fulfilled and like I did 11 years ago and all Bradford fans taste the sweet taste of promotion once more. Hopefully this time, for me, it will be that little bit sweeter because it’s unexpected.

Even the Big Issue man had a go at us!

The weekend had begun so well!

A good trip down with few motorway delays, we 4 checked in at the city centre hotel at 7 pm Friday. Just time for a quick shower and a bite to eat before going to sample a few of the Exeter centre hostelries. Then it was back for a quick nightcap before bed and a lovely night’s sleep.

Next morning a full English breakfast was followed by another look around, this time in daylight. The remains of the city wall and a visit to the castle were followed by a coffee in the square overlooking the cathedral. Then it was back to the hotel to meet the last of our 5 (who unlike us had travelled that morning) followed by a walk to the ground back through the city centre.

Just time for a quick pint at a pub in sight of the grounds away end for a bit of football chat with Exeter fans and a few other City fans.

it was when we got into the ground at 2-45 that the disquiet set in. the team selection didn’t meet with our approval! Comments ranged from “that’s not a team to win… it’s a team not to lose.” to “Stuart got the selection wrong at Rochdale… this is even more wrong.”

A couple of us chipped in with “why can’t he decide on his best 11 and let the opposition worry about us, that’s what we did in ’98/99, we all pretty much knew what the starting 11 would be week in week out.”
“Same in ’84/85” an older member of our group added.

After kick off, in the early part of the game our 5 across the middle didn’t particularly dominate the midfield and we persisted in hoofing the ball forward to our lone striker. Michael Boulding got no change against their big men at the back for Exeter.

Their goal was a fluke… simple as that; but, that apart Exeter were an eminently beatable side. City were toiling and the “not to win but not losing” strategy looked increasingly out of place. When the substitutions finally came, sadly there was precious little noticeable improvement. At the final whistle, as we made our way to the exit some City players ran across to the Bradford fans. As they did, from behind us we heard shouts of “F___ off” and “you’re a load of f___ing rubbish”.

I remember thinking “Stuart got a lot of unfair criticism on the message board when we were doing well. He’s gonna get slaughtered for this!”

As we walked back to the cars through the centre of Exeter, optimism was in short supply. After 2 defeats in a week against our nearest rivals, the dreaded play-offs looked to be looming. There was no talk of staying down south for the Bournemouth game.

The question was asked “Will winning our remaining home games be enough to secure a play-off place because, apart from at Chester I can’t see another away win this season if we play like that?”

Just then we reached a road junction between the city centre stores and a chap selling big issue looked at us with ill concealed amusement and said “Bradford? ha ha ha!”

Our misery was now complete!

In McCall I trust

Ever since the fixture list was released last summer, myself and some friends had been looking forward to our trip to St James’ Park, home of Exeter City. During the cold, dark autumn months of late 2008, five of us decided to make a weekend of it and stay over night in Exeter after the game. So with maps at the ready (no sign of a sat nav in my car) and our over night bags packed, four of us left West Yorkshire before 8am and headed south towards Exeter. Eddie commented that he hadn’t been up so early on a Saturday for years and what was worse, he and Stephen had not got to bed until the early hours of Saturday morning. However, with the thought of a good weekend ahead and a journey which was smooth with no hold ups or delays, we picked up our fifth team member, Paul, who’d caught a train from Reading to Exeter. We found our hotel, and after the helpful receptionist gave us directions to St James’ Park, we headed off to the ground in high spirits.

A couple of pints of real ale including the fine Tribute from the St Austell brewery were consumed in the friendly Green Tavern whilst watching Liverpool beat Manchester United 4-1 and then it was into the ground. As we walked into the away end, this is how I remembered some of my earlier away trips supporting City in the late 80’s and early 90’s; a terrace open to the elements! Andrew headed off for a Cornish pasty which prompted a stampede to the tiny snack bar located in the corner of the away end. Much of the pre-match talk centred around the fact that Thorne was only on the bench. Had McCall come for a point?

