Who’s better

I want Bradford City to be better.

A glib statement of the obvious? To some, probably. But for me it’s a genuine, earnest desire. I mean I really want Bradford City to be better. A lot.

The statement isn’t a direct reaction to the club finishing in it’s lowest league position for 45 years this season, the winning of a mere 15 league games in a season that averaged less than a goal a game, or even the wrangling over rent and where we are to make home. I have, and will always, want Bradford City to be better.

As they walked out at Wembley. As Wetherall belly-slid across the Valley Parade turf. As we greeted a grinning Carbone and a beaming Geoffrey. I looked forward to getting better.

It’s a want that all connected to Bradford City share, from the boardroom to those in the cut-priced seats. The truth is, however, we seem to have forgotten how to get better. And as we have seen in the last ten years if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.

In our four seasons and counting in the basement of English football, permanent and interim managers alike have bemoaned a lack of consistency from one week to the next. I find consistency an odd concept to embrace or value. I’m a believer that you’re either on the gain or on the wane.

Whilst sporadic fluctuations in the quality of human performance can be expected, and excused, more important is the general movement towards ‘better’ from the collective or any individual contained within it.

Great sportsmen and women will see a steep and long upward curve in ability and performance. They will then, at some point (and probably unknown to them) hit a peak, followed by a decent, which they will try to make as gentle and elongated as possible.

Tiger Woods will never eclipse the near golfing perfection he achieved at the start of the century. His challenge now is to minimise the rate of his decline and hope his still immense ability sees him to future victories as his powers diminish.

Sir Alex Ferguson has been the master at putting together team after team that have improved as a unit, then dispensing with those individuals that have peaked whilst retaining those with the longer curves of improvement.

We used to have knack for improving players. Remember that young, skinny lad McCall and his ragbag teammates in 1985 that grew individually and became more than the sum of their parts? Dean Richards oozing pure class from his debut to his departure and beyond. Sean McCarthy smashing up Norwich City in the Coca-Cola Cup before going on to score at Old Trafford for Oldham?

What about the lazy lad Blake we signed from Darlington? Wayne Jacobs seeing off an almost annual replacement left-back? Lee Mills? Jamie Lawrence? You’ll no doubt have your own favourite, dear reader, but what we saw were players getting better and our club benefitting from it greatly.

Bradford City players don’t seem to get better anymore. Last August the squad were pre-season promotion favourites, now, despite Jacko’s “everything must go” approach to the retained list, City would be forgiven for thinking the new telephone lines aren’t working properly . We witnessed the incredibly hard-working Gareth Evans seemingly give up on his City career with two months of the season left, and last week even the ever-positive Michael Flynn conceding that Bradford City is “a negative place to be“.

It’s telling that the last four Player of the Year recipients were all enjoying their first full season within the professional game, and as such, we cannot apply any metric of improvement:

  • 2008: Joe Colbeck. Burst on the scene, all bundles of energy and direct play. 16 disappointing months after his award he moved to Oldham, and then Hereford.
  • 2009: Luke O’Brien. Burst on the scene, all bundles of energy and direct play. Last seen sat next to Leon Osbourne on the substitutes bench as City were dismantled by Crewe.
  • 2010: James Hanson. Burst on the scene, all strength and no shortage of finishing ability. A second term disjointed by injury and questionable priorities.
  • 2011: David Syers. Burst on the scene, all bundles of energy and an eye for goal.

Time will tell if Syers can buck the trend, but the preceding three represented our most exciting and talented young prospects and all have failed to improve after their first season.

Jackson has signed the exciting prospect Ross Hannah, and the enthusiasm leaping from his twitter feed should hopefully see his first season in professional football be filed alongside that of Hanson, Syers and Steve Williams rather than that of Scott Neilson. But, in many ways, getting a good season out of Hannah isn’t the most pressing issue or biggest challenge for the next permanent manager of Bradford City.

Whether the board reluctantly appoint Jackson, or, as rumoured, continue to wait for John Coleman and subsequently expect him to repeat a decade’s growth and endeavour at Accrington in a 12 to 15 month period, the major challenge will be to get individual and collective development out of more established and experienced players. Creating a culture of improvement which is both inspiring and contagious within a dressing room.

There’s seems little point in throwing more of the precious wage budget at talents like Paul McLaren, Tommy Doherty, Michael Boulding, Graeme Lee et al when we continually fail to get the best from them, and then discard them without examining why. League Two has never been about having the best players, it’s about getting more from your players.

Off the field there is a lot of work to do, but lots of opportunities to get better. For all the criticism and scepticism aimed at the board recently, it’s worth remembering that they too want things to be better.
David Baldwin’s announcement about the new training facilities deal with Woodhouse Grove is incredibly welcomed. Negotiations with our landlords continue with the hope that a deal can be worked out that’s better for Bradford City.

We, as fans, can help make things better. Rival managers and players talk often of how the impatience of our large crowds can play into their hands. It seems odd that the greatest strength of our opponents is something we control. Let’s make that better.

Where Bradford City will be in 12 months time, in terms of both league position and physical location, is pure speculation at the time of writing. My only hope is that we all feel that we’re moving closer to where we want to be, and, as much as possible, enjoying the process of getting there.

As the rebuilding begins, let’s not immediately concern ourselves with being the best. Let’s focus on getting better.

Nicky Law Jnr heads to Wembley and some familiar friends

Two-time Bradford City loanee Nicky Law is this evening celebrating after Rotherham overcame Aldershot to book a place in the League Two play off final. It represents a much happier end to the season than the last for the attacking midfielder, who was a prominent figure in the Bantams side which lost its way at the final furlong. And, if the Millers are successful at Wembley the weekend after next, Law will be up against some familiar faces next season.

For City, last summer was all about the future of seven players; four high earners, who to varying degrees hadn’t lived up to expectations – Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee, Chris Brandon and Michael Boulding – and three loanees, who’d generally impressed and who manager Stuart McCall wanted to sign permanently – Dean Furman, Steve Jones and Law. First he had to do something about moving on the high earners, before he could hope to persuade the three loanees, who’d be in high demand, they should stay at Valley Parade.

It didn’t work out as hoped, with Furman always likely to try his hand at a higher level and moving to Oldham, and Law accepting what appeared to be a more lucrative offer from Rotherham. McCall later revealed Jones might have signed, but with McLaren’s departure not yet finalised the ginger winger opted for Chris Hutchings’ Walsall. Lee joined McLaren in moving on, and all those who began the season elsewhere can end it arguing leaving City was the right move.

Jones certainly didn’t look back, netting ten goals and winning one fans’ website’s player of the season award as Walsall enjoyed their highest league finish for six years. Furman wasn’t quite as successful at Oldham, eventually losing his place in the team as the Latics suffered a disappointing season, finishing just two points above the relegation zone. Still at least Furman was a greater success than Joe Colbeck.

McLaren might have hoped to be battling for promotion on his return to Tranmere, but under John Barnes’ disastrous management the Prenton Park outfit went from narrowly missing the play offs, the season before, to relegation certainties. Physio Les Parry turned it around after been appointed caretaker manager, and McLaren remained a key figure before injury ended his season early.

While Lee began life after City still in League Two, he played a significant role in Notts County’s topsy-turvy campaign that ended in triumph. He at least should face McLaren, Furman, Colbeck and Jones next season. Law, who largely had an excellent season for Rotherham which included earning a spot in the PFA League Two team of the year and a £150k from Premier League hopefuls Blackpool, will hope to join him.

Meanwhile the two other high earners, who chose to stay at Valley Parade last summer, are facing very different futures. It didn’t work out for Brandon or Boulding and both were booted out early. Although Brandon may follow former City striker Danny Cadamarteri in playing in Scotland, non-league is Boulding’s likely next destination.

And as City fell short again this season, the question is whether it was more due to losing those players who have proved key players in better sides, or because failing to remove the final two high earners left McCall short of budget to capture the missing ingredients.

Finding something to play for

Bradford City lose a game under Peter Taylor – and the general outlook is that the season just needs to be seen out, with the focus quickly moved onto getting it right  for the next one. But then Bradford City win a game under Peter Taylor, and the urge to check the League Two table and remaining fixtures becomes strong enough to leave you wondering whether the club could still make the play offs. Then Bradford City lose a game, then win again, then lose again. A constant swapping of hope and realism that you know will probably result in disappointment but you can’t help but wistfully daydream might still end in glorious celebrations.

The Bantams go into this evening’s home game with Notts County back in downbeat mood; and though Saturday’s defeat at Hereford isn’t the final nail in the promotion bid coffin, there aren’t too many left until its firmly closed. Tonight is City’s game in hand and a victory would push them up to 15th and close the gap to the play offs to nine, with nine games to play – back to looking up those remaining fixtures?

Realistically the ghost has been given up by all but some supporters, but the reluctance to fully let go stems from the alternative monotonous reality of a meaningless end to the season.

We have all summer to feel bored and do other things with our weekends, wishing we could go to Valley Parade. And while City going into the final few weeks with nothing to play is a familiar reality, there’s a growing feeling at this time of year that we have make the most of what’s left of the season. We only get to go to Valley Parade six more times between now and early May. We only get to go to Valley Parade six more times between now and the middle of July.

Which means until it’s no longer mathematically – or at least tediously – possible, our time is wasted contemplating the form guide of League Two’s play off contenders and filling in the excellent BBC predictor as optimistically as possible. If City can win tonight and on Saturday and if Bury can continue to implode and if Northampton collapse and if everyone stops winning and if, if, if.

Stupid. Pointless. But what else is there?

For Taylor at least, making sure the last few games are meaningful is his most realistic goal. Joint-Chairman Mark Lawn has begun initial talks over a longer contract, and the results and performances over the eight games Taylor has been in charge of have provided plenty of reasons to support extending the relationship. After tonight he will be half way through his initial 18-game deal, but with the new contract far from sealed, he can’t allow his players to drop standards in the run-up to the summer break.

Saturday’s defeat has dampened the mood and even lead to a small number of City fans questioning whether another deal should be offered to the interim manager. Every City fan who’s had a go at the BBC predictor over the last few weeks would have calculated a Bantams win from the trip to Hereford. And though the recent defeats at Aldershot and Port Vale could be excused given their higher league positions, losing to a side on a terrible run of form and near the relegation zone is rightly criticised. Just think of Stuart McCall still in charge and imagine the reaction.

A win might have set up a  realistic late promotion push, but instead the changing of a winning side – perhaps motivated by Taylor’s desire to evaluate his players and with a busy week of games in mind – backfired dismally. The likelihood that Hereford’s sinking position meant their players wanted it more must not become regular, with seven of City’s last 10 games against opposition going for promotion or battling to avoid relegation. Taylor has to instill greater desire and work rate; he only has six more games at Valley Parade on his initial deal, he may yet only have six more games at Valley Parade as City manager.

Huge game for visitors Notts County

Notts County certainty rock up to Valley Parade with the kind of butterflies-in-the-stomach and sweating-over-the-league-table outlook absent from City’s run-in. So much has been written about County’s eventful season – on this site and elsewhere – but whatever the rights and mostly wrongs of their approach, the world’s oldest professional football league club have been left with a very capable squad which may end the season lifting the League Two title.

The size of the task for City tonight is huge. County are unbeaten in the league since Tuesday 9 February – eight games ago. Since the JPT penalty shootout defeat at Valley Parade in early October, they have lost only four of the 29 matches they’ve played. If they win their two games in hand they will be within three points of Rochdale, with the Spotland club yet to travel to Meadow Lane. They’ve dominated the headlines, for largely the wrong reasons, all season – but there’s an increasingly strong chance they will attract some positive exposure too, for a short while at least.

For while the outcome of entrusting mysterious owners and their lofty ambitions of Premier League football has so far been self-inflicted damage – the new owners have inherited an initial £6m worth of debts from the publicity-shy Munto Finance and narrowly avoided going into administration last month – if and when those debts do catch up with the club, there will be others angrily demanding justice. Under Munto County signed up a playing squad they couldn’t afford, under new owners County are using a playing squad they can’t afford.

If Notts gain automatic promotion and then fall into administration, how will the club who finishes fourth feel? County are effectively cheating their way to a place in League One and no one in an authoritative position seems to care.

Yet with all this turmoil and high turnover of managers, that County have kept it together on the field is somewhat remarkable. Tonight they are robbed of the services of their top and third highest scorers – lookalikes Lee Hughes and Luke Rodgers – due to suspension. This leaves County relying on strikers Karl Hawley (four goals), Delroy Facey (one goal) and Ade Akinbiyi (no goals) to lead the line, though a potent midfield which includes goalscoring midfielders  Ben Davies (ten goals) and Craig Westcarr (nine goals) carry a clear threat.

Since Steve Cotterill took over as manager, County have five clean sheets from six games and former Bantam captain Graeme Lee has become a key figure of a defence backed up by the reputed £15k-per-week keeper Kasper Schmeichel – rumoured to be entitled to a £200k bonus if Notts are promoted. Kasper is said to have impressed onlookers this season, though his bizarre appeals for a foul when missing a cross that allowed the tiny Chris Brandon to head home an equaliser, smashing up of a corner flag and then punching of a hole in the dressing room wall, during the City-County JPT tie, means few connected with City hold him in such high regard. Expect boos for him tonight.

Bully’s suspension and mis-firing loanees offer Taylor food for thought

Hoping to score past Schmeichel will probably be a strike partnership of James Hanson and Mark McCammon/Ryan Kendall, with midfielder Lee Bullock’s two-game suspension forcing Taylor to contemplate moving Michael Flynn back to the middle of the park alongside Adam Bolder. Another option is the under-used Steve O’Leary or even returning skipper Simon Ramsden in the holding role and Jonathan Bateson continuing at right back.

Robbie Threfall plays at left back after his loan deal was extended, while a weak performance from Luke Oliver at Hereford leaves Taylor with a familiar problem of who to play in the centre of defence. Matt Clarke is quietly winning appreciation from fans. Zesh Rehman is nearing full fitness and might be given another go alongside him, or Steve Williams – star of a two-page article in this month’s Four Four Two magazine – may be recalled.

Out wide Omar Daley was likely left out of the starting line up at Hereford in order to be fresh to start this game in front of the usual mixture of Daley fans and haters arguing it over in the stands. For some reason Daley’s match-winning contribution against Aldershot has attracted a hostile reaction from those who point to his lack of consistency; but, if Taylor can coach higher standards into the Jamaican, City have a superb player who can make a difference. It was sad to see Luke O’Brien dropped at the weekend and he will battle with Gavin Grant and City’s own Dirk Kuyt, Gareth Evans, for the other wide berth. Matt Glennon keeps goal.

Taylor is making City more organised and disciplined, but his reign has so far produced unpredictable results. Tonight should be a great atmosphere as County bring a good following up the M1 in confident and vociferous mood. Tonight City play a team desperate for the three points and uber-confident of getting them. Tonight City’s players have limited motivations and ambitions, and probably could shrug off a defeat as expected.

But tonight should be about those players showing character and demonstrating a willingness to take up the fight of next season leading City towards the type of promotion push County are mounting. Tonight should be about giving everything, because it’s not acceptable to believe there is nothing to play for. And tonight should be about City fans responding to the away atmosphere by outsinging them and supporting their players in winning every tackle and completing every pass.

After all, we’ll be wishing we could do so come the summer.

The perspective of Bradford City’s winter of misery as Notts County come to Valley Parade

The snowy weather continues to make life stop-start. It has caused disruption to Bradford City’s season, it has caused misery around the country.

Hours of media attention has contributed to making snow the number one topic of conversation. A Channel 4 News reporter spent a great deal of time interviewing a weather expert in the middle of a wintry Manchester last week. When asked how recent conditions contrasted to the famous big freezes of decades ago, the expert began replying that it’s nothing in comparison to how bad it was then. The interviewer hurriedly cut him off by asking a different question, thereby unintentionally revealing personal aspirations that what he was reporting on was something more historically significant than merely a spot of bad weather.

The here and now is dreadful, who needs the perspective that others had it worse than us in the past? Certainly not the Channel 4 viewers, watching at home on widescreen TVs and keeping warm through central heating.

Perspective is not always welcomed and, as City’s season looks set to unpause again with the visit of Notts County, the opportunity arises to move away from the depressing mood which has engulfed the club since Rochdale waltzed around Valley Parade at the beginning of December. There has only been five games since, despite the seven weeks which have passed. With even the only win of that period widely derided rather than celebrated, a miserable outlook concerning the state of the Bantams has been as difficult to shift as any deep snow.

Has it ever been worse for City then it is now? Perspective might be found from recalling the scary moments when the club almost imploded through administration, from the misery of relegations even from a higher league, or from the fact that City’s history is not without its basement league periods. But the present occupation of League Two midtable below the likes of Morecambe, Accrington and Aldershot is an unhappy one. Many are sharing the outlook of that Channel 4 news reporter – we’ve never had it so bad.

Which, looking from an even wider perspective, offers an interesting clattering of outlooks with Notts County. With this being City’s fourth occasion locking horns with the Magpies this season, the wide range of emotions which has fuelled their season has largely glimpsed through Bantams’ eyes.

The halcyon-dreams of domination prompted by the 5-0 opening day massacre at Meadow Lane. The losing faith in Ian McParland which saw the under-pressure manager dance down the Valley Parade touchline when it looked as though his team had won the JPT tie late on in October, only for a late City equaliser to contribute to his sacking five days later. There was the short-lived reign of McParland’s replacement, Hans Backe, who enjoyed his first win in charge by defeating City in the FA Cup during November.

Backe has gone, incredibly the mysterious richer backers Munto Group have already gone. Suddenly a club with seemingly realistic dreams of climbing all the way to the top is saddled with a level of expenditure and wage bill an average Championship club would struggle to cope with. Reports suggest that, if Executive Chairman Peter Trembling can’t find replacement backers with rich pockets, the club will fold in two months. From the bright days of August, the dark throes of winter see County crawl into Valley Parade with its very future in doubt.

Of course the here and now for County is a respectable fifth-place position and seven point-lead over the Bantams. But as many green-filled eyes from BD8 looked on at Meadow Lane this summer and wondered out loud why it wasn’t us been taken over by rich backers, the uncertainty at County offers plenty of reasons to breath sighs of relief that mysterious folk with questionable motives targeted someone else.

Just like driving cautiously in the snow and passing a BMW driver who’s veered off the road, on Saturday should we look over at the away fans and feel smug or sorry about their misfortune?

So City’s season starts up again with the gap to a play off spot a-still-bridgeable six points away. For how poor recent form has been, the distance has only grown by two points since City drew 2-2 at Northampton at the beginning of October. The most pressing concern is to reverse the shocking home form which threatens to undermine efforts on the road to reduce that gap.

The statistic of a paltry three wins from 11 Valley Parade has been oft-quoted over the past fortnight. Perhaps the clearest indication of the damage can be found in the fact that, since the last home win against Hereford in October, six of City’s nine league games have been at Valley Parade. Seven points have been taken from those three away games, with just three acquired on home soil. The pressure for a maximum home haul is mounting.

Matt Glennon has been signed up to provide greater reassurance to an oft-nervous backline. Ultimately replacing his former team-mate Simon Eastwood, City’s as yet squad number-less first choice stopper arrives with plenty of experience but question marks over rustiness following a lack of senior football. I saw him earlier this season play for Huddersfield reserves at Valley Parade, and what stood out was the volume and regularity of his booming voice ordering around his young back four. While Eastwood improved over time, his rawness still caused him to concede soft goals. The number one quality sought in Glennon is reliability.

The other big player news of the week concerned Michael Flynn’s public rejecting of transfer speculation of a switch to League One. Flynn’s commitment to the cause, even when not playing at his best, is one to build a team around, especially as the 29-year-old has many years of good service in him. He’s also rejected more vicious suggestions of unhappiness at not being captain. The perpetrators of this rumour seem to have a dubious agenda against the awarding of the armband to Zesh Rehman, for what they consider questionable grounds. Let’s just say they probably read the Daily Mail.

Zesh will continue to lead out the team and partners the returning Matt Clarke at the back with Steve Williams taking a turn for suspension. The ever-reliable Simon Ramsden will take up right back with Luke O’Brien on the left side. It remains a personal frustration towards some supporters this season that many are out to deride O’Brien and continually label him not good enough. Last season, Luke seemingly couldn’t put a foot wrong in many fans’ eyes despite obvious rough edges, now he’s playing better and taking on more responsibility and people are seemingly out to slate him.

A few fans have called for his dropping to be replaced by the “hungry young Louis Horne”. At what point did Luke lose his hunger? Perhaps OB can take consolation from the fact the last OB was widely derided by some during the early part of his career – and he’s not done bad since.

In midfield alongside Flynn will be regular partner Lee Bullock and then the still unanswered dilemma of whether to play 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. In the last home game Chris Brandon spearheaded a diamond formation and was subsequently keen to point out a lack of chances so far this season. This formation seems to suit him best, but arguably doesn’t suit City.

James O’Brien – goalscorer last time out – is also in contention alongside Scott Neilson and Omar Daley. Recently watching last season’s goals of the season DVD – with the delights of the always-brilliant Keith Coates commentating – I was pleasantly surprised to recall just how well Daley played up until his injury against Darlington. He scored a number of fantastic goals, created plenty of others too. At full pace and with only the resistance of an opposition full back, he made things happen and his improving fitness offers expectation he can make things happen for City this season.

Up front, Michael Boulding should be fit and may take the place of Gareth Evans, who’s confidence has been dented in recent weeks, partnering top-scorer and rumoured-Huddersfield target James Hanson. City’s chance-to-conversion-ratio is poor and the return of Peter Thorne is anxiously awaited.

Notts County’s last VP visit saw a slightly weakened team and tomorrow we should have the dubious pleasure of watching then-rested Lee Hughes partner Ade Akinbiyi or Luke Rodgers in attack. Graeme Lee will hope for a happier return than his sending off for persistent kicking of Boulding in October. Kasper Schmeichel should be kept away from the corner flags.

Dave Kevan is the caretaker in the dugout. Sven may watch on from the directors box – though it’s rumoured patience has reached its limited and this might be his final game.

Sven probably really has never had it so bad.

 

Pre-Christmas gets underway as City welcome Rochdale at the start of a big week

This could be a pivotal week in Bradford City’s season.

A win against Rochdale this evening would place the Bantams on the cusp of the play offs, follow that up with a win at bottom-placed Darlington on Saturday and the talk may even be of automatic. A defeat against Rochdale this evening would keep City wedged amongst the midtable traffic, follow that up with anything less than a win at bottom-placed Darlington on Saturday and the talk may even be of manager Stuart McCall’s future.

A couple of weeks ago Joint-Chairmen Mark Lawn likened City’s campaign to a pot of stew – “all the ingredients are in and we are simmering away. But now is the time we have to look to turn up the gas and bring it to the boil.” The temperature began to increase with the 3-0 success at Grimsby a week ago, a further two victories this week would see the vapour begin to rise. After Darlington, City have a week without a game before a busy Christmas period featuring six matches in three weeks. Often a critical phase of a campaign, this week’s target is to go into it in a strong position.

For now though the focus is firmly on Rochdale, who arrive at Valley Parade second in the league and with a string of impressive recent results. Keith Hill’s side has won 4-0 at leaders Bournemouth and triumphed 2-1 at fourth-placed Dagenham, who previously were unbeaten at home. They have defeated current play off occupants Bury and, last time out, Notts County at Spotland. They could go top with a victory tonight and, after two successive play off failures, look a strong bet to make it third time lucky and seal a first promotion since 1969.

As the likes of Accrington, Cheltenham, Burton and in the fact the Bantams can testify, the Dale are from invincible. But the impressive side built by Hill is well respected among City supporters for the attractive style of high tempo football and ability to mix it up with crafty counter attacking when required. Chris Dagnall already has 10 goals, Tom Kennedy is a classy attack-minded full back, Will Buckley a determined winger who tore Paul Arnison to pieces so badly last season the now-Darlington right back’s summer departure became inevitable.

Rochdale’s promise and fact it has wrecked City’s own promotion chances for two seasons in a row – plus the fact Dale’s manager, chairman and supporters appear to dislike the Bantams –  give this encounter the level of anticipation no other League Two club coming to Valley Parade can generate. How good is this Bradford City side? Tonight arguably offers the biggest indicator of the season’s prospects so far.

The line up to undertake the challenge is likely to unchanged side from the one which largely impressed at Blundell Park a week ago. Simon Eastwood’s rehabilitation continues in goal in front of a back four that will feature ex-Rochdale full back Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien. Consistency of selection in defence has been a characteristic of Stuart’s managerial reign, for better or worse, and the fact the present incumbents collectively improved enough to keep a clean sheet at Grimsby will ensure Matt Clarke and Jon Bateson remain on the sidelines for now.

The midfield three will be Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn and James O’Brien. The latter’s return at Grimsby made a clear difference and his corner deliveries have improved throughout the season, with the Irishman setting up a number of goals in recent weeks. Chris Brandon and Scott Nielson will be back up, but how we long for the sight of Omar Daley taking a place on the bench. The Jamaican was due to play in the reserves last week before the game was called off, the next second string fixture is later this week. Stuart will be grateful the number of other injuries has reduced, thereby lessening the urgency of Daley’s long-awaited return.

The front three will probably be James Hanson, Gareth Evans and Simon Whaley. Michael Boulding is pushing hard for a start and the close-to-returning Peter Thorne still has a significant part to play, making the competition for striker positions fiercely competitive. Hanson’s strike record of seven goals from 18 starts is highly impressive. Evans is not far behind on five goals from 17, and will hope to rediscover his scoring touch after some recent bad misses. Whaley struck a memorable goal on his debut and, up against a side he was playing for just 17 days ago, has plenty of incentive to build on an impressive start.

As will a certain Rochdale forward. For the third game in a row City are lining up against a former striker and for the third game in a row that former striker has a point to prove. Chris O’Grady’s brief loan spell at Valley Parade last January was a curious one given many City supporters were so quick to turn on him and criticise Stuart for signing him. Many of those same supporters were, around the same time, demanding Stuart bring in a fourth striker to compete with Thorne, Boulding and Barry Conlon.

O’Grady’s scoring record before was impressive, and while he undoubtedly struggled to make an impact in the two sub appearances he made (he was recovering from an injury), I’ve never seen a player given so little time before being universally slagged off. Should O’Grady start and complete the game tonight, he will have more than doubled the time he spent on Valley Parade pitch than when he wore Claret and Amber – a whopping 39 minutes.

No doubt O’Grady will be booed by some, but such is the regularity of former players lining up against the Bantams this season the fear is not so much the law of the ex, but the law of averages which dictates whether he will have the level of influence on the outcome Steve Schumacher and Michael Symes have previously enjoyed, or what Barry Conlon and Graeme Lee endured.

But as Stuart will be telling his players in the dressing room prior to kick off, it’s what City do which counts. Tonight is a tremendous chance to take a step forward from constrained to capable, this week is a tremendous chance to upgrade the season’s hopes from reasonable to realistic.

In other words, it’s time for Stuart to serve up his stew.

Questions on the captain as Rehman bares the armband

Zesh Rehman is not the Bradford City captain although he wore the armband during yesterday’s game – a draw with Accrington Stanley – which saw the defender attract some criticism.

Rehman – and this is a personal opinion – put in as good a performance as any in the match and certainly did nothing to suggest that faith should be lost in his abilities as a player. His performance as a captain – however – is harder to measure.

Harder to measure because on the whole – and ignoring the fact that Rehman is standing in for the injured Peter Thorne – it is hard to create a set of criteria to judge a captain against.

The finest captain I have ever seen of any side in a good thirty five years of watching football is Stuart McCall and in saying this I recall how I would tell any and all how McCall’s abilities with the armband were defined by the fact that not only did he turn in a performance to inspire but he made the players around him better.

David Wetherall took the armband from McCall and used it to show a steady leadership. His was a less obvious improvement of his peers than McCall but in setting a high standard of professionalism and performance he provided leadership by example for the side. Mark Bower was proof of this developing and slowly improving year on year.

Graeme Lee’s year as skipper post-Wetherall showed little leadership and lack of harmony in the run in was there for all to see. Pre-McCall captains like Eddie Youds or Lee Duxbury showed some abilities but nothing to mark them out as above and beyond the regular progression of skippers which suggests that the inspirational captains are the exception, rather than the rule, and City fans were spoilt with Stuart and Dave and that most of the time the guy with the armband is just someone to pass a pennant and shake hands with the Referee.

Not that were I Rehman I would have shook hands with Steve Cook after the Accrington Stanley game in which the man who could hold the hard to achieve title of Worst Ref of The Season booked five people for talking out of turn during the game like the weakest substitute teacher handing out detentions rather than instilling discipline. To get respect one must give it and Cook certainly did not.

In such conditions – Accrington’s staff laying siege to Cook at half time and a City side who got nothing from the man in the middle in the second half (the linesman gave the penalty) – the Bantams showed an admirable fight long after I had told all around me that “we might as well go home ’cause (The Referee) has decided the result today.”

City kept battling and should have won the game. Gareth Evans and Michael Flynn both fancied the penalty – one suspects Flynn will get the next one – and the players did not shirk the fight which would seem to be one of the qualities that many found lacking from Peter Thorne’s skippering against Notts County at the start of the season and begs another question.

If the team keep going in what many would say were utterly frustrating circumstances then should the captain not take credit for that?

Compared to Wimbledon 5-3, Luton 4-0, Sunderland 4-1, Barnet 4-1, Notts County 5-0, Rochdale 3-0 and so many other collapses that came from things going against the side then Rehman deserves some credit.

The quality of a captain tend to be linked to the success of the team and probably some fine skippers are dismissed because they were part of teams who did not excel but certainly nothing in what Rehman did yesterday would exclude him from that bracket.

If we say a measure of the man with the armband is if can keep his team going in adversity then Rehman is doing a captain’s job as deserves to keep the job.

Valentines Cards

No matter what they do some people will never be popular. They will watch as others are given plaudits and get few of their own. On birthdays, at Christmas, they will get few cards.

It seems that few of the Bradford City squad will count amongst these unpopular ranks with a series of performances this season suggesting that the players contrast to those who took the field in claret and amber last season by virtue of that fact that they seem to like each other. In this 1-0 victory over Hereford United the kind of spirit – of collectiveness – was evident and proved telling.

City have a side which works hard for each other. It is raw and mistakes are made but those mistakes are viewed as team errors rather than the dagger staring which followed problems last year. Stuart McCall talks about how the mid-eighties team he played in still keep in touch because of friendships which transferred onto the field.

Stuart probably gets lots of cards at Christmas but if rumours are to be believed one of those will not be from Chris Brandon who it is said does not get along – does not like even – the Bantams Gaffer who got his team back to winning ways following two defeats with chief complaint from the City fan number eleven being that the manager will not play him in central midfield.

So perhaps Brandon’s favour was earned as he started the game in a three man middle alongside Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn in a Bantams midfield to go to battle with a Hereford United side who were expected – and did – drop two lines of four behind the ball and try play on the counter attack.

Any ire Brandon has at McCall – and the same rumours suggest that the midfielder maintains that he only remained at the club because of his boyhood support rather than a lack of interested parties who would match his never lessened wages – would be more appropriate if the playmaker put in the type of performances that made him undroppable rather than seemingly adopting an attitude that if given a chance to excel in the midfield he would excel.

How would McCall look Flynn, Bullock, Stephen O’Leary or James O’Brien in the face – how would the team ethos be effected – by cementing Brandon into a side that cried out during the second half when the Bantams needed the game taking by the scruff of the neck while he continues to be a frustratingly capricious player.

That City needed the game neck scruffing came after a first half in which the Bantams near total dominance came that produced only a goal when Gareth Evans followed in a fierce shot that came in from Michael Flynn’s right foot at the edge of the box following a series of corners City won and attempted to take short.

Evans pushed the ball into the goal five minutes before half time and celebrated on his knees shaking a fist up at the visiting Hereford supporters which left one wondering what the away fans had done to deserve the number nine’s ill advised displeasure and why the Referee did not issue him with a yellow card.

For this question was on the lips of all when Referee Colin Webster looked at a two feet off the ball lunge by Ryan Valentine on Scott Neilson that left the City winger hobbling for the rest of the game and should surely have resulted in a red card – considering that Lee Bullock was booked five minutes before for returning the ball to the corner taker when Webster had decided that a City man got the last touch from the previous cross – and only gave a caution.

It seemed obscene that minor infringements are given the same punishment as tackles as bad as Valentine’s and one had to wonder why the left back piled in on the right winger. Nothing thus far in the game had suggested bad feeling and unlike Graeme Lee’s hatcheting of Michael Boulding last month there seems to have been little chance for the little winger to have amassed enemies from former clubs. Perhaps Neilson had done some especially poor plumbing at Valentine’s house at some point.

Either way Neilson seemed to have not been especially popular and Valentine had received something approaching the benefit of the doubt and it was that sort of doubt which City ended up cursing in the opening ten minutes of the second half after Kenny Lunt dribbled the only shot on target of the game from the visitors at Simon Eastwood from twenty five yards out and the Bantams had the ball in the goal twice with Webster’s linesman ruling out both goals.

Firstly Neilson – not popular with the linesman next closest to Valentine either, perhaps it was his aftershave – was hit by a Gareth Evans and ended up with the ball at his feet to pop into the goal once balance was regained but the flag ruled the goal out despite appearing (from my position, which it has to be said was better than any of the officials had) to have been onside.

Minutes later more excellent pressing had Luke O’Brien – who has really stepped up his performance this season and looks a very able player – cross for James Hanson to dart in front of his defender and diving head home only for the same flag to rule the goal out and the same impression that City’s number seventeen was level or behind the defender when the cross was made.

Apologies for being so boring as to refer to the Rules of Football – worth a read although I do wonder if League Two games are played under these auspices – but the instruction is that the attacking player is given the benefit of the doubt in offside decisions and I simply cannot believe that that has been the case in both these decisions. Unless the linesman can say with certainty that one of both players were offside – and I could not – then the rules say he should not flag for an offside. Is he has that certainty then he is wasted in football and should be telling us what happens in the Zapruder footage.

Hanson had a second header brilliant pushed over the bar by away keeper Adam Bartlett but after the strangeness of the Valentine decision and the two goals chalked off the Bantams players looked for inspiration rather than suffering under the toils of unfair Refereeing. The excuse was become crafted in the minds of the players that should the Bulls snatch a goal – and the closest they got was a backpass that Simon Eastwood struggled with – then City would have been hard done to despite doing their best.

If Chris Brandon wanted to press his claims to be the undroppable man then this was the moment the game needed to taken by the scruff and for ten or fifteen minutes City dropped back and allowed the game to be played in their half. What should have been a good few goals to nil was in danger of becoming an obnoxious draw. Brandon was withdrawn for James O’Brien, Stuart McCall off the Christmas card list, although the win that probably resulted in the switch to a more robust middle three will maintain the manager’s popularity which after two defeats was being tested for a few.

McCall ended the game furiously confronting Referee Webster after a last ten minutes which saw the Bantams galvanised by a red card for Bullock which was in no way deserved and seemed to come out of some dark corner of Webster’s mind rather than the rules of football.

Bullock was involved in a tangle with Lunt and pulled down the former Crewe man in the middle of the Hereford half. Webster allowed the payer to wander away and then – on seeing the number perhaps – sent off Bullock who from his fifteenth minute booking had committed not a single offence and given away not a single free kick.

The rules of football – yes those pesky things again – have this to say give the referee seven reasons to book a player: unsporting behaviour, dissent, delaying the restart, not retreating at free kicks, entering the pitch without permission, leaving the pitch without permission and “persistent infringement of the Laws of the Game”.

Bullock had committed not a single offence and given away not a single free kick since being booked after fifteen minutes and the single foul that followed – and Bullock seemed convinced that Lunt had made more of the offence but regardless – does not merit a yellow card through any of those seven reasons outlined above. “Persistent infringement” cannot – by definition – be a single offence and unless he has not read the rules of football then Colin Webster knows this but decided that he would make up his own rules.

This was a disgraceful Refereeing decision which had no justification in the rules of football. They say that winning teams never complain but Stuart McCall should raise Hell over Colin Webster and his Refereeing using his own rules.

That Ryan Valentine was allowed to dive in for another bad tackle on a City player and walked away without a resultant red card was perhaps justified by the word “persistent” above but there are no way of running a football match that say that Bullock should be sent off and the Hereford number three should not have been.

Edrissa Sonko roughly handled Webster as the game petered out and was only yellow carded but the sending off which will cost the Bantams a player who is putting in the performances that Brandon needs to if he is to demand a place in the side pushed City over the finishing line. The Bantams had dug in but only after feeling a second type of injustice at the hands of the man in the middle who – for whatever reasons – went to great lengths to apply a different set of rules to the two teams on the field as best illustrated by Bullock committing one trip and being sent off and Valentine hacking once and fouling while remaining on the field.

So what should have been a comfortable victory for City was an unenjoyable slog of a match and became the opposite of the defeat to Crewe to be proud of. The chase is rarely fun in football.

Webster left Valley Parade unpopular as he no doubt will leave many grounds until he starts to referee on the basis of the rule book rather than his own whims and fancies.

No Christmas cards, no birthday cards and certainly not enough Valentine cards.

The Crewe joke and how not to be the butt of it as the Alex come to Valley Parade

There was a joke in football in the eighties that went along the lines of asking who the strongest team in British football was to which the answer was, hilariously enough, “Crewe, because they hold the rest of them up.”

That such a jest is outmoded is largely down to the opposition manager Dario Gradi who took charge of that laughing stock club and in a near two decades made alterations which changed the public perceptions of the Gresty Road club.

Crewe, the Football League’s shining example of a well run club to writer David Conn in his 2003 book The Beautiful Game, became synonymous with the development of young players with a series of high profile internationals either coming through the ranks or were picked up following release and turned around.

Gareth Whalley, Stuart McCall’s midfield partner in 1999, came from Crewe.

This track record is largely credited to Gradi and his youth development skills but credit is shared by a whole club prepared to rise or fall on the strength of the talent unearthed. A poor crop of youngsters could see a bad season or relegation but that was never considered a failure of the system which brought rewards on and off the field and certainly not a reason to change that system.

Gradi moved upstairs after his sixtieth birthday but has been called back to the job as caretaker following the dismissal of one of his successors. Crewe, it would seem, have staggered from the light of what they did well for twenty years and perhaps that is why they find themselves back near the position of mirth.

City’s attempt at continuity in management seem to be more faltering with manager McCall given a break from the attempts to oust him as his team continue a run of ten games without defeat that was made more impressive by the changes made in the midweek penalties victory over an unamused Notts County who once again employed the technique hence forth known as “If not a win then spin.”

Ian McPartland tells the vast majority of County fans who were not at the game that they were robbed and that Graeme Lee should not have been sent off and it is not true but creating the suggestion takes some pressure off him.

To be clear City got everything they deserved on Tuesday night.

That this was the case came from a squad capable of fluidly filling in roles in a formation and take responsibility for the performance. Leon Osbourne has yet to win me over but he let no one down on Tuesday for the majority of the game and can take pride in his display.

