Exciting times ahead, but perhaps we want more

Welshman John Hartson likes a good rant. When his Wimbledon team conceded a goal at Valley Parade in 2000 he ranted his way to a red card after reportedly nearly ranting his way to one in the tunnel before this game. Something in the last eleven years has convinced the good people at ITV that he should be given the microphone in support of the England vs Wales game in the week and so his rants moved into my front room.

Moving aside from the curiousness of his statements on the English having an Italian manager Hartson declared himself excited by the young Welsh team which claimed a gallant defeat at Wembley casting a critical eye on Fabio Capello’s England who had ended the game as victors, a draw off winning the group and qualifying for the European Championships.

Hartson’s excitement is justified – Wales look like they might have a team capable of undoing the wrongs committed against the country by John Toshack and getting back to the Mark Hughes side of 2004 where they nearly qualified for a major competition – but as a practical concern it misses the rather obvious point that what he is getting excited about has become tedious for the team he criticises.

No matter what one thinks of England’s performance there has become a kind of metronomic precision to the national team’s progression to World Cup’s and European Championships. Since the early 1980s England have missed three summers of what will be sixteen times of asking. While Hartson may be excited about the chance to be a part of one of those tournaments the reality of football is that England will be.

Which is because – as has been proved over the last two games, and the previous World Cup qualifying under Fabio Capello – England are good at winning games and getting results to get to the sort of tournaments which their group opposition aspire to.

Being good at getting results is not always something to get excited about but the last minute conversion of Jack Compton’s cross by Ross Hannah at Morecambe last week has pulses racing. City’s game plan seemed to have been blown away in the blustery coastal winds but Phil Parkinson’s new team showed a character to keep going and a resolve to nick a goal which turned a defeat into a good result.

Again a reality of football is that at all levels an away draw is always a good result and if a team wins home matches, draws away amassing two points a game then it will probably end up promoted. Parkinson is looking to build on that result with his first home game.

Parkinson inherited a City team which seemed to be growing in belief. The 4-2 win over Barnet showed what could happen if the young team got the ball down and passed it. In the league, since Peter Jackson left, City have a home win and an away draw.

Another former England manager – Sir Bobby Robson – said that a team needed a player who scored one in two and another who scored one in three and then it would do well. Up front James Hanson has three in six games and he may be partnered with Ross Hannah who has two in six. Mark Stewart would be unlucky to step down after some very good performances but Hannah has knocked firmly on the door. Nakhi Wells is back from international duty while Nialle Rodney is injured.

The midfield two of Richie Jones and Michael Flynn is growing in effectiveness. It is curious that Welshman Flynn – obviously a player capable enough to be in the side – was being cast aside by Jackson with no more explanation than the idea that the manager “didn’t fancy him” as if that were a reason to lose a good and useful player. Chris Mitchell will hope that his last league performance at Valley Parade has not been forgotten and Jack Compton will hope his pinpoint cross to Hannah wins him a place in the side but Kyel Reid and – especially – Jamie Devitt will be hoping to get places on the wing.

Matt Duke will keep goal behind an increasingly settled back four of Liam Moore, Luke Oliver, Guy Branston and Robbie Threlfall.

The Bantams face a Bristol Rovers team who are sitting in mid-table as they recover from relegation and are smarting from a 4-1 defeat by City’s opposition next week Crawley Town. Rovers have not won since the 16th of August and when a team is not winning then there is always a worry. As City found before Jackson’s surprise exit losing can be softened by an exciting, young team.

How long exciting losing under Jackson could have been tolerated we will never know, but perhaps John Hartson will tell us.

Comments off. Michael Wood is on holiday.

Does a football club need a manager?

“Jockey.”

I’ve never understood the word when used in a football context. A player can “jockey” another player, I know that much, but to what effect I could not say. I know a man who does though:

The Manager.

Chief amongst the manager’s roles is deploying words like “Jockey” and – according to Fabio Capello – 99 words which communicate with footballers.

Nevertheless, jockey aside, a full knowledge of this subset lexicon would not seem to be hard to grasp. Most of the manager’s role seems to follow from that, or so it seems, with a four four two here and a craft transfer swoop there the manager’s job seems a bit, well, simple.

We have a man called Major Buckley to thank for phrases like transfer swoop by the way. A ex army man he brought the language of the tactical battlefield to football. He also used to year plus fours -the brassneck of the man – as he managed Blackpool, Wolves and Leeds United

The managers job can be boiled down to such simple elements that it is a wonder that anyone bothers with them at all and – in Bradford City – there seems to be a club which has decided to do away with the idea of a manager altogether.

At least a manager as Major Buckley would understand the term. Nominally City have Peter Jackson now and had Peter Taylor before but they would fulfil the role of trainer more than manager. Buckley’s Trainer got the players ready for the next game – essentially Jackson’s remit – while the Major got on with, well, managing.

Which is to say planning. Planning how to be better – including a flank sweep for a new inside right but for the first time as a manager not exclusively in player captures – and working towards those aims. Planning a new tactic, planning a ground move, planning the name of the local underground station in Herbert Chapman’s case. Back then the manager, with so much to discover, went and discovered it.

Which perhaps explains why most clubs seem to have the same tendency as City to reduce the manager’s job. With football clubs having got to a level of maturity where most would agree on the best way to do things many of the roles of the manager of old are done, and maintaining them is taken inside the boardroom now. One of the problems that the modern manager faces is that most of the things that managers of tore used to do to gain a competitive advantage have been done. From giving a ball each to the players to signing The Three Amigos it is hard to find anything new to do.

So – in the absence of innovation – the manager explains to his players the word “Jockey” and trusts to them that his one hundred words will bring significant improvements. Perhaps club’s will do away with the manager altogether. Indeed there was an attempt in the mid to late nineties for clubs to dub the man in the big chair as Head Coach or something similar.

