Preview / Players

It’s just words I assure them. But they will not have it – Simon Armitage

Something unique at Bradford City as one of the goalkeepers is the only player in British Football to have his transfer fee on his back as a squad number. Number one, and costing just one pound, is Colin Doyle arrived from Blackpool and looks to be starting on the first day of the season.

A commanding figure at six foot five Doyle has had the kind of career that seems to engulf goalkeepers who get used to the bench. He is thirty one and has played less than one hundred games.

Steve Banks – who arrived as keeper coach from Blackpool alongside Doyle – has the faith that the Irishman can step up to the duties of a starting keeper and should he fail then Rouven Sattelmaier gets a chance.

Sattelmaier – City’s first European number twelve goalkeeper – has played more first team games than Doyle, albeit at a lower level, and is three years his junior. The German talks confidently about challenging Doyle for his position.

It will be interesting to see at what point Stuart McCall opts for change – if he does – but the relative levels of experience afford an odd unbalance in confidence levels in Sattelmaier’s favour.

Joe Cracknell is third choice. He wears number thirty. The lesson he might learn is to not to get to thirty having been anything other than a first choice goalkeeper.

Of the five candidates for the central defensive roles Stuart McCall is spoilt for choice. Rory McArdle is initially unfit having had an operation in the summer and Matthew Kilgallon has had not pre-season following his release from Blackburn Rovers and so may not figure in the opening games but Nathan Clarke is able enough in the short term and Nathaniel Knight-Percival impressed on previous visits to and from Shrewsbury Town.

Kilgallon seems to be too high profile a signing to be anything other than McCall’s long term choice in one of the two central defensive positions and Knight-Percival has probably not moved to West Yorkshire with now expectations. McArdle has proved himself to be as close to undroppable as a player could be and there is little reason to imagine he will not carry on at such a high standard.

Which leaves McCall with – when fitness comes – the sort of headache any manager might want of having too many good players. There is the option of playing three central defenders which the new manager did experiment with when he was the old manager but failing that it seems that Kilgallon, McArdle and Knight-Percival have got reasons to perform in a fight for their places.

Which damns Nathan Clarke and youngster James King to a season picking up scraps.

On the left side of the two full backs James Meredith has no competition for his position following Gregg Leigh’s departure although there are moves, we are told, to bring in cover for the Australian. Meredith could be employed further forward should McCall play a three man central defence with wing backs. Should Meredith miss out then someone in the squad will be press ganged to left back.

And that someone is probably Tony McMahon who has played in most positions at Bradford City in his one and a half years at the club and after being – some may argue – the best player last season on the right hand side of midfield he has been officially announced as now being a right back.

A stranger move it is hard to imagine considering Stephen Darby’s position not only as right back and captain but consistent performer over the last few years. It is not accident that Darby’s name – as with McArdle – appears alongside the better moments of Bradford City’s recent history. An acid test of McCall’s second/forth spell at Bradford City is his ability to see this.

Again as with McArdle Darby starts the season injured and is two to three months away from full fitness. McMahon has the position for now.

Darby is important – very important – but McMahon’s abilities are not to be underestimated either. He led League One on assists last season and performed the wide midfield role far better than players who were signed with much more flourish. Finding a place for McMahon in the side is important but to replace Darby is to cut out the heart to add an extra hand – or foot – where it should not be.

Daniel Devine can also play right back, but he can do anything, read on.

Stuart McCall’s situation with midfielders is similar to his central defensive proposition in that he has at least three players who one might argue should have places and two places to play them.

Romain Vincelot continues the Brexit baiting European-ness of not only being French but also wearing number six and playing in midfield – does he believe he is Luis Fernández? – and seems assured a place in McCall’s side while Timothée Dieng who wears a more respectable eight jersey has done enough in pre-season to suggest that the two might combine into a dogs of war midfield. Or should that be chiens de guerre or perhaps coeur de guerre which sounds much more romantic.

However Nicky Law Jnr’s return – the first summer signing of what can justifiably be called a new era – suggested that he was likely to be favoured in a central midfield role. The aforementioned McMahon and Filipe Morais can also play the role and Devine has impressed too.

Devine, King and Reece Webb-Foster who we shall come to later have an interesting position in the 2016/2017 Bradford City squad. Where previously injuries in the Football League were on the whole covered by loan players new regulations mean that such moves can only happen within transfer windows.

This sets a requirement for players like Devine to be kept near the first team squad as cover rather than being sent out on loan, or isolated from the first team squad because the intention is to send them out on loan.