The winger will no doubt be dropped with James Hanson ready to come back from illness but Michael Boulding is becoming increasingly hard to displace in the side and when Gareth Evans returns from suspension – and the Ref who sent off Evans would have had cause to red Graeme Lee three times despite the Magpies manager’s protestations – Stuart McCall might have to pick between Boulding and Scott Neilson on the right hand side providing an interesting pointer to the longed for day that sees Omar Daley back in claret and (reduced amounts of) amber.

Michael Flynn put in an outstanding performance on Tuesday as he continues to be the ball winning and passing midfielder of our dreams while James O’Brien is starting to look equally impressive. Lee Bullock will return pushing Chris Brandon back to the bench.

Jonathan Bateson is unlucky to have to step down following two good displays and a switch for Simon Ramsden to the middle is not out of the question but Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams are likely to return at the expense of Bateson and Matt Clarke.

Luke O’Brien has been a joy to watch of late and one recalls the Crewe idea that a team might rise and fall on the strength of it’s young players.

If Huddersfield Town rise on the back of goalkeeper Simon Eastwood then it is because of Tuesday night’s two penalty saves which galvanize a player who was mobbed coming off the field.

Mobbed with the rest of the players. Slowly building, improving, not losing. Dario would be proud.

Continuity the key as City beat Notts County in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy

The summer that seems so long ago on rain soaked Tuesday night which are made for warming the soul through football was marked by a discussion on Bradford City manager Stuart McCall and the ethos of “Continuity” which his remaining manager represented.

The reasons for that continuity – and for McCall carrying on for a third season and on – was grandly illustrated as The Bantams gained a modicum of payback for the opening day defeat by big spending Notts County.

County fielded a team with a few changes from what would be considered their full strength side as did the Bantams and it was in those changes that the strength of what McCall has built at City was in evidence.

Matthew Clarke stepped in, Leon Osbourne stepped in, Michael Boulding remained in and scored and Simon Ramsden stepped into another position moving from holding midfield to central defence and despite all these stepping City retained a shape, a pattern and a way of playing. That is the continuity City have been crying out for for years.

Not that this progression to the third game of the Northern section of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy was any way easier than the scoreline – 2-2 and a victory on penalties – suggests with County’s less than full strength side showing more than enough to suggest the could have won the game clattering the crossbar in the final minute of the game with a pile driver that could have given them a 3-2 success.

That County were not victorious can be attributed to a never say die spirit in City – Chris Brandon stooped in at the start of second half injury time to head an equaliser which the pattern of the previous half hour had scant deserved – but the visitors will be upset that a corner was allowed to travel so far in their box with Kasper Schmeichel getting booked for complaining to anyone who would listen about the last minute aberration that saw the game go straight to penalties.

Five minutes before Delroy Facey had barrelled in front of Clarke to give the Magpies a lead which looked to be conclusive finishing off good work by bar pinger Ricky Ravenhill. County had controlled the game for the twenty minutes following the not at all undeserved sending off of former City skipper Graeme Lee.

Lee’s red card came after perhaps two of the most illustrative tackles Valley Parade had ever seen. Whatever Michael Boulding had done to Lee last season Lee decided to extract his revenge with two blond side hacks at the City forward the first – which came midway through the opening half – could have been excused as clumsy on the slippy pitch but the second just saw Lee hoof Boulding high in the air.

God knows what Lee’s antics tonight say about the dressing room at the end of last season – or about Lee’s professionalism – for there was no turn back, no apology, no remorse from Lee and Sven Goran Eriksson sitting a few rows behind BfB’s Jason Mckeown wore a face of thunder as a result.

Not that Sven had cause to be upset. The shift to ten men and keep ball for County and the Bantams misfiring attempts to make the extra man pay by both Brandon and Osbourne trying to be the one over tore a hole in those pattens that City had built this run of nine games without defeat on and rather than eleven vs ten the game switched to ten vs nine and two wandering about.

The swing to County was as marked as City resurgence that saw Boulding slip onto a finely weighted ball from Michael Flynn over the County central defenders on the twenty minute mark to slip though the visiting keeper’s legs and could have been marked with more as Osbourne – perhaps enjoying his best game for City – and Scott Neilson went close for City while Luke O’Brien continues to look the part on the left hand side. That the Bantams were behind was down to a mistake by Simon Ramsden allowing a ball to run to Simon Eastwood and failing to take into account the decelerating effect of the puddles of rain on the ball.

Eastwood could only grasp at the ball which Craig Westcarr put past him.

Two hours later and Eastwood dove headlong to his right getting two fists onto a Delroy Facey penalty giving City parity in the shoot out that had seen Michael Boulding have his shot saved by Schmeichel and County take a 2-0 lead before sub Peter Thorne slipped a low shot just under the keeper.

Simon Ramsden strode confidently to level the scores at 2-2 with three each taken. Neil Bishop blasted wide, James O’Brien netted, Eastwood went low from keeper Schmeichel’s final kick and a minute later he was mobbed by team mates, then by supporters.

Bradford City fans celebrate Simon Eastwood's penalty save

The wonderful world of zero welcomes City and Morecambe

Zero.

Not the greatest number in football but one which welcomed with the ferocity of Chris Brandon’s powerful lash into the back of the net for the third goal in Saturday’s 3-0 win over Chesterfield.

Welcomed because after seven games – six in the league – in which City have not lost he goal difference which took such a battering on the opening day of the season at Notts County has been repaired.

Zero. Even. Balanced and while leaders Bournemouth and the aforementioned County are both in double figures the nice round nought confirms the recovery the Bantams have made both in terms of results and in confidence. The Bantams go to Morecambe in the same confident mood which marked the trip to Meadow Lane in August.

City have faired poorly in the two league trips to Christie Park losing both games 2-1 despite taking the lead in both games. The Shrimpers were in the non-league when the Bantams were in the Premiership, it is not hard to see why they dig deep.

At the moment though there is hope that City will be able to dig deeper which says much about the character the Bantams have shown in the last dozen games. Chesterfield summed up the Bantams so far – not massively better but consistently so and ready to battle for victory.

Michael Flynn typifies that battle answering the call from early in the season that while Stuart McCall can pick a nominal captain the onus is on the players to show leadership – claim the armband as it were – and the midfielder who scored impressively on Saturday has risen to that challenge. Forget who has the armband, leadership is leadership and Flynn is part of a group of players ready to stand up and be counted.

Flynn’s midfield partnership with Lee Bullock – who he paid tribute to in the press following Saturday’s win – and James O’Brien has been the driving force behind this impressive run. It is a midfield of out muscling and then using the ball and it works well. Scott Neilson – further out right and joining Gareth Evans and James Hanson in the forward line – provides a speedy and useful outlet while the two forwards provide constant motion.

Jonathan Bateson stepped in for Simon Ramsden on Saturday and did little wrong while Luke O’Brien battled to a great display. Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams combine strength with pick pocket defending and while the triangle with Simon Eastwood is far from impregnable it has the same confidence that runs through the side and is markedly different from last season’s heads down pair of Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke who after conceding a single goal seemed to suck the ball into repeated danger.

Morecambe sit 18th – credit for a small club punching above its weight and not running into trouble with the tax man – and got a creditable draw with Dagenham and Redbridge at the weekend. The Shrimpers are also on a seven game unbeaten run with the only win in that set of draws being the 2-1 win over Notts County which got into the papers.

That is the only win they have had in League Two this season. Better than zero.

Denmark, Barnet vs Bradford City

Take apart the falling apart at the end of last season and one can find a plethora of points when in retrospect it is obvious that the writing – such as it was – was on the wall.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark it did not say although it might have done had the effect not been ruined by replacing the Kingdom with the London region of Barnet.

Rotten is was though and the 4-1 reversal that saw 100 year old striker Paul Furlong become a sprightly tormentor and Albert Adomah tear a hole in the curtain of City’s defence.

That was then, this is now and much change has been made since. The general consensus on the Bantams this term to even the brightest days of last is that they are more enjoyable to watch by virtue of the level of effort put in by the players being higher. It is rare to go through a City game at the moment without the words “He puts it in cause he knows what it is like to work at the Co-op/as a plumber/cutting hair and he does not want to go back.” Certainly watching the energy of the over forty Furlong playing every game as if it were his last last season showed that it is not only former non-league players who can have that desire.

Nevertheless it is a given that City did not have it then but do now, and this is to be celebrated rightfully although there was talk in the week as to who came up with the idea of bringing the likes of Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee and Michael Boulding in the first place.

Considering the money came from joint chairman Mark Lawn’s loan to the club which suggests a logical train of thought that when he brought this pile of cash to the club it was with the express idea of bringing in bigger names which Stuart McCall duly – and gleefully – did. Cash is tight no so who had the idea to find cheaper replacements? File under “Specialist subject: The bleeding obvious“.

So the band of hearty, if cheaper replacements are more enjoyable to watch and if Gareth Evans cost the same as Willy Topp – and we are lead to believe that he did – it is not so much the strategy of recruitment that has brought benefits but the quality.

Quality not having previously been associated with Simon Eastwood until the faffing keeper seemed to be reborn at Shrewsbury with a sterling performance that he took into the game with Burton Albion making two fine one-on-one saves that put supporters of a certain age in mind of the legend of Paul Tomlinson. Tomlinson – who played more between the sticks than any keeper in City history – seemed so good when faces one-on-one with a striker that one felt a little disappointed if a goal resulted from such an attack.

Blame that has been heaped onto Eastwood has roved to Zesh Rehman somewhat unfairly. Odd how often City and Geo-Political machinations align – read Peanut Farmer Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that Obama’s critics are racist – and certainly similar has been said around Zesh at the moment.

For my money Zesh could improve but he is taking on responsibilities for leading the defence and I would rather a player be seen to err in what he does rather than not make a mistake because he does not involve himself in play.

Steve Williams – who will partner Rehman at Barnet – has played hardly a dozen games as a professional footballer and looks accomplished in a way that one could have only hoped for. Simon Ramsden – another recruit – also looks a cut above last season’s new faces despite being “a cost cutting replacement”. Ramsden and Luke O’Brien are the full backs as City settle into a solid and predictable back five.

Predictability is not something one could accuse Chris Brandon’s play of and the lively midfielder still lurches between seemingly like an essential name on the teamsheet and provoking a desire to cast him far from Valley Parade. Ostensibly he is City’s playmaker but sometimes the phrase luxury player seems to fit him more. Without him slotting onto the left City are less inventive with the ball, with him we are less robust in winning it back which is a role that Lee Bullock has warmed to very well. Bullock’s trio with Michael Flynn and Stephen O’Leary was broken up by the latter’s injury – a shame – and Brandon is not able to fill the slot next to the fiery number four so Stuart McCall deploys him opposite Scott Neilson on the flank or brings in James O’Brien.

Last week’s experience in the 1-1 draw with Burton Albion saw City fail to have a strangle hold on the midfield which a trio in the middle rather than two flank players could have given us and one could assume that away from home ball winning would be more important – leading to a suggestion that Brandon should be benched – but with the onus on the home side to attack more a more inventive player could make the most of possession when it comes.

Gosh managing a football club is hard.

Much easier is the forward line which has Peter Thorne out injured and Michael Boulding waiting for the right alignment of planets that would create suitable conditions when he might play well leaving Gareth Evans and James Hanson to lead the line with the possibility of Hanson dropping into the left hand side to allow Brandon to tuck in and perhaps curing both problems creating a robust midfield, having the inventive playmaker in and keeping the hearty players in.

Perhaps that football management is not that tough after all. Then again perhaps one day I’ll be made King of a Scandinavian country.

Torquay comes to Valley Parade for the minor debut of Scott Neilson

Scott Neilson will hardly get a mention in the news of League Two signings this week.

The right winger has joined The Bantams from Cambridge City and is expected to start on the bench and make his debut against Torquay United as Stuart McCall’s team looks to build on the first win of the season last week at Cheltenham but one doubts that the coverage of our division will concern itself with that.

Rather eyes will be set for Barnet and Sol Campbell’s debut for Notts County as football looks to see what a player who gets £40,000 a week in League Two looks like.

The contrast could not be more sharp. City spent a week haggling with the Lillywhites over the price of Neilson coming up with a fee thought to be around £7,500, a friendly and some more cash should City make the play offs. Campbell agreed a deal worth over £10m and one is left to wonder why such a deal was necessary. The Magpies already seemed to be able to win handsomely most weeks and concede only penalties. Campbell will perhaps plug that tiny hole and is expected to come into the side to replace injured former City skipper Graeme Lee.

So two debuts in the same division but as far apart as – well – as City are from Torquay geographically perhaps as the Devon side visit a Valley Parade which is flush with comparative optimism following the characterful 5-4 win last week.

Having had more than his fair share of criticism this season Stuart McCall took credit for the victory with all five of the goals the Bantams scored (Simon Ramsden having a deflected shot) chalked up by a player he has brought in this summer as he looked to rebuild the side without the sort of big money, low character players which one assumes County will have to avoid.

James Hanson claimed a first goal for City leading the line in a 451 formation with Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding pushed down to the bench. Hanson’s play this season has been honest and impressive and he is expected to reprise his role up front although McCall must decide if he is to keep the same side and deploy Gareth Evans and Joe Colbeck as wide men or play a more traditional 442 pushing Evans alongside Hanson. Evans celebrated his first goal for the Bantams while Colbeck was recognised for his performance with a place in the League Two team of the week.

It is rare for McCall to opt for anything that could resemble defensiveness at Valley Parade and so one might suspect he will push both wide men into a three man forward line perhaps leaving Colbeck out for Boulding or Thorne.

The midfield three of Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn and James O’Brien are a curious set with O’Brien especially prompting much attacking play last week but fairly obviously failing to control and close down the game when City took the lead. Midfields need time and games to blend together and this is best done by picking a set and sticking with it which proves difficult at the moment and that area is very much a work in progress.

The back line of Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien with Simon Eastwood behind is causing sleepless nights. Eastwood struggles to get any control over his back four not talking enough and – when he does – talking to the wrong people while Zesh Rehman has yet to grasp the organisational part of his role as senior central defender.

Williams is learning the game and coming along as is Luke O’Brien. Both are bright but eclipsed by Simon Ramsden who is that rarest of things – a popular Bradford City right back. Of the defenders few would suggest Matthew Clarke should be put in as a solution to any problems but Eastwood will know that he needs to get better quickly and build a rapport with his back line.

Torquay come to City with two wins and two defeats since returning to the League in August losing last week to Barnet. No one was really interested in Torquay vs Barnet game last week but a debut should change that this.

Probably won’t be Scott Neilson’s.

Former England manager gives City a lesson

The opening day of every season is about learning lessons after three months of playing football in a hypothetical context give way to ninety minutes of reality and sometimes that reality is cold and sobering.

Bradford City’s lessons today were sobering. The afternoon started with a minute’s applause for the late Sir Bobby Robson. Robson had a lesson which he passed on to another manager who like Magpies boss Ian McPartland had seemingly endless riches to spend – a young Jose Mourinho – who relates the story as “One of the most important things I learnt from Bobby Robson is that when you win, you shouldn’t assume you are the team, and when you lose, you shouldn’t think you are rubbish.”

The World’s media came to watch Sven Goran Erikkson and the millions which are being pumped into Meadow Lane and went away purring about the home side caring hardly at all for the visitors who were but ballast in the story.

When Brendan Moloney pushed forward from full back leaving Lee Bullock to simply not track him back and allow him to score. Bullock’s head was down with the Bantams 4-0 down but he should have done more, put in more effort.

That he did not came after a grinding ninety minutes. City began brighter than their visitors with Stuart McCall having opted to send his side out to try upset the home team with a high line and a pressing forward line. The theory that McCall employed was – one assumes – that being at home and under scrutiny County would play similarly but alas they did not preferring to approach the game almost as an away match and sat back to play on the counter-attack.

So City pressed and as the season with fifteen minutes old Joe Colbeck had been unlucky to see his header saved after some great approach play and Peter Thorne look menacing on the far post with the ball under City’s control and City looking easy on the ball. County’s responses seemed to be entirely physical with Moloney especially guilty of some fearsome challenges with studs showing. City faced a midfield battle and bit by bit were edged out.

Edged out perhaps because while Bullock and new signing Michael Flynn looked tidy in possession and decent in the scrap they often found the ball pumped over their heads and when it was pumped in between Matthew Clarke and Luke O’Brien City were incapable of dealing with the ball across and expensive import from Shrewsbury Ben Davies finished on the far post.

It was not especially deserved and City should have kicked themselves with Clarke and O’Brien – not for the only time today – incapable of stopping the ball getting across the face of the box. New keeper Simon Eastwood hardly showered himself in glory with his control of the backline – very little – but collectively this was the beginning of errors that continued all afternoon.

That said City should have been level – or had the chance to be level – when Peter Thorne was shoved with two hands from behind by keeper Russell Hoult at a corner minutes later but the referee was curiously unmoved. The game was littered with pushes and free kicks many of which were given for much more malignant offences and not giving a penalty there was pre-season refereeing.

One had thought that the studs showing challenges were the results of being rusty – rather than a desire to be rustic – but they continued throughout the game with Graeme Lee engaging on any number of lunges h simply did not do for the Bantams last year. Anyone who wondered what Lee used to do at City and thought he would not be missed will not have hung their head when another long punt bounced in front of and over Zesh Rehman – who had a poor afternoon – and fell into the path of Lee Hughes who rounded the keeper and scored.

On to Lee Hughes now who rejoiced in his goal celebrating in front of the City fans who were taunting him with chides about his conviction for Causing Death by Dangerous Driving four years ago. Hughes faced the boos and on scoring pranced in front of City fans with delight.

There is a misunderstanding around Hughes when he is booed and responds to that jeering with his self-congratulatory dancing which would eventually get him booked in this game. Hughes is not booed as a former player like Graeme Lee or because he has long hair and is dubbed “Gypo” or because he has dived in a previous game. Many, if not most, people find Lee Hughes and his actions when arrested as being despicable and have the opinion that his playing cheapens the game of football. I think a man has a right to earn a living and Hughes does so but what is he trying to say when he goes to away fans and taunts them?

He has not proved fans wrong as a former player putting one over his old team mates would or silenced the people giggling at his hair yet he acts like Dean Windass returning for Sheffield United did. Frank Leboeuf said “He might be a good but footballer but he is a shit man” and no matter how many goals Hughes scores in this or any other season he has not proved anybody wrong. His prancing leaves a bad taste in the mouth as do the County fans who praise him. One can only hope that Sven and the Munto Group asks why their centre-forward is being called a murder and is as repulsed by the behaviour as I am.

Hughes got his second goal through another failure by Luke O’Brien to cut out a cross from the right. His third from a shameful dive from Luke Rodgers prompting the question of if County are going to be so good do they have to cheat? Seemingly so but the fourth goal killed City’s hopes off.

Steve Williams, James Hanson and Gareth Evans all made debuts off the bench and performed well with Williams looking mobile at the back coming on for Clarke who had had a better game than Rehman but had been replaced anyway. Evans and Hanson took the flanks coming on for Colbeck who had looked good in the first half and for Chris Brandon. Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding combined well with Brandon to see Boulding flash a shot wide.

The fifth goal came as the game dragged to an end leaving City looking back at ninety minutes of a defensive performance littered with individual mistakes – although Simon Ramsden looked good and pocketed Jamie Clapham – and a choice of approach from McCall that got it wrong and flew in the face of the manager’s talk of the Bantams learning to go away from home and play ugly, shutting up shop and being hard to beat.

County seem to be going onto bigger and better and perhaps their is no better illustration of the future for the Magpies than Hughes. Sneering success, at at any price, no matter what.

For City’s part though the short hop over the Trent to Nottingham Forest for the League Cup – bizarrely we parked next to the Brian Clough stand this Saturday afternoon – and then to Port Vale in League Two on Saturday looking to start the 45 game season anew.

The media beyond League Two are calling Hughes sparkling and toasting Sven’s perfect start but rather than the Swede one recalls the other former England manager and the lesson he would give for both teams today “When you win, you shouldn’t assume you are the team, and when you lose, you shouldn’t think you are rubbish.”

It’s Here

The League Two season is back with a bang on Saturday as Bradford travel to Meadow Lane in a reverse of the opening fixture of last campaign. And for Bradford faithful still reeling from last season’s disappointment, this is all that matters. Forget the long running saga at Newcastle United with an untold number of messiahs. Forget Leeds United’s third season in the third flight of English football. And please, forget last season.

Stuart McCall decided to stay with the club this summer despite suggesting otherwise last term. Managing at a young age is always a learning curve and there isn’t a manager out there that hasn’t made mistakes at some time in their career. But in my opinion, this club and it’s fans would rather have somebody with a loved for the club at the helm taking it one step at a time, than a manager with no passion who will come and go within two seasons at the most. The fans have cried out and it appears that stability is the way forward.

McCall has been busy this summer with his dealings in the transfer market, with no less than twelve players departing, not including Dean Furman, Steve Jones and Nicky Law, and nine coming in. Only goalkeeper Simon Eastwood has so far come in on loan as McCall plays the waiting game with the clubs in higher divisions to see who is available following pre-season. Eastwood’s arrival at the club shocked many, with an experienced keeper expected to come in alongside Jonathan McLaughlin. Only time will tell if this turns out to be a bad decision, but it is telling that Eastwood’s contract is only until January rather than a full season, with McCall preparing himself should the opportunity to bring in somebody different arise. Quite who will be playing between the sticks for City also remains a mystery with Eastwood not doing himself any favours with a nervous display in the final pre-season game against Carlisle.

Zesh Rehman has made his move to Bradford permanent and has been rewarded with the club captaincy. Much has been made of Rehman’s work in the community following his loan move last season and it appears that the club see Rehman as the ideal role model for youngsters in the local area. At a time when club finances are tight and extra revenue is a priority, it will be a challenge for Rehman, along with Omar Khan, to influence the Asian population to make Valley Parade their second home.

Jonathan Bateson, Simon Ramsden and Steve Williams join Rehman as new signings in Stuart McCall’s new look back line. Ramsden in particular looks like he could be the solid right back that has been missing at Bradford for a while now, though Paul Arnison will feel disheartened that his efforts last season resulted in his exit from the club. When Arnison played last season, City tended to fair better defensively. The facts don’t lie. However, it was apparent that McCall was unsure about him with Tom Moncur and Zesh Rehman preferred at times in what was evidently not their strongest position. Ramsden looks composed, strong in the tackle and fairly good in the air. Add to this that he can also play in the centre and has featured regularly for Rochdale in three successful seasons by their standards and you can understand why McCall has brought him to the club.

Gareth Evans and James Hanson, dubbed The Co-op Kid (I prefer The Idle Working Man – Ed), have bolstered McCall’s striking options. Both are young and play with a real desire which is a joy to see. McCall has high hopes for both and this is supported by the clubs willingness to pay a fee to Macclesfield for Evans services. Hanson looks like he can offer height in the attack, in the absence of Barry Conlon, and comes to the club with a decent scoring record in the last two seasons. Experienced duo Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne are still with the club and both agreed to cut their wage bills accordingly, with Thorne rewarded for his loyalty by becoming team captain. Up front, City look a lot stronger this season and it may be a weight off Peter Thorne’s shoulders. Michael Boulding openly admitted his disappointment at his goal tally last season and will be expected to do better this time around.

Following a fluster of activity in the days before the season opener, Stuart McCall has brought in three central midfielders, an area which he was keen to improve on. The signs are that Michael Flynn, City’s second signing from Huddersfield this summer, will slot in alongside Lee Bullock to form what looks like a solid pairing. Flynn ranks alongside Simon Ramsden as McCall’s best signing in my opinion and his ability to score and create goals from midfield will fill the void left by Nicky Law. Michael O’Leary and energetic James O’Brien have also signed, albeit on short term contracts. Luke Sharry missed the chance this pre-season to stake his claim for a place in the team and may now find himself the odd man out with many feeling Chris Brandon is also above him in the pecking order.

Omar Daley’s absence may be missed, with City only having the aforementioned Chris Brandon, Joe Colbeck and Leon Osbourne to turn to on the wings. Arguably Rory Boulding, Gareth Evans, Michael O’Leary and Luke Sharry can all play in this position too, but City do look thin in this department. Rumours of a loan move for a winger from an unnamed SPL club allay fears somewhat though undoubtedly Daley’s comeback will be in the back of everyone’s mind. Osbourne has looked impressive this pre-season and looks ready to make the step up to first team duties. Chris Brandon will be looking to make up for a torrid season last time round and will be a very important player for City should he stay free from injury.

When you thought things couldn’t get anymore unpredictable, Sven-Goran Eriksson appeared at Notts County and shook the football world to the core (or League Two at least). His arrival at Meadow Lane marks one of the most bizarre appointments in history and mounts the expectation on County to achieve things in the short term. Ian MacParland’s job will be under scrutiny with the media circus that unmistakably follows such a high profile appointment. In the last few days, Stuart McCall has claimed he is not envious of the position County find themselves in, words which as a fan I cannot help but agree with. Clubs in the situation Notts County now find themselves have the potential for success, but also dramatic failure. Should County fail to gain promotion this season, they will probably find themselves starting from scratch with a new manager and possibly a whole new team next term. It is once again easy to see why fans at this club, who have suffered the repercussions of bad decision making by the money men in the past, strive for stability and a realistic approach.

Last season’s skipper Graeme Lee will probably be coming toe to toe with former team mates and, unfortunately, may receive a hostile reception. The culture of booing ex-players and managers is one that I’ve never understood, though there are factors in some cases. It is understandable that a Crystal Palace fan would be annoyed at the sight of Iain Dowie, not for the obvious reason, but for the way in which he departed the club to become manager of Crystal Palace. Lee, however, put in some solid displays last season, though he did have a dip of form which coincided with the teams inability to win games and keep clean sheets. Nevertheless, any players that represents our club should have our support and his departure was not turbulent and instead was a financial decision. It must be hoped that his exit from the club will suit both parties, with Lee himself wishing the team luck in the coming season. I will leave the defence of Lee Hughes to somebody braver than myself.

How the tables have turned from this time last season when County came to Valley Parade and suffered at the hands of a superb solo performance from Peter Thorne. The City captain has a tendency to score against County, something Graeme Lee may be given the duty of preventing happening on Saturday. I would be happy with an opening day draw in all honesty, but the optimism of the travelling Bradford fans says otherwise. City are out to ruin the party celebrations for Sven’s men are will make themselves heard – win, lose or draw.

The new season is here.

The route to success for Notts County or Bradford City

When last we kicked a ball in anger there was anger after the Bantams promotion push had fizzled out and beating Chesterfield was an inglorious end to a year of promise.

Three months later and while it seems that much has changed the Bantams start the season with six players who would have featured in the team which kicked off last year with Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding leading the attack a good example of how Stuart McCall has been able to cut costs while retaining the integrity of the squad.

The five forwards this year swap James Hanson and Gareth Evans for Barry Conlon and Willy Topp which is easily argued to be no worse and perhaps better with Barry’s rambunctions being matched by Hanson’s vigour, at least in theory.

If such claims of parity could be made for the strikers then they would not be applied to the two keepers who combined are not as old as Neville Southall was when he kept goal for City and the worries over that inexperience are rumbling.

Simon Eastwood seems favourite to start as he battles Jon McLaughin for the gloves and I am forced to say that I have never seen competition for the number one shirt bring about anything but uncertainty in the past.

One can only hope that one of the two claims the spot which Rhys Evans grew to suit. Evans exit remains a mystery with the obvious hole left behind by his exit but last season’s failure has been attributed to poor morale and one can assume that some of those who exit do so because of what might be known as “off the field reasons”.

Paul Arnison’s exit was down to such and Simon Ramsden is considered a more than adequate replacement playing right back more like a central defender than a winger. Again McCall has cut while not losing quality, although the people at Rochdale take issue with the statements that Ramsden has joined the Bantams on comparable terms to those he was on at Spotland.

Zesh Rehman has joined the club full time and replaces Graeme Lee – who may very well take the field for Notts County after his summer move – and it is hard to see that exchange as worse for City. Rehman has played at a higher level than Lee and on the evidence of last season is no worse a player and much more of a talker. Good player Graeme Lee but not the lynchpin we hoped for. Rehman could be.

Matthew Clarke is still Matthew Clarke although this year faces competition for his place from Steve Williams who impressed more than any in pre-season. Expect Williams to grow in ability over the opening months at City has he gets used to the ways of professional football. He promises a mix of Clarke’s physical play and the mobility of a Dean Richards or Andrew O’Brien.

At left back Luke O’Brien has a one deal and little immediate competition for the role however cover is provided by Louis Horne who is making similar progress to last season’s player of the season.

The midfield has been talked about at length over the summer. Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock are the two senior men with James O’Brien, Stephen O’Leary and Luke Sharry offering a much shallower depth of quality that last season’s midfield which of course assumes that one believes that last season’s midfield had quality.

Objectively the choice of Nicky Law, Dean Furman, Paul McLaren and Bullock is incredibility strong however wise man say that team with a strong midfield get promoted and obviously we did not. Stuart McCall has to make changes to move the team on from that and so he has.

On the flanks Omar Daley will be missed – he is “out until Christmas” but rumoured to be on course to join the squad before that – but Chris Brandon comes into the season fit and looking useful. Joe Colbeck is on week to week contracts but as long as he plays well this week, and then next week, few will have a problem with him. Cover on the flanks is thin on the ground although Rory Boulding and Leon Osborne are available.

City’s summer of cost cutting has been far from mirror at Notts County. Sven – of course – has arrived but it is said has spent much of the week talking to lawyers about a story that concerns a blonde which reminded me of another story about when Eriksson left England but I’m far too in fear of legal action to even mention that…

So we shall move past him onto a squad that has been bolstered by the signing of Lee midfielder Ben Davies from Shrewsbury and – more notably – forward pair Lee Hughes and Karl Hawley following a significant investment from a consortium of mystery which could not be held in more suspicion in the football world outside of Meadow Lane if they were gruff looking sortd who owned disused Theme Parks in episodes of Scooby Doo.

It is said that at some point they will be signing Dietmar Hamann and Sol Campbell. Let us hope that is after the weekend.

What will be at Notts County will be and there is very little that football fans can do to stand against the cavalier attitudes taken to ownership in the modern game.

City tried spending to get out of the division and failed. Notts County’s owners are unlikely to balance risk and prudence as Mark Lawn says City have which may see The Magpies to achieve what City could not last season.

The long term effects on County will be seen in time – the other Magpies though that they were going places when they got big investment – but City start out the season with a mix of players: some young lads, some old heads, some local lads made good; and if that is not the recipe for success then success is not worth having.

Now though football starts again. Great.

Lee exits having not touched the sides of the hole

City captain Graeme Lee has joined Notts County on a tree transfer and will line up against The Bantams in the first game of next season with supporters wondering why the defender failed to make the impression expected of him at Valley Parade.

Lee’s new manager Ian McParland praised his new signing talking much about his abilities in defense that would be echoed by Bantam fans. As a central defender Lee put few feet wrong all season and for the winter months was part of a back four that seemed to forget how to concede.

His abilities were at the top of this league and – as with Michael Boulding who offered to take a pay cut to stay today and others at the club – he is only moved on for financial reasons but Lee’s position at City as captain and senior player required more than simply doing a good job at the back.

McParland talks about Lee the leader and it was that side of his game that was sadly lacking over the last twelve months.

The Bantams sided floundered for the want of a firm hand and an open mouth on the field having moved from the calm control of David Wetherall and the Imperious McCall. If Wetherall struggled to fill the hole skipper Stuart left then Lee was positively swamped by it.

So as a player he will be missed but for a team that looked so rudderless for the last two months of the season a change is mandated.

McCall needs to find a captain of character to build a team with strength. He tried to make that captain Graeme Lee. Addressing that failure is a step forward.

Time for pre-season optomism?

There are times during the season where it’s neigh on impossible to get some City fans to say anything positive – but the prevailing mood amongst many so far this summer has been as dark as any last-gasp home defeat.

Some have gone as far as to believe the club faces a grim relegation battle next season, others can’t hide their envy towards clubs we were once able to look down our noses on. Within the last week though, it seems the new season is increasingly something to feel excited about. The fixtures are out, the majority of players we wanted to keep have agreed to stay and Zesh Rehman and Gareth Evans have joined Simon Ramsden and Jonathan Bateson on the ‘Players In’ list. It poses the question, is it time for pre-season optimism?

Those supporters who’ve taken a glass half empty look towards the future can fairly argue they are only following the club’s lead. At the end of last season, a gloomy picture of the playing budget for the next emerged. Manager Stuart McCall has consistently spoken of players needing to take wage cuts and played down the chances of capturing some of his transfer targets. Meanwhile the joint-Chairmen, Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn, have only been noticeable by their silence. No proclamations of targeting back-to-back promotions, no news of novel initiatives such as Lawn’s trip to Mexico last summer.

Undoubtedly, the uninspiring messages have been deliberate. Expectations over the past two seasons – much of which triggered by management and boardroom – have proved too high for the players to cope with. The feeling was that City had to get promoted in each of the last two seasons, but the much lower level of hype this time around may be about reducing the pressures of failure. The ambition is surely the same as the last two seasons, but the confidence in achieving it third time around is guarded against making public declarations.

Meanwhile some other clubs are spending significant money or at least talking about it. Rotherham have seemingly changed overnight from a club who end each season with an asterisk next to its name in the league table, due to points deductions, to big spenders. The seemingly terminally under-performing Notts County are set to acquire Middle East backers who are talking of lifting the club to the Championship within five years. That City and Shrewsbury began last season in similar positions of apparent affluence compared to others but still failed is forgotten by those who believe City can’t compete. But if a smaller budget rules a club out of triumphing over others, how on earth are Exeter City kicking off a League One campaign at Elland Road in a few weeks time?

Much of City’s finances depend on the future of the so-called ‘Big 4’ – Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee, Michael Boulding and Chris Brandon – who arrived last summer to widespread excitement. Their continuing employment is said to have severe repercussions over who else can be brought in alongside them, leaving McLaren, Lee and Boulding encouraged to take up their release clauses and Brandon free to talk to other clubs despite having another year left on his contract. Had any of these players not managed to disappoint last season, it would have been interesting to see how much their high wages really are an issue.

It’s not just getting them to move on that’s caused unrest among fans, but that plans to bring in new faces have apparently had to be delayed until their futures are determined. A couple of weeks ago Nicky Law’s decision to spurn City for Rotherham was seen as the fault of these players, by compromising Stuart’s ability to match the Millers’ offer. The arrival of Gareth Evans, who has turned down other offers, contradicts this and suggests City do still have the resources to compete.

That said it’s far from ideal that Stuart is trying to build his team for next season while not knowing if some of the positions are filled. It’s claimed Lee and McLaren are attracting interest from other clubs but, given the wage budget-cutting measures at City are far from unique in the bottom two tiers of English football, it s improbable all four will receive attractive offers to move onto pastures new. Will they be prepared to take a pay cut and stay? It seems unlikely and, while footballers can largely be tainted with the same brush of money-grabbers, it’s doubtful we supporters would volunteer to take a pay cut in our own employment and these players won’t find it that much easier to pay the bills than most of us do.

Of the four, Boulding and Brandon’s continuing presence in Claret and Amber next season would be the most popular – yet even if they all stayed it might not be the disaster some fear. We’ve seen plenty of players over the years disappoint during their first season but become well-liked players in time – Peter Beagrie and Claus Jorgenson spring to mind – and, given their previous careers, if they were joining us this summer as new signings we’d probably be excited to welcome them.

At least the futures of the rest of the wanted squad members have been largely sorted. For a club which ultimately only narrowly missed out on a play off place and can largely thank a dodgy run of form for undermining a top three challenge, tearing everything up and starting again makes no sense. With Omar Daley not expected back much sooner than Santa, Joe Colbeck’s role will be more significant. Despite suffering a disappointing campaign, only five League Two players set up more goals for their team last season. Lee Bullock and Matt Clarke get more stick than they deserve, and will hope to maintain their best form for longer periods next term. They may be at different ends of their careers, but Luke O’Brien and Peter Thorne were two of City’s best performers next season and can once again play a key role this time.

One player we won’t be welcoming back is the aforementioned Nicky Law who, along with fellow loanee Dean Furman, was one of the bright spots of an ultimately disappointing season. When on form Law looked too good for League Two level and, if not City, his next destination was surely at a higher level. Instead he’ll be plying his trade at Rotherham and, while the son of the former City manager might claim he doesn’t owe the club he was on loan to any loyalty, the fact it wasn’t long ago he was thanking its manager for saving his career leaves a bad taste. Still, his previous relative obscurity should give us confidence in Stuart’s ability to unearth more gems like him.

Whether there are many more like Furman is another matter. Said to have been offered a deal by Stuart, his acceptance or rejection may determine the level of pre-season optimism. If it proves to be the latter decision, it will surely be due to the offer to play at a higher level, which in its own way may make the pain easier to bear compared to Law’s defection. Whatever happens, the success of Law and Furman should give other clubs’ more talented younger players the encouragement to follow in their footsteps if offered the chance to move to BD8 on loan.

Furman signing would leave City’s central midfield looking strong, though there are still other areas of the team for Stuart to build. More faces will arrive, the pre-season friendlies will commence in three weeks time and pretty soon it will be time to head down to Nottingham for the season’s start. Between now and then, the excitement should only grow.

The reality of the last two campaign is we’ve felt better about our team when they’ve not been playing, through the summer, than during the season itself. Pre-season optimism can be dangerous, foolish and, when looking at the mood among other clubs, too wide-ranging to have any meaning; but during these long summer days it’s all we’ve got and it would be preferable to countdown to the start of another 10 months of ups and downs by at least looking forward to it.

In the middle of things

BfB struggles. A server move hit us two weeks ago and nothing has been the same since.

Things that used to work no longer do, comments are broken, Jason could not log on, links that were added vanished, errors littered the front page, the guy in charge of shouting at the people who hosted the server (me, in other words) lost his job and things dragged on without an update for ages.

Things dragged on at Valley Parade too. Simon Ramsden came into the club to play right back and a war of words started between Rochdale FC and City boss Stuart McCall with Keith Hill – manager at the Spotland club – accusing the City gaffer of lying about how much was offered to the right back who joined City and stating that the Bantams were telling the current squad that they could afford to pay x while offering y

If McCall wants to make anything of it then we have dealings with Rochdale’s solicitors. They were very zealous in the past. The date of Tuesday night on 23rd of February 2010 should be interesting.

If McCall has wrongly told some to sign up for less then they have believed him with Matthew Clarke, Lee Bullock and Peter Thorne putting pen to paper. There was much upset about Nicky Law Jnr going to Rotherham United but I would suspect that shouting loud enough to the players leaving Premiership and Championship clubs this summer on frees would find far too many players who are in the Law/Kyle Nix attacking midfielder role and what City need is to retain Dean Furman.