City are in the process of recruiting someone to sit in that big chair although the role and remit of the successful applicant will likely not be that broad. For now Peter Jackson takes the team to Stevenage for his sixth game.

Looking to turn around a home draw and defeat in two away matches Jackson’s claim for the City job was strengthened with the news that Alan Knill had become Scunthorpe United boss this week and it seems the more Jackson does the job, the more it seems to rest with him.

A first trip to Stevenage for league football presents Jackson with a chance to do a double – City were booed for beating Boro earlier in the season – and to continue his itching towards the entirely modest reward of building City away from relegation.

The call on goalkeepers which has seen Jackson favour Jon McLauglin over Lenny Pidgeley is bound to give a steer on new contracts for next year and, it seems, that call is being made by Jackson.

A word on McLauglin who had a game of highs and lows last week but retains a level of popularity with Bantam fans that seems to go back to the idea that he should gave been given a chance rather than Huddersfield Town loanee Simon Eastwood.

It seems a long time ago now that anything that arrived at Bradford City with a Huddersfield Town connection should be automatically rejected by some fans. How times change.

Midfield pair Jon Worthington – back from suspension – and Michael Flynn are reunited with Gareth Evans on the right hand side. Jackson struggles to find a wide man in the set up he inherited with Kevin Ellison injured and Omar Daley out on loan but Leon Osbourne’s performance in the reserves suggests his name.

Certainly Jackson needs to find someone more effective than Scott Dobie on the left flank. The club are interested in Christian Nanetti who rocked up from QPR via Jamie Lawrence’s football academy and Ashford Town as they look to return to playing wide men.

Planning, Major Buckley would say, is for the war and not just the battle. Alas most decisions on and for managers seem to be made on a battle by battle basis. One has to wonder – in that context – if a manager is needed at all. If his role is reduced to one of trainer while the boardroom retain responsibility for the strategy and planning of the club – and putting that plan into action – then is a manager really needed?

Managers arrives talking about transfer budgets and wage budgets and one gets the feeling that Major Buckley and his ilk would have been certain that they would decide how much of the club’s resources should be employed in different areas and gone about deploying it.

Jackson seems likely to favour the back four of David Syers, Steve Williams, Lewis Hunt and Luke O’Brien although would no doubt been keen to point out that injury has forced his hand in selection in the games where the Bantams have been beaten. Luke Oliver has a chance of being fit.

Up front Jackson has seen his team struggle to score although it would not be true to suggest that City had struggled to create chances. Chib Chilaka showed his abilities with a good haul of five in his last two games and Darren Stephenson showed a willingness last week but Jake Speight was missed when he left the game last weekend and is likely to be partnering James Hanson.

Hanson dominates defenders. He does that because he already knows how to “Jockey”. One wonders who taught him to do that, and if the manager who did had anything much to do after.

The bus ride to Kent as Bradford City face Gillingham

If there is a place to want to be this weekend it is apparently on the Bradford City team bus that will be taking the players to and from the Priestfield Stadium for the Bantams’ important League Two clash with Gillingham.

Interim manager Peter Jackson has been quick to point out that there are a lot of southern players in the bulging squad he has inherited. He’s not saying there’s a North-South divide, just that no longer will players, who have friends and family close by the Southern excursions that form part of the League Two fixture programme, be allowed to get off the bus early. A statement that has attracted strong approval from some impressed supporters.

With such a strong keenness to get the full time job, it is perhaps understandable that Jackson is keen to differentiate himself from the previous regime and drop not-so subtle hints that he believes the more relaxed stance the last guy took was wrong. However a few media soundbites to curry favour with supporters willing to embrace new reasons for why Peter Taylor was a poor manager deserve to be taken with large a pinch of salt.

For much of this week, every word uttered by Jackson has seemingly been met with strong approval by some supporters – and there is already some clamour to sign him up before he has even taken charge of a game. But the simple, overlooked reality is that every new manager over the years is the recipient of warm approval for what they initially say, and the idea that Jackson forcing the players to eat breakfast together is a meaningful reason towards why he’d be the right man for the job is somewhat over-simplistic.

Just one year ago, Peter Taylor was receiving exactly the same treatment from some supporters. Every public utterance was not only considered over-whelming evidence of his brilliance – it was another opportunity to slate the last guy. So if Jackson feels the need to talk down Taylor’s approach – and he is entitled to do that if he believes it will earn him the job – he should do so knowing full well that, should he succeed in getting a contract, in one or two years time his successor will making similar statements about why his different methods will be more effective  – which will be leapt upon by some as evidence Jackson was a terrible manager.

It’s happened before, countless times.

City Director Roger Owen was last year quick to ensure we all knew that Taylor – unlike his scruffy, ill-disciplined predecessor Stuart McCall – was making the players wear suits on matchdays. ‘Brilliant’ was the general reaction, but it hardly boosted results. David Wetherall was quick to deride the players’ lack of fitness after taking over from Colin Todd in 2007, but his efforts to introduce a high-intense approach coincided with some of the worst performances of the season. Bryan Robson and Todd claimed they would play attractive passing football “unlike the previous manager who preferred direct football”, even though Nicky Law hadn’t actually played in this way.

And this need for a new manager to provide tedious reasons for they are different to the last man – in order to earn praise and encourage favourable comparisons to the outgoing guy – isn’t exclusive to City. Witness the always positive welcome new England managers receive. Sven Goran Eriksson supposedly failed at the 2006 World Cup because he let the WAGS stay in the same hotel; under Steve McLaren the squad didn’t eat their meals together. So Fabio Capello was praised for banning the WAGS and for not allowing players to leave the dinner table until the last man had finished, but England’s fortunes failed to improve.

All of this is not supposed to be intended as an attack on Jackson. BfB has been criticised in recent days for not being positive enough on his interim arrival; but, for me at least, it’s more a weariness about this reoccurring situation than anything personal.