The game started fairly evenly with an outstretched Boulding just failing to connect with an O’Brien cross. Steve Jones, who had started on the right wing, due to Colbeck been relegated to the bench, tested Jones, the Exeter goalkeeper but his shot went straight at him. However, on 20 minutes disaster struck; an innocuous cross from Moxey on the Exeter left appeared to strike Arnison and looped over the stranded Evans and into the Bradford net. That was how the score stayed until half time.

The second half started with McLaren wearing a shirt which displayed no number on the back of his shirt. Is this against the rules? Answers to the editor please. City continued to toil away with the busy Boulding being supported by Law. However, with Furman, McLaren and Bullock all starting in our midfield, we were lacking width on the left hand side. The situation was crying out for the now fit Brandon to come on or even the recently signed Keith Gillespie. Neither came on but Thorne did appear in place of McLaren with about half an hour of play to go. Many supporters could be heard muttering, “why didn’t McCall start with two up front instead of going for a 4, 4, 1, 1 formation?” Unfortunately Thorne’s introduction to the game had little effect and Colbeck didn’t really have time to make an impact when he replaced the hard-working Furman with five minutes to go. Indeed, Exeter were the closest to scoring again, when Rehman bought down Stansfield and from the resulting free-kick, Evans finger-tipped Moxey’s fierce shot on to the cross bar. The final whistle blew following a Bradford corner and we had experienced our tenth away defeat of the season and more worryingly, our fourth consecutive away defeat.

As the 500 or so City faithful trudged away from the ground, you could now hear many supporters saying “if I was manager, I would have…” After any City defeat as I exit the ground, I always hear many supporters expressing their opinion (which they are entitled to do) which tends to suggest that they would make a better manager. Personally, I disagreed with McCall’s starting eleven. I would have gone for a 4, 4, 2 formation with Thorne starting upfront with Boulding and giving either Brandon or Gillespie their starting debut to provide some width on the left side of our midfield. However, I was delighted when McCall recently signed an extended contract as I believe that he is the right manager to take Bradford City forward. I’m sure that McCall wants promotion this season, just as much as we, the supporters, want it.

And so, the five of us headed into Exeter city centre for a few more pints of real ale including one in the greatly named Fat Pig followed by a excellent curry at Ganges. We were left to contemplate what might have been but it was interesting to hear more views on our performance on Sunday morning when we got chatting to some fellow City supporters, at our hotel, who’s also been to the game. Interestingly, we agreed that McCall should start with a 4, 4, 2 formation on Tuesday night at Bournemouth.

It is not plain which plan is being followed

Note: The following is Paul Firth’s report in the game with Exeter that was mailed on Saturday night but took some time to arrive leaving events to pass it with the news of the reason for Conlon and Clarke’s exclusion. The report makes interesting reading so is included.

Many words have been written on BfB earlier this season on the concept of ‘Plan B’ and, in particular, on whether Stuart McCall has one. At Exeter it was not plain which Plan or, indeed, if anything that might be dignified by the use of a term such as ‘plan’ had been put into action.

The obvious response to the Rochdale defeat was a reshuffling of the team. At kick off it wasn’t easy to work out what the team, as opposed to the eleven players, would be. Maybe this was the plan, to confuse the opponents. It certainly confused me for long enough. The Thorne/Boulding/Conlon debate took another twist with only the middle one of the three surviving. But what looked like a 4-5-1, with Boulding on his own, became a 4-4-1-1, with Nicky Law ‘in the hole’.

Zesh Rehman replaced Matt Clarke, who had been no worse than a few other defenders at Rochdale. But the midfield saw the biggest changes. Out went Joe Colbeck and back came both Lee Bullock and Paul McLaren. About the only description to be given to this section of the team was disjointed.

We all know how effective Law and Furman have been together and that there can be a problem if the opposition have a few more tall players. Disrupting that partnership can be justified, but not so easily. This was not so much a disruption as an earthquake. Furman looked lost. Not only was he without his partner, but he was no longer sure who his partner was. McLaren rarely crossed the half way line. Bullock’s function seemed to be to get on the end of any high ball from the back – and there were far too many of those again – and only Jones, in his spot on the right wing, seemed truly at home.

The bench contained no fewer than two more right wingers in Colbeck and the newly signed Gillespie, together with Brandon, Thorne and Ainge. The absence of a keeper should no longer be a surprise, perhaps, but do we really need two right wingers on the bench? Messrs Conlon and Clarke, sitting in the row behind me in the stand, looked in danger of tripping over their faces so long were they. I don’t think they liked not being in the sixteen.