Furman seems to be interesting Oldham Athletic. I’m not surprised. Oldham are also said to be trying to get Benito Carbone but face competition from Walsall. The Saddlers are managed by Chris Hutchings – obviously Carbone’s time with the former City boss for four months in 2000 was not wasted.

Some have said that Carbone might come back. The stuff of dreams. Dreaming is good. Carbone seems to be constantly at the end of his career but City are – at the moment – in the middle of a close season of uncertainty. Oldham have sniffed around Graeme Lee but he – as with the other big earners Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren and Michael Boulding – shows no signs of going. One hopes if they do stay this unwillingness or inability is not held against them. As Jim Jefferies’s time following Hutchings at Valley Parade showed the only thing worse than having high earners on the wage bill you can not shift is having high earners on the wage bill you can not shift and you leave in the reserves.

If Lee, Boulding, McLaren, Brandon line up for City next year lets all make sure that we get good value out of the money we have to pay them even if we are in the middle of getting rid of them.

McCall is in the middle of trying to bring in Gareth Evans from Macclesfield Town but worries about the potential cost of the 21 year old striker. One wonders what Keith Hill would say about City’s abilities to afford Evans. How City’s pursuit of the young Evans or the 37 year old Carbone will end is not known but City seem to be in the middle of building another squad which the bookies think will challenge for promotion next season.

The Bantams though are talking down chances. A League Cup first round tie at Nottingham Forest is viewed on as unwinnable and the opening game at Notts County is “tough”. A look at the City squad with the addition of names linked reveals little when viewed through the prism of last season’s “World Beaters” and how the wheels fell off the wagon with weeks left on the season. Put simply any eleven players pulled together for a League Two campaign could be the next Brentford and the fact that the Bantams join Lincoln and Shrewsbury in the fixtures shows that spending money is no guarantee.

So in the middle of the mid-year break it is hard to say which way the Bantams will go next term. Things at BfB still do not work properly but they will be fixed in time. Such is the problem with writing in the middle of things. It is not knowing how things will end it is the shape of them when they do.

City pensive in a worrying limbo

John Hendrie is telling Bradford City’s players that were offered contracts by the club that they should sign now knowing that the offers on the table at Valley Parade will not get any better and better offers will not be found on anyone else’s tables either.

So the likes of Lee Bullock and Matthew Clarke are told to sign and while the offers for them will not get better so – one assumes – the offers elsewhere for Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee, Michael Boulding and Chris Brandon are not going to improve. City might want to get these four off the wage bill but it is almost impossible to see all four of them exiting.

Rochdale – always keen to press for good governance in football – have decided they need to trim ten from the squad and like City ask three players to find new clubs. The Spotland club have fallen in the play-offs first legs and have decided that next season they need to be more frugal. They are not alone.

All over Leagues one and two players who are out of contract are not being offered new ones and set about trying to find comparable wages elsewhere. At the back end of July one can expect the League Two footballer with a family who picked up £60,000 last year to be ready to take £40,000 and pay the mortgage but for a few months at least they will try get at least comparable terms. Who wouldn’t?

The likes of Rhys Evans – released by City last term after an impressive season – is primed to be picked up by someone in the bottom two divisions but considering twelve months ago he was free to sign for City it is hard to see a queue of people forming at his door to pay through the nose for a player they passed up on previously. Wage offers are lower all around football and Evans – like many players who performed well last season – will be lucky to get an improvement in terms.

How long Evans, Paul Heckingbottom and similar waits to accept comparable or worse are personal concerns and could provide an interesting type of out of window transfer option for clubs next season. Should an Evans opt not to take a reduced deal in the summer after getting no interest then once the transfer window closes he – being out of contract and free to be recruited at any point in the season – becomes a limited and thus more valued commodity.

Evans would be in a better position to dictate terms to a team looking for a keeper after a poor September then he is in the summer presenting the option of paying that bit extra for a good player now rather than spending months until Christmas without.

Such a risk though has two significant downsides for a player. Firstly they spend the first Saturday in August watching football rather than playing it and – in essence – have become ex-players, retired footballers, people who used to be pros and while one does not want to damn all those who kick balls in anger they do not easily move into other professions. If the football season kicks off and you are sitting at home how long is it before you start to look for a brickies job? After all Ian Wright and Dean Windass both had to work brick after becoming ex-footballers in their twenties.

Secondly there will be a feeling that while the slump in the wider economy drags football down it is impossible to predict either where the end of the recession is or what state football will be when it returns to ruder health. Darlington FC are struggling to kick off next season, Fisher Athletic will not do having gone bankrupt this morning. Less money in football over a longer period could mean that the contracts offered today may be higher than those offered in six, twelve or eighteen months.

All of which could create curious quirks in football. Shrewsbury Town are – we are told – profitable and to collect the £500,000 from Manchester City should Joe Hart play a competitive England game. When that deal was signed £500,000 was a significant sum now it would be a King’s ransom – enough to collect the likes of McLaren, Lee and Boulding to your club.

In such a situation a team that swam against the downturn could expect to have the levels of dominance in League Two that Peterborough United and MK Dons had two years ago. Money does not maketh the team – we know that from last year and years before – but not having it certainly does not help either. It is not so much that you are able to take huge steps forward just that everyone else takes a step back.

So City are in limbo waiting for the four players to leave – which they probably won’t – or the offered players to sign which they probably will or both. One hopes that Stuart McCall does not feel the need to ape Jim Jefferies failed attempts to rid the club of high earners shown when he dropped Benito Carbone and Stan Collymore to the reserves for three months and that if the quartet of high earners at here in August they are in the team.

With that in mind it seems entirely possible that the Bantams could kick off next season with seven or eight of the regulars from last term. A team of McLaughlin | Arnison, Lee, Clarke, O’Brien | Colbeck McLaren Bullock Brandon | Boulding and Boulding would be possible and while we might not have bee massively impressed with those lads last year if the rest of the division is weaker then it would seem harder to not get promoted than to go up.

These are famous last words. City cannot afford such a situation with the current cash flow situation and without a cash boost. If the likes of Peter Thorne were not kept then the £600,000 lost last term would be lessened but where would City find £400,000 – £500,000?

Martin O’Neill is rumoured to be joining 36,999 other people at Elland Road to watch what Fabian Delph can do to help get Leeds United promoted tonight and to prepare a bid of £6.5m for the former City youngster and depending on who you believe the Bantams could pocket 10% of that.

McCall’s next City squad starts to take shape

Pakistan skipper Zesh Rehman has been offered a deal by the Bantams but longest serving player Mark Bower has been freed as Stuart McCall starts building his squad for 2009/2010.

McCall’s side’s failure to make the play offs has led to budget cuts – that is the short and not especially representative version of long story – and as a result four senior players have been freed with Bower joining out on loan Barry Conlon, oft injured Paul Heckingbottom, bit player Keith Gillespie and – surprisingly – Rhys Evans out of Valley Parade with the goalkeeper being rumoured to be interesting League One clubs including Leeds United.

The City boss has also prompted Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee and Michael Boulding to try find other clubs – something they can do owing to oddly one sided clauses in their contracts – but worries that should they not do the wage budget will be restricted. With times tough for many, if not most, clubs at the moment it is hard to see who will take the players on. Michael Boulding was not short of offers this time twelve months ago but traded from a position of being the leading scorer in League Two, likewise Paul McLaren negotiated with City as the most creative man in League One. Now these players go to a depressed market with a line on the CV that is read as a failure to make the top seven in League Two.

Do not be surprised if we have not seen the last of this trio.

Another trio who McCall would like us to see more of are Nicky Law Jnr, Dean Furman and Steve Jones whom the manager is trying to recapture on loan. Matthew Clarke, Lee Bullock, Luke O’Brien, Joe Colbeck, Leon Osborne Jon McLaughlin, Luke Sharry and Matthew Convey have been offered contracts while Kyle Nix is welcome back to preseason one assumes to await news of an exit for Lee, Boulding or McLaren. McCall will talk with Peter Thorne tomorrow.

All of which leave City with a weakened version of this season’s team should these machinations come off. McLaughlin seems to be fancied to be the new keeper having kept a clean sheet in the final game of last term. At 21 he is young but League Two is – increasingly for City – a learner’s league.

Paul Arnison has a two year deal and one assumes will stick at right back although his unwillingness to relocate from the North East is rumoured to have caused problems for McCall. Zesh Rehman and Matthew Clarke in the central defensive roles with Luke O’Brien at left back is an inch worse than Graeme Lee partnering either one – Lee came out of the season with more credit than most in this writer’s opinion – but Rehman is a cultured player and one who one could have confidence in. Clarke will continue to have his critics for both not being able to spray a Glenn Hoddle pass – which defender can? – and for his defensive lapses but since he replaced Bower in the side City have stopped being bullied by the usual big men forward lines we face.

Without wanting to delve into the stats of how many six foot two plus players have won headers in City game against Clarke vs Bower anecdotally one would suggest it is obvious that Clarke has plugged that gap. That he has other failings is a problem but in a League where physical prowess – bigness, if you will – is often the route to goal it is that no being bullied which is important rather than Bower’s more intelligent style of defending.

As with Andrew O’Brien before him Bower’s style suits the club less the further down the leagues we are. O’Brien’s man marking is superb on Thierry Henry but wasted in the Championship and Bower’s foot in play could – and would – do a lot at a Barnsley but does not at Valley Parade. One would have confidence that Bower could nick the ball from big men frequently but McCall obviously worries that the long serving defender would spend the rest of his time on his backside having been flattened and getting little sympathy from Referees.

Hearts are heavy though when a player with a service record like Bower’s leaves a club. He has given the lion’s share of his career to Bradford City having signed up on the 13th of May, 1999 four days after promotion and broken into the side a few years later with honest displays. He did his bit in administration and beyond and few City fans would not hope that he can establish himself somewhere else for the five or six years he could have in the game.

Uniting Dean Furman and Lee Bullock would seem to be the key to McCall’s midfield for next season with the City manager keen to see the Rangers midfielder back in the position he dominated last term – he played few games than Paul McLaren but made a more significant impact and was certainly more memorable – but Ibrox boss Walter Smith may have different ideas. Bullock is a useful player who has only shown his effectiveness in short spells while at Valley Parade. Next season McCall seems set to offer the former Hartlepool United midfielder the chance to make the position his own.

However McCall has struggled thus far in his management career to find a player to fill that number four shirt and role which he himself took at Valley Parade. Furman won the place from Paul McLaren whose season could be described as “middling”. McLaren did not take the mantel of senior professional with enough zeal and as a result on occasion looked a peripheral figure – especially when compared to Furman – just as Paul Evans the season before had failed to make the McCall slot his own.

Returning to Hoddle momentarily it is said that when England manager Glenn was frustrated with the players inability to match the magic feats of his own passing and one can only imagine the frustration that McCall – a player who lived by taking games by the scruff on the neck – has watching two players who have no shortage of talent in Evans and McLaren failing to control matches. Is Furman a better passer of a ball than McLaren or a better tackler than Evans? One could argue not but he has more cunning, more guile and it seems a stronger character that allows him to have more of a constant effect over a ninety minutes.

Defensive midfield – Furman’s nominal position and the one McCall had – is perhaps the most crucial role on the field and Furman represents a safe bet for City. We have seen that he will not shirk in the role unlike the previous two candidates who were on the face of it excellent choices for such a position and thus he is a tried and tested option for a job which I would argue the failure to fill correctly has cost us over the previous two season, and probably longer.

It should be noted that Luke Sharry has had a productive season and while not ready for the number four role should be expecting to feature in a dozen or more games next term.

The scenario on the flanks remains as it was this season: Joe Colbeck, perhaps Chris Brandon, Omar Daley when fit, Nicky Law should he return and Steve Jones if he is interested. Returning Colbeck from the jaws is poor form and the critics that wait for such to attack him is of paramount importance for McCall as establishing Omar Daley as a threat on the left was this term. McCall flits between preferring a pair of wide players such as Daley, Jones and Colbeck and wanting one wide and one more tucked in as Chris Brandon or Law offers and one can expect that method of trying to fill the middle of the midfield to continue.

Brandon has been unable to provide much of an indication as to his effectiveness this season and – based on last season – given a choice between him and Law one would take the younger man from Sheffield United. Should Brandon be edged out of Valley Parade – and indications are that the club would be able to keep him – then Kyle Nix would be an able replacement and I for one am surprised that the young Rotheraussie has not been offered a new deal offering the heart and ability the former of which was often lacking last season.

In August Stuart McCall would hope to line up with Joe Colbeck, Dean Furman, Lee Bullock and Chris Brandon across the middle and few would suggest that represents a major shift away from this term with improvement inferred from consistency with all four players having spent long periods injured. Allowing whoever is in the number four role to build up a relationship with the defenders to feed the ball in ending the long hoof of the end of last term and with the three midfielders around him who would take the ball is crucial and Furman can be trusted to do that. If he is not retained we re-enter the lucky dip of trying to bring in a cog to be the most important part of our machine. Like good goalscorers – they don’t get given away.

Peter Thorne will talk to Stuart McCall in a conversation about “legs” and if the striker still has them and McCall will hope to move Michael Boulding on to no great distress from I. For all his hard work Boulding failed to build a partnership either with the forward he was alongside or the players supplying him from midfield. Barry Conlon officially left the club and Willy Topp is long gone leaving the City boss looking for three or four strikers for next term.

In this respect McCall is in the hands of the trio of players who may leave. Should Lee, McLaren and Michael Boulding all exit then pressure on his budget would be loosened and the City manager could get to looking for a goal getter or two – one would suggest he tries to find a fast one, a skilful one, a big one and one who can finish again but that is how we entered this year – but should this not happen then the Bantams manager will be left looking at scraps to find a feast. The ramification of Barry Conlon and Matthew Clarke’s fall out with McCall obviously preclude Conlon’s return despite a half dozen goals for Grimsby Town and one wonders if allowing the fighting Irish to leave is not going to haunt the Gaffer as he starts looking for players with passion, strength and a good track record and finds that Barry’s name comes top of the searches.

In such a situation Rory Boulding becomes an option although reports on him are mixed on the little brother while Leon Osborne and Sean Taylforth are no one’s idea of the player to lead you out of League Two. All three could be world beaters but the fact that they are – should Thorne not be retained – all that is in the cupboard for next term shows the problem Stuart McCall will have in building a side for next term.

In the season John Hendrie talked about the need for another striker and McCall tried Chris O’Grady and Paul Mullin in that role but ultimately when cutting the cloth to keep the club in business the side suffers and the forward line would seem to be where City are to take the hit.

So McCall is charged with three summer tasks. He must get the players he has offered new deals to to sign – some are given reduced terms – and will use the carrot of a smaller squad and a guaranteed place in the starting eleven achieve that with the likes of Lee Bullock.

Secondly he must work on ensuring he has the right man for the number four role with Dean Furman being nominated as the prefer choice. Filling this position is or paramount importance.

Finally he must find a set of strikers who want to play for the club and who have the ability but for some reason – probably as with Thorne it would be age – are not at a higher level and do not expect massive wages. Rumour has it David Wetherall is being moved to youth team coach. Wetherall never really got on with Dean Windass…

Give Youth A Chance

The news that the wage bill will be cut considerably at Bradford City next season doesn’t all spell doom and gloom. Stuart McCall met with the players on Wednesday to discuss futures and see just where he will be starting with his squad for next season.

Lengthy chats with Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee and Michael Boulding will surely have occurred as Mark Lawn makes sure a repeat of last season’s outgoings doesn’t repeat itself next time around.

So why all the negativity? Hopefully this will now signal the chance for Bradford’s youngsters to come through and prove they have what it takes to wear the Claret and Amber on a weekly basis. Luke O’Brien, recently crowned Player of the Season, made a real break through last season, with Joe Colbeck the only other notable player to come through and play on a consistent basis for the first team.

Now it’s time for Leon Osbourne, Sean Taylforth, Adrian Bellamy, Rory Boulding, Jonathan McLaughlin, Louis Horne, Rory Carson, Luke Dean and anyone else that is ready to give 100% to the cause and grow as a player to make the step forward. These players are on a small fraction compared to what some are earning on a weekly basis.

Other teams in the division have signed young players either released from higher clubs or making a name for themselves in lower divisions. This is the route Stuart McCall now needs to be taking as the realisation that Bradford are no different to any other team in the league finally sinks in with some.

Barnet for example have mixed experience with youth well and players like Albert Adomah and Jay Devera are capable of making the step up to the next level. Similarly, Dagenham & Redbridge and Exeter have shown what can be achieved with smaller playing budgets and a settled squad.

City fans were informed that 18 players are now out of contract at the club, leaving only a handful remaining. If stability is what fans want when it comes to the manager, the same must apply to the players.

Who do we as fans of the club have to associate with when players leave after one or two seasons. Next term we can only hope that there is less of the loan signings and more in the way of giving youth a chance.

The budget announcement should not spell doom and gloom

In recent years, there’s being a growing obsession with playing budgets and the comparison to others. Every season one or two sides gain promotion on a shoestring budget, the achievements of which are used as a stick to beat failing clubs with larger ones.

At City we know this more than ever, manager Stuart McCall enjoyed what is widely recognised to be the largest budget in the division, but has not been able to use it well enough to claim even a play off spot. Meanwhile clubs such as Exeter and Dagenham have achieved more with less. Champions-elect Brentford have spent money they don’t have on gambling for promotion, though it remains to be seen if they will fall the way of Stockport next season.City have gambled to a point as well this season, and now we have to face the consequences.

There’s no doubt Stuart has had the luxury of a large squad to choose from this season, and the news the playing budget will be cut by a third for next season is understandably prompting concern. The noises coming from the Chairmen hardly seem the most positive, though given how often big budget results in big failure in football, it shouldn’t mean approaching next season in trepidation.

It’s traditional for City to release a high number of players at the end of each campaign and, with cuts to make and new signings to think about, Stuart’s attention will already be on which of his players deserve another contract in the likelihood of him staying on as manager. Rhys Evans made it known some months ago that he would like a new deal and the stability concept that has seen many of us argue for the man in the dugout to stay can also apply to the man between the posts.

All five of Stuart’s present centre backs could leave this summer, with captain Graeme Lee one of the four players with a clause in his contract allowing him to leave due to the club’s failure to go up. Lee has been criticised, but is a good League Two player and seems a committed enough person to stay around to me. Matt Clarke is unloved by many and it must be acknowledged that the previously struggling back four looked stronger in his absence on Saturday. Zesh Rehman took his place and was outstanding. His loan is up, but so is his contract at QPR. If it came down to a choice between keeping one of the two my vote would narrowly go to Rehman.

When Mark Bower signed the four year deal which is about to expire, back in 2005, it was for a club with ambitions of a quick return to the Championship. He is likely to be City’s highest earner, a position not befitting someone who has made only four appearances this season. If the long-serving defender is offered a new deal, it will be for far less money. Simon Ainge and Paul Heckingbottom are likely to depart.

In midfield Paul McLaren is another with a clause to leave and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he took advantage of it and, with rumoured high wages, it would probably be for the best. Lee Bullock is out of contract but may have done enough in his last two impressive Valley Parade appearances to convince he could be a regular next season. Chris Brandon is rumoured to face an uncertain future, which is a shame as we’ve yet to see the best of him due to those injuries. Kyle Nix’s surprise inclusion against Rotherham looks too little too late, while we could only dream of keeping Dean Furman and Nicky Law. The former is reckoned by some Rangers fans to be ready for first team football at Ibrox next season, the latter’s future may depend on whether Sheffield United earn promotion to the Premier League. Even if surplus to requirements at Bramall Lane, he can play at a higher level than League Two.

Joe Colbeck’s sub cameo was uplifting and it’s unthinkable that he will be allowed to leave, Peter Thorne too has another year left in him and the 17 goals he’s bagged so far this season is impressive considering the number of injuries he’s picked up firing them in. If he stays, his decreasing fitness reliability means he cannot start the season as the main striker. Michael Boulding can leave but probably won’t. Rory too can go but again probably won’t.

Of the other loanees, Steve Jones was outstanding up front against Rotherham, but his inconsistency is maddening. Nevertheless an attempt to keep him should be made. Paul Mullin will not be missed by anyone but there’s little doubt another big forward will be signed up in his place. Keith Gillespie’s time at City will be quickly forgotten.

Stuart will be on the look out for new signings, but it shouldn’t be a case of ripping things up and starting again. This team has ultimately disappointed but it was the closest towards delivering promotion than any others we’ve had in recent years. Stuart has the summer to consider why it didn’t prove close enough and find the answers to ensure it goes closer next time.

For, while expecations may dampen for next season, there is no need to believe we can’t make a better fist of challeging for promotion with fewer resources. The economic climate that will start to truly impact on football next season, should result in clubs in a stronger position to negoiate with players over contracts. A smaller squad will hopefully result in a settled team. Injuries may undermine efforts, but the emergence of Luke O’Brien should provide confidence to try other youngsters. There may be less loan signings, but that would be no bad thing.

Stuart will hardly be left with a shoestring budget to build next season’s team, success as manager will come from making less go further.

Why can’t you do that every week?

“Why can’t you do that every week?”

Is that what would supporters ask of the the players, the manager, the club after the season at Valley Parade ended without promotion but with a fine win.

Bradford City’s problem – and the problem that has driven Stuart McCall to distraction and seen the 45th game of the League Two season finally rule City out of promotion or the play-offs following Dag & Red’s win over Notts County – is that the team team has been incapable of withstanding setbacks within games.

Goals ruled out, mistakes made, goals conceded all seeing the squad’s brittle morale crack. Think the collapses at Rochdale or Barnet, the reversals at Notts County or Morecambe. Defeats that came after when the team was incapable of withstanding the slings and arrows of fortune. In the swirling atmosphere of this day no such upset occurred and the Bantams powered to an impressive 3-0 win over an credible Rotherham United side who made a good fist of a game where ultimately they were lucky not to lose by more.

That the atmosphere was good was owing to the swell of opinion that Stuart McCall remain as City manager becoming vocalised and realised in a demonstration in favour of the gaffer. Save Our Stuart messages were held up, chants were made and the players responded with an intelligent and effective performance.

McCall sent out what – should he be true to his threat to resign – is his last team at Valley Parade with Kyle Nix recalled to create a four man midfield alongside Lee Bullock, Nicky Law Jnr and Dean Furman. Matthew Clarke was dropped in favour of Zesh Rehman and Steve Jones partnered Peter Thorne in the forward line. In the week – while paying tribute to Wayne Jacobs – McCall said he wished that his other signings had worked out as well as as his number two. Matthew Clarke, Michael Boulding, Paul McLaren, Chris Brandon and a few others are thus charged and as a result they cool their heels on the sidelines.

Those who did play did McCall proud with a display of tight passing at pace that could rank as the home performance of the season. After ten minutes pressure brought a corner which was cleared and returned goalwards by Dean Furman beating all on its way to goal except Peter Thorne who’s slight deflection continued the ball’s progress into the net. Rotherham’s defence were incandescent suggesting that Thorne was offside – visitors number four Danny Harrison could have been playing the City striker onside although confusion was king in the stands and on the field. The goal stood perhaps because Furman’s shot was going in and the Referee decided that a goal would have been without Thorne (entirely against the rules) or perhaps Harrison was playing Thorne on side or perhaps the Referee got it wrong.

Rotherham felt angry at the first and flattened by the second where Nicky Law Jnr got down the right – McCall’s diamond shaped midfield saw Law on the right hand side but not the right wing and he and Nix on the left hand side were able to keep in contact with the strikers which has proved a problem this term – and crossed low and firmly to Thorne who hit a close range finish after cutting in front of defender Nick Fenton. Thorne’s crisp finish left keeper Andy Warrington flat on his back, seemingly resigned to defeat.

Flat footed Fenton became flattening Fenton when – rather unprovoked – he lunged into Law as the City man shielded the ball out for a throw-in. That the visitors defender was yellow carded showed – perhaps – the end of season nature of the game rather than reflected the seriousness of the foul which was out of character of a well natured game.

The Bradford City team this season has not struggled when on top of a game exchanging blows with the South Yorkshire side but not being breached. A third almost came after half time when on a break – lovely to see a team come attack at VP – when Thorne crossed to Jones who saw his finish clawed away by Warrington. A second counter ten minutes later saw sub Joe Colbeck find Jones with an impressive pass and Jones sprint in on goal to finish the game.

Good performances were all over the field for the Bantams. Rhys Evans looked solid, Paul Arnison and player of the season Luke O’Brien got up and down the flanks and Rehman and Lee were solid against a lively attack which – when he came on – were dangerous especially in the form of Drewe Broughton. Also telling was the fact that Dean Furman took the all from the back four and used it well rather than allowing the back four to pump the ball long.

All of which came under a blanket of positivity from the assembled Valley Parade audience who got behind the team – really got behind the team – and the effects were seen on the field. Rotherham – who have enough points to have finished in the top three this season – were no soft touch but the Bantams bested them and while Thorne could have hat a hat-trick testing Warrington twice more The Millers were enterprising and could have got one back and – as we have seen – caused the wobble that has seen this promotion bid fail.

If they keep it up they will be challenging for the top three next season. The same is true of the Bantams on all levels. It seems to be that today and two weeks ago the represented a consideration on how the level of support and the level of performance are not just yoked together but that the one (not can but) will inspire the other.

The players took a lap of the field to applause – nothing compared to what everyone was expecting with the promotion which was expected – and Stuart McCall followed to a clear statement – “Stuart must stay” – from the supporters who had lifted the team to a fine win.

What would the players, the manager, the club say to the supporters who had created an atmosphere of inexorable victory:

“Why can’t you do that every week?”

Return To Form Needed Fast

Bradford go into the game tomorrow knowing a loss could seal the fate of their season and Stuart McCall’s tenure as manager for good. City’s opponents, Dagenham & Redbridge, would themselves leapfrog Bradford should they secure all three points, with a game in hand still to come. With the teams surrounding Bradford seemingly happy to throw away points along with ourselves, we are still in a good position to sneak into the play-offs with the possibility of fighting it out with Chesterfield on the final day for the crucial seventh place.

Monday’s result against Lincoln may not have been the best tonic to our recent run; another home draw is the last thing the fans wanted to see. Nevertheless, there were positives to be taken from the game. Lee Bullock returned to the heart of the midfield in the continued absence of Dean Furman and grabbed himself a goal in the process. Bullock can count himself unlucky this season to have been the forgotten man, with injuries and the form of loan duo Furman and Nicky Law putting in excellent performances even when others around them were not doing likewise. Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke looked a little more confident and were unlucky to concede the goal in the manner it came with referee Fred Graham failing to spot two fouls in the build up to the game’s opener.

Dagenham & Redbridge showed in the reverse fixture this season that they are a team that like to get the ball down and play through the midfield. How tempted Stuart McCall will be to field a five-man midfield remains to be seen, as he will undoubtedly shuffle the pack. Michael Boulding may be one of the unlucky few that depart from the starting line-up with Paul Mullin impressing as part of a three man strike force that completed the last half hour or so against Lincoln. For all his persistence, Boulding has shown a tendency to be played off the ball a little easily at times, though, as against Lincoln, he was playing against a beast of a defender in the shape of Janos Kovacs.

City fans will be hoping that City can match the result from last season when Nicky Law grabbed a brace, though on that day the final score flattered what was otherwise an average performance. Dagenham are hampered by the loss of experienced goalkeeper Tony Roberts and have signed David Button on-loan from Tottenham as cover. Bradford are boosted by the return of Mark Bower are Luton terminated his loan following their losing battle against relegation. Bower was unfortunate to miss out on a place in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, with his only start for Bradford this season against Leeds in the competition restricting his first taste of action at Wembley. The Bradford stalwart will be hoping to force himself into Stuart McCall’s plans in the final few games and possibly even get his own victory at Wembley.

Realistically, Bradford need all three points just to stay in touch with Chesterfield, who face their own tough challenge against Gillingham. Optimism may be at a low with the fans at Bradford, but a win at Victoria Road could just be the tonic that the travelling supporters need to keep the belief going into to the final few games of the campaign.

A question of spirit

With 10 minutes to go at Christie Park, Bradford City had a one goal deficit to overcome and – with Shrewsbury’s defeat at Bury confirmed – a one point deficit to turn around in order to climb back into the play offs. That the players could only muster the feeblest of efforts towards reversing the former leaves belief in achieving the latter all but obsolete.

The third of the three main contenders for seventh, Chesterfield, can push the gap to four points by winning today, but on this evidence it might as well be 40 such is the apparent lack of stomach for the fight. It wasn’t so much losing the precious advantage Matt Clarke’s 37th minute header had earned City by half time, but the lack of confidence and belief to come back after falling behind. The qualities which had been on display in the first half were forgotten and, as Graeme Lee dithered about with the ball in his own half in the 90th minute, allowing his attempted launch forward to be charged down, the questions over leadership were raised louder. How Stuart McCall the manager needed Stuart McCall the player.

All of this should not eclipse the sense of injustice of seeing Peter Thorne’s header early in the second half incorrectly disallowed after the referee Nigel Miller appeared to overrule his own seemingly decent view of it crossing the line, after slipping out of Barry Roche’s hands, by going with the assistant’s judgment that it hadn’t. There was also a hint of offside to the build up to Morecambe’s equaliser, which ultimately resulted in Danny Adams crossing for Stewart Drummond to head home. But instead of heads complaining, they dropped – with dire consequences for the Bantams faltering play off push.

Sure there was fight, determination and willingness to go in for the 50-50 challenges, but largely only from those wearing red. Morecambe’s commitment was curious in that their own play off hopes appear improbable, but with their tails up they became dominant and were rewarded by Rene Howe’s spectacular strike. At the final whistle players and manager Sammy Mcllroy celebrated in a manner that suggested they believed a trophy presentation would shortly follow. It may be patronising to suggest they treated the occasion as their cup final, though it might be the closest either side gets to one in the coming weeks.

It wasn’t so much you couldn’t see it coming, but after an encouraging first half performance there was every reason to believe a much-needed first win in over a month was on the cards. Roared on by a sell-out away following which took up two-and-a-half of the four stands, City started in a positive manner and worked hard to retain possession and get forward. The recalled Joe Colbeck brought energy and pace outwide, which had been lacking from Keith Gillespie during the last two home games. Nicky Law, back from the start after a rest last Saturday and in place of the injured Dean Furman, added drive. Paul McLaren looked composed alongside him while Chris Brandon showed some nice touches on the left.

Morecambe, backed by an equally vociferous support, pressed hard and their forwards Michael Twiss and Howe provided some uncomfortable moments for Lee and Clarke, but the goalmouth action was mainly at the other end. Paul Mullin latched onto Thorne’s flick on, but saw his low drive tipped wide by Roche. Then Colbeck’s endeavour in closing down Adams allowed Thorne a shooting chance with the ball rolling narrowly past the far post. The lead provided by Clarke’s header from Law’s corner was well deserved and, with Zesh Rehman looking more the part at right back and Luke O’Brien getting forward well, the platform for victory was seemingly there.

Yet the battling qualities slowly evaporated after the interval. Morecambe’s equaliser came after 10 minutes of decent football from City which included the disallowed goal, but the threat wilted and the pressure began almost entirely coming from Morecambe. Evans had to make one excellent low save and was clearly frustrated by how quickly possession was surrendered by those in white shirts. In recent weeks one of the team’s biggest failings has been the failure to win second balls and the casualness in which home players were allowed to charge forward through a rapidly non-existent midfield led to some tense moments. Howe’s stunning shot from well outside the area left Evans with no chance as it flew into the corner.

But, unlike last season when the Shrimpers had come from 1-0 down at half time to go 2-1 up in stoppage time, there was still time for City to come back.

The desire and fight to do so, to not only salvage something from the game but keep the promotion dream alive, gave way to a seemingly weak surrender. The basics were forgotten and too quickly the team resorted to booting the ball forward from the back in a manner that reeked of desperation, instead of finding the composure to use a midfield which had been so effective in the first half at creating chances. Colbeck might as well have left the field – no reflection on his performance or desire, at one stage he booted the ball in frustration – such was the unwillingness of team mates to do anything but hit and hope.

Stuart’s changes, which had been so effective last week, did little to swing momentum back in City’s direction. Some City fans choose to boo the City manager after he replaced Thorne with Michael Boulding at 1-1 though, after been part of such a stand off when playing for City – when he was taken off away to Sheffield Wednesday in January 2000 to a chorus of “you don’t know what you’re doing” – involving then-manager Paul Jewell, he should take it with a pinch of salt. Thorne had done okay, but the decision to bring on Boulding looked logical to me at least. Steve Jones came on for the tiring Brandon but was too starved of the ball to be a threat, though he might have snatched an unlikely equaliser after heading wide of Roche’s goal. Lee Bullock came on for Law and Stuart received more abuse from fans nearby.

It’s easy to point the finger of blame for defeat at Stuart, who may now be four games away from leaving the club and possibly management for good, but the players cannot be exempt. The spirit is alarmingly lacking and there’s too much of an acceptance for allowing things to go against them. Maybe they can’t make each other play better, but the personal responsibility to at leave give their all should be a minimum obligation in return for the living their club provides them. Only a few could argue they did that in the second half.

Equally of concern is the regularity of losing points on the road. This was City’s 12th away defeat of the season, a record which matches the dismal relegation season two years ago and which has only been worsened during the even more traumatic relegation of the 2003/04 season, since exiting the Premiership. Only Aldershot and Chester have been beaten away from their own patch more often and the final two away games – at Dagenham and Chesterfield – don’t inspire great confidence of City improving.

On Monday they are at least at home with a quick opportunity for the players to redeem themselves. The ability of the squad to turn the situation round isn’t in great doubt, but the mental strength and desire sadly is. There are 360 minutes of the regular campaign for the players to demonstrate they want to end it with a chance of taking their team into League One – those who fail to should be first in line to exit Valley Parade during the summer.

The worst punishment

Putting aside debates over Stuart McCall’s ability for a moment, everyone should be horrified by the prospect of the Bantams manager leaving this summer. A managerial vacancy in May will mean the play offs have been missed and a resultant punishment no one connected with City will relish – more of the same.

Today’s 1-0 defeat to Port Vale was a bad advert for League Two and sadly something its biggest crowds have had to become used to. Not so long ago visiting teams came with clever game plans that often worked, this season the majority show up with limited aspirations of avoiding defeat. Five across the midfield, time waste as often as possible and, on occasions home players get through, bring them down by any means necessary.That they succeeded owed more to City’s lack of confidence than any better parking of the bus compared to others.

The only goal of the game came four minutes after the break through a neat low finish by David Howland, but the chance came seconds after City had been on the attack and Keith Gillespie, making his full debut, had produced an ill-advised short pass to Dean Furman which had too much power to control and allowed Paul Marshall to break forward. Graeme Lee stood off him too long and, when he did eventually put in a challenge, the ball spun into Howland’s path from which he beat Rhys Evans.

It was the only time Vale troubled City’s goal, though the territorial advantage the Bantams enjoyed didn’t manifest itself into many chances. Lee might have made up for his hesitancy for the goal with three attempts that were cleared off the line, Clarke had a decent half volley attempt which was straight at Valiant keeper Jon Anyon, Furman blazed over and Steve Jones stabbed a few efforts wide – but at no point in the game was momentum built up to the level of heavy pressure.

The biggest concern for Stuart will have been that the final whistle did not herald only the second home defeat of the season, his team looked beaten long before it. Confidence is draining from certain players who, only a matter of weeks ago, were in excellent form. Low confidence for City typically results in a more direct approach and an over-desperation to force a goal which was evident even during the early stages. The lack of composure in hurrying the ball forward rather than passing it around patiently meant possession was quickly gifted back to Vale, who tried their hardest to boot it back in the direction it came.

Stuart has faced the conundrum all season of two central midfielders being out numbered by three opposition and seemed to have found the solution in the boundless energy levels of Furman and Nicky Law, but even the on-loan pair looked jaded and unable to influence the game. Out wide Gillespie and Jones battled hard and caused problems, but the double-marking tactics left them struggling for space and the efforts of Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien to support were undermined by the former’s favouritism of his left foot and the latter’s struggle to handle the counter attack threat from his side.

Up front Paul Mullin made his debut after signing on-loan from Accrington and, though he showed some good touches and battled well, offered nothing Barry Conlon does not on a good day. The hope for Stuart will be that he has higher consistency levels. Michael Boulding looked useful with the ball at feet but finding space is a problem he’s faced at Valley Parade all season. With the ball invariably aimed at Mullin, he was forced to feed off scraps. Stuart introduced Chris Brandon and Lee Bullock from the bench, but neither had any impact.

Fortunately for City, this impact on the league table has been just as slight, with only Rochdale winning and the gap to third still only a mountable six points. Realistically the play offs are the target but the worry is this further dent on confidence will make it even harder for the players to achieve that. Next week’s game at Chester becomes even more must-win and, with The Blues winless in 17 and having fallen into the bottom two for the first time, it will be a pressure game for both sides. Losing is unthinkable and would bring the reality of missing out on the top seven and another season in League Two closer.

That we are even here in the first place owes a little to today’s whistle-happy referee who did as much to ruin the spectacle as Vale’s Marc Richards and his kicking the ball away time-wasting efforts. It’s almost two years ago to the day since Steve Bratt was last officiating at Valley Parade and on that afternoon he stopped a resurgent City effort against Blackpool by ridiculously sending off Steve Schumacher just as the Bantams were completely on top. The score was 1-1 but the game ended 3-1 to the Tangerines with the hapless referee later admitting he was wrong to dismiss Schumacher – in between City were relegated from League One.

Back at the scene of the crime, Bratt played completely into Vale’s hands by continually stopping play and awarding some bizarre free kicks. On at least two occasions City players were fouled, only for Bratt to give the decision the other way. He also displayed ridiculous inconsistencies with the advantage rule, at one stage pulling the game back ten seconds after a Vale foul hadn’t stopped Boulding charging into the area with just a defender and keeper to beat. No wonder the Vale players were so quick to shake his hand at the final whistle.

Stuart was yet to be installed as manager on Bratt’s last visit; as assistant to Neil Warnock, he had just witnessed Sheffield United lost 3-0 at Chelsea. The bright lights of the Premier League quickly became distant after the five successive defeats early into his City managerial career, last season. His immediate task is to make sure that record isn’t equalled next Saturday, as well as restore hope we might escape another year of punishment.

Deflecting viewpoints – Bournemouth v Bradford City – League Two preview

Deflections are habitually described as wicked, and the one which Dean Moxley’s cross took off Paul Arnison to loop over Rhys Evans for Exeter’s winner on Saturday was heinous in its contribution towards City’s promotion hopes.

City spent the remaining 70 minutes trying to neutralise its implication but in the end it was late drama 250 miles to the East, in Kent, which had the most telling affect. Grant Holt’s late equaliser may have pushed his Shrewsbury side above City, but the two points it cost Gillingham means automatic promotion remains a reachable three points away. Victory at Bournemouth tonight could shorten that gap to mere goal difference and deflect a season in danger of going either way back in the right direction.