The club continues to under-perform, and somehow all the blame for it ends its way solely on the manager’s shoulders, and he is got rid of. Then a huge wave of positivity greets the next man and he is initially praised for nothing more than a couple of nice comments in the press, before in time it all becomes his fault all over again.

Maybe Jackson is the right man; but after so many failed managerial appointments over the last decade, it seems foolish to dive into falling head over heels for him so willingly and so quickly.

Is he right to keep Southern-based players on the team bus all the way back to Bradford? Who knows, but the insinuation that Taylor failed because he made certain allowances for people who have family and friends hundreds of miles away from Bradford is misguided and somewhat trivial. Paul Jewell was known to make similar allowances to his players during the last promotion season, and team spirit wasn’t a problem then. At worst, Taylor stands accused of treating adults like adults.

Let us, for example, imagine the negotiations for signing Tommy Doherty last summer – someone who has previously played all his career in the South. Doherty might not have been keen to move so far North, away from loved ones, so Taylor may have offered a concession that he can go home at weekends after the match, including not travelling back to Bradford after a game in the South. As a result City can sign a talented player who would have proved more effective had an injury not hampered his efforts.

More realistically what Jackson offers the club is someone who will do things different to Taylor. There will be some methods he’d employ that would work better than Taylor’s equivalent approach, but other ideas which won’t. However we come to view Taylor’s time in charge, the facts are his strategy has delivered outstanding success at certain clubs but didn’t work at Valley Parade. That doesn’t mean those methods are wrong, more that we need a manager who’ll be able to flourish in the Bantams’ environment.

Jackson gets his first true outward opportunity to stake a claim for the job with the long trip to Priestfield tomorrow. The Gills have always been strong at home – even last season when they were relegated from League One – and though City have been able to enjoy success in Kent, most notably in the last meeting two years ago, it is the kind of place they often return from pointless. An interesting first test for Jacko.

It seems a waste of time to predict his team, other than to expect a 4-4-2 formation that will include some of the players who clearly impressed him during the reserves 6-2 hiding of Port Vale on Tuesday. So expect Scott Dobie, Gareth Evans and Jake Speight to be knocking on the door to partner James Hanson. In addition Jon Worthington, who played under Jackson at Town, will be hopeful of a recall.

Whoever makes the cut, it’s to be hoped the coach journey doesn’t prove to be the day’s only highlight.

Taylor gets back to being tough with Williams injury

Steve Williams was left out of the squad for the game with Stevenage after breaking one of Peter Taylor’s club rules.

Taylor requires that players report injuries they have and Williams – following his excellent display against Nottingham Forest – did not. The manager’s rod of iron rule saw the defender excluded from the squad. Discipline in the squad – for Taylor – is everything.

Williams returns to the squad for the weekend game with Torquay United with the manager unequivocal in his punishment and the reasons for it. Williams had a day off when he should have been in having treatment on a sore hamstring – Taylor says – and that is unprofessional. Punishment done, Williams back in the squad.

For Taylor WilliamsHamstringGate gives the manager a chance to publicly re-flex his muscles as a disciplinarian following a summer in which it was hard for him to project that image. Gavin Grant might have reported every injury, never turned up late for training and always tracked back but being the manager of a player who is sent to prison for murder – especially the manager who had re-signed the player – painted the gaffer in a poor light.

Add to that Jake Speight’s jailing and – rightly or wrongly – City looked like a team ill disciplined and Taylor out of touch. Swinging the bat at Williams for his transgression in a public way reasserts Taylor as the hard task master – cross him and suffer.

While the public glare might be unfair on Williams once again the ends for Taylor justify his means. Taylor rates the discipline of his squad – which is to say their willingness to do as he tells them rather than to avoid yellow cards – above all. His comments on players reflect this working around the idea that if a player “works hard and does the right things” then he will do well. The right things are laid out by the manager.

Laid out by all managers up and down the leagues – one recalls the famed Ryan Giggs/Lee Sharpe party story – oft ignored by players. When manager Stuart McCall had Matthew Clarke and Barry Conlon out drinking and dealt with it half-heartedly, Taylor will not do the same.

The risk is that Taylor the Taskmaster – as Corporal Capello stands accused of – will squeeze the enjoyment from the squad with restrictions and rules but the manager would counter that enjoyment comes from winning and that is worth the sacrifices. The booing following a hard working victory undermines what Taylor is doing in that regard.

Williams moves on – probably in need of a break on Saturday following a superb display midweek – and Taylor reasserts for him, for the rest of the players and to Bradford City supporters that there is one man you should listen to at Valley Parade, and it is he.

How good is James Hanson?

When a shelf stacker and Guiseley forward put a couple of goals past Bradford (Park Avenue) on new year’s day two years ago one has to wonder if the people at the other Leeds/Bradford game asked the question “How good is James Hanson?”

For sure he had – by all accounts – dominated the Park Avenue defenders but – like Hanson – they were part times and while the Guiseley looked good he did not stride the field like a Colossus. Eventually Mark Ellis had a whisper to Stuart McCall who took him to Bradford City where he became top scorer in his first season.

When watching England beat Hungry on Wednesday night most of the discussion around our sofa was on the young players called up by Fabio Capello and the ramifications of that. There was a contention – by yours truly – that Newcastle United’s much coveted Andy Carroll should have been given a call up. Others thought that (amongst other things on a lively night of discourse) a player could not be judged as good enough for the England side if he had not been proven good enough in the Premier League.

So the question formulated that if Carroll might be considered good enough on the basis of a season not competing against the top class of English football how good could Hanson be?

Rewind to Hanson’s first season at Valley Parade and one recalls on many occasions turning to those around and exclaiming with an amazement that “that guy just does not lose headers!”