The Cowshed roof at St James Park (the Exeter version) has an overhang that reminded me of the old Valley Parade stand. The football in 2009 also reminded me of the pre-1985 style. I lost sight of the ball for about a third of the game because either a stanchion obstructed my view or the ball was once more coming out of the sky above. The pitch appeared to be in very fine condition, but perhaps the groundsman had threatened both sides about wearing out his grass.

City without doubt are at their best when they pass the ball at pace along the ground and use the obvious skills of the front six. Instead they competed with the home team in a game of hoof-ball that was unedifying and rarely entertaining. It summed up the quality of the match that the only goal was a complete fluke. Dean Moxey advanced up the left wing, going past Arnison with some ease, despite the attempted hand-off. As Arnison returned for a second attempt Moxey crossed from near the corner. The ball was deflected up in the air over the head of the hapless (and capless) Evans and into the net. Whether the sun shining straight into his face made any difference only Evans will know. The Exeter keeper in the second half was not bare headed.

At half time there had been plenty of good work down City’s right, but the home keeper had had just the one shot to save, a half volley from outside the box hit well enough by Steve Jones, but requiring only a routine stop.

As the teams came out for the second half I couldn’t help thinking of the symbolism in McLaren’s change of shirt. His new top had neither number nor name. In every sense he would now be anonymous, any identity being revealed only when the number 4 came up on the fourth official’s board twenty minutes into the half. Enter Peter Thorne and another change of formation, with Law, Furman and Bullock vying with each other for the midfield area not covered by Jones.

As the second half progressed City had more and more possession in their opponents’ defensive third. Corners and free kicks were apparently endless, but the home keeper had very few saves to make, the best being with his feet following a Jones run and shot. In front of him Taylor and the wonderfully named Troy Archibald-Henville hardly put a foot wrong and dealt so comfortably with the string of high balls that they must have wondered if City’s defenders had been told that Barry Conlon was in the stand.

For a brief moment our saviour looked to be on hand. A long ball from Luke O’Brien found Peter Thorne between the central defenders and he was through into the area. Memories of that goal at Port Vale flashed through the mind, only to be wiped out in the next flash. Perhaps we should just say that there was a difference in pace, Thorne was put under pressure before being able to hit a shot and the move came to nothing.

Dean Furman’s confused day came to a slightly premature end when Joe Colbeck replaced him with five minutes remaining. There was still enough time for the entire team save for Luke O’Brien to go up for a corner and for Zesh Rehman to be yellow carded for an offence that might have brought a red – especially if it had really been an offence.

There had been much huffing and puffing, not to mention too large a portion of high balls. The effort was undeniable, but in truth neither team showed the skill level that would suggest they were capable of promotion. A disappointing result took City out of the play-off places n a day when a win would have done so much more. Messrs Conlon and Clarke were stony faced. Perhaps they shared my thought that, if we have to play so many high balls, it might be best to have someone their size to get under them.

The long leap of faith to Exeter for Bradford City

Exeter City, or Town, or United. I forget which it is but Michael Jackson once played here and like the King of Pop/Stuff that people don’t talk about any more City would like to get back into the big leagues.

Jackson is selling out stadium and City might be depending on which figure you believe but without wanting to run down the corner of Devon too much both club and pop star would rather be somewhere else.

For City to get on we need to play better than Tuesday night but 3-0 flattered them and a whistle happy Referee did not help matters. That said City need more spine and more punch away from home.

So who better to get that punch than Keith Gillespie the former Newcastle man who brawled unsuccessfully with Shearer and beat up the Beatles, well, George McCartney anyway. Gillespie is an out and out winger and one of the best crosses of the ball in the last fifteen years. He comes in to replace Omar Daley in the squad and played a reserve game alongside Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren and Kyle Nix as City’s midfield options increase again.

Joe Colbeck is struggling to get back to form and so could drop out for Gillespie’s debut but probably the former Manchester United winger will start on the bench alongside Brandon with Colbeck, Nicky Law, Dean Furman and Steve Jones in the midfield.