As the aim is to have a Devine, or a Webb-Foster, or a King ready to be dropped into first team action in the way that Wes Thomas or Tom Thorpe was last season then there is an opportunity to have those players blended into the first team squad. And in that context should Webb-Foster show day in day out in training that he can score then his path to the first team is highlighted.

This was not the case under Phil Parkinson where young players would complain about a lack of development – there was no reserve team some of the time – and there was an obvious preference to loan signings over development players. News that McCall is interested in Liverpool’s Cameron Brannagan and is trying to bring back Josh Cullen is interesting in this context.

It would seem that Vincelot and Dieng will start the season in the centre of midfield for City and that Law Jnr, and Devine, will cool their heels waiting for an opportunity or for McCall to try a three man midfield that would take Dieng holding and Vincelot and Law alongside him.

It would be odd if McCall – an advocate of the FourFourTwo – abandoned that formation just as its resurgence post Euro 2016 took hold. His willingness to do that perhaps depends on Brannagan or Cullen signing or the performance of the most disappointing group of players last season.

We shall dub these the creators if only because repeating the words “wingers, attacking midfielder and and drop off strikers” over and over will get tiresome. Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall’s failure to fulfil these roles last season deformed City’s season and to expect both to improve is an act of faith.

Anderson’s first season was interrupted by injury but when fit his play was not especially useful. He is fast and able to send a ball into the box at a ninety degree angle to his running path but as previously mentioned crossing is football’s overrated virtue and not only would Anderson have to play better this season to impress he would have to play differently.

Which means that Anderson – who enjoys a seniority at the club and is expected to perform – needs to not take the easier options he so often did in his performances at the start and the end of last season where he went wide hugging the touchline and hit the ball into the box and to nobody. His delivery was poor and considering the lack of numbers City got into the box that was a problem.

Anderson needs a reinvention. He needs to be the player who uses possession much better than he has done previously. He needs to be the player who can effectively cut inside as well as go outside of a full back and when he does he needs to have more presence of mind to find a target more often or to choose to do something else such as a surge into the area.

It might be that Anderson does not have these attributes to his game but if that is the case then he condemns himself as a very easy player to play against and one which will struggle. Even at League One level football has no time for the player who has but one way to achieve his aim and persistence is only admirable when a player carries on doing something effective.

Which brings us to Mark Marshall who has a similar situation albeit one he has shown more capacity to address. Marshall’s delivery is better than Anderson’s and he shows a willingness to vary his play which makes him genuinely difficult to play against but he is troublingly negligent in the defensive side of his game.

Marshall too often could be accused in his appearances last season with exposing the full back behind him and not working well in the defensive unit. A coeur de guerre midfield might give Marshall more licence to idle in this regard but he is simply not a good enough winger to set up a team to carry him if he does not track back.

Unlike Filipe Morais who offers McCall the type of endeavour that the previous manager loved but not the creative output which the team needs. Morais is being considered more of a drop off striker to play in what is now called the number ten position but was the hole although his effectiveness there seems to be a result of his randomness rather than the teams ability to blend him into a style.

Morais, as with Marshall and Anderson, is a creator who does not create enough and this is where the worries about Stuart McCall’s planning for the season start. The back six players provide a superb platform – arguably better than the one that Parkinson’s side had – but there seems to be a dearth of creators to stand on that platform.

Which leads back to McMahon who – like it or not – created a lot last season and should Anderson, Marshall and Morais not step up their contributions significantly then one suspects that McMahon will need to be taken out of whatever hole he would like to fit into and bashed back into one of the wide midfield positions.

Creation, assists, and defensive ability to not leave the team undermanned this should not be a difficult choice to make but one worries that McCall will have to learn this lesson the hard way. As it stands McCall is putting a lot of faith in players who have done little to merit it.

Should McCall favour a three man midfield then one might see Anderson and/or Marshall deployed further forward as part of an attacking three but that does not seem to solve the problems so much as make them less relevant by shifting the creation to the three midfielders. If McCall opts to play Vincelot and Dieng deep and a row of three creators behind a front man then one might worry about the effectiveness of such an approach but still these players would have to step up their performance.

McCall seems to be prepared to put that faith into Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall and one hopes that his faith is rewarded – much depends on it being – and one expects to see both starting against Port Vale for the opening game of the season and hopes to see the two players who were promised twelve months ago.