Indeed Hanson – when fit and on form – is uncanny in his abilities to rise high, win the ball and feed it accurately to his team mates. Ball winning was a Barry Conlon thing but Barry did not win as often, nor did he head it as accurately, nor did even he put in the effort of James Hanson and when watching last season’s player of the season very few would have put the limits on him that were placed on Conlon.

Conlon – it was said – had to have his best game to be as good as the rest of the side and “good enough” for League Two. Hanson – thus far – has not come up against a League Two defence where he did not enough the balance of play. Long may his superb attitude continue because – at the moment – one doubts that League Two is poising different problems than that game with Park Avenue.

Then came Nottingham Forest a team that – were it not for the randomness of the play-offs – be in the Premier League and the squad to go with it. Hanson – a half time sub – enjoyed as good a return against the twice European Champions as he did against League Two sides, and did in his non-league days. He won more in the air than one would expect against a League Two side, let alone a side who have pretensions for the Premier League.

So how good is James Hanson? Tongue in cheek one might say that if Andy Carroll might wear the three lions then why not give Hanson a call up? If one does not believe that having played in the top flight is essential for England honours – and Steve Bull‘s five in thirteen suggest that a player who has not been at the highest level can offer something to England – then perhaps the national management should be looking at the League Two players who impressively play up when facing a side from a higher division. Scalability in football play is a rare concept.

Returning to the question in hand – and not suggesting that he should be partnered with Wayne Rooney next game – how good is James Hanson?

Certainly he has proved himself able at levels lower than League Two and at League Two itself. His first game against a higher opposition did not curtail his progress so perhaps all one can say is that so far we have yet to see a ceiling on his abilities.

Perhaps though for an answer to the question we need to look not at ourselves, but at the stars. The younger stars of Nottingham Forest that is who were used that night and that manager Billy Davies described as having things come to easy to. Davies’ criticism that a young player has the big car and the nice house too early at his club and as a result they lack the hunger makes a sharp contrast to the two City goalscorers on the evening.

As Davies bemoans the BMWs that his teenagers drive Hanson and fellow goal getter David Syers and men of the match Jon McLaughlin Steve Williams know that a failure will take them back to the days of part time football and a day job. If they ever drive a BMW it is because they have rewarded themselves for a lot of hard work by replacing the broken down Skoda.

There is something utterly refreshing about watching Hanson, Syers, McLauglin and Williams play. When asking how good one of these players can be then the answer is something of a cop out – they can be as good as they want to be.

At present there is a debate on McLaughlin and if he is “good enough” as if this were a binary situation and one which should the player kick back and stop making the effort that has put in him in the position he is in now he would remain at the level he is now.

It is an excellent attitude which has brought them into league football and that same attitude that saw them as the core members of a team which beat Nottingham Forest. Maintain that attitude and it is hard to set a limit on what they can achieve, lose it and they will stop being “good”.

England and City lack the mechanism

As Fabio Capello prepares his England side for the third game of a so far disturbing World Cup campaign he does so under an expectation from his employers that should his charges not progress then the Italian will leave his post.

The FA expect Capello to resign – sacking him after removing the clause of removal less than a month ago is out of the question – and will no doubt recall the lofty aims of reaching the semi-finals which were talked about in preparation for the World Cup. Those aims are very achievable for the England side – if not more – but first things first the lads have to string three passes together. When that follows everything else falls into place.

Bradford City last season played with a manager who had offered and withdrawn his resignation the previous season. Stuart McCall said he would leave the club if he did not take his team to the play-offs and he did not but the contract he had in place allowed him to resign – or not to resign – as he saw fit and when he was convinced to stay so he did until he felt that once again he could no longer achieve a play-off position.

The two situations have parallels and the employers in both cases could learn. If there is a minimum requirement for the position – and while these two cases have it as that requirement is set by the managers themselves one has to suspect that the employers have a similar set of aims – then there seems to be scope for including those requirements as a mechanism in the contracts of the manager.

Take Peter Taylor for example who has signed a one year deal with the club. Taylor has moved his family up North for the experience of being City boss but – seemingly in an effort to ensure he maintains a level of control – Mark Lawn has only offered a one year deal that hinges on the club achieving something this year. Taylor accepts this as part of the package of modern football but it strikes one as odd and unusual that a criteria for success should exists in the minds of the chairmen who may or may not offer a new deal at the end of the season and not in the public realm.

One imagines that as he watches today’s game Mark Lawn has in his head a set of achievements which Taylor must make in order to have a new contract offered. Promotion would almost certainly be on that list, a play-off place without promotion might be, cup runs might figure on the list. Come next March if City are hovering there or there abouts and his manager is doing well but only have two months of his deal left to run Lawn might decide to take the plunge and give him a new deal. Should the team fall – as happened before – then Lawn would regret that and should Taylor decide that his now bolstered CV could earn him more stability elsewhere then Lawn could rue not offering sooner.

The solution is in the problem. The set of criteria could be build into the contract as a mechanism. Imagine a deal on the table for three years, perhaps five, which includes the stipulation that various achievement criteria need to be met in order to have that contract roll over from one year to the next. The contract says you will be Bradford City manager next season if you achieve a top seven finish. If a manager did fail to meet the criteria then he could be offered a new deal but his old one would be as invalid as if the last year of it had just run out and the club would be free to find a replacement without the messy business of firing.

For the manager’s protection there is a punitive payment by the club should his contract be terminated giving him the security of not having to worry about being fired during the season for poor results and for the club there is the confidence that the man in charge – if successful – is tied to the club long term.

Best still for supporters the who-can-shout-loudest game of baying for a manager to be sacked is done away with. The manager has a job at the end of the season if he achieves various things otherwise he does not and all the shouting and hoo-har in the world would not change that.

The devil is in the detail. The mechanism would have to be said at a level that supported progress while recognising limitations. It need not be tied to league position either and could have the weight of cup matches won or home victories achieved in it if those were the requirements of the chairman offering the deal. Most importantly though it is transparent and makes a statement to all what the manager and the clubs aims are and what is considered to be performance rather than allowing managerial decisions to fall into the realms of personality and ego.