Recent form is not good enough, no one would argue. Defeat at Exeter was City’s fourth in a row on the road and fourth in six full stop. It’s a measure of inconsistencies with City’s promotion rivals – Brentford apart – that a one point deficit City had after drawing at home to Darlington last month has only increased by two during a period of some of the Bantams’ worst performances of the campaign.

Much has been made online about the latest defeat with the extreme calls of Stuart McCall to be sacked aired by some. Normally I’d try to argue this is ridiculous but there seems little point, not least because their cries are not going to be acted upon by those who get to decide. Furthermore I – as, I would guess, are many others who defend Stuart – am tired of receiving the lazy and patronising put-down of wearing ‘rose-tinted glasses’ when I do.

There’s no room for debate with some supporters, if you disagree Stuart should be booted out it’s not because you rationally believe he’s doing a decent job, you are stupid; or blind and own prescribed magic spectacles – I forget which.

Back in the South, the City squad have remained from Saturday and one hopes the unusually long period of time spent together as a group will have benefited team morale and increased focus ahead of a vital encounter with Bournemouth. Stuart took a squad of 20 to Devon last week before facing a disciplinary problem with Barry Conlon and Matt Clarke, which hampered selection.

Reaction to Conlon and Clarke’s misdemeanours is like opinions on the best way to punish children – everyone has a view but no one ever agrees. Details are unclear, but it would seem Stuart chose to keep them grounded in the stand and stop their pocket money for at least a week. Some criticise him for cutting his nose to spite his face by leaving them out, others argue the pair should never play for the club again. Both players are expected to be back in consideration again with Stuart’s reluctance to publicly criticise them hopefully being rewarded with a determination from both to make amends.

Conlon’s absence and another little injury to Peter Thorne left Stuart selecting Nicky Law up front with Michael Boulding at St James Park. Stuart is often accused of playing Law ‘out of position’, though these critics seem to ignore the fact Law’s career at Sheffield United has so far involved playing out wide or up front. A central midfield partnership with Dean Furman results in Law ultimately ‘out of position’. Some might call it clever management by Stuart to get such great performances out of him in the centre this season. They will probably be the same folk wearing rose-tinted glasses, though.

Law should return to the midfield but perhaps on the wing with Lee Bullock or Paul McLaren partnering Furman in the centre and Steve Jones on the right. The club’s failure to get returning injured players looking anything better than rusty is troubling, though Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon may be considered for starts. As will Keith Gillespie.

Up front Thorne is definitely out so Conlon should partner the hit and miss Boulding. Stuart’s failure to bring in a fourth striker is been debated by some. Tellingly up to five clubs are reported to be on the verge of administration with talk of one League Two club being unable to complete its fixtures. That won’t be City, but the still tight finances mean the luxury of signing the mythical fourth striker who’d score lots of goals probably isn’t available.

Jones is the nearest to a replacement we had for Willy Topp in terms of space on the wage bill, and may play more regularly in the striker berth if other wingers can start matching his form out wide. Gillespie was clearly only brought in because of Omar Daley’s injury and whether he is on anything more than a pay-as-you-play deal is suspectable.

At the back Clarke will be expected to return with Zesh Rehman either switched to right back for Arnison or relegated back to the bench. Luke O’Brien and Graeme Lee will hope to better recent efforts with Evans keeping goal.

Bournemouth’s recent form is amongst the best in the league and stronger than most promotion-chasing clubs. From a seemingly hopeless position, their third manager of the season, Eddie Howe, has reinvigorated belief and ten undefeated matches from 12 has propelled the Cherries out of the bottom two. They are also the only club to win at Valley Parade so far this season and present a tough prospect for City to end their away woes against.

Defeat would prompt an even angrier reaction from fans and a win would largely bring calm. Whichever there will be eight games left to play and nothing to suggest the up-and-down nature of the first 38 will cease. This is going to be the most exciting end to a season in ages and as much as they may leave us sleepness and distraught on occasions they should also bring excitment and joy.

Spectacles optional.

Another bad repeat

Shortly after half time at Spotland, Bradford City’s players found themselves rueing missed opportunities and a two-goal burst from the home side which left them chasing a deficit. As symbolism goes it was a pretty fair analogy of City’s promotion challenge to date – and of the size of the task this defeat leaves them in achieving that goal.

Fortune certainly favoured Rochdale and the three-point advantage they now look down upon City from in 3rd place is less comfortable than this three-goal victory might suggest; but while manager Stuart McCall can point to a woeful refereeing display from Scott Mathieson contributing greatly to his side’s fourth away defeat in five, he will also know much of it was self-inflicted.

Quite how the evening went so wrong is something Stuart will be pondering for the next few days. Having spent the first 20 minutes under the cosh from a vibrant Dale side who passed the ball around with fluency and alternated attacks down both flanks, City were the better team for spells during the rest of the half and could easily have gone in at the interval one or two goals ahead.

Barry Conlon, recalled ahead of Michael Boulding, ably linked up with Peter Thorne and was effective in holding up the ball and allowing others to get forward. Steve Jones carried on where he left off Saturday with some teasing dribbles and dangerous crosses. Nicky Law and Dean Furman, while never able to dominate the middle of the park in the manner they’d succeeded in the last two home games, competed well against the industrious Gary Jones and Clark Keltie.

The best chances fell to Thorne, who twice saw one-on-one opportunities against on-loan Blackburn keeper Frank Fielding blocked. The first one stemmed from good play by Conlon which left City’s top scorer with time and space to do better than the scuffed effort straight at Fielding. The second was a more difficult chance but better attempt, which needed to be pushed wide of the post. Just after half time Graeme Lee’s header from a corner was superbly stopped again by Fielding and, with other half chances created, most of the goal action fell in Rochdale’s penalty area. Rhys Evans did see one headed effort flash wide of his post.

Yet shortly into the second half Rochdale scored after Joe Colbeck, who endured another tough evening, fouled the dangerous Will Buckley and the resultant free kick was nodded home by Rory McArdle. With new purpose to Rochale’s game the tide quickly turned, although it was the dubious help from the officials in adjudging that Conlon’s attempt to clear the ball from a corner included his arm which put them in a stronger position. Adam Le Fondre, twice scourge of City last season, dispatched the resultant spot kick despite Evans getting a hand to it. When an even softer penalty was awarded following Matt Clarke’s challenge in the box – which looked clean from my position – Le Fondre repeated the feat.

But whatever sense of injustice City felt, demonstrated by assistant manager Wayne Jacobs getting sent off from the dug out and Stuart holding a long conversation with Mathieson at full time, it should not disguise another poor response to adversity. A decent performance once again fell apart and the final 35 minutes did not make pretty viewing from a Claret and Amber perspective. Rochdale continued to attack with purpose while desperation became too quickly evident in City’s forward play. Having successfully harried home players into mistakes during the first half, it was now the away team who couldn’t get time on the ball.

A premature panic on the touchline didn’t help either. As soon as Le Fondre struck his first penalty a double substitution was made by Stuart which had little effect. I’ve been told all season that Stuart “never makes his subs early enough” – funny how Todd, Law, Jefferies, Jewell et all were just as bad at this – so maybe this action was applauded by some, but considering City hadn’t done a lot wrong up to then such drastic action seemed a bit much.

Certainly Conlon was unfortunate to be taken off and, though his replacement Boulding was a willing worker, the ball stopped sticking in the final third. Substituting Colbeck was probably the right decision, though some of the abuse he is getting from some fans right now is unfair. Somehow last season’s player of the year has become the “worst player ever” and jumping up to scream when he struggles to keep an attack going is hardly going to help him rediscover confidence that has been lost since returning from a first significant career injury.

Lee Bullock came on, with Law moved out wide and doing a decent job, but the likelihood of City coming back had diminished long before the second penalty. At that point change three had been made after Paul Arnison was rescued from the roasting Buckley was dishing him and Zesh Rehman brought on. With Lee’s form notably dipping, arguments for bringing Rehman into the centre or keeping him at right back and recalling Mark Bower from Luton are being aired. Stuart must be pondering how a defence which has looked so strong at home can be so feeble away.

Something which, with two important away games in Devon and Dorset this next week, urgently must be improved on. Results elsewhere still leave City in a decent position but the team’s failure to deliver extraordinary results rather than just good results may ultimately leave it facing an extended end to the season rather than a top three podium place. There’s been too many poor performances on the road and there was no evidence at Spotland to suggest this would be the last.

Stuart did an excellent job of ensuring his team responded positively to the Barnet and Notts County set backs and the immediate challenge is to do that again. But for City to achieve promotion this season – automatic or via Wembley – his ability to get to the bottom of why it keeps going wrong will need to come through.

What should happen next – Bradford City vs Aldershot Town – League Two 2008/2009

It’s March, which in recent years for City fans has meant either anxiety over surviving relegation or disappointment at having nothing to play for.

It’s been exactly 10 years since credible promotion hopes have lasted this long into a campaign and there’s a sense of excitement at what might lie ahead. City welcome Aldershot to Valley Parade tomorrow and then travel to promotion rivals Rochdale and Exeter a few days later. It’s time for our bums, to quote Sir Alex Ferguson, to start squeaking.

Credit for what the management and players have achieved so far this season is often in limited supply from some quarters, but they have delivered more than other recent City teams in getting this far. Though there is perhaps one mental block that it’s still questionable they’ve overcome this season which will be put to the ultimate test tomorrow – the comfortable home win.

City should win tomorrow, although should is a dangerous word. In our first season out of the Premiership we should have beaten Stockport, Millwall and Sheff Wed at Valley Parade. We should have earned home victories over Gillingham and Walsall in 2002/03, Derby and Rotherham 2003/04, Torquay in 2004/05, Bournemouth in 2005/06, Northampton 2006/07 and Accrington 2007/08 – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When we should win, we invariably slip up and it’s such habits which could be looked back on with regret if promotion is not achieved come May.

City’s home record is much better this season and only Bournemouth have taken maximum points, though that was a game we should have won. There have also been draws with Luton, Barnet, Dagenham and Accrington which the team and us supporters went into confident we should win. Aldershot may have a woeful away record and go into their March with nothing to play for, but they should not be taken lightly as any points dropped by City would undermine whatever’s achieved in Lancashire and Devon next week.

After a much-needed and well deserved win over Macclesfield Tuesday, manager Stuart McCall will have a more confident squad to choose from and is likely to keep it similar. The biggest question lies up front with Peter Thorne rested and now vying for a recall and Stuart debating whether to hold him back for Tuesday. Barry Conlon came in and had his best game for some time while Michael Boulding was much improved after his frankly pathetic showing at Notts County. One may drop to the bench and the other may face that prospect a few days later.

In midfield the partnership of Nicky Law and Dean Furman did more than most to earn the Macclesfield win and both are a joy to watch at present. Furman has revealed his celebration for Tuesday’s winner was dedicated to the injured Omar Daley which is not what you might typically expect from a loan player, it also seems to go against rumours of dressing room unrest which have been circulating.

Steve Jones frustrates me for his less-than-committed attitude and it will take a while to forget the disgraceful manner he left Zesh Rehman to be slaughtered by Myles Weston at Meadow Lane last week. He is popular with some fans and can be excellent when he wants to be, but his style of running down blind alleys and woeful crossing is a little too reminiscent of Ben Murihead 2003 for my liking. He will keep his place on the left with Joe Colbeck continuing to find form and fitness on the right. The flurry of games over the next fortnight make it a good time for Chris Brandon to be almost back as it may prove too much for last season’s player of the season to start them all.

The defence should continue as they were. On Tuesday Graeme Lee appeared to be the target of the boo boys with previous victims Matt Clarke and Paul Arnison passed over, probably due to how well they both played. Such ‘support’ has yet to be directed towards Luke O’Brien, who was much better after a slight wobble of late. Rhys Evans keeps goal and will be proud of a home record that has seen him beaten only once – a deflected free kick – between the sticks at BD8 in nine games.

Aldershot seem to be enjoying the kind of season newly-promoted teams regularly enjoy in starting well before drifting off towards the end. They’ve won one in 11 and none on the road since November, although did cause Gillingham a few problems recently when they drew 4-4 at the Priestfield. They also inflicted City’s first defeat of the season back in August.

Which means there is that usual danger lurking behind thinking City should win tomorrow. We’ll turn up that bit more relaxed, get behind the team that bit less and get frustrated that bit sooner. A home win wouldn’t be earth shattering but, though we’re not used to games meaning something in this way come Spring, we shouldn’t forget that picking up maximum points as often as possible is what’s vital at this stage – whether it’s a fixture we should or shouldn’t win.

Significant? We’ll soon know

The impact of this dismal defeat on Bradford City’s season will ultimately be discovered during the next few weeks, although the immediate signs are far from good. The distance from the automatic promotion spots has increased furthermore and it would be optimistic to believe City can even make the play offs given the evidence presented at Meadow Lane. Hot on the heels of the Barnet debacle, a season of promise is suddenly falling apart.

This was supposed to be different. What happened at Barnet a one-off with manager Stuart McCall admirably stating he wouldn’t allow it to derail what the club is trying to do. By 3pm in Nottingham that had translated into giving all but Joe Colbeck – still struggling for fitness – the opportunity to redeem themselves. With strength in depth there should be no assumption on anyone’s part that their place in the team is secure. Sadly it appears too many aren’t paying attention to what’s over their shoulder and did nothing to repay their manager’s faith. Tuesday’s starting line up against Macclesfield will be very interesting.

City’s performance didn’t start off badly and for the opening 10 minutes there were plenty of indications the team was going to respond well to last week’s hammering. Matt Clarke headed a decent chance over and there was a crispness to the passing and movement with the recalled Lee Bullock adding some bite to midfield and Nicky Law, switched to the left-side, a threat.

Then on 11 minutes a City free kick was swung into the box, the ball was cleared to the edge of the area where Graeme Lee battled for it but lost out to a home player who then put Jamie Forrester through on the counter attack. Only Luke O’Brien seemed to be back for City and his tentative attempt to close down the former Leeds striker allowed the ball to be rolled into Jonathan Forte’s path to fire home. A worrying way to be caught out considering City were the away side.

The test was getting bigger for the Bantams, though the goal against the run of play was initially met with a resumption of attacking intent. Yet slowly the passes began to break down, the off the ball running featured less, County’s double-marking of the widemen tactic began to have a greater effect. Dean Furman flashed an effort narrowly wide and Peter Thorne might have done better after he cleverly worked some space but fired weakly past the post with Steve Jones in a better position. Everyone seemed to be waiting for someone else to conjure up something.

Something came at the other end instead with the impressive Forte striking again after some good close control – though the ball should have been cleared before it reached him and even then he was afforded too much time and space. A third followed just before half time through former City loanee Delroy Facey. He is best remembered for poor shooting skills and generally not caring when temporarily employed by City, a description which could be aptly applied to Jones here.

Although he certainly wasn’t the only one to display a disturbing lack of fight. Quite what has happened to the impressive defensive efforts which had seen just five goals conceded in 11 games is a deeper mystery than a niggling injury to Evans, who again did nothing wrong. Clarke and Lee were both shaky, particularly the latter who seemed to play in a trance as he often cheaply coughed-up possession and struggled to clear his line. Not a captain’s performance. O’Brien had a difficult first half and, though Zesh Rehman started his loan spell looking a class above most of his team-mates, he is worryingly sinking to their level.

In midfield Bullock and Furman are good players but did not make a cohesive partnership. A moment in the second half where they both went for the same ball summed up their disjointed influence. Thorne and Michael Boulding have forged a good partnership previously, but neither did much in possession other than lose it. Not surprisingly there was an angry reaction from the 1,200+ travelling fans with the dreaded “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” aired as the players trudged off at half time to face an equally upset Stuart.

The second half was slightly better with some players – O’Brien, Law, Furman and Thorne – restoring a degree of pride. Joe Colbeck was brought on for Boulding with Jones switched up front and there never appeared too much danger of County extending their lead. Perhaps most concerning for Stuart though was the lack of urgency and belief towards engineering an unlikely comeback. It was as though the game had been written-off and the second half was about preservation of a first team shirt for Tuesday. There were occasional good moments and Bullock and Furman did go close, but it was still largely poor.

Thorne did at least find the net with five minutes to go after good work from City’s best second half player, Colbeck. As consolations go it was pretty good too as it allowed last season’s top scorer to finally end a near four-month drought. A seventh goal in four games against the Magpies could prove significant if it leads to a return to the scoring form that his team so badly needs.

Not that Thorne, along with his team mates, could escape the angry abuse of many City fans at the final whistle with the atmosphere long-turned ugly. Passion is one thing but telling players to f*** off is a little strong no matter how deserving they were of receiving it. There was clearly a look of shock on many players’ faces as they attempted to applaud supporters. Reacting in the right manner now is going to be critical.

All season long there has been this feeling that City are going to gain promotion no matter how many soft goals they conceded and how many average performances they put in along the way. There was plenty of time to find top form and plenty of ability in the squad. Well there is no longer much time left and we cannot hope players will find their best form soon. It must happen now – and carry on.

City have not looked as less likely to gain promotion as they do right now and it has to be hoped this will be the moment the penny drops. No longer can the players think it will happen, they must make it happen. Six points from the next two home games will only be a start and they must then kick on in crucial away fixtures at Rochdale and Exeter. And then keep going.

Should that be achieved this defeat might be looked back on as significant because players would have learned some harsh lessons, got back into the promotion hunt and proved they were fit to wear the shirt. For now at least, few fans will be holding their breath.

How fragile is this life as City prepare to face Notts County

If perspective were needed on last week’s 4-1 defeat by Barnet then City did not have long to wait for it with Darlington’s unexpected fall into administration on Wednesday.

As the Bantams navel gazed the Quakers stared into the abyss counting the cost of ambitious plans and living beyond their means.

The defining sight of more football financial madness – for me at least – was Liam Hatch the on loan striker who the club could ill afford coming off the bench to try score against an injured Rhys Evans.

Evans was not to blame for the goals at Barnet but in the context of another administration it is not hard to see why City decided not to have another senior professional keeper on the bench. If that decision costs City on the field then perhaps it – and thinking like it – saves the club off it and thus it should be applauded.

Notts County turn up in financial talk often. The club that once lent Juventus a kit saw investment plans fail this week and have a murky future but as Bantam fans take a seat at Meadow Lane it is worth remembering that the yearly rent as set by the council there would pay for City at Valley Parade for just four days.

Notts struggle this season but are probably not to be troubled by relegation and the resurge of AFC Bournemouth which makes the foot of the table interesting. Last week though proves that if you think the three points are there for the taking they are almost certainly lost.

Lost too for City is Omar Daley who will probably not play again until Christmas and is a huge miss especially away from home where his pace sprung many a counter attack.. Steve Jones fills his place in the squad and sympathy for the over aggressive Darlington declines.

Jones and Joe Colbeck will take the flanks although there is some suggestion Nicky Law may go on to the wing to allow Paul McLaren to return alongside Dean Furman with the South African being considered to have come out of last week’s game with head high.

The back four seems to pick itself but Paul Arnison will hope that a shakeup would see him back at right back. The full back will probably sit out again to allow Zesh Rehman’s power to be deployed opposite Luke O’Brien and alongside Bradford City’s tribute to the Huddersfield boss Graeme and Matthew. Rhys Evans is believed to be fit enough to keep goal and kick goal kicks but the City press officer – Mr. S. McCall – is perhaps understandably keeping quiet about that.

Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne – the scurge of County with a hat-trick at Valley Parade, one at Meadow Lane and two in the first game of the season – will be paired up front. Daley’s injury and reports from the reserves on Rory Boulding suggest that Barry Conlon’s usage as third striker aside City have little pressure on the front two with Steve Jones being perhaps the only option outside the three regulars.

Such is life though living life within one’s means. City – in this week – should be celebrated for this.

Into the final third – Barnet vs Bradford City – League Two preview

31 games down, 15 to go. As the season enters its final third every point gained and lost is going to seem increasingly crucial.

During the last week the League Two promotion race has taken added significance for Bradford City after visits from two of its main rivals. This time last week we’d all have taken four points from tricky games against Wycombe and Darlington and, though City have dropped one league position after achieving that, they remain very much in the hunt.

What the two games did emphasise is the tightness of this season’s promotion battle. Brentford and Wycombe may currently be able to glimpse daylight between them and the rest of the pack, but with only six points separating the top seven no-one can be sure of anything. Three from Brentford, Wycombe, Bury, Shrewsbury, Rochdale, City, Darlington and Exeter are likely to finish in the automatic promotion spots and, from those who don’t, only one at least can claim promotion via the play offs, if Dagenham or Gillingham don’t steal in. Those clubs ultimately celebrating in May will be well aware of how close many ran them, which will only add to the achievement.

Meanwhile at the other end one of the most non-eventful relegation battles ever is suddenly getting interesting after Bournemouth’s 1-0 win over Accrington last Saturday pushed the previously doomed-looking Cherries into touching distance of others. Luton are down but Stanley, Chester, Grimsby and of course Barnet are starting to realise that a season of underachievement might yet be punished and have much to do during the final weeks.

It means weekend fixtures such as Accrington v Dagenham, Darlington v Grimsby and Chester v Exeter are important for both sides and City’s trip to Barnet is no different. The London club has only won once at home all season and once home and away in 21. Trooping off the pitch having lost to Notts County last Saturday to discover Bournemouth are closing in should have provided renewed motivation to build on a three-match unbeaten run against the Bantams.

The biggest worry for City ahead of the game is not of the dangerous John O’Flynn and Albert Adomah, but of finding a keeper to face them. Rhys Evans’ injury on Tuesday leaves him needing to recuperate and second-choice keeper Jon McLaughlin is desperately unlucky to be ruled out because of concussion. Stuart is actively looking for an emergency loan keeper but may play Evans through the pain barrier and ask Luke O’Brien to take his goal kicks again. One hopes it won’t come to that because if nothing else defenders taking goal kicks enables the opposition to play a higher line up the park, something Darlington attempted in the second half on Tuesday.

At least the rest of the defence will be fit to carry on their impressive form with Paul Arnison unlucky to be watching from the bench as Zesh Rehman plays in his right back slot, it will be the first time during his loan spell that the Pakistan international will have stayed in the same position for two consecutive games. Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke partner in the centre with another round of groans at how much ‘hoof-ball’ the duo contributed on Tuesday. It’s a shame some supporters cannot understand football better and appreciate Darlington’s ploy of packing the midfield made it almost impossible for City to pass their way forward. As you would expect from a side looking for a 9th clean sheet in 12, both centre backs are in great form. O’Brien’s dipped on Tuesday and a leading contender for player of the season will hope to be back to his best tomorrow.

In midfield Omar Daley’s injury should result in a Joe Colbeck start. He’s now made five substitute appearances since returning from injury and has impressed, although struggled against his former club Tuesday. As did Steve Jones on the other flank, who continues to play brilliantly one week and disappointingly the next – a typical winger, perhaps. Nicky Law may be moved out wide instead of Colbeck with one of Paul McLaren or Lee Bullock brought into the centre to partner Dean Furman. Up front Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne will continue. The latter is desperately hoping for a first goal since netting against Barnet last November.

The visitor’s attacking approach impressed that afternoon, but it’s points not plaudits both sides will want tomorrow. Anything less than victory will be disappointing for City, but it’s in games such as these they’ve so often slipped up over recent years. Everyone in League Two will be keeping one eye on everyone else and, as rearranged matches are finally played and other six-pointers such as Saturday’s Rochdale v Brentford are concluded, the next few weeks will be crucial with some of the leading pack likely to lose ground.

An away win for City tomorrow may not be considered earth-shattering, but it would nevertheless be an important step towards crossing the now-approaching finishing line ahead of the majority.

City lack the steam to go the distance against Darlington

If there was a time for Bradford City to win the evening’s clash of promotion chasers at home to Darlington then it was in the opening twenty minutes when the visitors – who has not played since the end of January – looked in danger of being swamped by a bright Bantams side looking to carry on with the three game winning run.

At ninety minutes most City fans were happy with a point.

City’s early flourishes seemed to push through a rusty Quakers side with Peter Thorne looking mobile and enjoying some dominance over Steve Foster and Michael Boulding probing dangerously but the Bantams bluster never found a way through and was met with some aggressive challenges by the visits with Neil Austin and Jason Kennedy both pushing the boundaries of a lenient Referee in Staffordshire’s Tony Bates.

Bates allowed rustic lunges to go in checked and Darlington – either to their credit if you have come down from Durham or not if you like your football matches to contains as much, well, football as possible – played those rules the fullest.

The tackle that ended Omar Daley’s night – and with medial ligament damage perhaps season – was Austin going in my opinion past what should be considered fair but not in Bates’s. Certainly Daley’s being carried off on a stretcher seemed to signify a drop in the Bantams game and the shaking off of the rust of the visitors. A couple of minutes later when Rhys Evans reached to stop a ball going out for a corner and limped back to goal matters were worse.

Evans struggled for the remainder of the game and Luke O’Brien – putting in an uncharacteristicly sloppy if still solid performance – started taking his goal kicks. City went close to scoring when Peter Thorne saw a shot loop off a defender and bounce back off the bar and Michael Boulding seemed shot shy when trying to squeeze between the two big defenders of Durham in the Bantams other chance of note but dominance that had started the game had gone into a game shared.

Nicky Law Jnr and Dean Furman struggled to keep control in the midfield in the second half as the visitors got up to speed and then began to show the reserves of energy they had and while Furman performed manfully once more Law was out battled and shoved out to the left wing for Lee Bullock’s return in the middle.

Darlington’s shift up through the gears showed their freshness over a Bantams team playing another in the march of matches that is League Two but resulted only in a single chance of note – Pawel Abbott forcing a great save out of the hobbling Evans – and some approach play that was snaffled out by a masterful three of Zesh Rehman, Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke.

One can only imagine what Dave Penney – Darlington manager – made of his teams attitude to Evans’s injury which seemed to provoke a series of long range and rather weak shots. Either he told them to play that way or he will have been tearing his hair out at the wastefulness that saw them have 11 shots at goal but only one that could seriously be considered a chance. “Evans has a bad leg”, one could have summed it up, “But he has arms!”

Clarke has an odd time at City. He chunks the ball long to groans but would argue that he is no one’s David Beckham or Glenn Hoddle and that what he does do – superb chance saving tackles and providing strength at the back – he does very well. He was my man of the match tonight for sure and is part of a back four that has gone four games without conceding.

All of which looked unlikely at half time when Lee Bullock was practising saving shots from Barry Conlon and a shirt was being prepared for the number eight to make him number one. Back then very few City fans would not have settled for a point come nine thirty.

A point is what we got.

All heart

It’s at moments such as these – with the clock showing 10 minutes to go, with the chant “City till I die’ emanating from all four sides and with those who run the club having put the books to one side to join 12,689 people in watching City ultimately triumph 1-0 over promotion rivals Wycombe – that you wonder why we’re even bothering to consider leaving Valley Parade at all.

This was an afternoon where I hope I wasn’t the only person to feel the hairs on the back of his/her neck stand up through been part of such a superb atmosphere. City have won a corner and I look fondly over to fans in the Kop climb out of their seats to help suck the ball into the net. Behind the opposite goal, supporters in the Bradford End are keeping up their non-stop chanting efforts which began before kick off. The final whistle was met with huge cheers and triumphant home players hugged each other. An important three points, a potentially pivotal moment of the season, another special afternoon in our home.

Sure I’m being sentimental and romantic, but then it is Valentines Day so why not? Of course the fantastic atmosphere could be replicated – who knows even bettered – in another ground a few miles up the hill. But just like our Claret and Amber colours, fanatical supporters who will even come to the game on their wedding day (hope you didn’t miss that at half time!) and players who aren’t the greatest but who we love in our own way – Valley Parade is a much a part of the Bradford City experience. We need to use our heads when considering the potential move, but yesterday we got to follow our hearts.

Heart that was apparent on the pitch too as both City and Wycombe gave their all to produce an absorbing contest. With Brentford, Bury and Rochdale all expected to and managing to win their games, for City this win was for self-preservation purposes in their interest of a top three finish. They started in the same confident manner which has characterised their previous two victories with Omar Daley and Steve Jones stretching Wycombe down the flanks and Dean Furman and Nicky Law again pulling the strings in the middle. Both look too good for this level with Law’s vision and ability to produce killer passes a huge asset and arguably something City have not had in their armoury since the manager himself was out on the pitch.

Wycombe, who lost central defender Mike Williamson to Watford in the transfer window, defended deeply but struggled to deal with crosses from which City came close to scoring a few times. Matt Clarke should have done better with a header from a corner and Peter Thorne – captain for the day – headed wide, Law’s long range shot was deflected wide and a Wycombe defender almost turned one cross into his own net.

Yet the Chairboys, who until Tuesday had led the table since November, got back into the game and showed what a good side they are. Their movement off the ball when on the attack was impressive with players marking late runs from deep and in the centre Tom Docherty was excelling by playing deep and pinging some probing passes forward. Furman excellently cleared off the line from striker Jon-Paul Pittman’s header, Matt Harrold air-kicked a great chance after which Matt Bloomfield wastefully fired wide and Chris Zebroski’s overhead kick attempt sailed narrowly over.

Arguably against the run of play, City struck the all important goal just before half time. It was yet another example of the devastating football this team can produce. First Jones did well to win possession before being tripped after releasing it to Furman. Referee Carl Boyeson allowed advantage and the ball was with Law to charge over half way. His pass to Daley lacked pace, but the Jamaican beat his man and cut inside before squaring to Luke O’Brien. The full back’s cross was intended for Michael Boulding but squirmed through to Thorne who beautifully laid off the ball to Jones to fire home on the half volley.

It continued to be end-to-end stuff in the second half with Wycombe inserting strong pressure in the early stages and Rhys Evans having to make some good saves. The defence in front of him was lacking their usual leader Graeme Lee and Zesh Rehman, switched over from left-back, struggled a little with his ball control though was generally solid. Clarke was outstanding and seemed to revel in the more senior responsibility while Paul Arnison’s performance could be best illustrated by the fact the usual full-back ‘experts’ in the crowd weren’t on his back. The clean sheet they would go onto earn was a seventh in ten games and only Evans and Clarke have figured in all of those; something which Clarke’s army of critics, who seem to be ignoring his recent upturn in form, might want to mull over.

Boyeson’s bizarre style of refereeing took more centre stage in the second half. He let a series of fouls from both sides go and at one stage left the impression he’d forgotten his cards – Arnison should have been booked – while displaying an anal-like determination to ensure all throw ins were taken from exactly the right spot. Frustration of the officials and from losing seemed to get the better of Wycombe players who began to self-destruct with a series of poor challenges. None more so than Docherty, who’s coolness in the first half had given way to recklessness and who should have been booked long before he eventually was.

Boiling point was reached after Zebroski’s ludicrous high challenge on Clarke which saw boot connect with face. The red card was quickly issued and the final 12 minutes were that little bit more comfortable for City. A second goal might have come before that with Boulding volleying over, but in the final stages Law and substitute Joe Colbeck went agonisingly close to ensuring Wycombe would not be able to produce a sucker punch at the other end.

It was close, but City just about edged the game and three wins in a row provide great confidence ahead of another vital encounter on Tuesday. The team is finding form in all areas – Thorne for example was outstanding leading the line and contributed more than he usually seems to – and one only has to look at who can’t get in the team to see how well the players in it are doing. Lee will presumably join Paul McLaren, Lee Bullock, Barry Conlon and Colbeck on the bench Tuesday with the clear message to those on the field that they must keep producing.

Or should Lee go back in and Arnison be dropped? Should Colbeck start on Tuesday and Daley be rested? Yesterday conversations on such matters will have filled the air instead of whether to pack up and do this all someplace else. Maybe we’re on the final chapter of Valley Parade’s history and such occasions will shortly be over, though as we listened to the radio on the journey home we heard of renewed hope that a deal to buy Valley Parade might be reached.

It was good timing, for yesterday at least the head had no chance of winning over the heart.

City on the way forward again

City bounced back from their Gigg Lane fiasco with a convincing, but nerve wrecking win over Grimsby Town in this crucial game at Valley Parade on Saturday.

Tuesday night’s heartless display in a promotion six pointer had seen the Bantams slip to 9th position – a couple of points outside the playoff places – which made a win in this home fixture absolutely essential to keep pace with the chasing pack, jostling for automatic promotion and playoff places.

Wholesale changes were made to the starting lineup, with top scorers Thorne and Boulding recalled up front, Law and Furman in centre midfield, with Jones reverting back to his right wing role, and O’Brien welcomed back from illness at left back with Rehman switching to right back.

And the players selected – very much in contrast with Tuesday night – did not disappoint with confidence, effort and excellent play in defence and attack all over the field.

City had numerous first half chances to break the deadlock. Zesh Rehman, on his home debut, was thwarted twice from set pieces by Grimsby keeper Barnes with two excellent saves from powerful headers.

After homing in on goal Omar Daley pulled back an excellent ball to Nicky Law who took a touch to bring him within 10 yards of the goal, and just as it looked like he was certain to score, Barnes excellently kept out his left foot strike. And Steve Jones once again was frustrated in front of goal when his strike hit the outside of the post, as another nail biting afternoon ensued.

A key moment happened on 20 when Thorne flicked on to send Boulding in the clear, but his run was abruptly ended by a rugby tackle from Grimsby defender Atkinson. The referee judged him to be the last defender and swiftly sent off the Mariner’s man.

There was then only one question on everyone’s minds. Would City be able to break the deadlock? and grab 3 points at home, ala Morecambe, or would they be massively frustrated by a side who clearly lacked the City team’s more skilful individual players, ala Chester and Acrrington Stanley.

The answer, thankfully, was that City did manage to get that crucial goal that set them up for three very important points. From the moment that Grimsby went down to 10 men, it was apparent that only one team were in the running to score goals. Town were toothless in attack, even with 11 men, but to give them credit they didn’t just park their team bus in front of their goal – they did try and get the ball down and play.

The second half was another tale of City struggling to break down a dogged defence. Omar Daley flashed a fierce shot just over, and Steve Jones was looking dangerous every time he picked up the ball, but once again his shooting and ability to deliver an end product let him down again. Nevertheless, he was a threat, and did not give up persisting and produced some exciting wing play. One moment saw Jones lay an excellent ball all the way across the line that just needed someone to tap in – but no City player was on hand to read the ball played.

City’s defence looked very secure with Matt Clarke particularly outstanding and Zesh Rehman produced a very promising display. He looks a very good acquisition.

The crucial goal arrived when Boulding layed the ball over to Nicky Law, who drove forward in trademark fashion towards goal, and released a shot that slipped under Barnes to send the Valley Parade crowd wild and put an enormous amount of relief in the air. Barnes had kept out trickier shots, but the power on the shot from the industrious Law beat him.

Funnily enough, despite having literally all the play in the second half, City’s goal triggered Grimsby to apply a small amount of pressure and force 3 corners which were all handled excellently by the defence.

15 shots on target for City told the story of this game, and as Grimsby again tried to sneak a point in the dying seconds, the ball was cleared and City were presented with a 3 on 1 chance.

Joe Colbeck, on as a late substitute, continued his recovery from injury by releasing Jones in the dying seconds who confidently rounded the keeper and tapped in with his left foot to wrap up the points in this important home game.

Too often this season have City been unable to win games at home that they should be winning. Having only lost one game at home all season is admirable, but as admitted afterwards by Stuart McCall, home draws (7) have been too common so far this season and have impeded our chances of pulling away from the teams around us.

And so to Darlington’s visit to Valley Parade on Monday (weather permitting). The Quakers won a big game away at Dagenham today, but that will no doubt have taken its toll physically, not to mention the long trip back from London up north. It would be a good time to play them with confidence high and the Sky cameras ready to take in the action. What better time to prove that we have what it takes to get promoted this season.

An interesting area of debate at this stage of the season is, would you settle for a guaranteed playoff place at this point, but not be allowed to go up automatically? I wouldn’t. I firmly believe we are one of the three best teams in this division if we play to our potential and we should not have to go through and take a chance in the lottery that is the playoffs. Looking at the remaining fixtures, Brentford and Wycombe both have to visit VP over the next few months, which will prove to be crucial games – but surely gaining maximum points against the likes of Macclesfield, Aldershot and Port Vale in games like today against Grimsby are what will determine whether we give ourselves a chance of finishing in the top three. Our away form doesn’t concern me too much at all as we have performed pretty well away from VP ( with the exception of Bury away), its all about the final eight home games for me. Win a high percentage of those instead of costly draws against defensive minded teams and promotion the easy way (automatic) should be assured.

Getting back on the bike – Bradford City vs Grimsby Town – League Two preview

Those of us at Kenilworth Road on Saturday and at Gigg Lane on Tuesday will fully appreciate the range of emotions which supporting a football team can inflict upon you.

We left Luton ecstatic after an action-packed afternoon of football – one of this writer’s best ever – which threw up the improbable plot twist of Barry Conlon’s late penalty that left us cheering wildly and hugging each other. Minutes earlier we were in despair as it appeared we were on the wrong end of football’s cruellest way of losing – the last minute winner. Barry made the journey home that little bit quicker and the manner of City’s second half performance left plenty of optimism for the rest of the season.

Then came Tuesday.

In recent years we’ve all had to become battled-hardened to the despair of defeat and the frustration when things go wrong – but consolations can be taken when the team was unlucky, the referee let us down or some players still gave us something to cheer. On Tuesday there was nothing as we suffered from the most galling way of watching your team lose – because they simply didn’t show desire, passion or commitment to the cause.

And that’s why Tuesday hurt so much.

It hurt to see players you’ve spent much of the season sticking up for when others have criticised appear unwilling to put their body on the line when the chips were down, such as Paul McLaren. It hurt to see players with unquestionable talent look disinterested, like Omar Daley. It hurt to see players you’d seen do a good job Saturday fail to repeat what was asked of them, like Steve Jones. It hurt, because other than Rhys Evans no-one should have walked off the Gigg Lane pitch with their head held high.

The arguments over what went wrong are wide-ranging and see many accused but unsurprisingly the guy in charge, Stuart McCall, is at the centre of the criticism. How could a man who would never have given anything but 100% when a City player, who if we cut open might just bleed claret and amber, allow such a shambles to happen? What about his coaching staff Wayne Jacobs and David Wetherall who, while not without their critics on occasions during their playing career, were never accused of lacking effort? 1,800 City fans packed the away end and backed the players ferociously for 90 minutes, and while that doesn’t mean we deserved to watch a winning team it should at least have been rewarded with a committed one.

But that was Tuesday and just as quickly as the mood turned from euphoria to exasperation it’s to be hoped it can be changed back tomorrow. There is nothing that Stuart and the players can do about what happened at Bury now, but they can at least begin to repair the damage. The recent good run of form of visitors Grimsby – unbeaten in three – may make this less of the home banker it looked a fortnight ago, but just like City’s one win in nine it ignores the bigger picture. This is a bunch of players which have lost 13 of their 26 league games so far, scoring fewer goals than anyone else in the division.

