When Jordan Pickford went back to Sunderland as a man walks into a bar

There is a cliché: A man walks into a bar and talks about how he could have been a great footballer but it just did not happen for him. Maybe it was injury or a couple of good players in the youth ranks in his position. Maybe he got further in the game but maybe a change of manager stopped him from getting the chance, or maybe he bottled the big chance but he probably would not tell it that way.

There are a hundred stories from a million people who almost were, but never was.

(In fact, as an aside, I once talked to former City keeper Mark Evans‘ Dad about how in the early 1990s John Docherty had given Evans the impression that he would jump from number three to number one only for the Scot to be fired a few days later.)

And one of those stories is laid out for Jordan Pickford who returned to Sunderland from Bradford City. After Pickford’s 21st birthday at the weekend the terms of his loan would be restated meaning Sunderland would not be allowed to recall him until the 8th of April 2015.

This was unacceptable to Sunderland where Pickford sits behind Vito Mannone and Costel Pantilimon on the bench and so Pickford returned.

Which is the end of the story for the clubs.

Vito Mannone is out of contract in the summer and Sunderland’s place in the Premier League is a little tentative. One can see Pickford finding a chance to get near the Sunderland starting eleven, and one can see him doing well if he does, but one can see many scenarios where that does not happen.

Sunderland’s right to keep Pickford out of the FA Cup stopped him from playing in the win at Chelsea – not a bad learning experience for anyone – and now his return home will stop him learning about a team chasing promotion.

It is not genius to suggest that is Pickford does get the chance to play for Sunderland next season it will probably be in similar circumstances. The club from the North East do as they wish to do.

But what about Jordan Pickford? How will this decision impact him?

Watching Pickford’s athleticism some have been tempted to see him as a future England keeper. So much more than raw athleticism goes into making a top quality footballer thought and what is more is learnt in games that matter.

Indeed Matthew Syed’s Bounce and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers go as far as to suggest suggests that purposeful exposure to experience that matters is the be-all-and-end-all of development.

If that is true then while Pickford has clocked up some useful hours in goal for City this year his chances of becoming the player his raw athleticism suggests he could be have been hampered by Sunderland’s insistence on keeping him back.

The experience of playing against Leeds United, Chelsea, Halifax Town, Millwall, Reading and for the rest of the season at Bradford City would have made Jordan Pickford into a better player. Not getting that experience increases the chance that he will become the cliché of the might-have-been.

If Jordan Pickford knows this he should be furious at Sunderland.

He should march into Gus Poyet’s office and tell him “I’m in the Sunderland first team from now on Gus, otherwise you are flushing my career down the pan.” Every week he sits out during his younger, development years damages him.

If he is watching Sunderland from the stands knowing that City wanted him in between the sticks he should tell Poyet that he wants to leave to go to a club that takes better care of him – be that Bradford City or not – and he would be right to do that.

Football is full of players who never were. Because of Sunderland Jordan Pickford is already the goalkeeper who could have been playing in the win over Chelsea. While he sits in the stands for the next three months Jordan Pickford might want to think he is going to be the goalkeeper who could have had a decent career.

How Bradford City got to the sixth round of the FA Cup and how easy it was

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott | Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Andrew Halliday, Mark Yeates, Francois Zoko

A story of abject failure

Bradford City’s 2-0 win over Sunderland was most remarkable because of how easy it was.

From Billy Clarke’s third minute shot deflected in by John O’Shea onwards the result at Valley Parade was hardly in doubt.

Bradford City played accurate passing at tempo which Sunderland could not match, and with a shape which Sunderland would not adapt to. Robbed of midfield quality in Jack Rodwell and power in Lee Cattermole Sunderland played Liam Bridcutt and Sebastian Larsson in the middle against City’s three of Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle and Billy Knott and lost the midfield.

Bradford City dominated the first forty five minutes. Liddle sat behind his two partners who were both admirably disciplined, and while Bridcutt picked up Billy Clarke in the playmaking role Sunderland manager Gus Poyet left Larsson on his own with three players.

And Larsson could not deliver a quality of possession on the flanks for Sunderland who had based the game on the ball to wide players – Adam Johnson looked lively – which would be put in for Steven Fletcher to finish with Danny Graham in support. Fletcher vs Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies was hardly even a contest.

Better matched were James Hanson and Jon Stead against O’Shea and Wes Brown but with Clarke coming forward and Hanson moving out wide left City pressed with strength, movement and intelligence. O’Shea and Brown with Bridcutt coming back were unsettled by Hanson’s strength and Clarke’s speed with ball at foot.

Only unsettled though, but with so much of the rest of Gus Poyet’s team selection playing exactly as Bradford City’s Phil Parkinson would have wanted it to be it seemed that the Premier League time arrived at, and played with, a hand tied behind their back.