Fabio Capello aims for the semi-finals of the World Cup but is expected to resign should he not reach the last sixteen having taken the job from Steve McLaren who was paid off after his failing to make the European Championships last sixteen. If there is a minimum requirement for the England side to achieve under a manager then write that into the contract in a way that ends debate and sets in stone what is considered realistic and good enough.

England and the Spirit of Sir Bobby

Before the days of frustration seemed to overwhelm English football in the mid-1990s when the clichés of losing to the Germans and overpaid players under performing started to loom large in the popular mindset there were two World Cups in which are said to have excelled.

I recall them as halcyon days myself. Whatever I will say about my parents I will never criticise the slap dash attitude to bedtime that meant that unlike many of my schoolmates I was allowed to stay up until two or three in the morning watching as much of the Mexican World Cup of 1986 as I liked and saw everything up to and beyond The Hand Of God.

When the Italian World Cup of 1990 came around I’d finished my GCSEs the aforementioned parents were on holiday in Bulgaria and I had nothing to do in the summer except watch football. They were glorious days that ended in Rome, on penalties, with Gazza’s tears and Sir Bobby’s clenched fist of regret.

If only, it seemed to say.

Those days are recalled as a silver age by England FC. Not Moore and co in 1966 at Wembley but the next best thing with unfair exits at the heart of the mythology of both. A far cry from Fabio and a team which struggled to put three passes together in a row in South Africa.

Perhaps not. In 1986 the English started against Portugal – do not let the name scare you these were a third rate European nation then – and a win was expected but did not come. Indeed I can recall clearly seeing the ball sweep in from the close side and be finished untidily at far post by a rather portly looking chap with a moustache. England had threatened in the game I recall but ended with nothing at all.

Then came Morocco – a place that at the time I associated more with a cartoon Mole than football – who were the minnows of the group a fact illustrated by the way that they had two players to a sticker in the Panini album.

The minutia of the game – played in the early hours – eludes me but the major moments are burnt into the mind. Bryan Robson – who was a one of a kind player in his day – went off injured clutching the shoulder Sir Bobby Robson had begged Manchester United to allow him three months off to have an operation to fixed and about five minutes later Ray Wilkins was sent off for what some might call throwing the ball at the Referee although others would say that were the round thing to have hit a snail on the way to the man in the middle then it would have stopped so weak was the hurl, clearly not a red card offence but a red card was given.

I remember half time in our house but only when I’m talking to my therapist.

One point from two games and England where nowhere. The fans who had paid to go to Mexico were demanding that the FA or even the Thatcher Government pay for them to get home and most certainly for for Sir Bobby Robson to be sacked. Having failed to qualify for Euro 84 it seems that Bobby – or Booby Robson as he was christened back then – and England would part company not long after.

Peter Beardsley was thrown into the side and Gary Lineker got a hat-trick against Poland and then the rest soon became a glorious history that does not record the pressure that Robson resisted that would have had him take the ageing Trevor Francis over Beardsley nor does it recall how and why Robson arrived on his pairing of the two, of deploying the uniquely useful Steve Hodge to do the running with Glenn Hoddle did not.

Robson – Sir Bobby – found his team after two games because his plans had to change.

Four years later Robson was a dead man walking. He had handed in his resignation from England and in the run up to the finals had been exposed as having an affair. Euro 88 had been woeful with England losing all three games and the pressure had told on the England manager.

The opening game saw Gary Lineker give England a good start with a scruffy goal but Jack Charlton’s Irish side ground the game down into an unattractive slug fest in a nasty wind and the game finished 1-1. A week later and during a 0-0 draw with Holland which saw England put in a good display also saw Bryan Robson once again be injured out a tournament.

The quality of that Dutch performance is understated and a strike from Stuart Pearce bulged the goal but was ruled out for being struck from an indirect free kick but there was a confidence that came from that display in 1990 which can not be said to be here in 2010.

Nevertheless there are three commonalities. Firstly that England had two draws in the group from the first two games and secondly that neither Robson nor Capello’s side had been behind at any point. Lineker and Steven Gerrard gave leads which were pulled back in the first games before goalless draws in the second.

Thirdly after two games – and to use a phrase which became popularised after the semi-final which resulted – the players went to the manager and “had a word

The England players had decided that the team – as it was – lacked fluidity being a 442 with Peter Shilton in behind Paul Parker, Terry Butcher, Des Walker and Pearce; Paul Gascoigne and Steve McMahon partnered in the middle of flank pair John Barnes and Chris Waddle; Lineker and Beardsley up front. They told Robson that they wanted to move to a three at the back formation – adding Mark Wright – which would allow Parker and Pearce more freedom.

The machinations of the change are lost in football history. Butcher was injured when Wright played and scored against Eygpt but by the time the second round make with Belgium took place and David Platt scored his king-making late goal England had switched formation away from Robson’s choice to what the players wanted. That flexibility proved the making from the man to the legend.

England’s players enjoy a full and frank discussion with Fabio Capello enjoying the full public backing of his captain John Terry – who we recall got nothing of the sort from his International manager – who it is said are keen to see the Italian change from the 442 which has brought him so many honours to a 433 that includes Joe Cole on the left of a three up front.

It remains to be seen the results of such a suggestion. Sir Bobby Robson was able to be flexible to the needs of the matches ahead of him and the demands of the squad and in letting the players make the decision for him he signed over an ownership of the team to them. Invested in the selection perhaps Robson made the result matter more to his players because they felt more of an authorship of the team.

Perhaps the spirit of Sir Bobby – involved in advertising this World Cup – comes in the manager handing over some responsibilities inside the camp to his players? Capello’s high-handedness is a long way from that put very much what was wanted after “Stevie and Frank” and the regime of McLaren which was seen as too close to the players. Often the solution to the last problem becomes the current problem.