City simply must be targeting three points.

Team selection was a huge bone of contention on Tuesday night and the only thing which can be said with certainty about tomorrow’s team is that it will feature Evans in goal. Luke O’Brien missed Tuesday through illness and should reclaim his left back spot with loan defender Zesh Rehman eyeing up the place of either Graeme Lee, Matt Clarke or Paul Arnison but probably having to settle for a place on the bench for now.

In midfield Joe Colbeck is pushing for his first start since getting injured at Grimsby in October and looked more sharper when introduced on Tuesday than he did Saturday. That should mean Daley, outstanding in the second half at Luton, is switched back to the left and Law moved into the centre with either Dean Furman, McLaren or Lee Bullock alongside. My vote goes to Furman with a message sent to McLaren that one excellent performance should not be followed up by an average one.

Up front Stuart must play one of if not both Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding. Thorne was not great at Luton but is never going to recapture his form if he keeps been brought in then dropped again while Boulding, facing an old club, was unlucky to lose his place too. I’ve written several times over the last 18 months that Conlon’s biggest failing is his lack of consistency and relegation to the bench should be the only reward for such a sub-standard display at Bury. Many fans, and Stuart, have kept faith in the likeable Irishman and he has some making up to do. The fact Jones was hauled off at Bury adds doubts about his loan spell from Burnley been extended when it runs out on February 9, which few City fans would argue for.

Grimsby’s leading marksman only has four goals but we all remember Adam Proudlock’s hat trick at Valley Parade seven years ago. After a slow start to the season former City loanee Mike Newell took over as manager but his influence has been limited and the Mariners are one of a clutch of clubs grateful that Bournemouth and Newell’s former employers Luton aren’t making a better fist of overturning points deductions. A ‘real’ league table would show Grimsby propping up the rest.

In many ways 3pm Saturday cannot come quick enough as we get climb back on board the emotional rollercoaster. No one wants to feel as bad about their team as many of us City fans do right now and such hurt and anger needs heeling. It won’t automatically make everything right again in the world of Bradford City, but a home victory tomorrow would certainly be a good start.

We badly hope to experience that ultimate high of achieving promotion this season, it’s now down to the players to show they want it too.

The points adding up as Rehman signs – Bury vs Bradford City – League Two Preview

The Barry Conlon penalty at Luton Town was scant reward for City’s second half endeavours when Stuart McCall unveiled what I’m sure his critics will be calling Plan B.

McCall – sent to the stands for complaining about a decision to award a free kick on an afternoon that saw many a bizarre refereeing decisions – enjoyed the best and worst of times facing criticism for abandoning his FourFourTwo principals for forty-five minutes and then seeing his side utterly dominant in the second half thanks in no small part to the ball winning of Dean Furman.

Furman’s display added to an impressive set of midfielders with Nicky Law spoken of as undroppable, Paul McLaren making significant contributions including the first goal on Saturday and Joe Colbeck returning for the last fifteen minutes adding to the already impressive Omar Daley. McCall struggles to make a best fit of those five names without the additions of Steve Jones, Chris Brandon and Lee Bullock. His selection for the middle is an embarrassment of riches of his own making and should he return to the four in the middle on Tuesday night for the trip go Gigg Lane then one can only guess who will be excluded. For my part Colbeck, Furman, McLaren and Daley would be my four but every City fan will twist that Rubik’s Cube in different ways.

A different sort of puzzle is the reason why the mean defence of City on Saturday suddenly started to leak goals – or a goal rather – a specific cross in and head in which the Bantams have not seemed so venerable to since Gary Shaw and his two and a half minute hat-trick.

What caused the Bantams to go from unit to untied is not known although the presence of Zesh Rehman – a central defender signed on loan from QPR on Monday – in the directors box might not have been the most settling sight for Matthew Clarke to see although in all likelihood the three goals from balls lumped into the box and the absence of Barry Conlon’s clearing head were not unconnected.

Coming out of contract at the end of the year Rehman looks to impress in his loan until the end of the season. The Birmingham born Rehman has played six times for the Pakistani International side and become captain in the 7-0 reversal by Egil Olsen’s Iraq side – if our path since we relegated his Wimbledon side has been winding imagine what road has led the Norwegian to be manager of a nation which in the time since we were in the Premiership tortured its players for poor results.

Rehman – who has played right back but favours the middle has his potential debut at Bury for Bradford City which is interesting in many ways much beyond football, and for that matter politics. Simon Schama would call it the future of the British Empire but – for the moment – we shall call it an interesting signing when one considers how stable the back two have been over the last month.

Mark Bower exits to Luton as Rehman arrives and BfB never favours playing loanees over our own players with one feeling sorry for City’s longest serving player. Rehman’s signing made sense if he plays and does well and makes sense if he adds to the right back berth uncovered since TJ Moncur’s return to Fulham but there is a nervousness that City’s second Asian player and first Pakistani is something of the Beckham of Bradford designed to get bums on seats from the locals of BD8 rather than cheat sheets.

Perhaps it might be nice to do both. Certainly it cannot do much harm and Rehman need only prove as useful as TJ Moncur or Steve Jones to be justified in the context of the season. If he proves to be in the bracket of Nicky Law and Dean Furman then he is available at the end of the season.

One might suspect that City needed not to strengthen at the back but bolstering up front with goals hard to come by over Christmas and January – until the second half on Saturday – but still Peter Thorne struggles to find the net and Michael Boulding and Barry Conlon were left cooling their heels. With chances created will follow goals and considering the options in midfield those chances should be created.

Bury for their part are in reasonable form sneaking to third in the table with the kind of mix of draws and the odd win that City get. The Shakers still possess the highly rated Andy Bishop whom Stuart McCall was impressed by and boss Alan Knill informs all that he has yet to have a firm bid for the player. They sit a point above the Bantams but have a poor record against promotion rivals – recent losses to Shrewsbury and Wycombe and a draw with Darlington – all of which points to an interesting game and a telling one.

Should the Bantams win then we will – at least – slip above Bury and could end the night second while a defeat could leave us tenth but with Rehman’s incoming and Bower departing being – seemingly – the last movement of the transfer window after McCall declared himself happy with striking resources then it would seem that they City manager has the squad in place that he wants – or at least can have at this point – leaving the players to get the results to back up such faith.

City leave with a point and much more for the journey ahead

How to make sense of this one?

Six goals, two red cards and the frustration of a poor referee were shared out between Luton Town and Bradford City on an afternoon of unpredictable twist and turns. City were feeble but also fantastic, woeful and wonderful at the back, slow then scintillating going forward and, though the point gained makes it six draws in eight, the players and management should have taken far more from it than they have from any game so far this season.

Twice the match seemed to have been lost by City. They couldn’t have made a worse start after going behind on three minutes when Asa Hall headed home a corner which had as much to do with clever off-the-ball running from Chris Martin (not that one) as it did poor marking. That had been Luton’s first attack after City started well with Steve Jones, moved up front to partner Peter Thorne with last week’s strike partnership of Barry Conlon and Michael Boulding relegated to the bench, causing problems and Nicky Law and Thorne going close.

The pattern of play continued after the goal with City pressing forward but not threatening enough with their attacks. The best chance fell to Matt Clarke – who never scores and rarely even threatens to – when dismal marking from a corner left him with a free header which he sent well over. Thorne and Jones also had attempts saved but the slow and laboured build up to City’s play and failure of Omar Daley and Jones to make an impact left players unsure at times over what to do. This was emphasised when Graeme Lee attempted a wild shot from distance with almost his entire team in front of him, which flew well over.

But then it kicked off. City were again on the attack when the ball was cleared to Ian Henderson who charged down the flank only to be stopped level with the edge of the area by a superb tackle from Luke O’Brien. Unfortunately a linesman with a perfect view begged to differ and flagged for a free kick which provoked an angry response from City players and led to the referee Trevor Kettle issuing a warning to substitute Mark Bower for yelling at the linesman. O’Brien was booked with the linesman trying to persuade Kettle he was the last man and the resulting free kick was met by Akanni-Sunday Wasiu who tapped home. Not good marking from a defence distracted by the falling out over the decision, but it should also be noted it was poor goalkeeping from Rhys Evans who was upset enough with his first half performance to spend the interval on the pitch practising.

By then his manager had been sent to the stands, not for arguing with Kettle about the decision to award a free kick, as angry as he was about it, but from encroaching out of his technical area in an effort to speak to him. I read and hear lots about the Respect campaign and have tried not to believe, like others, that it’s simply a load of PR buzzwords with no substance; but if officials are confident enough in their decisions why shouldn’t they be prepared to talk them through with those who question them? As City trooped off at half time 2-0 down without having done a lot wrong, concerns about which direction the season was heading were raised. City had done okay, as they have all season, but now they had to find that extra something and show their credentials.

Which they did.

A quick goal was essential and came when a Law corner caused panic and Paul McLaren, former Hatter, was on hand to prod the ball over the line. What followed was near total dominance from the Bantams with Lee forcing a great save from Conrad Logan after a trademark thunderbolt free kick. The pressure told when Law received the ball on the edge of the area and rolled it back to the recalled Dean Furman, who took a touch and then fired home a crisp shot for his first ever senior goal.

There was no letting up as City, well in control, produced wave after wave of attack. Jones came alive up front with some clever runs, Daley was back to his blistering form and left a trail of defenders in his wake as he cut inside and set up attacks and Law, occupying Daley’s usual left wing spot, was a revelation out wide. Free from the defensive responsibilities of playing in the centre, he stretched Luton by taking up some excellent positions to be fed the ball to and had the vision and confidence to set up chances for others. Furman and McLaren were easily winning the midfield battle and Luton were reduced to sporadic attacks on the break, which were mostly mopped up by a much-improved defensive effort superbly led by Lee. The only time Luton got through saw Evans make a brilliant save, the half time training session appeared worthwhile.

And the chances created. Daley went on a magnificent run from inside his own half beating players for fun before shooting just over, Thorne nodded just wide, Law flashed an effort just wide, Furman went for goal again and was just over, sub Conlon headed just over, Jones’ half volley just saved. The only thing that wasn’t just was the scoreline as City deserved to be out of sight.

They also missed two easy chances when first Daley’s brilliant attempt to steal the ball off the full back and quickly cross left Conlon with the sort of chance Harry Redknapp’s missus could have scored and then a great run from Jones saw the on-loan winger get to the byeline before shooting from a difficult angle when pulling the ball back would have left City players queuing up to tap it in. Such profligacy appeared to have come back to bite when, as the 4th official held up the board to reveal how much injury time was to be played, Clarke gave away a stupid free kick on the edge of the area from which Kevin Nicholls whipped the ball onto Hall’s head to send into the far corner. Absolute heartbreak.

As many City fans streamed out of the grotty away end there were still further twists to come. First Luton keeper Logan decided to celebrate his team’s ‘winner’ by running up and gesturing towards City fans before going into a dance routine that was not so much provocative as embarrassing. Cue many fans rushing to the stewards to complain. Personally I have no problem with a player making gestures to us as long as we can do it back, so I’ll take this opportunity, having missed it at the time, to insult and pick on his personal features in a way which will upset him the most – Logan is terrible dancer.

The game restarted. City tried an attack which was cleared and the ball went up to a Luton player, who was offside. Cue a long wait for the free kick to be taken as Kettle lectured a home player and when Arnison finally pumped the ball into the box you stood there believing you’ve seen this sort of moment at the end of the game so often before and ultimately it will end up in Logan’s hands and he’ll probably wiggle his backside at us as he lies on the ground clutching the ball for five minutes. But it squirmed into the area and as Jones went for it he was faintly clipped from behind and rolled over and Kettle pointed to the spot.

Cue massive protests and a sort-of-brawl between both sets of players which ended with Martin receiving a red card. Meanwhile Logan was all over penalty taker Conlon whispering sweet nothings into his ear about how the Irishman was going to miss. Four minutes later Conlon finally got the chance and showed remarkable coolness to convert the penalty and prompt wild scenes of celebration. Don’t let any of Conlon’s critics tell you his 10th goal of the season was “only a penalty.”

The final whistle blew and as we struggled to get out breath back Stuart came over to applaud us and gestured towards the players to signal they deserve our appreciation, which we did. Meanwhile the referee and his officials had to run a gauntlet of abuse from home fans as they leave the pitch and it was distressing to see them try to protect themselves from a shower of objects thrown at them. Some arrests were made and outside there was also trouble. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the 30-point penalty such a response was shameful and any Luton fan who didn’t throw an object but disagrees is just as bad. If the Respect campaign is going to work the FA must not be shy in punishing Luton Town Football Club.

I received a text just before the end of the game from a Leeds fan saying he had sympathy for Luton’s plight and we often hear how it wasn’t the fans fault, so why should they be punished? The actions of a minority of their supporters yesterday, not to mention their behaviour at Valley Parade earlier in the season, leaves me waving them cheerfully goodbye on their route to the Blue Square – and I hope they take their dancing keeper with them.

But the focus of this report is on City and what a fantastic game of football, easily the best since that afternoon at Prenton Park in October 2004. They looked down and out at stages but showed tremendous character to keep coming back – character which needs to be bottled up and used during the second half of the season.

In keeping with the craziness of the afternoon, City have dropped from fourth to seventh while moving a point closer to second and first. There was much which didn’t make sense yesterday, but one thing I do know is that if City can reach the heights of their second half performance for the rest of the campaign they will be celebrating promotion come May.

The midfield cup runneth over – Bradford City vs Accrington Stanley – League Two Preview

Stuart McCall must look back to the start of December and find it hard to recall how he struggled when Tom Clarke was recalled by Huddersfield Town to find midfielders for his Bradford City team that bobbed along in the promotion hunt – never falling below the play-off, never being able to cement a top three place – with injuries and suspensions robbing him of that favoured phrase of the commentary “six first team midfielders”.

With the return of Joe Colbeck to the training squad – if not to the team – and Lee Bullock to contention then McCall could field a six man middle should he wish. Certainly with great form from Paul McLaren and Nicky Law Jnr the central two positions are covered and Bullock – along with Dean Furman – are sidelined. Steve Jones has not played since extending his loan deal at the club and is likely to start on the right hand side with Colbeck looking for a gap to return.

Omar Daley is set for the left side of midfield and behind him is Luke O’Brien who is not only becoming talked about as a player of the season candidate but is also developing a good relationship with Daley in front of him.

On the opposite side Paul Arnison will look forward to playing with the more thorough Colbeck than the attacking minded Jones while Graeme Lee, Matthew Clarke and Rhys Evans stand on a record of four consecutive clean sheets.

Looking to continue the last ten minutes at Accrington are the perm two from three of City’s strike force with Peter Thorne fit once more and Barry Conlon expected to step down. Michael Boulding will play alongside. Stuart McCall talked this week about the need to keep the number of strikers at the club down to a reasonable level and playing two up front leaves – in my estimation – five slots for players so as to avoid the demotivation of being too far from the first team. The main three City strikers are augmented by Chris O’Grady and Rory Boulding and it would seem that – unless he has an eye on a replacement for the loanee O’Grady – McCall has as many forwards as he wants.

He certainly has the firepower from those forwards should they be fed as evidenced by the last ten minutes at Accrington when Conlon, Thorne and M Boulding all added their names to the scoresheet to turn around the thought lost game. The onus is on the midfield – so full of options – to create chances.

Changing teams – AFC Bournemouth vs Bradford City preview

This game has been called off because of a frozen pitch.

A pitch inspection at 12:00 today will tell Stuart McCall, Bradford City’s players and the supporters if a trip to AFC Bournemouth will be needed this weekend and while weather on the South Coast is questionable City’s desire to put right the only home defeat of the season is not.

The Bantams were bested by Darren Anderton’s inspired display for the Cherries as they had new manager Jimmy Quinn installed. Since that day both Quinn and Anderton have left the club and with them seems to have gone the form that saw them win 3-1 that day. They have suffered three defeats in the last three games and previous to that were knocked out of the FA Cup by Blyth Spartans. Struggling with a deduction it is hard to see where the points will come from to keep them in the Football League.

All of which is demoralising and something that – when the game is played – City will hope ot take advantage of. The Bantams are looking more in race trim of late but with a 4-0 and three no score draws in the last four are obviously struggling to find the net. News that Peter Thorne is back in training is heartening as is the word that Joe Colbeck will play a reserve friendly game next week. Thorne’s finishing is always welcome but the added thrust from the flank that Colbeck added in games like the 4-1 defeat of Exeter has been missed and should the trip South be called off then Colbeck’s presence in the rearranged game could be significant. Certainly the team are more dangerous with the young winger in than with Steve Jones whom McCall is said to be signing from Burnley once his loan deal expires.

Thorne is not expected to return to the starting eleven – the hard pitch and a bad back being a poor combination – leaving Barry Conlon and Michael Boulding up front. Omar Daley and Steve Jones take the flanks alongside Paul McLaren and Nicky Law Jnr with Dean Furman cooling his heels. One must feel sorry for the impressive Furman who has much to suggest him for a place in the side however the form of McLaren and especially Law is such that McCall has to stick with them.

Also impressive in the run of four games without conceding is Matthew Clarke who continues to be underrated as a presence in the City side and has given the Bantams a commanding edge. Also underrated is Graeme Lee’s organsational abilities which while never getting to the level of the Master – Noel Blake – are certainly better than the majority of defenders who have worn claret and amber including the man who preceded him as skipper and central defender David Wetherall. Paul Arnison is rated by fewer than he should be put clean sheet for defensive players should be impressive and he will look forward to the return of Colbeck and renewing the combination they had developed. Luke O’Brien has come on a million miles from the day he was skinned by Gareth Grant at Farsley Celtic and is being talked about as a player of the season.

No one’s player of the season is Rhys Evans but in the last month the goalkeeper has found his bit shouting voice – something Gary Walsh had over Matt Clarke and the reason the former was a better keeper than the latter – and the defence looks all the better for it.

The finishing, finishing touch – Bradford City 0 Shrewsbury Town 0 – League Two Match Report

Having suggested that City were lucky to beat his side 4-0 Morecambe manager Sammy McIlroy would have come away from Valley Parade after the 0-0 draw with Shrewsbury with the impression that the Bantams are strangers to fortune.

From start to finish the Bantams bested the visitors from Shropshire all over the field coming within an inch of the post from Barry Conlon’s fierce volley from taking three richly deserved points.

Alas Conlon’s volley on the half hour pinged back and Michael Boulding’s tidy sweep over the shoulder of keeper Luke Daniels proved too close to the custodian and was saved as City looked to cut through the Shrews with tidy, fast paced and inventive play.

The midfield central duo of Paul McLaren and Nicky Law Jnr were busy out of possession and commanding in it with Dean Furman benched and only able to watch a pair of middle men working together and working well. Omar Daley’s battle on the left wing with Darren Moss was the clash of the season thus far with Moss struggling to keep pace with Daley and Daley trying to burst past the right back. In the second half Moss and Daley clashed with the right back lucky not to be booked and Daley leaving an arm in on the defender which saw Stuart McCall fling him to the right hand side to cool down ended the fascinating clash.

Steve Jones on the alternative wing was less enthralling and looks something of a one trick pony. He is dangerous for sure but too often playing his own game leaving Paul Arnison with few options.

Arnison was a part of a flawless five man defence which has not conceded in the four games over Christmas. Graeme Lee was outstanding pocketing Grant Holt – who in typical Grant Holt tried to rip that pocket with kicks and studs – and making enough sturdy interceptions to remind one of David Wetherall at his best. Matt Clarke also get mentioned – the days of City being muscled out by big blokes is over – and Rhys Evans has engaged mouth and commands the back four superbly.

Luke O’Brien’s form has seen him inherit the title “Ohbee” from Andy and today should have been rewarded with a penalty for an enterprising surge past Omar Daley and into the box only to be shoved to the floor. Arnison – on the other side of the field – was left holding his face after an untidy jump saw him hit with a flailing arm. Conlon was lunged at after the ball, Boulding was upended. If these tackles has been in midfield they would have been free kicks. Referee Russel J Booth using the Wild West school of officialdom. Anything that keeps the game flowing is allowed and when Holt lunged through a defender then walked away waving a hand dismissively ignoring the Ref’s call over you had to wonder what happened to that whole “Respect” thing.

None of which is to take anything away from the Shrews who played a part in an exciting game but looked second best and but for a slice of that luck that Sammy McIlroy credits us with or the finish of a Peter Thorne – missing injured and seemingly replaceable – the Bantams would have won.

As it is City sit third again at the top of a pile of clubs who will be fighting out for the play offs and without putting too fine a point on it should the Bantams play as we did today and not go up then football is broken – play like this and we will go up – but the worry remains that despite possessing the leading striker in the division last season, one of the better ones this and Barry who never gives up City do not score enough goals – or rather we score them in gluts of fours and not odd ones and that the six home draws could have been wins with a deadlier finisher. Chris O’Grady held the ball after coming ensuring that the remaining fifteen minutes would be played in the Shrews half but is no one’s finisher.

Shrewsbury spent their lottery win on Holt and he was not able to nick the odd goal today. City look at events at Leeds with Delph and prepare a with and without shopping list looking for the thirty goal finisher who would thrive in a team that plays this well.

The finisher who would be the finishing touch.

Finding that something extra

The biggest worry for Bradford City manager Stuart McCall is that these are the sort of games promotion-earning sides win.

It’s not always pretty and a fair amount of luck is involved, the home side will play well and carve out some good chances which are either wasted or foiled by excellent defending. All that was missing for the Bantams was a late winner to turn one point into three. Instead a winless run stretches to five games and the chasing pack climbs that little bit closer.

Not that anyone should be panicking. This was a decent performance against a Lincoln side who have improved considerably since the last time they locked horns with City a year ago to the day. A recent come-back win against Accrington prompted manager Peter Jackson to revert to 4-4-2 and they matched City in most departments quickly closing down the ball and knocking it around confidently themselves.

Dany N’Guessan impressed on their right providing Luke O’Brien with a difficult afternoon where the defensive support from Omar Daley – who we’ll come back to – was lacking. The other three of City’s back four were outstanding with Matt Clarke continuing to rediscover form and Graeme Lee getting his head on almost every ball launched into the area. Paul Arnison had surely his best game in a Bantams shirt yet and was hugely impressive in shutting down the threat from Lincoln’s left and getting forward. With Rhys Evans also solid, home chances were limited.

Further up the pitch things were more patchy with Paul McLaren and Nicky Law involved in a hard-fought midfield battle which they just about edged. It doesn’t always look pretty and sometimes the simple ball must be played rather than the defence-splitting 40-yard pass some fans demanded, but both had good shifts. Steve Jones too was a menace on the right and his pace is blistering at times, though his final ball did sometimes disappoint.

As for Daley, it didn’t start well and got worse. We know the Jamaican is better than cutting inside and looking to pass the ball almost every time, instead of charging at the full back and enabling others the opportunity to get into the box. We know he is better than standing half-interested when the ball is been fought over just in front of him and may suddenly land at his feet. We know he is better than falling over easily and rolling on the ground long after the referee has dismissed his appeals for a foul and his team mates are having to deal with a Lincoln breakaway. Jackson had called upon the Premiership experience of Frank Sinclair to tame Daley and the former Chelsea man was the clear winner of a heated battle.

But still Daley was involved in much of City’s best moves. After ten minutes he’d burst thrilling into the area only to be seemingly tripped just as he rose his right leg to shoot, but referee Neil Swarbrick waved away the penalty appeals. Shortly afterwards Michael Boulding broke forward well and was pulled back inside the box, only to receive the same verdict from the Lancashire official. Boulding had done much to keep the scores level at that point having headed a Lincoln effort off the line and later dragging a shot wide. Law took free kick duties after Lee had been forced off for treatment and flashed a curling effort just wide.

In the second half Lincoln spurned two great opportunities with midfielder Lee Frecklington guilty of blasting over with an empty net the easier target and then forcing Evans into a stunning block. Boulding too should have done better after a superb charge forward by Jones saw the on-loan man whip a great cross onto his head. Rob Burch did well to tip his header onto the post, but a little more power from Boulding would surely have resulted in the net bulging.

With both sides looking even Stuart made changes to try and force the winner; Peter Thorne was brought on for a disappointing Barry Conlon and then Dean Furman – back from injury – for Boulding with Daley moved up front. Some of the physical presence was lost, although Daley saw a long range effort superbly tipped over by Burch. Daley was then involved with the game’s moment of controversy moments earlier after latching onto Burch’s weak clearance and charging through, only to be hauled down by a defender who appeared to be the last man but who got away with only a yellow card. Like last week City had a referee keen to let things go – Lee Beevers, who had already been booked in the first half, deserved a yellow card for a nasty high challenge on Jones just after the break – but the hope was, like when City had been on the wrong end of a similar incident against the MK Dons last month – the resulting free kick from Lee would sail in. Instead it smacked against the wall and the chance was wasted, it was that sort of afternoon.

As with last week’s blank against Chester, a goal could easily have come but just as the defence seems to looking stronger the attack isn’t looking as sharp. Boulding was a willing runner, but Conlon needs to show more and was once again caught offside and gave away free kicks too often. It doesn’t currently look a good strike partnership, but then it did earlier in the season. Thorne is certain to start against Morecambe on Sunday – Stuart rotating his strikers with two games in three days – and a return to goalscoring form for City’s top scorer is badly needed.

The problem for Stuart is the lack of options he currently has. Daley was poor but it would have been mad to haul off a player who can be such a threat even when not on top form – a Chris Brandon or Joe Colbeck waiting on the bench and the situation is different. Kyle Nix can play out wide but doesn’t have the pace which is needed on the break in tight away games such as this. It will also be interesting to see if Stuart succeeds with his plan to capture a fourth striker and what sort of different option they will present. Jones can play up front and, with him playing so well right now, a permanent move could give the City boss those additional options. Such thoughts will occupy his mind with the January transfer window due to re-open next week.

For some supporters, debates about his own capabilities seem to be all the rage. Astonishingly the final whistle was met with a smattering of boos from some City fans and I had the ‘pleasure’ of listening to one supporter rant that “he has to go”. Go online and you’ll find some fans argue we should sack him and appoint Jackson. No, there’s no punchline to follow – they are being serious. No doubt such arguments will continue but it should be remembered it’s very much a minority making a disproportionate amount of noise.

This was a disappointing result and slightly disappointing performance, but the game itself was great to watch and the atmosphere largely fantastic. I’m tired of people spoiling games by booing and screaming abuse and I’m tired of these people having more of a say over how this club should progress than they deserve.

The half way point of the season will be reached after Sunday’s game and City should end 2008 in a great position to make 2009 its year. Finding that extra is the immediate challenge and Stuart will look for the answers in January – from both the transfer market and the treatment room.

The decision on City comes at Christmas – Bradford City vs Chester City Preview

Recall this time last year – dear reader – and remember the questions about Stuart McCall and his team which had broken out of a losing run that would put Paul Ince to shame but were a long way from impressing with a scrappy team culled together from free transfers and loan players showing few signs of becoming a capable side.

Peter Thorne was a malingerer, Willy Topp the great hope and Joe Colbeck a guy you send out on loan. How times have changed and how last year’s festive period changed them.

The Boxing Day 2-1 win over Lincoln City – Barry Conlon scuffing the winner in the last minute – built on a good performance in the rain at Chesterfield – and showed a City team with Omar Daley starting to find form and Colbeck energised that could compete with the spirited teams in the division.

A Referee cost City in the 3-1 defeat to Hereford but the impressive display cemented the feeling that City could now start a run for bigger and better things which has continued to this day. In the last 365 days the Bantams have not been as lowly as we were at the start of December 2007.

So a year on and the Bantams – unarguably in a better position – face similar questions and have a similar need for a thrust of improvement although while twelve months ago the impetuous was to move away from mid-table and relegation to flirtatious play-off lower reaches now it is impressed upon Stuart McCall and his charges that with more than the play-off team what is Bradford City will be a promotion side.

Such comments are – in the opinion of this writer – unduly harsh on a Bantams side that has suffered at the hands of footballing fatalism more than most this season. Not a team in the land could survive the loss of the entire midfield and two replacements: Chris Brandon, Paul McLaren, Lee Bullock, Dean Furman, Omar Daley and Joe Colbeck have been simultaneously out of action; without a dip in results and while some suggest that Stuart McCall’s inability to have his team hang into the top three places on a weekly basis is a criticism of the manager I would suggest that it is credit to him.

The injury situation at City should have crippled the team – Steve Jones, Nicky Law Jnr, Tom Clarke and Kyle Nix is no one’s dream midfield – but each week the Gaffer has sent out a team that while bettered was never battered and the kind of excuses that formed under the likes of Jim Jefferies were never allowed to take route. McCall’s nemesis spent much of the Premiership talking about injuries to David Wetherall and Andrew O’Brien yet Stuart’s red cross list has been worse and concentrated in an area of the field position but never been allowed to become a self-perpetuating reason for defeat.

The jury – one could say – is out on McCall but one suspects in modern football the jury never returns – or only does so retroactively as it did on Paul Jewell who like McCall build a side with character that competed but was criticised for being commensurate rather than dominant. I would suggest that the improvement of the last year suggests that McCall is performing well and that if someone were to try ascribe this to the injection of funds in the summer as a suggestion that anyone could perform as well give the cash I would point them to 17th place Manchester City. Resources are only useful once marshal and marshalling of resources are perhaps best seen in the fullness of a season – injuries and all.

The midfield of woe is returning to fitness with Lee Bullock and Dean Furman both playing forty five minutes in the reserves. Both are looking at this weekend’s game with Chester as a way back before the Christmas break and one may suspect that McCall will give them the same type of “a half each” run out for the first team as they received on Tuesday afternoon for the stiffs. Doing so would allow Paul McLaren to retain his place and let Nicky Law Jnr shift right to the flank which he delivered such a sweet ball to Michael Boulding from last time at Valley Parade. Omar Daley’s return on the left last week at Brentford shows how important he has become to the team – a contrast to fifteen months ago and a change he credits McCall with.

McCall though credits Daley, Colbeck and his attacking three of Peter Thorne, Michael Boulding and Barry Conlon as being his entertainers and driving his City team on this term. He looks for another forward in the transfer window – reports that he was interested in Chesterfield’s out of contract Jamie Ward would seem to be wishful now Jewell’s Derby are interested – and sees strong attacking as the way forward. Thorne and Boulding are expected to start against Chester.

With this Keegan-esque mindset the defence that causes problems to some would seem to be less of an issue to the manager. Paul Arnison’s long awaited return for TJ Moncur should see the more attacking – or at least better crossing – full back in opposite Luke O’Brien who continues to perform well at left back. Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke – along with keeper Rhys Evans – will look on the McCall’s philosophy with the attitude that they aim if not for clean sheets then for one fewer concession than the other team and while statistics suggest that they could improve the Dagenham game showed that while it conceded in a mistake the back line did not buckle under the pressure.

Pressure that is not expected to be as great against a Chester City side who have scored only nine on the road this season and will no doubt end the season thankful of the deductions other clubs have suffered. A win over Chester precedes another Boxing Day game with Lincoln, a home tie with Morecambe and the visit of Shrewsbury. All tough in their own ways but all winnable for the Bantams who recall players to fitness and look to the sturdy first half of the season to set up a run for promotion in the second.

The decision on City – and most probably on Stuart McCall the manager – comes this Christmas.

The four corners – Brentford vs Bradford City preview

The Bantams travel to the football ground with a pub on each of the four corners looking at the four corners of the midfield as the return to fitness begins.

Paul McLaren was back for last week ahead of time and the extra week should see the playmaker building up match fitness. The number four’s impact has been lessened by injury since his arrival in the summer and an unbroken period from now to May could go a long way to seeing City promoted.

Lee Bullock – McLaren’s partner has been missed more than he was appreciated and is back in training with a return expected for the Christmas games. Dean Furman is further away but is also expected to be starting 2009 fit. When all three are in the running for places – should it happen – it will be interesting to see which two are considered corners of the City midfield. McLaren and Bullock is the accepted wisdom but Furman impressed.

Such a problem exists on the flanks too with Omar Daley returning to the side for this weekend’s clash while Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon wait until the new year to be back in contention. Daley’s performances this season – in the face of a criticism which would see him “got rid of” despite his obvious advantages – have belied the fact that in the dream City midfield on paper in August he was on the bench and Brandon and Colbeck were in.

As with Furman, Daley’s performances have made him undroppable and away from home watching the winger sprint puts the fear of God into the opposition. His return is anticipated.

No return to date for Paul Arnison who was not popular in the position where no player is every popular – right back – but since losing his place to TJ Moncur the momentum has build behind him. Moncur’s mistake last week added to his critics but no calls for his exit owing to that will come from this quarter rather a belief that Arison supported his winger better than Moncur and was a route to goals and that is why we prefer the one over the other. Moncur, however, is expected to take right back opposite Luke O’Brien – roasted a little last week – at left back and Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke in the middle.

A point on last week is that Dagenham celebrate the game as their best performance in recent years if not – truly – ever and look at the 66% possession stat with glee. In this context the defending of Lee and Clarke with the full backs and the goalkeeping of Rhys Evans was exceptional and did not get enough credit. Yes, the mistake cost a goal but the draw was saved by some sturdy backline duties.

And the draw came from some impressive attacking play by Nicky Law Jnr and Michael Boulding both of whom are to feature in a team that should read Evans, Moncur, Lee, Clarke, O’Brien, Steve Jones, McLaren, Law Jnr, Daley, Boulding and Peter Thorne. They face a Brentford team doing well in the league in 8th position but coming off the back of a 2-1 defeat to Barrow in the FA Cup and in the midst of a goalkeeping crisis.

Reduced choices – Bradford City vs Dagenham and Redbridge – League Two 2008/2009 preview

There may not have been any further injuries to emerge from last weekend’s FA Cup defeat to Leyton Orient, but Bradford City manager Stuart McCall has still found himself with two less players to choose from for tomorrow’s important league encounter.

Willy Topp and Tom Clarke have both departed Valley Parade during the week and, while each leave with most fans best wishes, it’s the latter one which causes the most immediate concern. Clarke looked an excellent proposition in the middle of the park and has been growing in confidence after a long spell out injured, but was recalled back to Huddersfield in time to face Walsall. He was initially signed to provide defensive cover, but leaves having successfully performed a role in the team it previously did without.

There’s been much debate at City in recent years about the merits of using a holding midfielder and, for much of this season, Stuart’s preferred to line up minus one. Lee Bullock and Paul McLaren started the season in the centre, largely sharing the defensive and attacking responsibilities. That continued when Dean Furman and then Nicky Law came in when injuries struck. After McLaren limped off at Rotherham, Clarke was brought in and the effect was a more balanced looking midfield and licence for Law to roam further forward.

It won’t work in every game, but the benefits of having a defensive midfielder on the books was shown in Clarke’s excellent showings against Chesterfield and Leyton Orient. Compare the more solid platform provided with the home games against Gillingham and Barnet, where the lack of protection provided by those in front of the back four played a huge part in the amount of pressure City wase put under. Clarke maybe gone but, with a new manager with new ideas set to take charge at the Galpharm, Stuart might be keeping tabs on how much he figures during the next few weeks with the January transfer window approaching.

Until then City will go back to a central midfield pairing sharing the roles. McLaren is expected to be fit enough to return and, though question marks over his start with City remain, his calm passing and dead ball skills will be welcomed back. Law will be reined in slightly but still expected to put his high energy levels to good use in the final third. They will sit between two widemen with much to prove. For a spell on Saturday Kyle Nix sparked City and it’s to be hoped he can recapture last season’s form as we wait for Omar Daley, Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon to regain fitness. Steve Jones makes his home league debut having impressed in patches against Orient. More will be expected of him as he finds his feet.

Up front the competition for places is fierce with Barry Conlon expected to be fit enough and Michael Boulding looking more like a player worth all that effort pursuing during the summer. Peter Thorne has been benched partly because of fitness but also partly on merit. It’s fair to say that the early season spark has been absent from his game recently, but it’s testament to the relative ability of City’s squad that, unlike two years ago when an out of form Dean Windass was still too good to be dropped, Thorne is kicking his heels on the bench. How it can be argued Topp deserved a run in the side at the expense of two of these three is beyond me.

Defensive failings still occupy many minds and last weekend’s showing was only marginally improved. There are calls for Mark Bower to return at the expense of Matt Clarke – who actually played okay last week. I can see the argument, but when some fans go to the extremes of listing Bower as our best defender and slate Stuart for ignoring him one is left wondering why it’s been so quickly forgotten that a year ago many were demanding Bower be dropped for Clarke. Lee will certainly start alongside one of them, with TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien taking the full back roles in front of Rhys Evans.

Valley Parade is joint top with the New Meadow in League Two in terms of how many goals have been scored this season – and a visit from League Two’s top scorers is unlikely to slow that. England C international Paul Benson has led Dagenham’s surprise promotion challenge with 10 goals, though strike partner Ben Strevens isn’t far behind on eight. Twice they’ve hit someone for six but they’ve lost almost as often as they’ve won. Last year they triumphed at Valley Parade on route to avoiding relegation.

It will mean another tough afternoon for a back four which has lost some of its protection, though for much of this season Stuart has chosen attack as the best form of defence.

The luck of the draw

Watching the Bantams go out of the FA Cup 2-1 to Leyton Orient two frustrations of this 2008/2009 season struck me but only one left me surprised.

The Bantams interest in knock out competitions ended after a header former Leeds man Danny Granville headed home a well placed corner leaving City – who had got back into the game following going behind in the first half – tired and heading for the exit.

City had started slowly – a problem of late – and Graeme Lee’s continuing problems with TJ Moncur maintaining a position to his right hand side saw the skipper foolishly following the wrong man leaving time and space for Jason Demetriou to turn and pick out a fine shot to beat Rhys Evans from range. It was a deserved reward for the team from the division above having the better of the opening exchanges and there was a worry that as with Tranmere Rovers 3-0 win in a previous FA Cup tie that League One would just have too much quality.

Credit then City for clawing back into the game to such an extent that the first half ended with the Bantams in the ascendency much of which had to do with the Bantams midfield – second choice and second best – adding a needed steel to proceedings.

The quartet of Nicky Law Jnr being anchored by Tom Clarke with Kyle Nix on the right and debut loan winger Steve Jones replacing the injured Omar Daley were bullied out of the opening exchanges but added perhaps a little too much of the tough stuff with Clarke picking up a booking and Nix pushing in two challenges that had they connected could have resulted in red cards.

Nevertheless the muscle matched the visitors from the league above who’s robust style of play had seen a heavy challenge on Barry Conlon in the first ten minutes result in the in form 100 goal man coming off after twenty minutes with a back injury and considering that none of the midfield four would be in Stuart McCall’s all squad fit team then credit is due for the resurgence that bore fruit after an hour when a smart through ball allowed Michael Boulding – who ran tirelessly all afternoon – to get behind the immense Alton Thirwell who had a superb game for the visitors and equalise for the Bantams.