And that hand was tied by Gus Poyet. At half time, watching his team lose the midfield battle, Poyet threw on Connor Wickham for Graham, went route one, and lost the game.

In terms of a manager approaching the game, understanding how the opposition would play, and putting out a team capable of navigating that Poyet failed utterly abjectly.

Shall we switch narrative?

We have become old hands at this of course. The giant killing narrative that is spun around a team who have done what Bradford City have done in the last few years. The talk is of passionate performances and playing with character. It is of small changing rooms and bad pitches.

(The pitch was was better today, something I would congratulate and praise Roger Owen for but as he has said he is not directly responsibility for the pitch and that it is not his responsibility so I offer him no congratulations and no praise at all.)

Talk like that misses the point of Bradford City’s wins against Chelsea and Arsenal, Aston Villa and Wigan but it especially misses the point of this game. Bradford City did not approach Sunderland with a blowing hurricane, just with determination, but Sunderland’s preparation and approach was so far away from what it should have been that the distance between the two sides was great.

For all the coverage of a “team of heroes”, or “plucky players”, or (curiously) “real men” the reality was a Bradford City team who put in a very steady performance. Not that the players were not very good – they were – but that at the end of the game where City had won in something of a canter no player had especially surprised, or played beyond himself, or amazed.

All had played very well, in a very good unit, and carried out the roles that they were assigned very adeptly. Billy Knott – the agent provocateur against Chelsea – slipped into the discipline of a central midfield role as well as he had since first he joined from Sunderland. Filipe Morais continues to curb his solo excesses too.

Everyone played very well but Bradford City did not spring a surprise on Sunderland, or mug Sunderland, or rough Sunderland up. Bradford City played in the same way as in the win over Milton Keynes Dons on Monday, and did not have to play better to beat Sunderland.

Sunderland were the team that were beaten 8-0 by Southampton once again. Bradford City – in this giant killing – were just here to make up the numbers.

The best thing about Sunderland

The only good thing one can say about Sunderland is that the team is much, much poorer than the supporters. The supporters of Sunderland applauded former players, applauded Bradford City for beating them, applauded Bradford City fans for the atmosphere in Valley Parade. They deserve better.

They will be told – perhaps by Guy Poyet – that City roughed up the team on a bad pitch and the media will tell them they were beaten by a team with chutzpah.

But that is not true, and those fans know it.

Poyet set out an attack that played to City’s strengths and a midfield that was outnumbered in the centre of the field, and they played without the commitment to a team structure and the belief that what they were doing would work.

One does not want to downplay what Bradford City and Phil Parkinson have done against Sunderland or in his time at City. The level that City play at is very high and the squad’s character is obvious to all.

Sunderland played badly and often Parkinson’s teams make other teams play badly. Parkinson has his team close down the space for opposition players making time on the ball claustrophobic. That was certainly the case today.

But Parkinson just had to ensure that his team continued Monday night’s MK Dons performance and the victory was not even difficult.

So then now…

After a few minutes Billy Clarke took the applause after lashing a shot back across goal which cannoned off John O’Shea and into the goal past Vito Mannone and City – perhaps – expected the Premier League visitors to come back into the game. Phil Parkinson’s return to 442 from his 4312 was the making of his City team against Halifax in the first round of this competition, as City go into the sixth round the three men in the middle smothered Sunderland.

Sebastian Larsson – a fine player – struggled to move the ball to the flanks effectively. Occasionally Johnson looked impressive but with only Larsson in the middle either Knott or Morais could help full backs deal with wingers. Graham was anonymous finding no room to play around Gary Liddle and Stephen Fletcher’s abilities in the air are less than either of Davies or McArdle’s.

The best Fletcher did – and the best chance Sunderland got – was a ball that slipped through the offside line and nestled at the Scots striker’s feet until McArdle appeared (as if from) nowhere and hacked the ball away. The cliché writes itself here, McArdle wanted it more, but Fletcher did not seem to want it at all.

Contrast that with the quick thinking in the second half when James Meredith pushed Johnson all the way back into the corner of the pitch and Johnson lobbed the ball out for James Hanson to head softly beyond Brown and O’Shea, but not beyond Johnson deep, and to Jon Stead who picked up the ball and finished well under Mannone.

An hour in and with Sunderland resorting to playing long balls which Davies and McArdle took care of, and aside from Ben Williams making a single save the Bantams defence was untroubled.

Phil Parkinson and his City players took plaudits from a capacity Valley Parade – including a good few Sunderland fans – for a fifth Premier League team beaten in three years. The sixth round of the FA Cup is the last eight teams in the country. Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United (or Preston North End), Aston Villa West Brom, Reading, Blackburn Rovers and Bradford City.