Indeed it remains to be seen how these first two games of the 2010 World Cup will be recalled. Portugal and Marocco, Ireland and Holland are but footnotes in bigger stories and it is not so much the result of the meeting, but the match on Wednesday and any that follow it which will dictate how Capello’s story is to be told.

Capello contemplates his choice of headlines

If the world laughed at the New York Post’s headline of USA Win 1-1 then one wonders what it will make of the booing, the dressing room invasions and the paraphrasing of Churchill that has come following England’s failure to beat Algeria?

Perhaps it was Wayne Rooney’s questioning of the booing as not being loyal support which has seen the morning newspapers give the nation’s side an easier ride than perhaps expected. A collective breath taken by editors who realise that having spent the best part of two months talking about how committed to the English cause they are Rooney is right to say that turning on the team at this stage is no definition of loyal support.

The agitator-in-chief The Sun opted for a photograph of a few of the players with the the phrase “Never in the field of World Cup conflict has so little been offered to so many” and there is – for once – some merit in the statement. England’s players stand accused of offering little, of performing poorly, of not achieving and while the counter to that – that the support was not up to much either – might be true the inter-relationship between the one and the other mitigates neither.

The French – who lost rather than drew and have not the luxury of a fate in their own hands as England do – woke up to the quote as headline too “Va te faire enculer sale fils de pute” in L’Equipe over a photograph of Raymond Domenech being talked to by Nicolas Anelka which translated includes some of the words that Zidane reacted to so badly in the last World Cup final and serves to put a further nail in the coach’s coffin and see Anelka sent home.

The German Kicker seemed less upset with the 1-0 defeat to the Serbs with the headline Deutschland Katerland which either means Germany Are Tomcats or more likely Germany’s Hangover. Perhaps there is a correlation between strength of the rebuke for the former two nations and the relaxed nature of the third that ties to the carefree opening performance of German and the stolid, disjointed nature of the French and English.

Certainly Capello – not enjoying his 64th birthday over much – is mystified by the way his team fails to mesh suggesting that perhaps the pressure of playing in the World Cup finals gets to his players turning Rooney from the best player in the World to a pedestrian in the side. There is much sports psychology which would agree that the fear of failure is the most significant cause of failure.

Mental problems though are the very stuff of international football management. A dozen sides are equally good enough to win yet only one does and it is a combination of luck and belief which selects that side. Fabio Capello has had none of the former but seems to have built little of the latter although it is worth noting that the two best performances for England came from two players the Italian had publicly thrown full weight behind: Jamie Carragher and David James.

Belief is a problem as are selection and formation. Capello has not addressed the recurrent problem with Frank Lampard’s positioning that sees the Chelsea man undisciplined and too ready to wander away from his duties. Perhaps Lampard has been detailed by the previous three England managers who wander away from his midfield team mate and is simply disciplined to a different role but that role clearly works less well and England are more effective when they have and hold possession in the midfield. Lampard’s arriving late in the box gets in the way of Rooney’s dropping off and there is room for only one in the side.

That Capello has inherited this problem from the timid Steve McLaren and not solved it is surprisingly ineffectual for a manager of his standing in the game and perhaps suggests an issue not with how well Capello knows football – that is not under debate – but how well he knows English football. The England manager is seen at a Premiership game most weekends which compares with Sven-Goran Eriksson who would often watch three matches and then catch some games during the week. Eriksson was brought up on English football, McLaren had played in the league but one has to wonder how well Capello knows his players and the strengths and limitations of them.

The manager has moved from club to club playing his 442 and winning trophies and the English game is built in tribute to that formation. England have the players to play it more effectively in the country and in the squad but to do that Capello must know his squad better and realise – even at this late state – which of them can be used in his desired framework and which cannot be.

This may mean he makes some headlines for dropping the very successful Frank Lampard but the alternative – one fears – is that the headline writers will have something far more damning and far worse to write about when England exit.

Learning from Mark Paston

Of all the players who are taking the field in this World Cup I’m most pleased to see the Kiwi goalkeeper Mark Paston.

Paston – who saved the penalty that sent New Zealand to the World Cup – is a former City player and I saw most of the thirteen games he played before injury saw him released by the club. I thought he looked like a good goalkeeper but at the time the Bantams had a tendency to dump any custodian who made an error, conceded more than two or frankly who was no longer flavour of the month.

Watching Paston along with a number of other good keepers come in and then go out again quickly never getting a chance to settle or build up a relationship with defenders formed my opinion on how a manager should treat keepers which is to say the opposite of how Paston was treated at Valley Parade.

Pick a keeper, give him games, back him through mistakes. At the World Cup I would pick Robert Green in the second game were I Fabio Capello because I had played him in the first.

Likewise last season when Stuart McCall favoured Simon Eastwood despite the loan keeper’s mistakes I was – in a way – glad to see it. Not that I thought Eastwood was a good keeper – I did not – but one of the traits I like in a manager is picking a number one and staying with him.

Rotating goalkeepers, competition for the jersey, giving the other guy a go. They are common comments but – personally – I would dismiss them all.

To find a if a goalkeeper is good then it is no good watching him save shots for a dozen minutes but rather keep goal for a dozen games or more. To see how his positional judgement is, see how he builds up relationships with his defenders, see how much confidence he inspires in his backline.

Peter Taylor – as is often the case – would seem to understand this too. He watched Matt Glennon for a good while before deciding with a half dozen games to go that he wanted to see Jon McLaughlin and then gave the shirt to the younger man and superglued it to his back until the end of the season and longer.

So as Paston dips low to make a confident save from Vladimír Weiss as New Zealand start their first World Cup since 1982 I’m happy to catch up with a player I wish I’d seen more of and who obviously found someone who would put the confidence into him and when we see Oxford’s stopper Simon Eastwood it is worth reflecting how much faith the manager put into him, and perhaps how little it was rewarded.