Which leads us to the subject of Billy Clarke and the strikers. Clarke’s promise at the start of last season evaporated leaving the top scorer of the year before idling towards the end of Parkinson’s time at City.

As with Anderson and Marshall the problem Clarke presents is that he does not scorer enough to be considered a goalscorer nor does he create enough to be thought of in that role and unless there is a drastic change in either of those qualities then there are problems when he is in the team.

One can try play a passing game routed through Clarke the number ten but to do so is to put undue faith in the Irishman’s sporadic ability to unlock a defence. This is a distinct contrast to James Hanson who one can rely on to beat defenders to high passes on a regular basis.

This was always the unsaid – or perhaps unheard – quantity in the debates over how Phil Parkinson’s side played football. Hanson would reliably win high balls, Clarke would not reliably unlock defences through craft. The argument was more pragmatics than cosmetics and the nature of that argument has not changed with the change of manager.

Get the ball to Hanson and there will be flick ons more often then there will be through balls from working the ball through Clarke. The two can play together with Clarke playing off Hanson but to do that Clarke needs to remain close to the man they call Big Unit and not wander off on esoteric crusades for the ball deep in the midfield.

Likewise to play the ball through Clarke and look for craft to open defences Hanson would need to be more mobile than he is and make the sort of runs which have not been a staple of his career.

Which is where Jordy Hiwula and Webb-Foster present options that are valued if only because they are unknown.

The problem that Stuart McCall has is that Bradford City do not score enough goals. I would argue that they do not create enough chances and the reason for that is that the team was set up defensively after a recruitment issue left the team with a goalkeeper and back four who could not deal with crosses.

The solution to not creating enough chances is in the creative players: the Andersons and Marshalls; and in the strikers: Clarke and Hanson; and the onus on them to make more chances to allow a reasonable conversion rate to result in more goals.

It is not impossible that this situation will have been addressed by a general step forward by the entire team – the defensive posture of last season prized not conceding over everything else – but unless it has or unless the players perform then the strikers will spend the season once more trying to convert a high percentage of fewer chances.

One can expect to see Hanson and Clarke start the season and one can expect before August closes the strikers and the creators to have been augmented. At the moment City and Stuart McCall seem to have a team that his half right which at least is not a step backwards.


This preview might get out of date quickly and if it does it will be updated. Just so you know.

Holes / Fit

Stuart McCall gets to the business of building a squad to compete in League One next season and he does so starting with a compliment of ten outfield players and no goalkeepers.

The goalkeeping situation offers most scope for change. Ben Williams – who is considering a new deal – would not suit McCall’s style of play at all. Williams’ weakness on crosses forced deep sitting defensive lines in Phil Parkinson’s final season. McCall needs a keeper who can control the defensive line, keep it high, and clear out any cross that comes behind it.

And then he needs another of these keepers as back up, and perhaps a third considering the changes to loan rules.

Across the back four Parkinson has left three solid players: Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle and James Meredith; and certainly Meredith seems to be exactly the type of attacking left back which McCall fielded all through his management career. Darby offers a balance on the right and – unless Parkinson is able to call either of both like some crazed Boltonian head of the herd – McCall would be best advised to keep both in position.

Rory McArdle seems a player to build any defence around and McCall’s fondness for a big central defender was personified in Marius Žali?kas at Rangers a year ago. During his first spell at the club McCall inherited David Wetherall and Mark Bower and ended up struggling to work out what he wanted from his central defensive pairing.

The new City manager often preferred two commanding central defenders and McArdle fits that bill but he has played his best football last season with a faster, clean up player alongside him and McCall might be advised to find one of that type of player as well as cover.

Considering Phil Parkinson’s sit deep team Stuart McCall might be surprised to find he has two wingers in his dressing room. Both Mark Marshall and Paul Anderson need to perform significantly better to be considered League One standard – which for Anderson is a bold statement considering his pedigree and remunerations – but the new manager has shown a commitment to wide play which affords an opportunity.

Filipe Morais and Tony McMahon are not McCall’s definition of a wide player but both could prove useful if in the merits of a better balanced midfield are to the fore. This all assumes that McCall will play the 442 formation he did at Valley Parade in 2010.

McMahon proved last season his ill-fit in a central midfield role being to weak in the tackle to hold the middle of the pitch. McCall needs an entire new engine room for his team. Last time he favoured one robust midfielder and one more attacking player while fielding two who could still be considered box to box players. It will be interesting to see if in the intervening time he has gained any faith in specialist defensive midfielders.