Wigan was unexpected and tough, Arsenal was hard but deserved. Aston Villa was a double sucker punch at the end of the game and Chelsea was understanding the power of pressure and seeing that pressure pay. These were all great, great games and great football matches to be at.

Sunderland, though, was easy.

How we will all be sorry after Bradford City drew 2-2 at Port Vale

The Team

Jordan Pickford | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Christopher Routis, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Andy Halliday | Billy Knott | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Mark Yeates, Ben Williams

Football, not football

Writing about football is difficult.

Writing about writing about football is easy.

In fact I would argue that the vast majority of the coverage of football is, in one way or another, the coverage of the coverage of football. The most viewed BBC Sport page is an abstract of a lot of newspaper stories of “gossip” – which is to say stories which no one even attempts to claim are true – while picking up the collection of local papers after the 4-2 win over Chelsea revealed column inches of reports on what City fans had said about the game on Twitter.

It is reaction to reaction, and while it is often confused for writing about football it is not. Football is that thing that happens on the field between three and five on a Saturday.

This is a preamble as to why the week of accusation followed by apology at Bradford City has been both the most and least interesting subject of conversation.

It is interesting because it concerns two of the most fundamental considerations at a football club that impact on football.

Most obviously the pitch. Literally the core of a football club Phil Parkinson pointed out, rightly, that the pitch was in very poor condition. Colchester goalscorer Chris Porter said it was the worst he had played on.

Worse Gus Poyet, manager of next Sunday’s opposition Sunderland, suggested that the forthcoming FA Cup tie between the two clubs might be moved to The Stadium of Light to provide a decent playing surface.

He did not mean it really. It was a joke but the butt of the joke was Bradford City’s ability to maintain the basic needed for a football match – a pitch – and so the butt of the joke was Bradford City.

Bradford City are a laughing stock.

The lack of blame game

Parkinson had pointed the finger squarely at Roger Owen and his co-director Graham Jones for failing to do anything about the state of the pitch which the manager had believed was within the remit of Mr Owen. He later apologised for mentioning any specific director and agreed that the quality of the pitch was a collective problem.

The club – in turn – issued a statement which read that Mr Owen and Mr Jones had no specific responsibility for the pitch but iterated through things that the pair had achievements including “sourc(ing) funding for equipment and improvements through the connection with fans group, Friends of Bradford City where they are the link to the Board” which would seem to be an act of receiving, rather than raising, funds.

Other achievements of a similar scale were mentioned and as the statement made it clear that they were responsible for small achievements but carried out those responsibilities without any remuneration. The message from Bradford City seemed to be that Parkinson was wrong to think that the pitch was the responsibility of Mr Owen and Mr Jones because the pitch was a little above the pair’s pay grade to be involved with.

Parkinson had thought that it was Mr Owen’s job at directorial level to look after the pitch but he was wrong. It was nobody’s job, at least not specifically, and so no specific director deserved any specific criticism for not doing anything about the pitch because – as a collective – all the directors shared responsibilities and thus – one assumes – any criticism shared between the directors too.

And Parkinson had made criticism, albeit pointed in what the board of directors said was the wrong direction, but that criticism was not responded to. Not responded to in in public at least. In public had been where Parkinson’s apology was made. It was carried on the club’s website which seemed to have misplaced the City manager’s original criticism from the news section.

Without portfolio

I think at the time they thought I was making excuses because the home form was poor but I don’t make excuses. Nothing was done, no help was given to the groundsman and now he’s the one with all the stress of us playing on probably the worst pitch I’ve ever seen.Phil Parkinson, 2nd February 2015

So one considered the second point which was Parkinson’s apology to the Directors without Portfolio for suggesting that they had responsibilities they did not have. Parkinson had said that he had been left with the impression that it was considered the problem of the pitch was an excuse for poor results. In Parkinson’s apology he did not, nor did the club, attempt to put right the statement Parkinson had made about the directors believing that the manager was making excuses.

Indeed there was no clarification from any specific directors or the whole of the board as to if Parkinson was right to think that it has been considered he was excuse making, that he was wrong to get the impression, that the board would perish the thought that the manager who had taken them from the bottom of League Two to the fifth round of the FA Cup via Chelsea, Arsenal, Wembley, Twice might incorrectly walk away from a board meeting thinking that he was doing anything other than a near unprecedented superb job as manager, at least from the business’ point of view.

So the picture was complete. The manager who beat Mourinho had walked into the boardroom to complain about a fundamental problem with the pitch but left having his judgement on football questioned and with the impression that it was thought he was making up excuses.

Football has a right history of managers clashing with Directors. Sam Longson got his own way at Derby County against Brian Clough and that is why Nottingham Forest ended up with two European Cups and not The Rams. You either think that football managers should be second guessed by local businessmen or your don’t. Most managers do not believe they should and some find a place where they are in harmony with the boardroom. One wonders what Phil Parkinson spent the week considering.