At that point City looked the team most likely but the goal galvanised the visitors who stepped up and within ten had taken the decisive lead. The Bantams had chances to equalise – Peter Thorne uncharacteristically heading the best of them wide – but Thirwell, Jordan Spence and midfielder Adam Chambers kept a strong spine to restrict City who lost by an edge, but just an edge.

Curious then that a decent turn out despite pricing villainy by the Londoner’s boardroom did not get behind City more. The Bantams battled with a team a league above and battled well. A nicer drop of the ball or a slice of luck and City could have been through yet the atmosphere was once again strangely muted. Hardly a surprise but whatever a crowd can do to push a team through we do not seem to do it, at least not at Valley Parade.

Surprising and disappointing has been the rumbling of balls around Bradford City this season. Four times the Bantams have been drawn out of hats and every time we have faced a team in the highest division possible. Huddersfield Town, Leeds United and Milton Keynes Dons have previously faced City in the cup this season all from League One.

With the Bantams doing well in League Two we could assume that a draw against anyone below us – and in every draw we have been in most of the teams have been below us in the league structure – would have been more beatable but rather than Grimsby Town away in the Johnsons Paint we end up with Leeds and rather than Chester in the League Cup we went to Huddersfield. Of course there is no guarantee we would have won those hypothetical games but City should not be down hearted about being out of all the cups but rather surprised at the bad luck that saw us get four tough games.

Leyton Orient was a winnable game – both in theory and during the match – but it was not Histon Town 1 Leeds United 0 and as we look to the league now and the next five months of trying to ensure promotion we should do so knowing that in all four of those games – save the second half against Huddersfield – the Bantams gave as good as they got against the teams we want to be playing week in week out.

Four times we played league one clubs. Once we learned a lesson, once we got an apology, once we played and won and once we played and lost. We are ready for that league.

Overcoming the margins – Bradford City vs Leyton Orient – FA Cup 2nd Round preview

We remember Ben Murihead stupidly running down a blind alley with 10 minutes to go, losing possession and Barnsley racing up the other end to crucially equalise. We remember Jermaine Johnson’s incredible dribble from his own half before shooting wide when reaching the penalty area, then a Nathan Doyle own goal gifting Millwall an undeserved win. We remember David Wetherall hitting the crossbar with a header before, erm, Tranmere proceeded to play us off the park and win 3-0.

The previous three Bradford City seasons have featured progress past the First Round of the FA Cup, before each time falling at the Second. We’ve allowed ourselves to dream of City’s name being included in that illusive 3rd Round Draw with the opportunity of a lucrative tie. On Saturday we dream again that this could our year as Leyton Orient rock up to Valley Parade – will it be fourth time lucky?

The so-called “magic of the FA Cup” will be duly hyped all weekend and City could, by some stretch of the imagination, be considered one of the giant killers of the last round after the impressive win at MK Dons – a result which looks more impressive each week as the Buckinghamshire club climb League One.

It’s doubtful whether the magic really will touch Bradford this weekend though, the stadium will be barely a fifth full and there’s a convincing argument that, unlike the last three seasons, an FA Cup run is an unnecessary distraction. Nevertheless as memories of recent disappointments remind us of the often thin line between success and failure it’s worth noting that City have twice this week been on the right side of such margins – Rhys Evans’ wonder save at Rotherham and Jack Lester’s miss at 2-2 on Tuesday – and it’s the sign of a good side when they’re the ones regularly benefiting from such fortune.

A good side. Worth emphasising to some of our supporters who still can’t manage to do anything but criticise and moan. Tuesday’s comeback win against Chesterfield was a fantastic game of football – arguably the most entertaining of our season so far. Yet still all some can do is focus on the disappointing first 25 minutes, pick on a couple of players who didn’t reach the heights of others and, perhaps most stupidly of all, moan that City we’re hanging on during the final 10 minutes. Let’s imagine our team had fallen 3-2 behind and had a man sent off with 10 minutes to go, wouldn’t we still expect our players to force pressure in the closing stages? Why shouldn’t Chesterfield fans expect any less of their side?

We witness an injury hit City side show tremendous character and commitment to recover from an awful start and win against an impressive visiting side, why can’t we enjoy it? All some people can do is look for negatives; there’s been some over-the-top moaning about Matt Clarke (who apparently was booed by some ‘fans’ in the Kop whenever he touched the ball on Tuesday), the medical experts amongst us have managed to blame Omar Daley’s injury on Stuart McCall and there’s a certain balding Irish striker who some attempted to argue was one of our worst players. I am staggered how any City supporter could have left Valley Parade on Tuesday feeling unhappy. As Alan Hansen would say, “it’s unbelievable.”

Of course there were things which didn’t go so well and Stuart will look to address these on Saturday. I’m full of admiration for the way he stuck to his guns with the line up on Tuesday. At 2-0 the diamond formation he’d employed did not look a clever decision but, rather than panic, he got the players doing the right things and the improvement was vast. It won’t work every game and may not be used tomorrow with no Daley, but Stuart has a lot more faith in his team than many of us supporters do and surely it’s time more of us got behind them, particuarly when they’re struggling.

Stuart is unlikely to make many changes for this tie. Nicky Law and Tom Clarke have both had their loan spells extended and both arguably enjoyed their best games in Claret and Amber so far on Tuesday. They will make up the centre of the midfield with new loan arrival Steve Jones, taking Daley’s place, on the right. Kyle Nix, who did reasonably well Tuesday considering it was his first game back from injury, will push his claims for a regular spot on the left.

The back five will be unchanged with Matt Clarke still causing concern but Graeme Lee winning fans over. At 2-0 down and in real trouble on Tuesday, strong leadership was needed and Lee stepped up to the mark in more ways than just his impressive free kick. TJ Moncur must improve on his recent showings while Luke O’Brien will reflect that it was a year ago this weekend he made his debut and how far he has come. Rhys Evans keeps goal.

Up front Stuart has a real dilemma. At last Valley Parade got to see what a talent Michael Boulding can be and it would be difficult to rest him with confidence improving. Same with Barry Conlon, who’s popularity is surpassing the ‘cult hero’ status of last season into genuine ‘fans favourite’. That could mean Peter Thorne is left out again, which might not be a bad thing with a busy Christmas coming and injury niggles. FA Cup rules allow Stuart to name seven substitutes, which will give some fringe players a chance – will Willy Topp be one of them?

Of course the last time Leyton Orient were in town they cruelly smashed our hopes of avoiding the drop with a two-goal burst which had people around me crying and the boo boys curiously gloating. That day City battered Orient and wasted a hatful of chances to be out of sight by half time.

It’s those margins of success and failure that good teams invariably benefit from and poor sides are left cursing about. If City are the beneficiaries on Saturday we supporters just might start to believe in magic again.

Battling back

City produced a fine comeback from 2-0 down to grab all three points and ascend into 2nd place in League Two.

It was a game full of incident and open play, and City’s superb resolve and spirit was highly commendable against dangerous attacking opposition.

McCall sprung a surprise in naming the starting eleven by leaving top scorer Peter Thorne on the bench. His troublesome back problems that have developed over the last few weeks is likely to be the reasoning behind not risking him from the start. With so many injuries to contend with, McCall tinkered with a diamond formation in the first half, with Tom Clarke playing the anchor role in midfield protecting the back four, and Omar Daley getting a free role to roam with menace.

Things could not have got off to a worse start when a long throw into the area was not dealt with, and Jack Lester rifled in a left foot strike beyond Rhys Evans to put Chesterfield ahead.

The game opened up and City had two good chances to level via Omar Daley – in particular when he seemed to have got clean through and just before he was about to shoot, an excellent last ditch challenge was produced by Chesterfield defender Downes, to deny the pacy Jamaican.

Things went from bad to worse when Chesterfield doubled their advantage on 23. A loose ball floated around the penalty area that City failed to clear and it was left to Darren Currie to produce a rasping left foot strike that took a deflection and flew into the roof of the net, prompting jubilant celebrations from the scorer.

To their credit, City never let their heads drop and really began to play with more purpose despite being 2-0 down. There was some nice interplay and with Michael Boulding a willing runner all night, City began asking questions of Robert Page’s Chesterfield backline. When Barry Conlon was fouled just outside the box, the resultant free kick was left to skipper Graeme Lee who smashed the ball directly into the net with a thunderbolt that threw City a lifeline.

And just before halftime a short corner produced a left wing cross that was headed firmly down by Boulding that drew City level.

The second half began with City in the ascendancy and should have taken the lead twice through Boulding. First, he was unlucky to see his strike bounce wide following an excellent cross from the left from O’Brien. Then he really should have scored when one on one with Page, but he dragged his shot wide of the target.

Chesterfield were still having a fair amount of attacking play though, and Jack Lester missed a very presentable chance when clean through on goal to the left of the box. But Evans did a brilliant job, making himself big, and only providing Lester with an acute angle left to shoot which he sliced into the side netting.

The penalty that was awarded in City’s favour that won them the game seemed to be a fairly harsh one from my viewpoint. Nicky Law did brilliantly to take on his man and dribble inside the box, but seemed to go to ground too easily (I haven’t seen the replay yet) and initially I thought Law was going to be booked for diving. But the referee pointed to the spot, and served as some compensation for the terrible offside decisions that were given against us attacking wise.

Battling Barry Conlon grabbed the ball and confidently stepped up to take the penalty (I must admit I wanted either Boulding or Thorne to take it!). What followed was an audacious chip (Dwight Yorke style in his heyday) that went straight down the middle for the Burly Irishman’s 100th League Goal highlighted by his flash of his undershirt in the goal celebration, which was rewarded with a booking.

City held on for the last 20 minutes against ten men (Goodall was sent off for a second bookable – his foul on Law inside the penalty area) largely thanks to an excellent save from Evans from a Jamie Ward effort, and TJ Moncur made a vital interception at the back at the death – nipping the ball away from Lester with the goal gaping inside the area.

Whilst they made it very hard for themselves, its hard to find anything to criticise about City’s under strength side tonight. Yes they started slowly – but their battling back from adversion is promotion form (demonstrated also away at Accrington to grab all three points).

Boulding had a productive night and never stopped running. Tom Clarke produced an effective display protecting his back four, as was his brief. And Lee really is producing “Captain Fantastic” performances consistently now – a really worthy replacement for David Wetherall. His strikes from set pieces are now something of a secret weapon ( 30 yards out against Bury, The winner away at MK Dons in the FA Cup and now tonight).

My only grip about tonight were my fellow supporters in the Midland Road stand. With 2 – 3 minutes remaining there was an exodus of people making their way to the exit. Having just seen their team produce a stunning comeback against a very strong side, surely the team are worthy of a standing ovation. Or at least a round of a applause from the over 11,000 home fans? No, some people want to leave early to “ miss the traffic”. It’s pathetic.

You either commit to supporting the team or you are simply a spectator with no heart in caring about the team when they deserve some support or a pat on the back. People would be quick to boo the entire game if the team lost but to not reward a winning team who have dug really deep to deliver an excellent result is really not on.

At the rate that people were leaving the ground before the final whistle it was like we had lost 4-0.
Anyway, well done to Stuart and the lads. Our position in the table is very encouraging. And what is more encouraging is that I don’t think we have even hit top gear yet. From the way things look tonight, a top three finish is very achievable by this team, who like to do things the hard way.

Part two of four – Bradford City vs Chesterfield – League Two preview

There’s little doubt this is an important week in Bradford City’s season.

On Saturday it began with the low-thrills win at Rotherham and tonight’s game is a great opportunity to increase pressure on those near the top and move further clear from the chasing pack, which includes visitors Chesterfield. Saturday’s FA Cup clash with Leyton Orient carries the possibility of a lucrative 3rd round tie for the winners, while events in the days before it will also be far from insignificant.

Thursday is deadline day for loan deals until January and, with five league games in December, manager Stuart McCall has much to do to ensure he has sufficient options. After tonight, Tom Clarke and Nicky Law’s loan deals expire and, while Stuart appears keen to retain them both, it appears likely only Law will be allowed to extend his stay. With Huddersfield caretaker manager Gerry Murphy keen to give those players who he nurtured through Town’s youth academy the opportunity, Clarke is expected back at the Galpharm.

Murphy’s philosophy may lead to his on-loan option Steve Jones making the opposite journey on the M62 and former Leeds winger Seb Carole remains a possibility Clearly a right-sided midfielder is badly needed by Thursday, even if it’s just the retention of Law. Stuart may be running up a large phone bill over the next couple of days in pursuit of targets.

Clarke and Law will feature from the start tonight as City look to continue in the manner they finished at the Don Valley on Saturday. Paul McLaren’s injury isn’t expected to be serious enough to see him missing for long, but in his absence Clarke’s more defensive-minded approach should allow Law to get forward more regularly in the way he did for the final half hour on Saturday.

On the flanks Kyle Nix is back in contention after injury and made a 10-minute cameo on Saturday. He may replace Leon Osborne, who Stuart revealed was disappointed in his own performance at Rotherham. The youngster has apparently been playing well in the reserves and will look to inspiration from the likes of Luke O’Brien and Joe Colbeck as he tries to cross that psychological barrier of doing it in the first team. Whether he is ready for the test of a five-figure Valley Parade crowd remains to be seen.

Omar Daley will remain on the right wing. Many fans on Saturday were frustrated to see the Jamaican switched over from his usual spot on the left and it was fair to say he was less effective. Stuart might allow himself to feel a little smug after persisting with Daley on the left last season and receiving criticism from some supporters for playing him ‘out of position’.

What is clear is the service to City’s forwards needs to improve. Stuart may wish to chop about after Saturday and recall Barry Conlon after his introduction indirectly saw the team score two quick-fire goals. Michael Boulding would be favourite to be left out with Peter Thorne possibly taking his turn for a rest on Saturday.

At the back Rhys Evans and O’Brien will be in high spirits while Matt Clarke and Graeme Lee will be hoping for their first back-to-back clean sheets since August. TJ Moncur will be looking to get forward in the same effective manner as O’Brien, though has the added defensive responsibility of playing behind Daley.

The last time Chesterfield were at Valley Parade their supporters taunted their manager Lee Richardson with the chant “you don’t know what you’re doing”. The former Halifax and Huddersfield midfielder is still in charge, with his team unbeaten in seven and climbing the table after a slow start. Having been injured for both meetings last season, Jack Lester (35 goals for The Spireites from 53 appearances) will line up against City and scored for Nottingham Forest on his last visit to Valley Parade. Jamie Ward, who had a superb game on that horrible afternoon 19 months ago is winning plaudits and attracting attention.

He will be with Chesterfield until January at least but who will be lining up for the Bantams over the same period isn’t fully clear. We wait for Chris Brandon, Colbeck, Lee Bullock, Dean Furman and now McLaren to return from injury and, while it leaves a larger reliance on loan players than Stuart would probably like in the short-term, it’s nothing on the situation two seasons ago where so much of Colin Todd’s long-term plans depended on them.

If it’s to be good bye from Clarke and Law tonight, let’s hope it ends in the same way their loan periods started.

What’s next?

It wasn’t pretty, it was far from convincing and it will be quickly forgotten – but the most relevant description of Bradford City’s 2-0 win at Rotherham would be ‘job done’.

The open manner of attacking football which manager Stuart McCall is largely pinning City’s promotion hopes on was rarely exhibited, but some of the other equally important qualities that any side with promotion aspirations was. It may have been played out in the unusual and somewhat soulless setting of Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium, but Rotherham provided that familiar awkward test and the Bantams had to display steeliness, grit and determination. Ultimately the three points earned by Luke O’Brien and Nicky Law’s second half strikes will be all that matter come May.

Not that it was a bad performance from the pre-season League Two favourites. Rotherham United supporters might consider that their entire home crowd can be dumped into one stand of their temporary home as an indicator of their place in the world, but they will also know their team would be battling with City for promotion were it not for that 17 point deduction. For 70 minutes the Millers dominated possession and posed plenty of questions of a defensive line which has being needing to provide answers.

Rhys Evans made an early low save and the City stopper had a busy afternoon. With widemen Jamie Green and Dale Tonge causing plenty of problems, numerous balls were fired into the box and Matt Clarke – who appears to have heeded the wake-up call from losing his place in the last home game against Barnet – and Graeme Lee stood up to the battle.

Not that Stuart would have been happy with how much they had to do. In the middle of the park City were second best for much of the game and possession was too easily squandered. There’s seemingly been a learning curve all season about the best way to play, with many players often taking the direct option of launching the ball forward as quickly as possible. While it’s effective at times – some of City’s better first half opportunities coming this way – it needs to be used in the right way. In the early stages there was a reluctance to slow the tempo and pass it around, instead the ball quickly sent forward and invariably returned just as fast.

Questions continue to be asked of Paul McLaren, who it’s felt can do more. This is the sort of game where a midfield leader, a Stuart if you like, is badly needed and McLaren is the closest we have. His manager must be looking to McLaren to demand the ball off others to then deliver sensible and, when the opportunity arises, killer passes which set City on their way. McLaren was guilty of taking the wrong option too often in the first half and moves broke down. Like with other City players who’ve struggled, the management is capable of coaching more out of him. Should Stuart succeed, McLaren will be a better player for it.

Two widemen were employed, with Leon Osborne brought in on the left and Omar Daley switched to the right. It was unusual to see Daley on this side and served to only remind us that, while his pace and dribbling skills are such a potent weapon, his final ball into the box can sometimes be poor. Daley was City’s best attacking outlet but Osborne too was a willing worker.

The second half became a fascinating battle as Rotherham continued to exert strong pressure and waste some good chances, but City slowly began to play in the right way. Possession wasn’t feebly squandered seconds after been won. There was some impressive passing with some moves agonisingly breaking down when one pass wasn’t quite good enough. City also seemed to work out when to go direct and when to slow it down. In short – they began to play like a good away side.

So while heavy pressure in City’s box continued, more and more gaps began to emerge at the other end and the counter attack was on. The ball was played quickly to Osborne or Daley, who used their pace and the space to get City on the attack. Nothing was to come of it at first, but as Rotherham showed a degree of naivety in how far forward some of their players went, the opportunities were increasing. After Tom Clarke was brought on for the injured McLaren, Law suddenly had the licence to get forward even more and this made a difference.

Seconds after Barry Conlon also joined the action, City got their counter attack spot on. A Rotherham corner saw plenty of red shirts forward, but the was played towards a galloping O’Brien, who burst forward to the edge of the area and hit a low shot which appeared to leave Rotherham keeper David Stockdale unsighted as it flew into the bottom corner.

Two minutes later Rotherham fans thought their side had equalised as Drew Broughton’s header from close range was magnificently pushed onto the bar by Evans, but then another counter-attack delivered a killer second goal as Law’s shot from distance flew past Stockdale into the same corner of the net as O’Brien’s.

With the game effectively won City were able to slow the tempo and pass the ball around in a calmer manner. An O’Brien dribble forward was illegally stopped and the resulting free kick fired over, while a great passing move resulted in TJ Moncur wastefully stabbing the ball well wide of the goal. A third would undoubtedly have flattered City.

Those sat near this writer will have to excuse my over-exuberant celebrations for both goals, particularly the first. For most of the game the cold air around me was polluted by one supporter who’s non-stop moaning about his team was not only moronic and largely unrealistic (they are League Two players, but I doubt even Premiership players could manage what he expected our players to do), but his choice of players to ‘target’ was ludicrous. All game long I watched an excellent performance from our young left back, O’Brien, and all game long I listened to irrational abuse about how rubbish he was, with this fan often calling him a four letter term beginning with T. That was when he wasn’t yelling equally ridiculous abuse about Osborne and demanding Stuart sub him.

Is this the way we should be encouraging our younger players? No one says we should gloss over if they fail to reach the standards required for first team football, but when they’re not even having bad games it was hard to listen to this fan’s clueless rants. So when O’Brien struck the first I had to fight every urge to turn around and call my fellow supporter a four letter term beginning with T, though my mouth dropped to the floor in astonishment as he joined in when others later started a chant praising O’Brien.

But in some ways it was that sort of afternoon. The Don Valley stadium is a horrible place to watch football and the freezing conditions had us longing for the final whistle well before it was due. Any attempt to build an atmosphere by the 1,600 City fans was largely lost in the wide open space and, for those of us with limited eyesight, it was difficult to see the ball at the opposite end of the pitch when it got darker. It can’t have been much fun for the players either, with three sides of the ground completely empty. It was a matter of getting the win and moving onto the next game.

Rotherham’s 17 point deduction should mean the Don Valley stays on the fixture list for League Two sides next season – another incentive for City to get the ultimate ‘job done’ and earn promotion.

Unfamiliar familiarity – Rotherham United v Bradford City – League Two preview

This is the seventh season out of eight to feature Rotherham away on Bradford City’s fixture list, though there will be nothing familiar about Saturday’s trip.

The financial difficulties which the Millers have struggled to overcome during the last few years has resulted in a temporary move to Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium. With a running track around the pitch and the stands – of which for only one side is there a roof – positioned well back, it will certainly be a contrast from the intimacy of Millmoor.

For Rotherham the move was born out of necessity as Millmoor’s landlord, former Chairman Ken Booth, demanded too much rent and not enough access to its facilities for it to be financially viable. Attendances have slightly dipped through the six-mile relocation, though with only two home defeats so far it’s clear the players have adapted to new surroundings quickly.

For us Bradford City supporters, it should be a case of being thankful for our lot. Clearly the Bantams have suffered from financial troubles in recent years and the two relegations since leaving the Premier League can be blamed on it to varying degrees. Yet both City’s spells in administration came before the sort of point deductions which have been inflicted on Rotherham for three consecutive seasons. As for a former chairman owning the ground and the struggle to make rent payments, a move to Odsal looked a possibility back in February 2004.

Which goes to show that, if there can be positives to take from what this club went through, it’s the timing of it. Pity the marketing men at Rotherham, who this summer had to work out how to sell season tickets for a club which had moved to a nearby city, which wasn’t fully guaranteed to be allowed to continue by the Football League and who even then started with a 17 point deduction. The self-righteous whining from Leeds United supporters last season has ensured many of us hold little sympathy for clubs who break the rules by getting in such debt, but things could have been much worse for us during those dark days and at the time that didn’t seem possible.

For City at least, such difficult times are now part of the history books and they approach the only proper League Two Yorkshire Derby of the season with strong promotion aspirations. Last week’s defeat to Wycombe may have tempered confidence among supporters, but manager Stuart McCall will know the true quality of a good side is how it responds to set backs. So far this season the players have made a good fist of it.

The team is likely to be similar after Stuart’s attempts to bring in a right winger on loan drew a blank. Rhys Evans keeps goal behind a back four slowly recapturing its early season solidness. Paul Heckingbottom came through the reserves unscathed midweek and Stuart may consider giving Luke O’Brien a breather. TJ Moncur seems to be comfortably first choice ahead of Paul Arnison on the right and Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke continue in the centre.

The other Clarke will continue in midfield. City’s line ups this season have largely not featured an out and out holding midfielder and the hope has to be that Paul McClaren, alongside Tom, can get forward more than he has been afforded to. Lee Bullock is close to a return to fitness and McClaren may be aware he needs to show more in order to keep his starting place. Nicky Law will play on the right with Omar Daley likely to provide the team’s main source of attacking inspiration from the left.

Up front Michael Boulding will be hoping to get the nod over Barry Conlon, with the latter still sweating over a new contract offer in the new year. There are some concerns over Peter Thorne’s recent performances, but there’s no one you’d rather have on the end of any decent chances the rest of the team can create during the game.

Rotherham are not without their problems having lost experienced keeper Andy Warrington to injury and with only Steven Cann, who played his first senior game midweek and was on the end of a 3-0 defeat, to call upon between the sticks. Manager Mark Robins too has been left frustrated by the loan market and, unless any late attempts prove successful, it will be a big day for the 20-year-old South African. They also have their own Omar, who is perhaps more Willy Topp.

One familiar face will be Alex Rhodes, who joined the Millers from City during the summer. The winger was an excellent proposition on his day, as Rotherham themselves know only too well, but lacked consistency. Had Stuart kept him on it’s likely he’d have barely figured for City this season up until Joe Colbeck’s injury, so his regularity for Rotherham suggests City would be finishing above them even if they’d not suffered that heavy points deduction.

Like City, Rotherham will be aiming to put their financial troubles behind them but the impact which the credit crunch has had on so many parts of UK life has yet to be realised in football. With the UK heading for recession tough times may be ahead and typically its lower league clubs who will suffer.

If United had trouble with season tickets this season what about the next, when people’s spending will become even tighter? This week Rotherham announced half-year season ticket prices which are still more expensive than it cost for a full City season ticket. If levels of support are to be maintained in 2009/10 season clubs are going to have to consider the sort of innovate pricing approach which has succeeded at Valley Parade, though that might be difficult for clubs like Rotherham to implement with money in short supply.

If City can march onto promotion this season they should have few problems retaining their support should they keep similar prices, which would once again leave us pleased with our timing and thankful for our lot.

More of the same from less – Wycombe Wanderers vs Bradford City preview

Dean Furman is still injured and Paul McLaren is still carrying a knock. Joe Colbeck and Lee Bullock still cannot run about and Chris Brandon is not coming back until next year. The Bantams are still as threadbare as they were going into the game with MK Dons last weekend but after that win the City have hope.

Hope that is that Stuart McCall’s side which he this week declared he was happy with the progress of is more than just the eleven players on the field and that there is strength in the squad.

Barry Conlon showed that strength coming off the bench and scoring goals and being part of last week’s winning side but the Irishman is expected to step down for a biting at the bit Peter Thorne. Michael Boulding’s intelligent play and pace away from home rather than Conlon’s battering ram approach will be favoured alongside.

At the back Matthew Clarke’s return to the team and to form seems set to leave his Huddersfield name sake Tom cooling his heels with Graeme Lee partnering him at the back. TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien are expected to continue at full back with Rhys Evans behind them.

The midfield continues to be a black hole of injury. Omar Daley has continued good form on his return on the right hand side and Leon Osbourn did enough on the left to suggest his continued presence in the side. Certainly Stuart McCall seems more impressed with the youngster’s attitude than he is with Willy Topp’s. Topp – an option in midfield – seems to be a long way from the side.

Wycombe go into the game having led League Two but now on a dip in much the same way City were. They have drawn four of their last five fixtures and have needed 90th and 98th minute goals to maintain the stream of points. They are – for sure – a good side but City’s one defeat in seven suggests that we are too and that this is a game between teams who will be battling for the chance of automatic promotion and the championship rather than play-off places.

The no pressure game as City beat MK Dons in the FA Cup

Who wants to go to Stadium:MK? Who even knows where it is? Or what it is? “Is it a hockey stadium” Ian asks and then we have a debate over if hockey is a big enough game to have stadiums anyway. “It is something you do down the park” says Dawn, “or at school. It isn’t a grown ups game.”

This argument rages over the team news which sees City without a load of players and without Peter Thorne. “Perhaps we can lend his stick to Barry” says Noel breaking from shouting at us for not being able to stop arguing about having a colon in the middle of a phrase and find this stadium:mk thing. We are going to be late and we are. We get into the ground to see footballer:od (Omar Daley) messing around in the box and hitting a shot that sneaks in past Lewis Price in the home goal. “F*ck Barrack Obama! We’ve got Barrack O. Daley” is both idiotic and hilarious and as we look over the pitch to see how isn’t playing rather than who is. Michael Boulding and Barry Conlon in front of a midfield with Daley, and Leon Osbourn on the wings and Paul McLaren and Nicky Law in the middle. Law got off to a good start setting up the goal.

And City had a good start. Away games have long since been better than home for atmosphere and sure enough the Bantams fans buoyed by an early goal were in good voice. WimbleMKDons most dangerous man Dean Lewington started to warm up and I remember how he smacked Joe Colbeck over the back of the head in the second to last game of the season which resulted in Colbeck being sent off for a horrible tackle back. Colbeck, like Conlon, has come out of the other side of the tunnel of booing and Barry running about this afternoon is proof that while it is pretty stupid the players that come out of the other side tend to do so as better players.

Not that that is a good reason or anything.

Matt Clarke and Graeme Lee had the throats warming up but stuck back together today they were impressing in the first half blocking MK Dons as they tried to drive through the middle of City. If Roberto Di Matteo had had City watched they came back with the wrong info because City looked stronger in the middle today. Away from home and leading we could park a bus in front of the goal but we need to be careful on the flanks were TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien still amazingly keep out the Paul Arnison and Paul Heckingbottom combination.

Able to sit deep City enjoyed a good share of possession against the Champions of League Two who look less of a team than they were last term. Lewington still looks like the best player in the Galaxy when he faces City and manages to get above Graeme Lee as it looks like the City skipper could put in number two. Some Bantams make a decent shout for a penalty but of course it is given the other way. I wonder if I’ll live long enough that City ever get one of those games where we are the underdogs and everyone loves us and we get let off with two footed tackles and the News of the World want to talk to us but then I remember how much I hate clubs like that and the managers who play up to it like last week’s Barnet manager Paul Fairclough when he was manager of Stevenage when they played Newcastle ages ago. As I’m thinking about this I start to worry about how often Ali Gerba is getting caught offside cause at some point the linesman will let him go and he will equalise. He doesn’t but Jemal Johnson does hitting the ball in from miles away from the goal.

“That was a great goal” Ian offered at half time, “You couldn’t do that in hockey. The ball never leaves the ground.” Sometimes you wonder especially when it is really clear that you are nowhere near the National Hockey Stadium but it does turn out that stadium:mk is next to arena:mk where the Milton Keynes BasketBall team who they might have nicked off Chicago but probably didn’t play. “Rory Delap would be great at that, he should play for them” says Noel.

Half time is a different mood. What can Stuart McCall do? He is without a load of quality players in the midfield and almost every option that is suggested seems to be taking a punt on a player in the hope that while he might not do much most of the time he will be stunning today. Oddly enough this is not just applied to Billy Topp but Luke Sharry and Rory Boulding who as far as I can tell have done nothing to say they are the guys you play when you want to beat a team in the league above you.

Then again they have done nothing to say they are not. Sharry is a big lad and fills a midfield hole but we seem solid enough and have a good chance of taking these back to Valley Parade if we don’t throw Rory, Toppy and Sharry up front and take off everyone who is ever in our half.

The second half started in our half with Omar Daley’s long runs and Barry Conlon’s head being the only way that City could find to get out from the cosh. The home team won corners that were cleaned out by Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke who were both having great games. “The second corner should be a short corner” Dawn said and we all agreed that was a good idea really and that football could learn a lot from Hockey. “You could get two goals for shots from outside the box” which was a Basketball thing and could have had City losing at this point so probably wasn’t a good idea. “Imagine what Deano would have done with the stick, heads would have rolled.”

The Milky Dons started to use the flanks more with former Town flop Kevin Gallen running the channels for them and Michael Boulding starting to do the same for City. The defence which is never lauded of late did not buckle and Stuart McCall seemed to have settled for whatever this stiff rear guard and occasional counter-attack football would produce be it replay at Valley Parade or narrow defeat. We were all surprised when what was produced turned out to be a goal from Graeme Lee.

Boulding was fouled on one of his enterprising runs and while had Lee not blasted the free kick in then we would probably be asking why the fouler was not sent off but the free kick saw Lee step up like Marco Flaming Sas and belt the ball in hard and low to the back of the Dons goal. Like Marco Flaming Sas. I mean, who was expecting that? “He slam dunked that with his chuffing stick!”

Then it was attack and defence with Lewington wandering around the field trying to do everything and Matt Clarke looking as strong as he ever has. The Referee blew his whistle and we were through to the second round six fielders out and no Peter Thorne and everything.

Which says something about Stuart. Belief was thin on the ground today for us all and most of us who had come expected very little and chattered through the game about nothing much like the management team enjoying a trip with no expectation to win. Following City this year is about getting three points every week and the two cup games have been local derbies. We came here with hardly any midfielders against a team that beat us twice last year. This is the least pressure of the season and probably the most fun.

Stuart always clenches is fists and punches the air after a win but today he did so without that feeling that he had stuck it to his doubters but with a smile that he might have not expected it either.

The second round awaits. I doubt it will be as much fun.

Where we want to be – MK Dons v Bradford City – FA Cup 1st Round preview

The chances are that those of us at Stadium MK this Saturday will witness a City defeat – but I hope to still make the 162-mile journey home feeling happy.

I will be happy if I see commitment from those who don Claret and Amber for this FA Cup 1st Round tie. Injuries, in midfield in particular, are severely limiting Stuart McCall’s options. There are already plenty of excuses which can be made if defeat occurs, but if those who are fit to play show anything less than full commitment towards the cause of City’s name appearing in Sunday’s 2nd Round draw those excuses will lose credibility.

I will be happy if Stuart is able to learn something from the game. Those injuries allow others their opportunity and, with seven substitutes allowed in the FA Cup, there will be plenty queuing up to take it. Injuries to Dean Furman and Kyle Nix – added to Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon – open up a hole in midfield. Stuart may move Nicky Law across to partner Paul McClaren in the centre, which should leave Leon Osborne or Willy Topp battling to take the vacant right midfield role.

Osborne made his debut for City against Millwall in May 2007, but got off on the wrong foot with Stuart that summer which hindered progress. Topp’s contribution this season has been two appearances from the bench. He played reasonably well out wide during pre-season, through Stuart may wish to bring him in up front tomorrow.

If Law is kept on the right, Luke Sharry could make his much-anticipated debut for City having impressed in pre-season and for the reserves this season. At the back Huddersfield’s refusal to let Tom Clarke play should mean a return for the other Clarke; though Paul Arnison could be recalled and TJ Moncur moved to the centre to partner Graeme Lee. Luke O’Brien, who made his senior debut in the FA Cup this season, will hope to recapture his promising form at left back, with Rhys Evans keeping goal.

Up front it seems unlikely Peter Thorne will be risked into action, with City’s top scorer seemingly picking up as many niggling injuries as goals. The in-form Barry Conlon should partner Michael Boulding, although don’t rule out the 4-3-3 formation adopted against Leeds in the Johnstones Paint Trophy which would see Boulding and Omar Daley assume the wide forward roles. Otherwise the latter will return from suspension in his familiar left wing role.

The MK Dons are far from unfamiliar opposition and it’s barely six months since they sealed the League Two title with victory at Valley Parade. Currently 4th in League One, they are nicely set up to achieve Julian Rhodes’ ambition for City of back-to-back promotions.

And that’s where the real happiness could be gained, even if City make it a hat trick of first round cup exits this season. They are not there yet, but we hope this City side can be as good as last year’s MK Dons and follow their path towards the Championship. That doesn’t mean we’ll be good enough to win, particularly with significant injuries, but we want to at least see our team compete with them.

There were many impressive facets to the MK Dons side which beat us at home April, right up there was their resilience. We travel South in the hope of an upset, but even if the best our patched-up side can achieve is to run the Dons close it would speak volumes of the character and strength of this squad. There’s no excuse for the players who’ll get a rare opportunity to show anything less than their all, but that should go for the remaining regulars too.

Too much ying for City’s yang

If there was one positive for us Bradford City fans to take as we exited Valley Parade at full time it was that it’s unlikely we’ll witness as wretched a second half performance from our team all season.

Going in at half time in a far from commanding 3-2 lead, the players appeared unsure whether to keep attacking or see out the game and failed to do either with any conviction. And although it’s questionable whether Albert Anomah’s 75th minute prodded equaliser crossed the line, there was no disputing how deserved it was – or how fortunate City were that the two points lost didn’t become three.

This was an afternoon in which much of what’s good about City this season was on display, but was undermined by much of what’s not good. Three times they took the lead in the first half and each time it was well taken. First Barry Conlon nodded the Bantams ahead after 10 minutes following a fine team move out of defence which resulted in Peter Thorne’s clever lay off been crossed into the box by TJ Moncur. Paul McLaren’s superb free kick delivery on the half hour was aching to be nodded home and Thorne did just that to put City back in front. Conlon then got his second – and sixth of the season – after finishing well from Moncur’s pass for 3-2. Recalled to the starting line up after his midweek heroics, the Irishman had an excellent afternoon and has now moved ahead of Michael Boulding in the goalscoring charts.

Yet in between those three goals were two soft ones at the other end to grimace about. Conlon’s opener was cancelled out after a woeful Moncur back pass sold Rhys Evans short, but even then the City goalkeeper should have made a better fist of clearing the ball instead of dallying and allowing John O’Flynn to roll the ball into the net. After Thorne’s header for 2-1, Anomah beat Luke O’Brien on the byeline and got a shot in which Evans did well to save, only for slow defending to allow Nicky Nicolau the space to slam the ball home. Conlon then struck again to re-establish a lead City’s first half efforts deserved.

A half which heavily featured attacking football from both sides. Manager Stuart McCall, without the suspended Omar Daley, moved Boulding out wide and brought in Conlon; but while Boulding had enjoyed an excellent game on the left wing at Grimsby eight days ago he was a huge disappointment. Whether he was unhappy to be switched or there’s some anxiety at playing in front of a large demanding crowd which is hindering, he failed to produce what was expected. Worse he was woeful at tracking back and helping out O’Brien; the latter too often left exposed against the threat of Anomah, who thankfully couldn’t cross as well as he could dribble.

Going forward Boulding was little better and, with Nicky Law playing in fits and starts, City played without the wide threat which has helped them to stretch and win games this season. Stuart must have recognised this and no one would have blamed him had he brought Kyle Nix or Leon Osborne on at half time, but instead he persisted with a line up which wasn’t functioning properly.

Barnet came out strong in the second half and their threat never went away. With pace on the flanks and a midfield not afraid to put a boot in, it became more and more one-way traffic as City struggled to keep them at bay. Rare home attacks carried a threat – Law and Conlon both going close – but the visitors enjoyed far more of the ball and posed too many questions of a fragile backline.

And herein lies the problem with City at the moment. There’s no doubting the attacking quality within the ranks, shown here despite the absence of key players, but when they do go in front there is some uncertainty over what to do next. Once again we see too many long balls launched in the hope the strikers can hold the ball up, but the offside flag or strong, and sometimes questionable, Barnet challenges limited this effectiveness. Stuart seems to want City to pass the ball about from the back and this often works well, but when the nerves are prevalent or the lead is slender ‘hit and hope’ seems to be favoured. To Barnet’s credit they must have noted this and sought to apply pressure on City from high up the pitch.

In such situations it’s as if City have one less player in midfield and the ability to slow the game down, keep passing the ball around and take the sting out of Barnet’s attacking momentum seems to be beyond the players. They will often work really hard to win the ball back, only to lose it cheaply seconds later. It meant the defence was overworked and the equaliser seemed inevitable.

The sight of Dean Furman having to limp off the field was distressing, given he was the only member of City’s midfield successfully doing the right things. His injury might have meant Stuart decided to keep Boulding on when his ineffectiveness should have been rewarded with an early exit from play, but three minutes later City were kicking off again and seemingly lacking the belief and composure to get back in front.