Eastwood got what the likes of Paston, Boaz Myhill and the numerous other keepers that were thrown in and whipped out of the net in those days would have dreamed off – a chance to show what he can do for a half season – and had the Kiwi keeper had that chance then maybe he would have been the success he promised to be.

One hopes that McLauglin gets a similar chance and takes it with no rotating, no chopping and changing and certainly no chance to dumping the custodian because he might make a mistake. Stuart McCall’s faith in his his goalkeeper was right, but he backed the wrong horse in Eastwood and if we learn the lessons of Mark Paston we will appreciate managers like Taylor and perhaps Capello who do select a clear number one and stick with him.

Disillusioned

The World Cup evokes so many happy (and not so happy) memories. Some of my first memories are from the 1982 tournament hosted in Spain. I collected the Panini stickers, remember Bryan Robson (who’d have thought that he’d go on to manage Bradford City?) scoring inside the opening minute against France, my dad telling me that the hosts had been beaten by Northern Ireland, David Narey scoring a belter against Brazil (although Scotland still lost to Brazil) and Italy beating Brazil in an absolute classic game.

Roll on four years to Mexico 1986. England make an awful start and only qualify for the second round following an inspired performance by Peter Beardsley against Poland. Most people will tell you that it was Lineker’s hat-trick against Poland that got us past the first round but Beardsley was superb against Poland. Then we all remember Maradona’s hand of God goal and his amazing goal verses England in the quarter finals.

For me, Italia 1990 brings back the best World Cup memories; probably because we progressed to the semi finals but also because I’d finished my A-levels that year and the summer of 1990 was carefree. I have vivid memories of half dozen school mates piling round to one of my parent’s mates house (I still attend Bradford City games with him after all these years) to watch the second round game verses Belgium. What a nerve wrecker – there we were expecting penalties when up steps Gascoigne and that now famous commentary “…and chipped in and volleyed in and it’s there by David Platt, and England have done it in the last minute of extra time!” Superb! There we all were in a wild heap on the floor hugging each other whilst Waddle (who’d have thought that he’d go on and play for Bradford City?) and Butcher did a dance on the pitch. Then we had Lineker’s two penalties to squeeze past Cameroon in the quarter finals before Pearce and Waddle failed to score against West Germany in the penalty shoot in the semi finals. And all of this backed by, in my opinion, the greatest football anthem “World in Motion” by New Order.

Obviously England didn’t qualify for USA 1994 but I’m sure that we all remember Michael Owen’s wonder goal against Argentina in France 1998 and Beckham’s penalty in the 2002 World Cup to gain sweet revenge against Argentina following his sending off in France 1998 against the same team.

Lots of people are excited about the prospect of the 2010 World Cup commencing this Friday with the hosts South Africa entertaining Mexico in the opening game of the tournament. However, at the moment the prospect of the World Cup isn’t sending me into waves of emotion at all. (My wife thinks that I’m ill.)

Why is this?

  1. I’m completely disillusioned with Capello and his team selection. Why did he not pick a naturally left sided midfielder in his 23 man squad? We’ve experienced it before when the left side of midfield has been a problematic position for England. It’s a shame that we don’t have a Waddle or a Barnes. If Capello thinks that he can play Lampard and Gerrard in central midfield together, it won’t win us the World Cup. Erikkson tried the two of them together and it didn’t work then. I hope that I’m wrong about Capello but I don’t think that we will win the World Cup in South Africa. I think that it was Mike Ingham whilst commentating on the recent friendly game against Mexico who said something along the lines of “In Little Britain style, I don’t like it” when referring to Gerrard playing on the left side of midfield.
  2. I’m fed up with players being over paid. Infact, Deloitte has produced a report which shows that Premier League clubs spent £1.3bn on players wages during the 2008/2009 season. This is shocking. I also believe that some players have the wrong attitude and are too arrogant including some of the 23 players who have been picked to play for England in South Africa.
  3. Every advert, whether it’s on television or radio, at the moment is based around football. It drives me crackers.
  4. The hype that surrounds the whole tournament. It’s like Christmas with the event being “bigged up” months before the actual event. It’s all to do with money and is so commercial. The romance seems to be draining away from what is meant to be the biggest and greatest sporting event on earth.

I’m sounding like Victor Meldrew; a grumpy old man. Hopefully, when the tournament finally begins, my cynicism will disappear and my emotions will kick in. But for now, the most important day during the World Cup is 17 June when Bradford City’s fixtures come out and we can plan our trip to the Lamex Stadium!

Andorra could beat England – The secret they do not want you to know

England will beat Andorra on Wednesday night, but there is the possibility that the tiny team could sneak a 1-0.

There was a chance – one supposes – that Bon Accord faced up against Arbroath on September 12, 1885 they thought they had a chance of a win. They were beaten, and some, so from that point on it was decided that seeding competitions was probably a good idea. Relying on the assumption that the seedings are calculated reasonably accurately, any match of any two teams in any competition, there exists the real possibility that team A can beat team B and vice versa.

Regular top ten ranked England and Andorra – 182nd – as one of the more one sided games in any competition, but in the weekend that the FA Cup’s qualification started when the first or third rounds are played, we will hear that two teams separated by not more than a couple of dozen places in the pyramid are to play out a foregone conclusion.

It will be – we are told – unthinkable that a team from League One could beat a Premiership team because football is not that competitive.

Likewise when Liverpool faced up to Standard Liege it was “embarrassing” that they only won 1-0 AET.

This was not Bon Accord or Andorra but rather two teams that had qualified as the cream of Europe. Nevertheless there is something afoot that is there to tell us that is a superior group of teams that are to be considered unbeatable.

On Saturday Newcastle United would have gone top of the Premier League should they – and I quote BBC – “Upset Arsenal.” Upset was previously a word used for non-league clubs knocking out sides from the top two divisions.