The back four still does not let in many goals but seems to binge on them like some demented Priest who presents one pious face to his flock on Sunday at Valley Parade with a clean sheet then goes away on a drink and drugs bender of letting in goals away from home. Zesh Rehman is in line for a recall probably over Paul Arnison but maybe over Luke O’Brien. I don’t like the idea of dropping a card carrying City fan for anyone. You get passion from playing passionate players and who is more passionate than a guy who if he was not on the pitch would be next to it watching?

Up front Barry Conlon is expected to be back on the bench for Michael Boulding. Peter Thorne keeps his place.

We talked about needing five points from these three away games. A game in we have zero but two wins would give us six points. The faith but be kept just like those people who refused to believe anything bad about Jacko and that Priest mentioned before. Why? Well whatelseyagonnado on a Saturday?

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’.

Ascent

As hours go the one from four to five as City played Exeter on Saturday was remarkable even by the standards the Bantams have set.

Leaving the field to a smattering of boos at half time Stuart McCall tweaked the layout of his team and sixty minutes later was the manager of the league leaders.

Wycombe Wanderers failed to beat Brentford and while Shrewsbury were sending out a warning with the match up between them and the Bantams to come in two weeks time City were the only team on fifteen points, the only team to have five wins, the team who is rightfully at the top of the division.

The hour turnaround pleased McCall – he called City “awesome” – and silenced those boos although those people were probably taking credit for turning things around. Credit though for the turnaround needs to go to McCall and an oft unspoken about tactical acumen in the management team that rather than addressing the issues of the first half that saw City a goal behind anticipated the problems of the second.

One up, Exeter would put two banks of four behind the ball and try frustrate the Bantams until the final whistle. McCall withdrew Paul McLaren to a deeper laying midfield role forcing the visitors to either allow the playmaker room to play or break ranks and leave holes. They never managed to balance out that quandary with McClaren pulling strings when left alone and the gaps left when he was pressured being exploited by Omar Daley and Joe Colbeck surging inside from the wing.

We talk about McCall the motivator, McCall the man-manager and McCall the legend but rarely does McCall get credit for tactical nouse as he showed to build this victory.

Getting credit is Omar Daley who seemed to be able to do no wrong in the eyes of supporters who seemed to have taken what they read in the T&A about his permanent purple patch to heart right until he showed the first sign of “the old Omar” – trying the sort of dribble that would win him man of the match an hour later – and the cliches poured forth.

The eight minute pre-half time spell did little to suggest the final result but this Bantams side has a mental toughness that is in no way mirrored in the chorus of the supporters who while not speaking with one voice are represented and remembered as jeering off a team that in an hour’s time would be top of the pile.

Perhaps though supporter’s reactions – boos and cheers – have lost significance to football clubs. Like a 14 year old who uses the eff-word as punctuation the boo has no currency as a comment because of its frequency and when language has no currency it stops making sense. We all lose our voice.

If Mike Ashley at Newcastle’s willingness to ignore the feelings of his club’s supporters – until he thinks they threaten his safety, that is – signals one thing it is that those in the club are far less concerned with what those supporting it think they are or should be. Perhaps the boo everything mentality that has taken hold in football is the justification for that.

If you stage a protest about how the club is being run just before the club ascends to the top of the Premier League you cheapen the value of a protest. If you boo a team playing well but a goal down you make your voice so much more ignorable.

Once clubs become hardened to the boos – once ignoring what the fans say becomes necessary – then all utterances from the stands becomes more ignorable. If as an owner or director of a club you cannot take the boos seriously because of their unintelligent frequency then why take the cheers as such? Why take a petition seriously? Why involve the supporters at all? All questions that as fans we need to address.

For the club, players and management the best riposte against boos is the league table, the five wins, the ascent to the top of the league for as a section of supporters make all our voices increasingly irrelevant Bradford City have rarely ever been so vital.

Flying colours

In the end the result disguised the fact it had been Bradford City’s biggest test of the season.

Going in at half time a goal behind having collectively played average, supporters unrecognising and undermining efforts, a disgruntled manager to face and the first questions over their ability to muster a promotion challenge – the players had much to prove.