The performance of the backline is clearly a huge concern. Graeme Lee has looked much more the player of early season during the last two games, but he needs to be more commanding of the troops around him. Tom Clarke is a decent player but struggled as the game went on and it was O’Brien’s toughest afternoon to date, not helped by that lack of support in front. Moncur considers himself a right back, but the doubts are still there. Much of the recent defensive shortcomings have been blamed on Matt Clarke, but I believe he hasn’t been as bad as others make out.

Not that City particularly missed him, but there is someone sat in the same dugout who it can be argued they are. David Wetherall was always going to be a tough act to follow after retiring last season, but it’s the way Stuart is now trying to get City to defend which is perhaps causing teething problems. Wetherall’s lack of pace meant City had to defend deeper and the back four are now trying to play a higher defensive line. This is working reasonably well – though defenders need to be more decisive in possession when opposition forwards are pressing them – but was seemingly abandoned in the second half due to the midfield’s lack of control. The pressure grew, but the more forward players didn’t drop further back with the defence and huge gaps emerged which Barnet were able to exploit.

After Barnet’s equaliser there only looked to be one winner as the impressive visitors continued to attack. At least the defence did well to prevent a late winner with some excellent headers and blocks, how frustrating for them it must be to see the ball come back towards them so quickly after.

The full time whistle was met with boos, but it’s questionable how this sort of reaction helps anyone. There still remains a lot to be positive about when assessing City’s chances this season and the problems afflicting it can be sorted in time. Some fans said that last season City would have lost the sort of game they won against Bury midweek, well that’s true about this game too.

An unexpected late Halloween horror show at the back to endure, but the ability to keep producing fireworks at the other end has left City in an excellent position in the league. Those shortcomings will need to be banished in order to stay there.

Stuart goes in without his wingers – Bradford City vs Barnet – League Two Preview

Stuart McCall never got to the by-line.

He never skinned a full back and he never cut inside.

Little legs and a low centre of gravity Stuart McCall would have been a rubbish winger but his City team is all about the men on the flanks.

Omar Daley’s random darts have confused enough defences this year to make him one of City’s most dangerous players and the route of lots of chances but while no one else can understand a word he says Referees can and have booked him enough to suspend him.

Joe Colbeck offers something different but still important for City beating men with accurate crosses but injury at Grimsby has him sidelined and Stuart is left looking for new wingers.

Nicky Law did a reasonable job on Tuesday night but did not give the supply line that Colbeck or Daley does and Kyle Nix might be able to do what Joe does but movie left but only on a good day and the Rothstrailian hasn’t had one of those in a while.

So options like Leon Osbourn and Billy Topp in a wide role are getting talked about. Expect one to sit on the bench but Nix and Law to be the guys next to Paul McLaren and the brilliant Dean Furman.

Similarly up front Barry’s heroic header on Tuesday will bring him a place on the bench behind Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding.

At the back Matt Clarke is back and could replace Tom Clarke which would be harsh on the loan player from Udders who did well alongside Graeme Hammer Boot Lee. Tom Moncur and Luke O’Brien are full backs with Rhys Evans in net.

Barnet are without Jason Puncheon since last year after if wowed then transferred but they do have Luke Medley now which says a lot about where the club seems to be going.

They messed about in the top half of the table for a bit but are bottom half now. Expect a battle but one City can win if the squad can keep in mind the fact that the flying wingers are not replicated.

Not so much Plan B as Style B.

Where the pieces fall

The ball would not drop.

It held in mid-air like the frost had clung to Bradford’s trees this first Winter morning and took time to come down to the crisp grass of Valley Parade.

Later it would fall to Barry Conlon – of course to Barry Conlon – who would stand straight and head past Wayne Brown.  Allowing Conlon to head past him was the only one thing the man in the Bury goal did wrong all evening but a half hour before that moment it would be Michael Boulding trying to take down a looped cross from Peter Thorne and – when on his own in the middle of the penalty area – control and convert the chance.

The chance had come when Brown had sprinted back to his line to scoop away a back pass by David Buchanan which had seemed to be going into the visitors goal. Boulding’s pressure had forced the error but that would be no consolation as the ball steadfastly refused to sit up to be struck hanging in the air from Thorne’s cross.

Wins, promotions are made of such things.

This phrase seems to be commonly uttered at Valley Parade of late as the Bantams slump – the dire Bantams of Darlington eight days ago – nestle in to second place in the table with 14 games gone. If promotions are made of late goals and of the late goals that Conlon seems to have more of a hand in then they are also made of characterful performances where the Bantams ground out that rarest of things – a home win against an opposition who would have been happy with a point.

Happy and deserved. Bury were a desent side who came to Valley Parade with a game plan to anchor the midfield and hit on the break.  After a half where City edged the game once the mismash of players had started to build an understanding of each other the Bantams began to convert possession into chances.

Nicky Law Jnr came in on the right wing for the injured Joe Colbeck and offered little going forward but his attitude and approach was typical of a City performance which ensured that despite some interesting probing by The Shakers the defensive line remained solid and from that came the win.

Bit by bit in a first half City took more and more control of possession in the game. Tom Clarke – in for Matt Clarke – looked to have a head beyond his years and put not a foot wrong. As the game wore on into the second half Luke O’Brien would become more and more important as a distribution outlet and as a capable defender. His current form would keep Paul Heckingbottom out of the side.

From Boulding’s chance onwards City mounted attack on attack save sporadic meanders forward by the visitors with Dean Furman’s deep role allowing him to control the passage of possession and Paul McLaren probing forward. Law’s right wing role did not offer the outlet of Colbeck and City struggled to breakdown Bury but with the lion’s share of the ball the game was the Bantams to win.

A free kick for an arm in Furman’s face dummied by McLaren and struck with hitherto unpredicted venom by Graeme Lee and the ball pinged up into the air looping down to the waiting head of Conlon who after scoring joined the rest of Valley Parade in expecting referee Mr Friend to be anything but but tellingly as his central defenders were booked for complaining Wayne Brown said nothing.

The goalkeeper twice watching how the pieces fell in front of him. Two similar situations, two different outcomes.

Colbeck’s injury could keep him out for months, Daley is suspended for Saturday and Peter Thorne took a whack and could join Mark Bower, Lee Bullock and Chris Brandon on the sidelines. Like all managers Stuart McCall’s test is to make the best of the pieces that fall to him and second after fourteen games he would seem to be making a good fist of that.

That’s character

It wasn’t a night where the attacking swagger of football which characterised Bradford City’s excellent start to the season fully returned, but nevertheless manager Stuart McCall will have been delighted with those answers his players did provide to the questions raised of them.

In the wake of Monday’s disappointing defeat at Darlington, Stuart had stated he needed big characters to reverse a season in danger of slipping away and, after Matt Clarke’s controversial early sending off, the remaining players had 78 minutes to prove how much resilience they had. Whether the feeling of injustice helped spirit or it was a strong determination not to let things slip again, they responded by scoring a further two goals and then put in an excellent defensive shift which partially answers increasing accusations they aren’t good enough at the back to last the distance.

After the match Stuart admitted the referee had no choice to send Clarke off, though he did not have the benefit of such a good view of the incident as the 803 travelling City fans behind the goal. Grimsby’s Nathan Jarman had charged through only for the former Darlington defender to produce a risky, but clean, tackle to stop his route to goal. As both players laid on the ground referee Graham Salisbury consulted with his assistant before producing the red card and awarding a free kick.

It means that, in each of Sailsbury’s last three occasions he has officiated a City game, a red card for a player in claret and amber has been produced. The other two – Jermaine Johnson at home to Yeovil in January 2007 and Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu in last season’s FA Cup win against Chester – were also questionable decisions and one is left to wonder how credible the term ‘coincidence’ can be to the decisions Sailsbury has made against City. Though given Clarke’s challenge had been inside the box, the home side will also feel aggrieved they were not awarded a penalty.

The red card punctured City’s excellent start to the game. Having taken the lead after six minutes when Omar Daley latched onto a weak headed clearance, beat the full back and charged across the penalty area before unleashing a fierce drive into the top corner, a convincing away victory looked probable. Graeme Lee caused panic in the area soon after and the home defence struggled to clear their lines following another corner. Paul McLaren and Dean Furman looked busy in the centre and Daley was a constant menace.

The sending off saw that particular threat deactivated as Stuart sacrificed the Jamaican for the on-loan Tom Clarke to make his debut at right back, with TJ Moncur moved across to the centre where he looks more comfortable. Both were kept busy as Grimsby sought to take advantage of the extra man, though the chances they did create were often wasted by poor shooting.

To City’s credit they did not sit back either and tightened their grip with a second goal on the half hour. McLaren set Colbeck away on the right and his burst towards goal was blocked on the edge of the area. Ex-Mariner Michael Boulding was following up and unleashed a superb low drive which flew into the bottom corner. It was Boulding’s fifth strike of the season and, the impressive manner he’s been tucking away chances when presented to him only adds to the frustration at the lack of service he’s been getting in previous games. City are still working out how to get the best of a player who scored 25 goals for a relegated club last season.

Unsurprisingly Grimsby exerted strong pressure at the start of the second half in an effort to get back into the game and Rhys Evans made two excellent saves, but it was heartening to see how many balls into the box were cleared by a City head. The Bantams more obvious quality going forward was soon rewarded again when a rare corner was met by Lee’s diving header at the far post. Had he and his colleagues been marking so badly at the other end a home win may have resulted, but captain Lee’s exuberant celebrations for his first City goal were much deserved during an evening that he led his team so well. Special mention should also go to the corner taker McLaren; he’s received a lot of criticism recently but his last few performances have shown improvement. Think back to some of City’s goals in recent weeks and consider how many have featured City’s number 4 in the build up.

With the game seemingly over Grimsby suddenly pulled a goal back through Liam Trotter’s header to set up a final 25 minutes of pressure, but it would be the only blemish on City’s defence all night. Evans hasn’t fully convinced in goal since joining during the summer, but had an excellent game with the confident manner he deals with high balls into the box something which can only spread through the rest of the team. It was also heartening to see Luke O’Brien stand up to such a big test and, with each recent game, he is blossoming.

The final whistle was met with some ugly scenes in the home end as some Grimsby fans tried to charge onto the pitch, with Mike Newell recently put in charge it was presumably the players who were the target of their anger. It’s 20 games since they last won; but while that might lessen the impressiveness of this result for City, how victory was earned and the recent dismal record when facing teams on such poor runs means the 10-men deserve plenty of credit.

It wasn’t a game won through the attacking ability the team processes – it was shown on occasions, but it’s nothing we didn’t know before – but the way in which the players, particularly at the back, stood up and showed a robustness which has been lacking. Promotion is not ultimately won during games against struggling teams, but it can easily be lost.

So it’s back to Valley Parade for games against Bury and Barnet and the target must be six points to continue the recovery. Expectations will be allowed to creep up again and, with the Shakers having enjoyed an excellent start themselves, the Valley Parade support needs to be rediscover its own early season form on Tuesday and offer the sort of backing which so impressively helped the team at Blundell Park.

Matt Clarke will be suspended, as too will Omar Daley after picking up a fifth booking of the season. Joe Colbeck is also a doubt after been stretchered off with ten minutes to go. It all adds up to a few headaches for Stuart, though after Friday’s win he can be confident his team has the character to still deliver.

McCall goes back to, and loses sight of, basics

Having apologised in public for underestimating the quality of City’s display last week Stuart McCall had clearly had a word in one of two ears before the Bantams started the battle for nine points in a week.

For forty-five minutes the Bantams did simple things impressively and should have been taking the first three of those nine points on the road. City faced Gillingham on Saturday, go to Darlington on Monday, and Grimsby on Friday and the Bantams are very much within – as opposed to ahead – of the pack leading League Two.

It was noticeable how the Bantams defensive line smashed the ball out of play when under pressure. how often Dean Furman and Paul McLaren got on the ball in midfield, how Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley moved wide when needed and came back when not. The simple things that when done well result in results.

So they would have over Gillingham had they been maintained for the full game. The Bantams battled with a Gills side who deserve a huge mention for playing an open game rather than trying to kill off the game when they arrived at VP and who would get their rewards. Those rewards looked distant when a free kick from Paul McLaren was headed towards goal by Furman – who had his best game for City thus far – and after a save and a scramble was smashed in by Peter Thorne for his tenth of the season.

All of which was City edging ahead rather than dominating but was a good return for the opening and deflated the visitors. That deflation saw Joe Colbeck batter in an impressive slip inside by McLaren from inside the box as McCall switched his wingers to allow the tired Daley to charge at the booked Barry Fuller but in that combination the problems that City would have in the second half – and had all day – were shown.

Colbeck and Daley are a quality pair of wide players and good enough for any team in this league but they are only best value when they are supported by full backs and today they were often left disconnected, flailing ahead without the back up a winger needs.

TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien were those full backs with Paul Arnison and Paul Heckingbottom on the bench and while O’Brien did not do much wrong at the back he offered little coming forward. Moncur – who replaced Paul Arnison in the side five games ago when the number two was injured in the Bournemouth game – was troubled while defending and failed to connect with Colbeck coming forward with unpredictable results.

From a statistical point of view since Arnison was injured five matches ago City have shipped ten goals and scored eight. Watch the team one sees Colbeck taking up good positions and being ignored by Moncur most of the time and the full back lashing in ineffective crosses. Arnison was criticised by some supporters but his crossing was better and he provided options for Colbeck which Moncur does not and after the defence got back to basics so – one hopes – will McCall.

Only once was Daley able to push the ball back to Luke O’Brien for support in attacking positions. In wins like Exeter The Full Pauls were a major part in making sure that Thorne and Michael Boulding had supply to score and that Daley and Colbeck had players to team up with that they could rely on to be predictable and constant.

As it is Thorne and Boulding feasted on scraps today and the game should have been beyond Gillingham’s reach but Simeon Jackson pulled one back for the Gills after getting beyond the pairing of Matthew Clarke and Graeme Lee following head tennis and high feet and smashing home. Jackson’s pace troubled City all day but in the second half the Bantams put as much into their defeat a the visitors did.

The simple things that were done in the first half faded. Defenders began to try to put foot on ball rather than clearing, pinging the ball over the midfield and into the arms of a referee and linesman who flagged for offside incorrectly three or four times as the ball was pumped up to Thorne and Boulding. City looked alive and dangerous when the ball was brought through wide but neutered by the linesman’s flag and the defending of the men from Kent when whacked long. City stopped doing the shorter passing, the easy play, that had served so well now and previously.

So too often the Bantams wasted the ball and turned over when in dangerous positions for the want of application falling too easily into the trap of believing the besting the offside flag was the only way to score. When Peter Thorne was substituted with ten minutes left he arched his back in agony knowing the game was not won. He was right.

Despite Mark Bentley’s deserved dismissal for a two footed challenge on Paul McLaren too many City players seemed too ready to so the most obvious – rather than the most simple – thing and point to the man in the middle as wronging them.

So when Jackson burst through and scored an equaliser the Bantams seemed a long way from the team that had done the simple things well in the first half and the team that could roar into games earlier in the season. Five minutes if injury time saw the Bantams find that roar with Colbeck hitting a shot to the top corner that was excellently palmed away, Graeme Lee smashing a header from teh resulting corner against the bar and Willy Topp hooking the ball over his shoulder and the bar as City went close to a winner.

However in simple terms the Bantams allowed two points to slip away today in the way that Accrington did last week and did so when losing sight of the basics which they had done so well.

Darlington on Monday and everyone – players and management – should be looking at the things that work most often most of the time.

The end of the curse of October

At twenty five to five this report was going to be very different. At twenty five to five the report was going to centre around Bradford City and the October curse but at quarter to five Peter Thorne completed an amazing come back and the report had been turned on its head.

Our record in October over recent seasons has not been good last year we played 5, lost 3 and drew two. The year before played 4, lost 3, drew 1. Going into the last ten minutes today with confidence obviously low it looked as though this year would read played 2, lost 1, drawn 1. However thanks to an inspired performance from the player, who was the focus of what is becoming known as ‘boogate’, defeat was avoided and Bradford are sitting pretty in the automatic promotion spots.

Bradford set up like they do for all home games in a 442, Nix predictably came in for Omar Daley who was on duty with Jamaica, Luke O’Brien replaced the suspended Paul Heckingbottom, and TJ Moncur returned to the side in place of Ainge despite him doing a more than capable job against Luton. For much of the first half Bradford dominated possession without creating much but were more than comfortable with an Accrington side who didn’t look in any danger of breaking the deadlock. The Bradford fans locked out of the ground despite having tickets weren’t missing much of a spectacle.

On the same day that Lampard and Gerrard were being reunited for England and consequently sparking the usual debate of whether they can play together, Bradford seemed to be suffering from the same problem with their two talented central midfielders, MacLaren and Furman. Where as Lampard and Gerrard both like to push on and get up with the strikers leaving a hole behind them in front of the defence, MacLaren and Thurman both like to lie deep in the midfield leaving a gap just behind the strikers. Consequently any ball knocked down from Bradford’s front two was not contested and simply picked up by the Accrington players, who would soon easily give possession back to Bradford. It seemed as though this pattern would continue until changes were made.

Then 20 minutes into the game Accrington won a corner and a few nerves seemed to enter the Bradford players as they shakily defended the corner and eventually scrambled it out for a second corner. Again the corner wasn’t dealt with in the most sure manner and as the ball went out for a third corner an air of tension seemed to be gripping the strong Bradford following. The third corner saw Bradford punished by a move they themselves have used to good effect as the corner got sprayed to the edge of the box which was dummied by one and placed into the bottom corner past Rhys Evans by the onrushing James Ryan. Out of nowhere Bradford found themselves a goal down having once again been punished for the slack marking which has been evident over recent weeks.

Fortunately this seemed to spark life into the men wearing claret and amber and the tempo of the game picked up as they began to turn the screw. Minutes later Nix brilliantly switched the ball from left to right in a well worked move that found its way to Thorne on the edge of the box but City’s red hot striker just pulled the ball wide of the post with the chance that nine times out of ten he would have nestled in the bottom corner.

It was the Bradford youngsters who seemed to be stepping up to the plate, Furman was battling away and still keeping composure with the ball at his feet, while Luke O’Brien was bombing on from full back to give Nix the over lap and create the extra attacking threat. This threat was probably more effective due to absence of Daley purely because any full back would struggle to catch the Bradford speed merchant never mind overlap him.

City continued to look for the equaliser as the first half wore on and were extremely unfortunate to have a goal ruled out for offside just after the half hour mark. A lovely weighted free kick found its way to Graeme Lee and Lee cleverly nodded the ball down to Thorne who did find the net on this occasion only to see the linesman flagging. Somehow he had seen Lee to be offside when the free kick was taken.

As the half wore on frustrations began to show and Colbeck was booked for dissent by the referee, Mr. Jones, who was handling the game very well. It was the referee giving another free kick Bradford’s way that led to the best and final chance of the first half. A Colbeck free kick caught a deflection off the wall onto the bar and the rebound fell to Michael Boulding with an open goal gaping. However, the ball bounced away from the player who couldn’t get his head far enough around the ball to direct it into the net.

The mood at half time was neither upbeat nor low, although some were annoyed the Accrington catering staff were unable to cope with the big crowd and although it has been denied that Windass will return rumours may reappear because someone had eaten all the pies! After the break the players returned to positive reception as the crowd certainly didn’t think this game was beyond Bradford yet.

Unfortunately this mood lasted no more than 5 minutes as Terry Gornell playing in only his third game on loan from Tranmere slipped all too easily in between Bradfords two centre halves and an exquisitely played through ball found him one on one with Evans and the youngster slipped the ball between the former Chelsea keepers legs. Now Bradford found themselves with a mountain to climb.

The goal seemed to zap the confidence from the players and the effort seemed to have gone too. I was soon worrying about what I would be able to put in this report as for the next half hour nothing appeared to happen. Gornell still worried the City defence with his movement but Bradford could no longer seem to put anything together themselves. Numerous times Rhys Evans rolled the ball to the disappointing TJ Moncur who proceeded to just lump the ball back to Accrington side. This seemed to happen with almost every possession Bradford had and made the exclusion of Ainge seem even more unfair.

After the game McCall would say in an interview about how he worried about the lack of leadership on the field and this was certainly evident as the 11 players went completely quiet with no communication apparent. With around 20 minutes left McCall resorted to his much criticised ‘plan b’. Barry Conlon had warmed up and stripped off and everyone waited to see what reaction the travelling Bradford contingent would give the big striker. I admit that I have been one of Barry’s biggest critics in the time he’s been with the club but would never go to the extent of booing him. I have never seen what he offers and have even labelled him lazy despite the majority appearing to think he gives 110%. I have often thought he doesn’t compete for headers and falls over to easy for a big lad.

My disappointment was further enhanced by the fact the player he was replacing, Kyle Nix, is a player who’s cause I have championed on many occasions and a player I feel always likely to get a goal when played down the middle. To be fair Nix had not had his best game off he came with Boulding taking his place out wide. The 442 was retained but the wingers were pushed further forward as Stuart tried to find a way back into the game.

For his first ten minutes on the field of this game Barry did nothing to change my negative view of him, that however was soon to change. With ten minutes to go and Bradford looking like making it 1 point from 12 another long punt was launched up the field. A punt which before would of been won by the Accrington defence was brought down by ‘Big Baz’ and neatly laid off into Boulding’s path who struck it first time into the underside of the bar and down into the net. Suddenly Bradford felt they may get a point after all and no more so than Barry who was all over the place. Winning the ball in his own half and spraying perfectly into the channels, winning balls in the opponents half and knocking it to players wearing claret and amber. Something the rest of the side had struggled with for much of the second half.

Two minutes from the end Conlon found the ball coming his direction inside the box and for once his leap saw him rise above everyone else and he directed a header into the back of the net. For the second game in a row he had come off the bench to score and if he wants to stop the boo boys then he can do no more than find the net regularly.

Accrington were on the rocks and Bradford were now wanting blood. Less than 60 seconds from the restart they worked their way into the Accrington half and Bradford fans had barely had time to catch their breath before the ball was slid into prolific Peter Thorne’s path and there was no doubt about where the ball would finish. Thorne thumped the ball home to complete an amazing Bradford comeback that had been unthinkable just ten minutes before. The relief and joy was evident in the stands as the fans went wild and some idiots even charged onto the pitch, hopefully no repercussions will follow for the club from these actions.

The shocked Accrington players threw men forward in vain even keeper Kenny Arthur appearing in the Bradford box for a late corner but City hung on and the three points ended up somehow crossing the border from Lancashire to see Bradford climb back into the 3 automatic promotion places. However the result certainly did not tell the whole story and it was obvious from Stuart’s face at the final whistle that he was less than impressed with the overall display. Still it is about time the gloom merchants at Bradford began to look on the bright side and we go into the Gillingham game only a win away from top spot and the curse of October ended.

Beating failure – Bradford City vs Luton Town – League Two preview

Come 5pm Saturday Bradford City’s promotion hopes will have either been strengthened or weakened – but one thing they certainly won’t be is over.

Two successive defeats is disappointing and three would be considered “unacceptable”, but with City’s home vulnerability resurfacing that is entirely possible as would-be-11th-but-for-crazy-points-deduction Luton come to town. After a week in which talk of failure has emanated from some quarters – preceding any actual failure itself – it’s worth reflecting on what it would look like. A home defeat would probably push City out of the play off positions; but, at worst, City would be six points behind the leaders, with 37 games to go.

It’s said by some that the fear of failure led to Stuart McCall playing 4-5-1 at Shrewsbury last weekend and, largely ignoring three key injuries and an appalling referee display, the City manager’s perceived negativity has resulted in some of the strongest criticism towards him yet. Whether or not the system worked in the way he intended; Stuart will obviously be moving back to 4-4-2 for this one.

Top scorer Peter Thorne, who’s absence in defeat has further highlighted his importance, is expected to be fit enough to lead the attack alongside Michael Boulding. Barry Conlon will be back on the bench having been made scapegoat by some for last week’s failings. Some of the criticism is unjustified but it’s hard to argue that the Irishman has done enough, when given the opportunity, to warrant a contact beyond January and it’s up to him to prove his worth. Willy Topp, fresh from a wonder goal in the reserves and closer to fitness, is also likely to be among the subs.

Lee Bullock’s injury will allow the promising Dean Furman to keep his place and Stuart may look for him to share more of the defensive responsibilities with partner Paul McLaren than Bullock has been. Former Hatter McLaren joined City in the summer having topped the League One assist chart the previous season, but the more withdrawn role he’s playing has lessened his impact going forward. Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley will be patrolling out wide, with some disappointment this week that they won’t be pushed as hard to keep up their excellent form as they might.

At the back Paul Heckingbottom, Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke will be looking to rediscover their early season swagger and, unless Paul Arnison makes a miraculous recovery, Simon Ainge will get a chance at right back. The 20-year-old made his City debut two years ago but has had few opportunities to push on, his last one ending in failure. Stuart’s decision to give youth a chance instead of making yet another loan signing is applauded on this site and Ainge will aim to make it a quiet afternoon for keeper Rhys Evans.

For Luton, former Bantam Lewis Emmanuel makes a second return to Valley Parade since leaving two years ago. Briefly it seemed he’d gone onto better things in the Championship but, despite having trials at Birmingham and Southend during the summer, Lewis has fallen with the troubled Hatters and could feasibly be playing non-league football next year. It’s to be hoped Don Hutchinson won’t carry the influence his fellow ex-Premiership star Darren Anderton managed two weeks ago, while ex-Chelsea striker Sam Parkin will need to be watched.

Yet the biggest threat of failure will arguably come not from the visitors, but in the stands. Considering we were topping the division two weeks ago, the criticisms levelled at City by many supporters this week have been unnecessarily high. Conversations before this match are likely to contain the phrase “we’d better win today” and, judging on past form, the chances of supporters getting behind the team if they don’t start well are highly slim.

A delve into City’s recent history adds further reason to fear such failure. During the past two seasons, promotion hopes looked credible going into the middle of September – and were all but extinguished when October was over. It’s easy to pin point the respective defeats to Huddersfield and Hereford as the moment things went wrong, but defeats are always going to happen and it was the later ones at home to Brighton and Accrington which really tipped the balance towards another season of failure. During both these games the crowd quickly turned on the team and worked against it – and a similar reaction if things aren’t initially going to plan on Saturday could prove similarly damaging.

Earlier this week one fan wrote they were sick of hearing the management and chairmen falsely building up our promotion hopes each summer, as though pre-season optimism has nothing to do with us supporters. Well promotion this season is my dream, promotion this season is your dream, promotion this season is Stuart McCall’s dream, promotion this season is Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn’s dream, promotion this season is even Barry Conlon’s dream.

If we all channel our efforts in the same direction, accepting we succeed and fail together, the chances of us all achieving those ambitions will surely be greater. So, should City fall behind on Saturday, how are you going to react?

How would players react to injury in an ideal world?

Without wanting to do something as dull as look at the rules of the game of football after the controversial goal that set Shrewsbury on the way to the 2-0 win over City Law 5: The Referee in the section Injured Players the first two laws are:

  • Play is allowed to continue until the ball is out of play if a player is, in the opinion of the referee, only slightly injured.
  • Play is stopped if, in the opinion of the referee, a player is seriously injured.

As Bradford City fans have seen Mr Singh deal with five head injuries in two games, yesterday and three years ago when he allowed Oldham to score against the Bantams while Steven Schumacher was injured.

Mr Singh once stopped the game for Grant Holt and Kevin Mcintyre and neither were injured meaning that his assumption that – under the rules above – at least one was seriously injured. He did not stop it for Schumacher and should have as the player needed treatment and was seriously injured – he missed games after – nor did he stop it for for Lee and Moncur when one of them needed to be replaced and collapsed again on his way off the field. All of which suggests that his judgement of the seriousness of an injury is not to be trusted not least of which by himself.

The idea that it is probably better to be safe than sorry when dealing with head injuries perhaps Mr Singh should blow his whistle and risk stopping the game for no reason rather than “letting the game flow” while a player is injured when he is incapable of judging the seriousness of that injury.

Of course last week we talked about if players can be trusted to do the right thing. What can you say about the Oldham players who scored while Schumacher was down or Grant Holt and Ben Davies who tried to score while Lee and Moncur was down?

Certainly if I were a professional footballer I’d probably not want either on my team and would probably be careful around them in training.

As a supporter I have a fairly low opinion of both. I’m often calling for footballers to be given more trust and to be treated as adults but incidents like this where players continue not in spite of but because a team has men down thus increasing the chances of scoring.

Given the choice I’d rather footballers thought like Miguel Llera who gave away a penalty yesterday handling the ball because his goalkeeper was hurt rather than looked at injuries as an opportunity for goals but more so I’d rather Referees and players considered scoring when players were down was inherently worth less and – for want of a better phrase – “was just not cricket.”

I’d rather that after ten minutes watching TJ Moncur needing treatment Shrewsbury whacked the ball into their own net and said to us “See that, 1-1 – We can beat Bradford City without favours.” I’m an idealist and that is an ideal.

Perhaps it is the stunning lack of empathy of a Ben Davies when he seems two guys pole-axed and rather than thinking “I hope these guys are ok cause if that had happened to me I would want someone to give me treatment as soon as possible” one assumes he thought “Wow, a massive gap in the defence has been caused by those two guys laying about there, I can use that to get a goal” or perhaps it is the idea that winning in such circumstances is more hollow but incidents like this sour football because they bring home some ugly facts about the game:

That referees are barely capable of understanding the issues in the game and that players – certainly more than those at Oldham and Shrewsbury – are more concerned with goals than safety.

Winning at dominoes

Brian Clough once said that despite the crap talked by people who didn’t know how to win a game of dominoes, it was players who lost football matches. Kevin Keegan – for his messianic effect – said there was little he could do once the players have gone over the white line.

Both Clough and Keegan made good on what, at the time, seemed limited resources by the application of effort. Both played for England. When Joe Colbeck – one of City’s brighter players today – was 12 the Bournemouth number 8 was smashing in a goal to put England on the way to a 2-0 win over Colombia. Anderton got the first and the second was scored by David Beckham who usurped the oft injured Anderton for country. Beckham went one way and Anderton’s career took him to this sunny afternoon at Valley Parade with a team relegated and relegation prospects because of financial problems.

City’s support today was in good voice and backed the team fully but today the Bantams’ players lost the game. Collectively the level of effort was not high enough to win this game.

City started slowly, facing a visiting side who dropped Anderton into a shielding role in front of the back four and played with only Jeff Goulding up front. The Bantams’ midfield stood off Anderton and the always excellent Sammy Igoe all afternoon allowing the pair to pick out runners and use pace to break. Danny Hollands got the first goal of the afternoon doing just that.

Which is not to say that the Bantams played bad football – some of the passing moves were impressive and edged on opening up the visitors with Paul McLaren picking up the runs of Michael Boulding – but edging is not opening and the commitment that was seen in last week’s second half was lacking.

Nevertheless a second half riposte seemed to be on the cards when Anderton missed a pass and then was not strong enough to keep Colbeck away allowing the young City winger to power through and fire home.

The second half saw more of the same 90% football that the first had and while the likes of Colbeck, Daley and Boulding motored the bit extra – that commitment that sees a player take full responibility rather than waiting for others to create – never materialised.  Paul Arnison – who limped off in the first half – was missed on the right when Colbeck came inside hunting for the ball and everything seemed out of sorts with McLaren and Graeme Lee both being replaced during second half which were lost when Goulding all too easily converted Hollands’ cross which came from another swift counter-attack.

Jason Pearce added a third from a corner at the end and the visitors enjoyed a comprehensive away win with City’s reply being a Boulding shot that pinged off the bar and not a massive effort save Barry Conlon’s second half cameo which saw him put not one foot wrong.

Which is not to say that the players were bathed in shame or are to be jeered until one’s throat is sore, just that every football match has to be won no matter who the opposition is and today they did not do enough to win this game. Manager speak for this is “they let themselves down”.

Perhaps they did or perhaps they were just bested. Jimmy Quinn sent his side out with a plan for sure but they also had hearts full and Anderton typified that spirit. God knows why he is playing – he surely does not have to financially nor can one imagine the blast from the middle of League One to the foot of League Two were part of his plan but he seemed to simply enjoyed passing the ball, making himself available and generally playing a good game of footie. The enjoyment, the zest, the desire to play well was lacking for the Bantams. Too many City players today thought the game was won in the dressing room and so it was lost on the field.

Little more to say then save talk of another Referee Mr David Webb who used two rule books – one in which Omar Daley is booked for diving but Lee Bradbury is not and Paul McLaren gets a yellow for a clumsy tackle but Anderton escapes a warning – and a hope that next week’s trip to Shrewsbury who could knock the Bantams out of the top three tomorrow afternoon sees more application.

Football at the speed of thought

Remember when Michael Boulding was a bit dodgy, a bit of bother who wanted to sign but only if we would take his brother?

Remember when Darren Moore snubbed us for what looks like one season of Championship football and we had to ‘make do’ with Graeme Lee?

Remember when Omar Lazy used to get groaned at every five minutes?

Remember when City used to lose at home?

These ideas and loads like them have changed at City so quickly that the club seems to have altered itself over night. Going top of the league seemed a long way away after Huddersfield but we are and suddenly Stuart has a whole new set of problems.

How are we gonna get rid of Daley has become who will come in for him at Christmas? Boulding is starring and the summer is long forgotten. The City who no one ever thought much of are now expected to win every week. Hell even the full backs can go 90 minutes without being jeered.

After eight years of falling how quickly it has all turned around. How ready we are to have some feel good factor. Sure this is a good month and not a good season but the quickness of the people with brains to condemn the morons who booed on Saturday suggests that the City fan has a bit of belief and wants to enjoy his football again.

All this the result of two good months? Probably not.

Hard work on and off the field by Julian Rhodes first to keep the club and Mark Lawn to build it. By Stuart McCall and Wayne Jacobs and by a group of players prepared to put in hard work. Barry Conlon I’m talking about here, showing everyone that giving your all is the minimum.

So to us City fans. Away from home everyone is a Barry shouting and cheering but at home we have some of last season’s Omars needing to turn their performances round and believe in the team a bit more.

The good news is that we can do that turnaround at the speed of thought.

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.

The game we won and lost

This game has convinced me that City are going to get promoted.

Cause I was not sure before and I’d seen the Huddersfield game and I’d worried that against Rochdale we had looked a bit shaky and against Notts County we seemed to wobble but today losing to Aldershot convinced me we were going up.

Cause we had character.  We showed character.  We would not have even made a game of this in the last decade since we went out of the Premiership.  This game would have been like all those get a goal, get thrashed that we have done.  It would have been like Leicester City in 2001 but done at a lower level.

But it was not.

We took the lead when Joe Colbeck dummied a Paul Heckingbottom corner for Paul McLaren to score and that was the difference in a first half of cut and thrust that saw both teams look decent.  Lee Bullock should have added a second but the girlie named Nikki Bull saved his close ranger but those two efforts were City’s only proper danger and I thought about the Rochdale fans moaning that they had more chances than us last week.

But the Shots managed what Rochdale didn’t.  The lashed the ball at Rhys Evans goal and while the Stags staggered around trying to make the perfect chance this home side just needed the perfect hit which they got through Ben Harding who equalised with a twenty yard shot.

That when when City could have lost the game and would have done in the past but didn’t.  Joe Colbeck led the charge back and got mercilessly hacked in the box for a penalty which Peter Thorne saw saved.

It was one of those reality checks.  Not the getting thumped at home by Wigan rather than going top of the Premiership but still pretty bad.  Peter Thorne can miss? Really?

Thorne did it again but by then things had got worse and City had seen Marvin Morgan stick the ball in from close range.  This was a disappointment.  Two minutes after the penalty miss and heads were down.  Head picked up again though and quickly.  The goal came when Aldershot got to the by-line and pulled it back.  I hate goals like that and have a worry about Rhys Evans’s ability to command his penalty area.

Anyway Thorney should have scored.  He got through and Nikki Bull swept the ball off his feet and for a minute he looked like a play who didn’t score with every touch but in truth and on another day we could have been 3-1 in this game then it struck me.  On many other days we will be 3-1 in the game.

We created a bag full of chances but did not put enough of them away and they created some chances and they did well with them but a couple of times they were thanks to the kind of luck of the draw long rangers that sometime do for you but don’t work that often in League Two.  Graeme Lee tried one and it almost worked but most of the time they don’t and don’t worry about losing to them.

Worry if you let in goals like the one Lee Bullock got to equalise.  A well worked move ended in a close ranger header.  Those are the goals that teams need to cut out at source and that you can defend against.  You stop the other team having the ball in dangerous positions and you stop them working with it and when they get frustrated and try something that works one time in a thousand you have done well.  That is what City did with and when Scott Davies whacked the ball back after a good bit of defending then they got the win.

But we got something else from the game.  We got a load of chances and we got the knowledge that had we converted more of them we would have ended up winning.  Four games down and we have three wins.  Stuart McCall will want three points from home games and one from away and that average would give us eight.  We have nine.

On to Port Vale with Leeds in the cup in the week.  Vale fancy their chances but if we play like this we will carry on picking up the points on the way to promotion.

I’m certain of that.

Aldershot Town vs Bradford City – League Two 2008/2009 preview

Aldershot Town are on of those “When we were…” teams. They look at their current surroundings – back in League Two – and compare and contrast with City’s time in the Premiership. “When we were in the Vauxhall Square Third Division West this lot were in the Premiership.”

It is motivation and it is true. Teams like Aldershot and Morecambe have risen as we have fallen and to do so they have by in large been organised and managed correctly much as we were on our ascent to the top flight. They look at our high watermark and compare it to their low and it gives them spirit which we must overcome.

Aldershot’s return is welcomed. They are a club who suffered at the hands of disinterest and bad chairman but sorted themselves out and went the long route back to the League. The results thus far have been a win, a draw and a defeat at much fancied Shrewsbury and they are becoming known for a dogged resistance. They did have former Bantam Ben Starosta on loan but he has left the club. His name aside they are a squad of honest names many of whom have risen with the club.

Looking to rise with Bradford City is Dean Furman who signs on loan from Rangers but is not expected to start the game with Paul McLaren recovering from his dead leg to partner Lee Bullock in midfield. Expect Furman’s debut after an hour or so to bolster the often flagging midfield. Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley keep places on the flanks but as Chris Brandon returns to training Daley will feel the breath of a replacement on his neck.

The back five of goalkeeper Rhys Evans. Paul Arnison and Paul Heckingbottom as full backs and Matthew Clarke and Graeme Lee in the middle is immutable as is the strike two of Michael Boulding and five goal Peter Thorne although Barry Conlon’s five in one game in the reserves will see him sit on the bench with confidence.

Good teams, and the season so far suggests City are one, pick themselves.

Living up to the hype…

City’s highly impressive start to the league season continued as they maintained their 100% record to cast aside last season’s playoff finalists Rochdale.

This was the sort of clinical win that really gives us justified hope that City are real contenders this season.

Rochdale proved to be very sticky opponents. In fact they dominated much of the play in terms of possession and threatening attacks. But they critically lacked the killer instinct in front of goal, with £60,000 ex Halifax striker Jon Shaw really disappointing, and justifying Stuart’s unwillingness to part with any funds to secure his signature.