Two teams in the same league should not – and cannot – “upset” each other. Teams play matches – much as City did and lost on Saturday and Tuesday – and from that a winner can emerge. Unless the competition is woefully unbalanced then either can win without employing the terminology that one would use to describe Bon Accord doing over Arbroath or Andorra beating England.

Nevertheless as one of the (in)famed top four, Arsenal are judged as only to lose games as a shock result and while perhaps a case could be made for this in the Premier League – more of which later – it cannot be the case in leagues in which the top clubs are promoted at the end of each season.

Yet this coverage of football, where results of games amongst the same or similar divisions are seen as preordained by the press and then the public, has taken a grip to such an extent that losing to a team below/a team that has spent less money than you/a team that is less famous than you/a team that has recently been promoted (delete where applicable), is considered to be an upset for them and a disgrace for you.

Take City’s 2-0 defeat to Southend in the first home game of 2005/2006. Southend went on to win the title that season and City only flirted with play-off places, yet on that night it was considered a massive upset and one which Colin Todd was to be held accountable for. In actual fact it was a game – pure and simple – which was contested and won. The resultant blow to City’s morale – on and off the field – shaped the season in a rather ugly way. We believed we had been humiliated and reacted thus, yet in eight months time Southend were promoted and the result put in the context of playing the best, statistically, in the division.

Without the negativity of that August night the Bantams might have mounted a promotion campaign (Go with me on this one, dear reader, for the factors around it matter less than the understanding that it was possible in theory) and should we have played Southend on the last game of the season it could have been a top of the table clash.

Nevertheless, the belief was that City had been beaten by someone poor and thus were poorer. That City had been shocked and thus were shocking. That City were upset.

Back to the Premier League which this week is in uproar over the signing of Kevin Reeves Robinho. The indication being that Manchester City will now create a “top five” by spending flipping great wodges of cash on players who cannot get into the Chelsea and Real Madrid starting line-ups, has been common in the media and on the streets.

“The week that turned the Premier League on its head” one tabloid – adding the Kevin Keegan curio and the fact Alan Curbishley has left West Ham after the best start to a season in a decade to the pot – blazed and one could be mistaken for paying no interest to the Premier League on the understanding that it is, in fact, all decided by who has spent well in August. Read enough red tops, listen to Mark Lawrenson enough, and you would think that the table in May is sorted out now.

However Newcastle, before the fall out, drew at Old Trafford. Chelsea drew at Spurs. Liverpool drew at Aston Villa. All three viewed as shock results. It takes a special kind of mentality to see a shock or two every weekend and still consider it a “shock”. Whatever the agenda is behind the idea that there is an unimpeachable set of clubs who should win every week, the effect lower down the leagues is that a club like Bradford City who have set sights on promotion are expected to do it flawlessly. One is expected not to perform like a Manchester United, but rather like the projection of what Manchester United achieve which – oddly – not even Manchester United can do.

We have a situation of impossibly high targets and unachievable goals. No club can ever be as good as they are expected to be and no manager can ever do as well as is expected of him. Kevin Keegan – probably exiting stage left at St James’ – is the only man the fan’s there will tolerate because they will forgive him perceived failures in competition and the non-domination of football leagues and matches. We know this because our fans feel the same about Stuart McCall.

Fabio Capello’s England side will no doubt beat Andorra but a win in Croatia – a high task – is what is expected and anything less will be considered failure because Capello’s job is to win in every game and that is understandable, if not realistic, but open your mind to the thought that Andorra could win.

Not that they will, but they could.

Open your mind to that thought – look around at the times when the less fancied of two teams wins such as Chester’s 5-0 mauling of Barnet last weekend or Doncaster winning promotion last season – and you will see that football is not the haruspical and predictable procession that some would have you believe it is.

Square pegs, round holes

So yet another England international passes us by and we hear journalists and pundits asking that old chestnut of a question: “Why are we playing with a naturally right footed player on the left side of midfield?” Steven Gerrard occupied the left sided position this time to accommodate Frank Lampard in a central midfield position with Gareth Barry along side Lampard with David Beckham on the right hand side. Previously Steve McClaren had been slated by the press for England not qualifying for Euro 2008 but what about Capello and his tactical decisions and team formations?

From what I witnessed last night on the ITV highlights show, Capello picked a starting 11 very similar to what McClaren would have chosen if he was still England manager. So then we hear Tony Adams and Andy Townsend mulling over England’s starting midfield players with square pegs and round holes muttered.

I believe that as long as the England manager picks the supposedly best 11 individuals rather than the player who is best for a certain position we will win nothing.

It’s been discussed plenty of times before and I’m sure that it will do so again in the future. Why do England managers have to accommodate both Gerrard and Lampard in midfield? Whilst they are both quality players we have seen over several years now that they can’t play in the same midfield. Why not pick Stewart Downing as the left sided midfield player? Is it because he plays his club football for Middlesbrough who are perceived as a smaller club in the Premiership?

Anyway, whilst I’m bothered about how England perform I’m more bothered how Bradford City are performing. Which got me thinking; has Stuart McCall got a similar dilemma to Mr Capello?

In Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley we have two good right sided midfield players so how does Stuart accommodate them both in the starting 11? Answer: he is currently operating with one of them on the left side of midfield. Is this a good thing? Only time will tell. What about Kyle Nix? Personally, I believe that we look like a more balanced team when Nix operates on the left with either Colbeck or Daley on the right. Similar occurrences can happen in defence when you get a team playing a left footed player at right back or vice versa.

This isn’t a new problem that has faced football managers and it will always occur. Supporters often talk about successful teams having balance and partnerships. For me, City have looked a better team when we’ve had a balanced midfield with the likes of Paul Showler, Mark Stuart or Peter Beagrie playing on the left side of midfield. As for this season, we will just have to wait and see who McCall picks as his left sided midfielder.

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