An hour later they were leaving the pitch to wholehearted applause after a second half performance Stuart McCall would label “awesome”. Quickly finding an equaliser and not looking back, the players found a previously unused high gear to notch three more goals through some devastating attacking football.

All of which leaves City sitting top of the league and, while it may be early days, coming 11 years to the day of the last time a divisional summit was reached after August – a 2-2 draw against Middlesbrough in the old Division One – shows it’s a rare enough occurence to enjoy. Now the challenge is to stay there.

If the second half blitz provided plenty of evidence to believe this could finally be City’s season, the doubts cast during a disappointing first half performance shouldn’t be discounted. Home games against so-called lesser sides have proved City’s Achilles Heel to often in recent years. Usually on the back of a decent away win, the expectation is more over how many goals will be scored than merely whether the game would be won.

Newly promoted sides can be dangerous to play early season, as City discovered a fortnight ago, but Exeter appeared content to keep men behind the ball and attack on the break. The initiative was there to be taken but, as chances were created and a feeling a goal would inevitably arrive grew, the warning signs which have formed part of so many home failings in recent years were again neglected. Grecians strikers Marcus Stewart and Adam Stansfield provided Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke with some uncomfortable moments, with one slip from Lee resulted in City’s crossbar rattling and Rhys Evans earlier been forced into an excellent tip over.

The Bantams had chances too, with an Omar Daley rocket from distance been touched onto the bar by keeper Paul Jones, but when the visitors went in front it was far from the shock it might have been considered at 3pm. Midfielder Matt Gill fired home via a post after Clarke woefully sliced a clearance into his path. It’s not the first time the former Darlington centre half has cost City a goal through poor distribution, but his steady second half recovery offered a reminder of the qualities which make him a firm fixture in the side. A mistake can be forgiven, if it’s not repeated.

Up until this point the game had been played out to a rather muted atmosphere, save from the Bradford End, but in response to going behind the volume dramatically increased from the home crowd. Not, sadly, in support of their team, but to complain and boo. Firstly a loud crash could be heard as hundreds of City fans seemingly threw their toys out of the pram in unison, then it was the players turn to take cover.

The eight minutes between Exeter scoring and the half time whistle were easily City’s worst, and it can be no coincidence it occurred with many City fans vocally criticising everything they did. I don’t understand the thought process which concludes everything must suddenly be bad just because we’d fallen behind. As City attacked in Exeter’s box one fan near me loudly screamed they were not capable of scoring so what was the point. “Stop playing long ball!” yelled another. Two minutes later City knocked the ball around patiently just inside Exeter’s half and the same person demanded the ball be “put into the box.”

At half time his assessment was that City had been “rubbish” but this was simply not true. Faint booing could be heard and I pondered how our old home failings emanate from more than just our players and wish we’d provide them support when they need it most. Still a mistake can be forgiven if it’s not repeated, right?

So the test was set up, and passed with flying colours. Stuart later revealed that at half time he’d told Joe Colbeck to up his game and spark the rest of the team into life and, while it’s testament to last season’s Player of the Year that such expectations can be placed on him, the fact he delivered in such style shows it’s not just Daley we should be worried about receiving bids for come January. Colbeck ignited by picking up the ball on half way and charging forward, beating three covering defenders and firing in a shot across goal which was tipped out of Thorne’s reach by Jones. Next time the former Leyton Orient keeper would not be so lucky.

Minutes later the ball was worked to Colbeck, who unleashed a stunning shot from distance that Jones could only palm into Thorne’s path. City’s top scorer athletically shifted his body into a position to tap in the rebound and City were level. As the home fans roared in a mixture of approval and relief I thought back to the words I’d heard just as Colbeck’s shot flew towards goal from someone nearby, “What are you doing shooting from there?”

Four minutes later City went in front after another well-worked attack. Paul Arnison was invited to cross and his beautiful delivery was met by Michael Boulding at the far post, who headed home. Finally Exeter had to commit more players forward and they continued to pose awkward questions at City’s defence, though the likelihood of more City goals was always there.