A quick glance at the statistics from the game shows that Rochdale had plenty of shots at goal, but failed to get even one of them on target.

Omar Daley had a good early chance as he took possession of the ball with plenty of space on the left hand side of the penalty area, cut inside to the centre, skipped past a defensive challenge, but blasted straight at Dale keeper Russell. But if truth be told, Rochdale had much the better of the early exchanges.

Their build up play was excellent attacking the Kop , and forced City into one or two hairy moments the back. Too often did Arnison allow crosses to come in from the left hand side and threateningly cross across goal. But Dale failed to deliver the goal that their possession and build up play probably deserved.

City edged in front on 20 when Daley released Peter Thorne on the right hand side of the box. The veteran striker then whipped in a perfectly executed pinpoint cross right onto the head of Micheal Boulding, who headed firmly down to celebrate his first Bradford goal.

Unperturbed by conceding, Rochdale continued to press for the following 15 minutes, but again lacked cutting edge. And they were stunned when Paul McClaren whipped in a brilliant free kick from the left that was nodded in perfectly at the back post by an unmarked Peter Thorne who doubled City’s advantage with a header from close range. The irrepressible Thorne has had a stunning start to the season and is already establishing himself as a legend among the City faithful.

There was still much work to do in the second half, and City did it extremely well defensively. Clarke and Lee grew in stature in the second half, and both Heckingbottom and Arnison carrying out their defensive duties admirably. Heckingbottom in particular had an excellent game – and nearly scored a collectors item goal with a brilliant run in the first half!

Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley didn’t have their most productive games offensively, but in the second half, both showed a desire and willingness to track back defensively to help out their full backs. Their effort did not go unnoticed.

Lee Bullock didn’t really get involved enough for my liking – he had very much an “Eddie Johnson type” game. McClaren seemed to stroll through the game in a pedestrian like fashion without really impressing (apart from the excellent free kick) before going off with a knock.

In a rare second half counter attack, Micheal Boulding raced clear with intent. With Conlon lurking at the back post, Boulding ignored the big Irishman and struck a brilliant low left foot shot that beat the keeper, hit the inside of the post, and rolled across the goal line out for a goal kick. Desperately unlucky was the impressive Boulding , who was always willing to run beyond the defensive back four and produced numerous excellent flicks for Thorne to feed on. Their newly formed striking partnership is looking extremely promising.

With time ticking on , McCall basically extinguished any chance of City scoring again by leaving Barry Conlon on his own up front. TJ Moncur came on as part of a five man midfield that was the kill the game off as a contest. Not even the player that outdid City twice last season – Adam Le Fondre, could change the course of the game. He was unlucky late on with a strike that bounced off the cross bar.

But in truth, on reflection over the 90 minutes, City were comfortable and had quite convincingly cast aside the much fancied Rochdale.

They say the makings of a successful team is how they react to defeat. That hellish rainy night at Legoland has not impacted our team and what we are setting out to do in the league. We have followed up that crushing defeat with 2 wins, 4 goals and 2 clean sheets. And even in the game against Huddersfield, we more than held our own for 60 minutes.

The way the team have battled back at Macclesfield, and now against a very good Rochdale team proves that we really are worthy of the League Two hype this year. We have been excellent in every department, and if we can keep that up consistently this season, there is no doubt we will end up as Champions. Inside of sulking about losing to our local rivals we have put on two excellent displays.

Can we keep it up? I think so. City are the real deal this time round and, given the evidence of our nearly fully fit team so far, you would be foolish to bet on them finishing outside the top three.

The important and exciting thing this season is that every position seems to be covered squad wise so that even if injuries become a factor, we have good players who can step in. If Thorne or Boulding are injured, Topp, Boulding (R) or Conlon (or maybe not?!) can step up. If Omar Daley is showing inconsistent form, Joe Colbeck can step in on the right. If Lee Bullock is out injured again, the hungry Luke Sharry wlll want to grab a first team opportunity with both hands. If Matt Clarke’s decision making is called into question at the back, Mark Bower will slot in bringing his experience at the club to the forefront.

These are the type of advantages and options that we have not had since 1999.

This is our season.

It has to be.

Bradford City vs Rochdale – League Two 2008/2009 preview

League Two has yet to take shape – unless you count the hope that the Bantams will stay at the top and the Alan Davies on QI way that some clubs hang at the bottom – but already City have made their intentions known by winning two on the trot. Rochdale – last year’s beaten play off finalists – offer a more stern test than Notts County and Macclesfield did.

Indeed Dale – who have spent longer in the 4th tier of English football than anyone – beat City twice 2-1 on the way to that Wembley final with the Valley Parade game ending Stuart McCall’s men’s slim playoff hopes.

Following Wembley Keith Hill’s men have spent money on Jon Shaw – who at one point interested City – and fancy themselves as promotion material and a comfy win over Barnet got those ambitions on track.

All of which recalls the glorious spirit of 1969 when Rochdale got promoted back to the third tier of English football having been placed in Division Four following the split in Divisions Three North. Dale were out of the bottom available league for five seasons before being relegated in 1974 – a season in which they won only twice. It is the club’s centenary year this term and they hope to celebrate with a second league promotion in one hundred years.

Dale have lost key man David Perkins since last season but retained the impressive Gary Jones and have a goalkeeper who the manager calls one of the finest passers in the football league.

The Bantams are expected to field the same starting eleven as beat Macclesfield last week with Rhys Evans in goal; Paul Arnison, Graeme Lee, Matthew Clarke and Paul Heckingbottom at the back.

Joe Colbeck starts his first home game of the season on the right after having a hand in both Peter Thorne’s goals last week. Paul McLaren and Lee Bullock are the middle and Omar Daley is expected to line up on the left wing in the continued absence of Chris Brandon who not only tweaked his ankle to delay his debut this week but also moved back to a shiny new house in Bradford.

Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding start up front with Barry Conlon on the bench. Willy Topp will miss up to four weeks after getting injured in the reserves during the week.

A team game

Among the strong bluster of disapproval which resulted from Tuesday evening’s Carling cup nightmare at Huddersfield, there was one line of criticism which particularly stood out.

In response to manager Stuart McCall’s post-match omission that their League One opponents had been a class above during their 4-0 triumph, some argued that this shouldn’t have been the case because the summer recruitments – the majority from the division above – should leave us with a team which could hold it’s own in England’s third tier. Given the club’s ambition is be competing at the top end of League One next season; doubts were raised at the team’s ability to achieve it.

No one would argue Tuesday was anything other than woeful, but it was the way City collapsed having fallen behind – rather than his players capabilities – which will have concerned Stuart the most. It’s a squad still needing time to gel and, as a test of what it is capable of, playing Huddersfield was too much, too soon. Everyone can see we have good players, but it will take time to become a good team.

The basic surroundings of Moss Rose proved ideal for rebuilding battered pride and switching focus back to the season’s main objective of promotion from League Two. City will face tougher games over the coming months than a poor Macclesfield side could offer, but this comfortable victory will help build confidence for them.

Right from kick off, with City quickly winning possession and straight on the attack, it was clear the players were determined to make up for Tuesday’s disappointment. Two early goals made for a comfortable afternoon as City went up and down the gears, rarely threatening to lose grip of the game. If a more emphatic scoreline looked probable at one stage, it was still an impressive 90 minutes from the Bantams.

Unlike Tuesday, City played like a team. A team with an impressive forward line; Peter Thorne again the hero with a second double strike in two starts. The first a looping header from a delightful cross which flew into the far corner, the second a poacher’s effort after poor control by Silkmen defender Sean Hessey allowed him the chance. Last season’s top scorer had to wait until November to net his first goal and, with four already, the prospects of a bigger return this campaign look good.

Alongside him Michael Boulding looked more the part after an underwhelming full debut at the Galpharm. He made some impressive runs and took up clever positions. It might not be the kindest comparison, but he is the first City striker since Michael Branch with the ability to run the channels, popping up all over in and around the penalty area. The former Aston Villa striker had chances to open his Bantams account, most notably hitting the post in the second half.

A team with wingers who excite if also frustrate. Joe Colbeck returned from suspension and, while quiet by his standards, set up Thorne’s opener and played a part in his second. Omar Daley was back on form and terrorised Macclesfield’s shaky backline on several occasions. Just like against Notts County the week before, he almost scored from a mazy dribble which began in his own half, just taking too long to get in his shot after reaching the penalty area. Opposition managers will become increasingly wary of Omar’s threat on the break and, like Boulding, he was unlucky to see a second half effort come back off the woodwork.

A team with a capable central midfield. Lee Bullock hasn’t torn up any trees during his first two games this season, but caught the eye with an impressive display. Paul McLaren continues to play things simple and some his best work isn’t always noticed. It might not work every game, but the duo controlled the tempo and set up several attacks.

A team looking solid and mobile at the back. Macclesfield, who’s first half wretchedness was probably best summed up when, on the end of heavy pressure in their area, a defender managed to clear the ball to their striker on half way only for the flag to go up, showed more fight in the second. Substitutes Izak Reid and Francis Green made a difference, the latter unlucky not to pull a goal back after his shot was tipped over by the impressive Rhys Evans.

The home side had a strong penalty shout rejected, but otherwise found City’s defence too strong. Paul Arnison has been criticised for his performances so far, but defended efficiently and got forward well. On the opposite side Paul Heckingbottom has made a bright start to the season while Matt Clarke continues to look solid, his distribution improved from Tuesday.

But it’s his central defensive partner and club captain Graeme Lee who fans were raving about at the final whistle. His best moment in an outstanding display came in the second half when, with Macclesfield adopting manager Keith Alexander’s trademark tactics of pumping the ball into the box, he headed the ball clear four times in quick succession. Just like Peter Thorne with Dean Windass, Lee is showing there is life after a club legend and his on-looking predecessor, David Wetherall, would have been proud.

All of which ensured Macclesfield were out of ideas well before the end and City could have easily had two or three more to reflect their superiority. Billy Topp – who’s dominated the post-Huddersfield discussions – came off the bench for his first appearance of the season and looked sharp. A look at the unused subs is another reason to feel optimistic.

This is a team which isn’t fully there just yet, there were still moments where players could have done better and understandings still need developing. In the closing stages Evans and Daley had an argument after the Jamaican gave away the ball in a bad position and Lee, as captain, had to get involved. Daley has managed to lose his cool at some point in each game so far and while that might be a concern it’s also a sign he cares. As does the way Evans and Lee argued with the winger and other players helped to later calm him down by talking to him.

What sort of season City will enjoy is still unclear, but the indications are positive from the two league displays so far. This is team with great potential and, when it is up to full speed, should prove difficult to stop. Tuesday’s shocker will take time to forget, but this team looks capable of celebrating something far more significant than a place in the second round of the Cup come May.

Bragging rights and how to claim them

…and then the kick off and things started well for the Bantams with a fluidity of play that was inherited in possession from Saturday seeing the midfield pair of Lee Bullock and Paul MaLaren compete and then get the better of the centre of the park giving City ball.

The strike pair of Boulding and Conlon offered the midfield few outlets with Boulding too little a target and Conlon dropping off to take the ball into feet too close to the Town middle.

When it worked for City the pair linked with the big man finding the tricky feet of the little one and the nearest either side came to a break through came when Boulding got into the box and fired a rebound into the side netting. It did not work well very often.

That the League One team were restricted was in a large part down to Graeme Lee who for fifty odd minutes was the best player on the field by some distance. Fifty minutes in and Lee had is post concession hands on knees when a cross from the left had been tucked home by Jon Worthington.

Worthington headed home running between Lee and Matthew Clarke after Paul Arnison had been double teamed without Omar Daley’s help at the back. Daley had his other sort of game tonight following Saturday’s excellence and Joe Colbeck returns at the weekend.

City’s reaction to going a goal down was poor. Huddersfield’s realisation that getting tighter to the two midfielders would reduce up to hopeful balls to a struggling Conlon and an ineffective Boulding blunted City and from then on every time the Bantams gave the ball away there was danger.

One doubts Huddersfield will be as clinical and cutting as they were again all season but the magnitude of the scoreline had more to do with them enjoying the sort of game where players like Robbie Williams who have been blasting free kicks wildly for 12 months bend them top corner but when a team gives the ball away as often as City did they are asking to be punished and so it happened.

Composure was lacking and heads went down. The parity of performance, let alone score, of half time was hard to recall.

Peter Thorne came on but he finishes moves made by others and by that time such inventiveness was lost leaving Stuart McCall wondering where it all went wrong and more importantly how to put it all right again.

Football is a game of simple things the most basic of which is the need to keep the ball.

So bragging rights to Huddersfield fans or rather some of them. No, not the missing 7,500 who stayed at home but those who were replied to the customary chant from Bradford to our neighbours of “Have you seen the Premier League?” with the grotesque “Bradford bastards burning down.”

Sing it, don’t stop the guy next to you singing it. Don’t jeer the people who do sing it. If you fall into any of those camps you’ve got no right to claim any brag to anyone.

Huddersfield Town vs Bradford City – League Cup First Round 2008/2009 preview

Having won on the first day of the season Bradford City go into the first local derby in sixteen months with tails high and a wound to heal.

The last visit to City’s least favourite rivals at the end of the 2006/2007 was one of the low lights not only of that season but of the fall from the Premiership which we hope to have now turned around as Huddersfield recorded a simple 2-0 win against a lifeless City side under David Wetherall’s management.

A season and a bit later and investment and management sees City looking upwards for the first time and Stuart McCall getting an early chance to measure himself against a team from a higher division,

McCall faces a Huddersfield side managed by a former assistant boss from Valley Parade whom he played under – Stan Ternant – who thanked goalkeeper Matt Glennon for a last minute save that stopped the lead they had taken through Andy Booth from being turned around to defeat in the 1-1 draw with Stockport at the weekend.

As with McCall’s City Ternant has stacked experience in his side with the likes of David Unsworth, Chris Lucketti and Luke Beckett – almost a Bantam joining Booth and Danny Cadamarteri who was a Bantam and a really wretched one at that. Added to that are a selection of youngsters who have come through Town’s set up and one could expect that as a higher league team they may be tempted to give some squad players a run out.

Former Town boss Bill Shankley said that were Everton playing in the back garden he would close the curtains but knew that winning the Merseyside derby gave his Liverpool team important bragging rights and such factors may change the teams put out.

McCall is expected to give the majority of the side that started at the weekend in the win over Notts County but may be tempted to give Michael Boulding a first start over Peter Thorne who suffered cramp after his two goal haul. Either that or Willy Topp will be given a chance to emulate his hero Edinho – well, my hero – and score at Town’s ground. Barry Conlon is likely to retain his place.

Chris Brandon is missing for a return to the club he has just left and Joe Colbeck misses the final game of his suspension leaving Omar Daley free try continue his impressive start. Kyle Nix on the left with Paul McLaren and Lee Bullock in the middle although McLaren’s tender ankle may give Luke Sharry a start.

Paul Heckingbottom, Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke make up three of the back four the other is right back Paul Arnison who splits opinion for reasons that pass my understanding. Playing behind Omar Daley is a hard enough job for any full back with the winger far too often allowing a man to go past and double up on the full back. Not only did Arnison’s direction keep Daley closer than any full back has previously managed but he got forward and supported Daley to boot.

Add to that his assist on the first goal and one wonders just what a full back has to do at Valley Parade be considered to have performed. Stephen Wright, Gunnar Halle, Gus Ulhenbeek, Darren Holloway and Darren Williams have all been been pillared at points yet Simon Francis and Nathan Doyle were loved. Similarly Heckingbottom is criticised for things that Andrew Taylor and Luke O’Brien are not. It would seem that the forgiveble players – loanees and young lads – play as full backs do and are excused and full time seniors are never forgiven should a single winger go past them.

Rhys Evans keeps goal and Stuart McCall bites his nails on the touchline. This is a chance for the Bantams to notch a scalp on what we are hoping is the way back, to win bragging rights and to build the morale that can keep the league performance ticking over.

One down…

It sits with a deceptive confidence this crown of would be kings on the head for Bradford City. It shifts with unease for all.

City’s 2-1 win over Notts County could be the template for the season. The Bantams were worthy winners but by a yard and not a mile and at times nerves were evident in the stands and the players fell out of a rhythm they had used to control much of the game.

When in control too City looked ebullient and passed the ball around from player to player with a calm ease personified by new number four Paul McLaren who had the touch to take a second more on the ball than many other on the field and looked unhurried as he and Lee Bullock won the midfield battle for their first afternoon as a league partnership.

Last season we talked much about Stuart McCall’s attempts to find someone to play in the position and the style he still casts a long shadow over and in McLaren he has someone who can set the pace for the team and create the passing flow that the manager did ten and twenty years ago.

Yet McLaren and Bullock’s control in the game faded and City were left with a scoreline and an afternoon that was closer than the build up to the game would have suggested. On the walk to Valley Parade the atmosphere suggested that City would only need to turn up to win. This is never the case.

Every win has to be earned and this one was. The Bantams put pressure on once the game had settled into a patten and when Lee Bullock was freed past the defence by some excellent work on the right and unceremoniously bundled to the floor it was clear that City possessed the abilities that pre-season suggested and that the quality of Refereeing was not going to have increased in line with City.

As the FA start their “Respect (The Ref)” campaign they send to Valley Parade Mr Darren Drysdale of the five game ban for Dean Windass two seasons ago when the City striker shouted at him in the car park highlighting the problems of the campaign that tries to have respect given in reply to unreachableness, highhandedness and arrogance that marked today’s display and Drysdale’s interaction with Bradford City.

City’s pressure told when Paul Arnison – who enjoyed a great debut coming forward to support Omar Daley superbly – whipped a cross in for Peter Thorne to head in while running onto from inside the box leaving keeper Kevin Pilkinton flat footed and continuing his policy of filling his boots against the club he got a hat-trick against last time they were at Valley Parade.

However for all City’s slick passing County were not snuffed out with Delroy Facey – a late signing who had interested City – troublesome and Jamie Forester looking able. Quick reactions from Rhys Evans saw him sprinting off his line and clearing a ball out at the corner of the box. Evans spends most of his time as a goalkeeper shouting at his defenders and in that way he will do for me.

Also doing for me is Omar Daley who put in one of his best performances in a City shirt. He tried – and for all but a four minute sulking spell when someone had tugged his shorts succeeded in – integrating himself in the side McCall had built tracking back to match the pace of lively winger Myles Weston and unplayable when going forward.

In the first half his mazy dribbles had end points with short passes or – ten minutes from the whistle – cutting onto his left on the edge of the box and lashed a low drive which Pilkington pushed wide. Barry Conlon put the scramble from the resultant corner into the side netting and City could have had two before the break.

After the break Conlon was in his own box playing away the danger of a visiting corner to Omar Daley some thirty five yards from his own goal. Daley went forward with his ranging stride used directly to take him past player and player. A defender lashed out a tackle that Daley skipped and Peter Thorne begged for a pass when the two City players faced only one defender whom Daley took the ball around leaving him one on one and a second later flat on his back when his shot had been saved by Pilkington’s foot from point blank range.

At that point I noticed I had not taken a breath since Conlon played the ball. Exhale and watch Daley rise to his feet and I do too. To applaud. Breathless football. Brilliant football.

The corner that comes from Daley’s short is cleared by Adam Nowland high, high and bizarrely backwards to Peter Thorne in the six yard box who executes an overhead kick into the far corner of Pilkington’s goal leaving red faces for the Magpies and defender Michael Johnson screaming for the offside that would have been the case had the return not been a piece of Steve Hodge style silliness.

All of which seemed to wake up the visitors – losing is one thing but beating yourself another – and gave them the zest to attack City’s flanks having had no joy going through McLaren and Bullock and while Kyle Nix had a quieter second half than his tricksy first he and Paul Heckingbottom stood strong. The right flank was unlocked though when Arnison left too much of a gap between him and Daley and Weston beat him delivering a pass to Richard Butcher in the box who finished well.

From then an even contest. City brought on the pace of TJ Moncur for Arnison to plug the right hand side and with ten minutes to go took Conlon off – Barry’s name was sung and he was applauded by all – and brought Michael Boulding on for his debut. Boulding got free. He took the ball into the box and lashed it across goal in a way that suggested talent and hinted at tunnel vision.

The contest though was won by the solid abilities of Matthew Clarke and the ultra-impressive Graeme Lee. Clarke’s play was reminiscent of Stuart McCall’s team mate Darren Moore who City had tried to sign in the summer instead opting for the new skipper Lee who commanded the box, cleared everything out, tackled superbly and kept the back four in line. Of all the new signings it is Lee who most impressive and he who could be the foundation of a promotion bid.

It sits with a deceptive confidence this crown of would be kings on the head for Bradford City but there – for the first time is some time – is where it sits.

What if it all goes right? Pre-season 2008/2009 [I]

Take an average of the odds you can get on Bradford City being in League Two and the Bantams are 2/1 to go up. To put that in context the bookies think that City are more likely to go up than Manchester United are to win the Premiership.

We are dealing with that level of expectation. We have that level of assured thinking around City as Stuart McCall – in second full year as the manager at Valley Parade – awaits the results of a summer rebuilding which has seen new, impressive signings come in and talk of double promotions heard.

The signing of Michael Boulding seemed to top off the rebuilding. His rejection of League One Cheltenham to come to Valley Parade was probably as geographical as it was ambition based for the player but for the club it showed the intention. To get a group of players of League One standard and trust in gravity to take us up.

Boulding is expected to partner Peter Thorne in City’s first string eleven. Thorne’s 14 goals in 31(+2) games did much to raise both City’s league finish last year and the expectations for this and the thoughtful forward seems a good foil for the speedy, tricky Boulding.

In back up Barry Conlon is able and willing and Willy Topp is promising much after flashes of skillful and smart play. If everything goes to plan then the main two strikers will be kept fresh by the others – Rory Boulding and Omar Daley also qualify – and will be notching 20+ plus each.

Much of this depends on the midfield and Paul McLaren especially who is tagged as some as the signing of the season in this league and it is started to be taken as read that he will end the year with the most assists – Thorne’s head or sharp one touch finishes and Michael Boulding’s runs being his prime routes – and be the force that takes City to promotion.

In an ideal world McLaren is what we dare to dream he is. A player with the foot in defensive abilities of Stuart McCall who passes like Peter Beagrie but no one is that good even when scaled down to League Two levels.

McLaren’s partner in the midfield will be found from Lee Bullock, Kyle Nix, and Luke Sharry and should things be going to plan the three of them will battle it out until one emerges as a perfect partner. Bullock is likely to be the first starter but both the youngsters are showing well.

Bullock was highly thought of at Hartlepool for his attacking abilities while at Bradford – well, at BfB – Nix is a favourite for his skillful and energetic displays. Sharry – young that he is – roared into pre-season and looks set for a place in the squad. He has power and a calm head.

Youngster showing well was a description of Joe Colbeck until he became player of the season and the great hope of Valley Parade. If everything goes right Colbeck will pick up where he left off at the end of last season and start giving the drive that he did at the start of 2008. He has what every young player needs – quality around him – and can find more outlets for his passing and better players to work close interplay with.

Chris Brandon is expected to be the first choice for the left wing. Huddersfield Town supporters called him a nearly man – “nearly scored with that shot, nearly did something great” – and perhaps the extra push he would need to be the exact man will come from his passion for the club. He is a City fan playing – at last – for his club.

Not playing for his club would seem to be Mark Bower who looks like he may lose out to Matthew Clarke in the contest to play alongside new skipper Graeme Lee. If we are getting promoted the two from three will develop a partnership. League Two is a division of big forwards and in Clarke and Lee we have two superb players in the air. Bower is better in possession and marks well. Clarke his a mountain of power and Lee is collected while strong.

Pauls Heckingbottom and Arnison have a remit to get down the flanks. In a great season these two will be passing their wingers often and notching assists.

Also, in a great season Rhys Evans – a late signing to the cause – will have little to do.

Finally the manager Stuart McCall use the tools of his squad to maintain constiency of the majority of the eleven while dropping in approriate changes where needed. Certainly more than any City manager since Paul Jewell his squad is their to be picked rather than having the eleven players pick themselves.

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.

What could possibly go wrong? Pre-season 2008/2009 [IV]

When Arsene’s Arsenal went for 49 games without defeat they seemed imperious but the end of that run – losing at Old Trafford – sent them into a spiral of negative results which cost the a chance of winning a second consecutive Premiership. The same team that could not lose then could not win – for a while at least – before even keel was regained.

The moral of that story was that in football failure is inevitable and the control that managers have is not in avoiding defeat – everyone gets beaten sometimes – but in how defeat and other failure is dealt with.

So last season when City started a losing run around October Stuart McCall struggled to turn that streak around. One failure rolled into another in a string of results that could have cost any manager his job. McCall lived and learned it.

City started last season on a bubble of optimism which once pricked burst. This year Stuart McCall is building on more firm foundations but for sure the mood of the club is that City’s side will be a step above everyone else. At some point though the Bantams will lose, will be out played, will get robbed, will fail.

It is at that point when things can go wrong and that point where Stuart McCall has to start testing his management skills. As a coach one can be confident that he has the right stuff – many players at Sheffield United and City have praised him – but any question marks that remain are around this untested attribute.

When failure comes will McCall be able to arrest that and turn it around as effectively as an Alex Ferguson or will defeats snowball as they did for Wenger that year and Stuart in his first season?

Such a loss of confidence can come in many ways – losing can seep into being a habit – but most often it is brought about by players finding excuses. Last season too many loan players like Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu and Nicky Law Jnr were at walking pace as the Bantams went down to defeats because as loan players one could not blame them for losses. It is noticeable that Stuart has no loans in his squad so far.

Injury gives players excuses too and as Rochdale websites call him the signing of the season Paul McLaren grows a totemistic importance for City with the belief of supporters resting on his shoulders. For sure keeping McLaren fit is a bit part of City’s season but not allowing too much store to be placed on the midfielder is also important when he is absent.

One remembers how on the final day of the 1987/1988 the Bantams without John Hendrie lacked the belief and how the team minus Dean Windass simply did not believe the goals would come. McCall has to balance McLaren’s usefulness with not over playing his importance should he be lost.

However McLaren’s form cannot be worse than the previous incumbent of that shirt – Paul Evans – who was a superb player who played so many wretched performances that he had a wretched season. Evans was talented – perhaps not as talented as McLaren – but totally failed to bring that talent to City last season leaving a huge hole in the side.

City this season are stronger and have more top quality players. Should one of Graeme Lee, Michael Boulding, Chris Brandon, Peter Thorne or any of the other players who one could put in the top bracket of players in this division not perform then others are there to back them up. Money in football gives the the chance to make more mistakes. To fail more often.

Failure is not on the agenda at Valley Parade this year and confidence is high with Mark Lawn bullish and bold. With boldness he needs strength. Failure at some point is assured and the reaction to that failure needs to be consistent and measured. Three defeats on the trot are not the time for the either chairman to start talking in worried voices.

Confidence is fragile and cold heads – cold heads in the heat of a promotion battle – are required to retain it. One need only as Carlisle United about that with their off field troubles derailing a promotion bid last season.

Failure is the only inevitable thing in football. Every run of wins will eventually end. Every team will lose games. Every player will have a bad game at some point. Dealing with that failure and moving back to success is the key to a winning team, a winning season and to promotion.

The start of a new era – Pre-season 2008/2009 [V]

We all want it to go right for City this year. We are all sick of each season being a lower finish than the last and we all want to start having something to say in arguments with work mates when we talk about our football club. It is been a long time since being a City fan has been about anything apart from grinning and bearing it.

But all this can change this year. That is why this year is important and that is why we are all excited about it. This is is not just a chance for promotion it is a chance to see this club start a recovery. No one not us fans, not Stuart McCall, not Mark Lawn, not Julian Rhodes sees this season as a chance to get into League One.

We all see it as a chance to take the first step back to the Championship at least and lets be honest about this. We see this as the first step on the path back to the Premiership.

Because that is what Geoffrey Richmond has left us now his debts are gone. The belief that this club can be a top flight club. That if we do things right then we can mix it with the big boys. I’m not saying that on Saturday we start a four year rise to the top but what I am saying is that come three o’clock at Valley Parade City look forward to stepping in the right direction again.

We look forward to starting winning more home games than we lose and towards the end of last season we started to do that.

We look forward to finishing higher in the league than we did the year before. We were tenth last season and for the first time in eight years we are expecting to be higher. Nine places higher to be honest.

We are looking forward to deciding which of our players comes and goes rather than having other teams make that call and having to take whatever offer we get. We can look forward to that as the club gets successful in League Two and then up League One.
We are looking forward to having a buzz around the ground and the City about the club again. New skipper Graeme Lee has said about City

“I believe this club in the next few years will start claiming the leagues, starting this year.”

We are looking forward to ending the arguments that fans have with fans on message boards and replacing them with debates about how wonderful everything is.

Yeah, perhaps not.

We are looking forward to looking forward to a League One charge in 2009/2010 and having real belief that that can happen. We look forward to adding quality on top of quality in the squad and seeing the team play with McCall’s spirit and then add McCall’s skills.

We are looking forward to looking forward to Saturday again.

We are looking forward to the future of Bradford City. A couple of times on the way down it looked like didn’t have one.

And finally and most importantly we are looking forward to all being able to cheer with the same voice to get behind a team that has the same hunger we do for success.

So to get this big future we give the boys that can our full throated support.

See you Saturday.

Who will be the happier?

Owen Coyle and Stuart McCall paths crossed as players during their days North of the border but the Irish player born in Scotland and the Scot born in Yorkshire never ended up on the same side and so as they faced each other as managers it is no surprise that one ended up happier than the other.

However – considering the result – one would be very surprised if it was Coyle who was more pleased as McCall watched his Bradford City team that is surely too good for League Two more than match a Championship side who have spent big in the Summer.

Spent big on Martin Patterson – £1.3m from Scunthorpe – who along with Robbie Blake were head and shoulders the best thing about the Burnley side which struggled to keep up with City in the opening exchanges.

The Bantams were approaching race trim. Rhys Evans is still a question mark in goal – his ability with crosses is the question and both visitor goals on the hour and in the last minute came when crosses got into the box and were not cut out – but the back four of Paul Arnison, an outstanding Graeme Lee, Matthew Clarke and Paul Heckingbottom coped well with the troublesome two up front for the men from over the hills. Willy Topp – playing a full ninety minutes – and Omar Daley troubled the full backs and the middle pairing of Paul McLaren and young Luke Sharry – not looking out of place – started brightly.

However – and shamefully – rather than competing with City in the spirit of warming up for league games – Burnley resorted to physical play with Remco van der Schaaf putting in the type of tackles that would get cards in games and resulted in him being compulsorily substituted after thirty-five minutes.

Referees are told to take pre-season games as if they were full matches so where Mr G. Laws got this rule from is anyone’s guess but the validity of the game from that point on was highly dubious. In a league game Burnley would not have been able to use soft reffing to stop City’s playmaker with fouls and one doubts anyone can be proud of the Clarets for that sort of play or for the persistent handballs in the second half that killed off chances which would have gone punished in the season proper.

So City scored before half time through Barry Conlon after he coolly chipped in when capitalising on a mistake and did enough to suggest that we were far closer to the Championship level than we last season – or that Burnley are closer to League Two – and the result mattered even less than usual with the favours that were given to the team from the league higher.

McCall has Chris Brandon, Lee Bullock, Joe Colbeck and Michael Boulding to come back into this side and in McLaren he has a player so good that he has literally put his shirt on him. Ten days until the start of the season for both these clubs and McCall will be happier of the two managers.

Burnley might have had the win thanks to the favours but they were matched by the Bantams and if it turns out that both sides are League One quality then 2009/2010 could very well see this fixture played in that division.

Bump

City’s 4-0 defeat to Motherwell brought us all down to Earth. The signings and a win over Bradford Park Avenue seemed to have got City fans thinking that League Two was in the bag. A trip to a UEFA cup team saw to that and over the weekend Shrewsbury over took us at the favourites to win the league.

I liked that rush when Michael Boulding signed and I still feel it now. I’ve looked at the eleven and the sixteen that City can put out next season and the bumps of ability around the squad are impressive.

Take the midfield situation and the players like McLaren and Brandon are in and the likes of Phelan and Eddie Johnson making do are out. Tom Penford was snapped up by non-league clubs wanting to punch above their weight when he left us but we have snapped up players for League Two clubs looking to punch above.

Players like Graeme Lee who would be the most impressive name on someone else’s team are now in our team and we have a collection of these guys. You would have looked and worried cause some visitor had former Premiership players like Boulding or multi-million guys like Peter Thorne. We have a fist full of these guys. We have the best team in League Two next season.

But having the best team and playing the best football are two different things and on Wednesday night we get to see how these Bantams play against Burnley.

Rhys Evans seems to be Stuart’s first call as keeper but I’m not convinced. This is the weakness in the side as every other position fills up.

Paul Arnison at right back with Milton Turner as back up if the Guisley man can be signed. Paul Heckingbottom at left back. Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke in the middle which is strange cause I would never have thought Mark Bower should be dropped. Clarke is just too impressive and the sort of big man we need.

Joe Colbeck is sitting out the first two games but Omar Daley can and will fill in. Paul McLaren seems a shoe-in for the starting line up with Lee Bullock or Kyle Nix alongside him. I’ve not been impressed with Bullock much but McCall is and those two could be his starting midfield. Nix might be needed on the left with Chris Brandon injured.

Michael Boulding is injured too but Peter Thorne and Willy Topp will be up top on day one and if not then Barry Conlon is scoring freely in pre-season.

The way the names trip off the tongue. The way they fill the starting eleven with quality like Bower, Nix or Topp to spare. That is the indication of the quality Stuart has.

Someone once told me (It was me – Ed.) that to get promoted you get a bunch of players together who are too good for the league you are in and let gravity take you up. Gravity bounced City off the floor of football. Time for the bump back to begin.

Brilliant McCall bounces City into the season to savour

Michael Boulding has signed for City. Graeme Lee has signed for City. Paul McLaren has signed for City. Chris Brandon has signed for City. Paul Arnison has signed for City.

If the Bantams had signed two of these five players then people would have been talking about us as promotion contenders. If we had signed three of them people would be saying we were making moves but we have brought in over the summer five players of massive quality.

Five players who can play in the league above. Five players who most teams in the bottom two divisions would want in their sides.

You can argue about Arnison but he played in the play offs for the Championship last season. Boulding went out of the league but still was wanted by League One where McLaren was the top dog for assists. Lee has turned heads with his signing although Moore would have been more impressive and Brandon started the ball rolling.

Add these to Joe Colbeck ripping teams apart, to Lee Bullock who is league one quality, to Billy Topp and suddenly City have a team that can and I think will murder the rest of this league.

What Stuart has this season that he didn’t have last one is options. He can use Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding but who can say that Barry and Billy would get less goals? He can put Omar Daley down the left or he can use Kyle Nix or Chris Brandon to be tighter. In those last ten minutes that make the difference between teams that go up and those who don’t options to exploit the weaknesses of the opposition win you games.

The squad City have is packed with players who would have been the most impressive guy on most team sheets. Guys like Boulding and Lee who would have raised eyebrows separately are together in a kind of League Two all-stars picking the best of what was on offer.

And making a season to savour.

Every noticed how Darren Moore gets what he wants?

Darren Moore has just signed for Barnsley after City boss Stuart McCall told everyone that he wanted to bring the big man back to Valley Parade and for the second time I’m left feeling a bit used.

Moore is a good guy cause he is a Christian and knows Wayne Jacobs and everyone will tell you that he is a good bloke.  In fact footballers like him so much that they elect him to the PFA.  He sits around the table with Gordon Taylor when the footballer’s union make sure that no one get get anywhere when they suggest that players need salaries capped.

He is a good bloke and never made a noise after having his request for £15,000 a week from City turned down nine years ago.  He went to Portsmouth and on to a great career that we all followed and cheered with only a bit of a bitter taste in the mouth about the way it all ended.

Great guy but when City came in for Moore how come it got out to the media so quickly?  And what was the effect of it getting out.  To us it said that City had high ambitions but to the rest of the game it said two things.  First that Bruno was on the move and secondly that to get him you needed to compete with big spenders.

So the likes of Leicester City and Nottingham Forest all start to be interested and soon it looks like City’s hope if plucking Moore’s heartstring and pushing a bit of extra cash in his pocket to get him but when a club two divisions higher want to offer the chance of a fifth promotion to the Premiership of course he is interested.

So fast forward on the month and Bruno has got a move to the Championship probably on the money that City offered him and no one can blame him but for the second time City have figured in a deal that ended up with Darren Moore getting what he wanted and us being left with egg on our faces.

Graeme Lee is not Darren Moore in our hearts but neither was David Wetherall when he was signed the last time Moore decided he wanted to be somewhere else and maybe in nine years time we will look at Lee like we look at Weathers now.

Back to the tough work as pre-season begins

Bradford City’s players returned to pre-season at the start of one of the more pressured period in the clubs history.

Under the stewardship of the club’s definitive player Stuart McCall the squad are expected to win promotion – and perhaps the odd cup – and the challenge for the same the season after.

A club that has won promotion eight time in 105 years wants to start bursting up the divisions. The feeling is the club play below their weight and the expectation on these players is that they can put an end to this underachievement.

So tasked with this Stuart McCall takes his inspiration from the best Bradford City manager there has been and like Paul Jewell he assembles a squad of senior professionals and exciting younger players.

Most of his recruits in the summer have been over or touching 30. Chris Brandon, Graeme Lee and Paul Arnison are – it is said – to be joined almost certainly Paul McLaren and perhaps also Michael Boulding joining the likes of Peter Thorne and Lee Bullock as senior players already doing laps of Applely Bridge. These are McCall’s McCalls, his Beagries, his Windasses.

Added to them is a small crop of younger players – Kyle Nix, Willy Topp and Joe Colbeck leading them – who look to be the legs and trickery of the experience.

Brandon is expected to take a left flank role opposite Colbeck and with McLaren and Bullock between them feeding the ball forward for two of Thorne, Boulding, Topp, Barry Conlon or Omar Daley. Behind them Arnison, Lee, Bower and Heckingbottom have over 1,075 career games between them. Add McLaren, Bullock, Brandon and Thorne to those and you have eight players with ust under 2,500 league games under their belts.

McCall believes that experience will get the club to achieve. He has staked his reputation on it.

For City fans are fickle from old and forgive little. The word when Stuart signed was the fear and the fear was the McCall would tarnish his position as the club’s hero on his return. Indeed twelve months into his spell in the big chair at Valley Parade criticism of McCall is audible and a recent ad hoc poll of supporters on their favourite player saw the usual winner’s place less firmly held.

Nevertheless McCall answered the call as heroes must do and now attempts his great feat – his Knight’s return – with polar opposites of cementing his place in the pantheon of players who have led on and off the field for the same club or fading away to be a memory of a player who once pounded the streets around Applely Bridge.

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