And so to Saturday

All of which is 1,016 words that are only tangentially about football in that they threaten the club’s ability to play the game well at home – the pitch – or under the successful manager in Parkinson who has attracted admiring glances from clubs in the top two divisions. The grass at Port Vale allowed City to settle quickly into an easy pattern of attempted ball retention against a Valiant’s side which looked as poor as any City had faced this season, Millwall aside.

Nestled in lower mid-table Rob Page’s Port Vale allowed Parkinson’s Bradford City as much time on the ball as wanted – at least in build up play – and there was something about the ease on the ball which concerned the Bantams. The popular diagonal pass between Rory McArdle and James Hanson went unplayed as McArdle enjoyed the time to pick a pass to central midfielders who moved forward uncomfortably.

With too long in possession City were indecisive and allowed the first half to all but peter out without a chance. At times it seemed like there was a game being made of attempts to play the perfect pass into Jon Stead, other times City looked like they would dominate in the box only for the ball to go unfinished for the want of players looking for flick downs.

In such situations one always worries about Filipe Morais. As a player Morais is alternatively impressive in position and undisciplined in action. He suffers a tendency to try shortcut build up play with a lashed shot at goal or an attempt to dribble from the centre of the midfield which fail but is a key part of build up when he succeeds.

For Parkinson this must be frustrating because of the frequency in which when Morais goes “off-message” fortune favours him. Forty minutes into the game and Morais decides that it is time for him to lash a low shot from outside the box which is easily charged down but the same player – doing as manager and team mates would want him to – grasped the ball and took it to the byline to cross to the waiting James Hanson who headed the first goal.

Filipe Morais squandered possession with a daft shot but got the ball back and made the opening goal. The tendency to do the former seems symbiotic to the ability to do the latter. In the second half when a good run from James Meredith saw Hanson test Vale keeper Chris Neal again and the ball fall to Morais, exactly where Parkinson would want him to be, to finish smartly, exactly what Parkinson would want him to do, and make the game 2-1.

2-1 because minutes before Vale were allowed to cross in with ease as Morais allowed the left back all the time he wanted to make his cross. The problems with a wingless team are the number of crosses that come in. Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle deal with a lot of them but not this one which was rolled in by Achille Campion from a flick down which both central defenders would probably wish they had attacked more firmly.

Who then does Parkinson charge with the responsibility for the goal? Morais for not cutting off the supply? McArdle and Davies for allowing a flick down? Billy Knott for having seen a close range chance which would have made the game 2-0 earlier saved by Neal who would do the same to Hanson later on?

By the time the game entered injury time City should have been leading by some margin and would have been but for Neal. Vale’s goal was a rare foray forward in a game which was increasingly about City coming forward. The late entry of Mark Yeates for Knott was Parkinson putting on a player who could make the most of late possession but Yeates was caught on the ball and a few seconds later Jordan Pickford was being sent off as the rapid counter-attack saw the keeper slide Greg Luer’s legs away.

All Ben Williams did was pick the ball out of the back of his goal.

The reaction to the reaction

And so back in Bradford blame was assigned.

It was the fault of Jordan Pickford for the foul, or of Mark Yeates for losing the ball in midfield, or of Hanson/Knott for not finishing the chances that Neal saved, or of Parkinson for not going for the win but the game ended level and a point away is always a good result at any level.

The disappointment – it seems – is that there was a growing consensus in support in the reaction to the Chelsea win that City were upwardly mobile and making a surge for the play-offs. This may still be true and this result may be a part of that but the narrative is not about conceding goals in the last minute.

The problem with the growing consensus is that it is based on reaction to the reaction.

City beat Chelsea, and so should be able to beat anyone in League One, and if not then there must be a reason for it and if the reason is at all mitigated then that is “excuses” and not tolerated. Anything other than a victory is because the team failed to do something they should have done, and failure is something that should not be tolerated.

And the people who fail, and who make excuses, should be told that they have failed and made excuses.

It is through this bastard child of logic that one can come to the conclusion that Phil Parkinson is the reason that City are not successful rather than the reason they are. People with that way of thinking honeycomb the support of football and get far too much attention for my tastes. These people flatter themselves that they present an alternative view of a situation but what they offer is a twisted view based on misunderstanding and ignorance. They should be pushed to the edge of the community of Bradford City support with the other trolls.

However, and this is worth considering, if a person was able to do it without pay there would be nothing to stop such a person with such a twisted view of how football works and the reasons for success from joining the board of Bradford City, from not have any specific responsibilities of any note, and from using board meetings as a place to let Phil Parkinson (or any other City manager) know he is making excuses for his poor performance face to face.

And let us hope is not something that happens or we all really will be sorry.

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