The killer third arrived after Daley’s great close control and clever pass set Colbeck away and, though his low shot across the keeper looked to be drifting narrowly wide of the opposite post, Thorne prodded the ball across the line to make sure. Not the greatest of his eight goals this season, but the kind of poaching which leaves him on course to smash the 20-goal barrier by Christmas should he steer clear of injuries.

Daley’s contribution should not be devalued and he laid on the fourth after another lighting burst forward – was I the only one who felt a bit sorry for Exeter full back Steve Tully in facing the in-form Jamaican? – and clever setting up of Boulding to fire home his second. There could have been more with Boulding and substitute Barry Conlon going close before the end. If the home side had ended the first half desperate for the whistle, it was now the visitors anxious to be put out of their misery.

So top with only 40 games to hold out. The squad’s ability to cope with injuries and suspensions has yet to be proved, but as a settled side continues to grow so to do the expectations of what it can achieve. Few teams in this division will cope with City’s attack on this form and it should be noted that worse sides than Exeter are still due at Valley Parade.

Another test passed but, increasingly, it’s the rest of the division who’ll be considering the Bantams their biggest.

Maintaining consistency – Bradford City vs Exeter City – League Two Preview 2008/2009

Consistency (con-sis-ten-cy)
noun for use in Professional Football
1 personal: To maintain outstanding levels of performance over the length of a career.
2 for a team: To win all the time without fail except – maybe – when playing Brazil.

The word of the week in seven days that have seen England revert to heroes from zeros and heard Mark Lawn tell all that Omar Daley has a release clause in his contract is been this football specific variation on consistency.

For England – as with all football teams – consistency is defined by winning every game in emphatic style. A subnote in the thrashing of Croatia was that the national side needed more of the C word which stuck one as odd considering that a consensus seemed to have emerged that the Three Lions played badly all the time.

Derby County were consistent last season in the Premiership – they got beat all the time – but that is never what is meant in the football world.

Likewise when players are called on to be consistent very few people are suggesting that they maintain average levels of performance week in, week out. Omar Daley’s work on the left wing in the first seven games of the season has been impressive to say the least and now there are calls for the Jamaican winger to be “consistent”.

Since his arrival in England at Preston then Reading and during his Bradford City career Daley has been the very model of inconsistency veering between the unplayable for defenders to the unplayable for managers and he has enjoyed these patches of blistering form that justify his games in the wilderness. These variations seem to be the nature of the beast and probably have as much to do with the size and agility of the full backs, the widths of pitches and the service of team mates as they do Omar’s attitude which is oft and justifiably criticised.

Nevertheless the calls for a consistent Omar are decoded as a request for the winger to continue his mesmerising play at least until Christmas when he can be sold to the Championship and Chris Brandon might be fit to replace him.

Brandon’s injury in a reserves win over Scunthorpe means he will not be making his long overdue Bradford City debut in the weekend tie with Exeter City and stays on the sidelines supporting the team he has always supported. Brandon no doubt appreciates what he is watching as much as the rest of the City fans. Being injured is no fun for any footballer but the pain of not playing on Saturday must be eased by seeing the side you should be in winning games.

Winning ways were re-established last weekend at Port Vale with Peter Thorne returning to scoring ways. Thorne speaks highly of his partnership with Michael Boulding which will continue when City face Exeter.

Another partnership that thrives is Lee Bullock and Paul McLaren who have worked out teething problems to build solidity. The challenge of playing at home against teams who pack defences has broken more midfield duos on the slide from grace than we – or Chris Brandon – care to recall but this pairing seem to enjoy holding the ball more than most which works well with the four other forward players attempts to make runs and find positions. Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley make those runs on the wings once more.

The back four continues to pick itself with the two Pauls Arnison and Heckingbottom at full back and Matthew Clarke and Graeme Lee in the middle. Rhys Evans has a clean sheet to build on from Port Vale.

All of which is consistency of a sort – how often has City’s one to eleven been so easy to name? – but the consistency City fans are hoping for is that definition of continued victory.

Exeter City – recently returning to the Football League – stand in the way. They have had an inconsistent start to the season losing three times at home but being unbeaten on their travels. They recorded a first win agianst Accrington Stanley last weekend and their promotion from the Conference last season gained them a reputation as hard to beat.

Nevertheless beat them City must – if only to maintain consistency.

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.

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