Mark Leonard, for one night only

There is a moment etched into the collective memories of Bradford City supporters of a certain age in which City rake a long, high ball forward for a flick on and then for Mark Leonard to out jump his defender and loop a header into the goal. If you were at that game already you have conjured the moment in your mind.

Mark Zico Leonard scores against Everton.

The ball lofted forward was by Peter Jackson – putting a lie to the idea that he did nothing on his return – and Ian Ormondroyd’s flick on to Leonard would be repeated when Sticks headed down at Wembley eight years later. The Everton side featured a recently transferred Stuart McCall on his return to Valley Parade and the goal loops over Neville Southall – at the time considered the best goalkeeper in the country if not the World – who would finish his long, illustrious and brilliant career in that very goalmouth aged 41.

Watching the goal again does not dim the memory although things jar: The bars fencing in supporters for another, The way that Southall picks up and rolls out a back pass, The physical size of the players who to a man are seemingly a stone heavier than their modern day counterparts;

On that night Leonard shone as bright as any player might. Against the league champions, and uncharacteristically for a team starting to decline, that was Mark Leonard’s night.

The story wrote itself of course. Leonard had broken his leg having been hit by a car on the way to sign for Everton and this was his “unfinished business”. He had joined City from Stockport County with a good scoring record at the lower levels but had not been able to fill the not inconsiderable boots of Bobby Campbell competing for a place in City’s forward line with Ron Futcher in the season the Bantams made the Division One play-offs. Leonard scored 29 goals in 157 appearances for City, none of them recalled with the glee of the evening against Everton.

Leonard did not score a goal every other game, his knowledge of the offside law – or his ability to put that knowledge into practice – was massively limited and seldom has a City striker strayed beyond the back line to invite the flag more. His nickname – Zico – was ironic. For all his hard work, honest endeavour and tireless efforts the only flash of brilliance Leonard showed was that header.

Which damns the man with feint praise. Leonard worked hard as a player and that was appreciated by City supporters. Zico was ironic but affectionate. The mood might have wished for Leonard to be putting the goals at the rate that Mark Bright and Ian Wright – Crystal Palace’s deadly strikers that season who were first and second in the top scorers list – but the fact he did not was not for the want of effort. Leonard was one of football’s triers. Everton was his moment in the sun, but he never let anyone down in his years in the shade.

Indeed for a time he played at centreback before his unwept at exit from Valley Parade in 1992. He went on to win a promotion to the Football League for Chester City playing for Preston North End and Rochdale but never moving above City. When he left football became a top class crown green bowler ranking in England’s top ten. Perhaps he really was Zico when aiming at a Jack.

When thinking about Mark Leonard – Lenny to some, Zico to others – I wonder how he would be received by the modern Bradford City. Perhaps he would be a Gareth Evans of a player with as many critics as he had people in his corner, perhaps he would be a Jake Speight with his hard work ignored and eyes fixated on his goal tally, perhaps he would be a Barry Conlon.

Looking at Leonard’s goal scoring record one is struck by how the higher up the divisions he went, the lower his return. Like Chesterfield’s Jack Lester who seemed to work out after his spells at Nottingham Forest that he was more effective the lower down the leagues he was and one might have forgiven Leonard for staying low and being a good scorer in the bottom two divisions. As a rule though footballers though are built from ambition always want the bigger prize, and to play at the highest level, to forgo a good career in the shadows for some time in the light.

And for one night, Mark Leonard achieved that.

Changes

In September 1959, thanks to parents who bought me boots (and they were boots!) and to teachers who gave up a Saturday morning, I played my first competitive game of football for the under 11s of Harehills Junior School. I can’t remember the opposition or the result but I do remember pulling on a real football jersey – blue and red quarters. I also remember that after the game we were all given concessionary tickets to watch the rather unfashionable professionals in blue and old gold across the other side of the city. Although I didn’t know it then, I was hooked! Football would remain a constant despite all life’s other changes.

Now, in September2009, I am once again eligible for some concessions yet still watching and still playing –albeit friendly 5-a-side – every Sunday morning.

During the intervening years I have experienced ecstatic highs and depressing lows with the two clubs I have supported at different stages of my life. Success at Wembley with both never tempted me to quit whilst ahead, humiliating defeats with both never led me to give up in despair and regular acquaintances with psychotic full backs never made me want to stop playing. I love the game. I have got so much out of it and in some small way put a little bit back.

For many years I, like so many other teachers, was involved in running school football teams at my south Bradford school. Success in hard fought derbies against the likes of Buttershaw, Priestman and Woodroyd was rewarded by “Champions League” knockout stages that involved travel to such exotic locations as Swain House, Belmont and Thornbury. Finals, if you made it, were held at superstadia such as King George fields, Manningham Mills or even….Valley Parade!

But pressures on management are nothing new. School teams were, by their very nature, made up of those in the school. No oil-rich headteachers could attract stars from other schools with the prospect of higher grades and inflated reports. Agents, sorry, parents, did not tout their offspring around to find the team capable of taking their sons “to the next level.” The only hope of strengthening your squad was if someone moved into the area bringing an addition to the school that filled the gap on the left that had always been a problem – which was where I put a young Ian Ormondroyd when he arrived one term!

However the biggest pressure came through the organisation. Because the teams were age-based it meant a new team every year. Whatever success had been achieved the previous year counted for nothing as players were now ineligible for that league as they were a year older. Achievement fluctuated. Highs and lows were experienced. But few managers were sacked because of bad results and the kids were always keen for the next game. Now school football seems to have gone. Maybe better things such as academies, football in the community and local youth teams have replaced them but for those of a certain age school football will be fondly remembered despite all the changes.

So what has all this to do with Bradford City and BfB? Well a glance at the team sheets for September 08 and September 09 have the marked changes in personnel that school teams would show. The change is almost wholesale. Pay packets, personalities and petulance have combined to rid us of much of last September’s team. Luke O’Brian, last year’s youngster, is now the only regular from the last campaign likely to command a regular spot this season. Replacements are like the new school team, mostly inexperienced at this level. Some have played but for “smaller” sides but few have had the set up that Valley Parade has to offer in terms of both facilities and support. And this is the key to how the season might unfold.

For the first time in a while we have the opportunity afforded to few league clubs – the chance to watch a team grow – and what happens…some “fans” are on their backs already. What do they come to City for? What do they come to football for? Does a T.V. diet of Premiership and European leagues raise expectations to an unrealistic level? Is Flynn expected to be Fabregas, Bullock, Ballack or Neillson, Nani? Even superstars make mistakes but rarely face the vitriol poured out by some of our “fourth division fans” who expect perfect passing and first touch control every time.

Recent postings and comments on this site (my own included) have tried to focus on positive support, vocal encouragement and, when necessary, quiet understanding. The boo boys must not hold sway. Personally I am more interested than ever because of the “new” team. There is a sense of excitement, unpredictability and, dare I whisper it so soon, the faint prospect of success – all the things I come to football for.

There is also the challenge of managing a new team. I really can’t believe the criticism levelled at Stuart McCall at the start of this season. Having written in support of him staying just a few months ago I see no reason to change my mind. What I do see is enthusiasm, cooperation on the field and all round effort. Give the manager credit where it is due. The failings of last season in these areas have been addressed quickly this season. Lessons have been learned. Players’ efforts can easily be seen, manager’s efforts are often harder to spot – especially for those blinkered to them in the first place. But for those prepared to look there is a lot of good to see in what has happened this season – and that was just in August!

So, apologies if I am sentimental, excuse the nostalgia if you will ,but please join me in celebrating my 50 years in football by showing pride in those who wear the current City shirt (jersey?) and giving due credit to all involved in making V.P. the place we want to go to enjoy our football. Here’s to the future!

Heroes – City go to Nottingham Forest in League Cup first round

Deja vu, here we are again, back in Nottingham, a place I’m sure most of the team would rather not visit again so soon after the drubbing they had inflicted on them at the weekend. This time however we are here to face a team which, if some fans are to be believed, we should be playing in the league. The fact is, from where we are looking right now, Nottingham Forest might as well be a premier league team with European ambition, just as they were in 1995.

It doesn’t seem like 14 years ago that City came to the banks of the Trent having beaten Forest 3-2 at home and meted out one of our most memorable cup giantkillings. It was a late Ian Ormondroyd header and a Paul Showler strike which salvaged a 2-2 draw after a 3-2 win at Valley Parade and meant we dumped Forest, then a side containing such names as Steve Stone and Stuart Pearce, out of this very competition. Sticks says he still dines out on that goal and rightly so, it is vital goals like that which made him a legend. One wonders if this game will offer up an opportunity for someone to give the fans, and the team, a much needed fillip, even at this stage of the season.

Both sides go into the match without great recent league cup pedigree, Forest having not advanced beyond the first round for two years and City having faltered here every season since 2005. Stuart may ring the changes in defence with it seeming likely that Clarke and Rehman will be dropped, being replaced by debutants Steve Williams and Jon Bateson, the latter coming in at right-back with Ramsden moving into the middle. Rehman has made the right noises in saying that this is a chance to make amends but he may have to wait until the weekend to make his personally.

Midfield may well feature one of Steven O’Leary or James O’Brien in the middle and we can expect to see Gareth Evans given a good run-out upfront alongside Boulding or Thorne, if not a start. The rest of the team should remain unchanged from Meadow Lane.

These are games in which some players will be out to show that they should be in the first team, impress against Nottingham Forest and a starting place could be theirs against Port Vale.

Forest have injury/suspension worries with 5 defenders out which means that midfielders Chris Cohen and Kevin McCleary will play at left back and right back respectively. With this in mind it could be hoped that Joe Colbeck may be able to make inroads against a player in an unfamiliar position, if only Omar Daley was up and running on the other flank. Going forward Billy Davies’ side look strong, even without Rob Earnshaw, who is on international duty with Wales. Nathan Tyson, Dexter Blackstock and former City loanee Dele Adebola will be vying for starting spots and will give City’s defence a testing time.

It looks as though after recent comments, should the ‘nightmare start’ continue, the naysayers may be up in arms and after the head of McCall. In that case it would seem fitting that after every time Nottingham Forest score a goal they taunt the opposition with a rendition of the Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” A sentiment which obviously applies to some within the City faithful. Let’s hope that in the balmy summer evening we can come away having witnessed the birth of a new ‘Sticks’ singing one of of Bill Medley’s post ‘Righteous Brothers’ hits – “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”

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