He has four players to bring in for that area. It will be interesting to see who they are and what roles they will take. McCall needs to find character and leadership in those positions and those things are seldom going free in a summer. It is easy to say that McCall needs to find his McCall, and is not untrue.

One midfielder is expected to be returning is Nicky Law Jnr. The Junior being increasingly humorous in a man who, like your author, has inherited his father’s hairline.

Up front McCall finds familiar face James Hanson. Discussion on Hanson will always be split and split along an ideological line. Hanson is the only player City have who could clearly be said to be the best at an aspect of the game in the division. People can cross a ball better, and shoot better, and defend better but no one in League One is as commanding in the air as Hanson.

This has massive implications for the opposition going into game. If a manager ignores Hanson he faces the prospect of watching his team be dominated from corners and crosses. If he takes special measure for Hanson he surrenders more space to other City forwards. That two men are marking Hanson at set plays affords space to someone else.

Ideologically though some are unable, unwilling or uninterested in this sort of dynamic between teams and are of the school of the thought that suggests it is for a team to dominate and dictate their way of playing onto the opposition. McCall was of this mindset too, far more than Phil Parkinson, and it will be interesting to see if he has changed.

The aforementioned Clarke seems very much McCall’s new Michael Boulding and while one can expect the manager to look at bringing in strikers one doubts Clarke will be hurried out of the door. Reece Webb-Foster will probably be given a chance – McCall’s record on untried players is a stark contrast with Parkinson’s – and another rumour reunites McCall with brief Rangers loanee Haris Vu?ki?.

Selection / Manager

First this then what? While the history of BfB remains unwritten if I were to follow our friends at A Post in doing so there would be a large chunk of that about the process of recruiting managers.

Because while Bradford City have not had to appoint a replacement manager for some five years in the five years before the practice was becoming so common as to have started to be tedious.

The transition from Peter Jackson to Parkinson was something of a disorganised fumble with the candidates being interviewed not understanding the remit of the role they were applying for. Colin Cooper is believed to have told Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes that were he to get the job he would sack Chief Scout Archie Christie and Rhodes reply – as reported by Christie – was that Christie’s input on the manager would weigh heavily on the process.

At the time Rhodes and Lawn had wanted John Still the then Dagenham and Redbridge manager (who is now manager of Dagenham and Redbridge again) to take the position but were turned towards Parkinson as a better option.

Jackson’s appointment was a Sunday afternoon nonsense where it seemed that the club had decided that as a former player Jackson could skip an interview process for who would replace Peter Taylor and go straight to the manager’s chair,

Jackson had been working in a care home when he got the call to become a football manager once more. In my view he was barely adequate in his performance and the problems of his appointment were those of his departure. No matter how Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp go about recruiting the new manager for Bradford City one doubts it can be worse than that period of the club’s history.

Peter Taylor had been an outstanding appointment to replace Stuart McCall bringing to the table a seniority which McCall lacked and a proven track record of success. Taylor’s time at the club is rightly not fondly remembered but it is his professionalism rather than the lack of material which stopped him from sticking a few boots in on the way out.

The Shane Duff fish story speaks volumes.

Taylor’s appointment is perhaps the model that Rahic and Rupp – and any other chairman looking – would best follow when looking for a new manager. Selecting a candidate who had achieved success is important but much more important are multiple successes across different situations.

This adaptability is probably what attracted Bolton to Parkinson. Parkinson has worked on a budget at City at first, and at Colchester United, and he has shown an ability to take on big occasions at Chelsea, Arsenal et al.

There is an element of confirmation bias in Parkinson’s appointment.

The news that Chief Scout Tim Breacker is leaving with Parkinson comes as music to the ears as the club badly need to readdress that area. Parkinson’s recruitment was becoming an problem at Bradford City. Of the players he was happy with Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, James Meredith and Kyel Reid were all picked up a long time ago and if there was a faultline between Rahic and Parkinson along the idea of recruitment then one would struggle to suggest that the manager should have been allowed to carry on doing things the same way.

Likewise following the defeat to Millwall I expressed a concern that Parkinson had created a kind of Oakland Athletics in League One (The Oakland A’s being the subject of the book Moneyball) which was able win in the grind of week to week football but were found wanting at the sharp end of the season.

That concern was just that – a minor concern, rather than a fully stated question – and of course is denied by memories of Aston Villa away and Stamford Bridge but while the strength of Parkinson was his team’s ability to grind out results and sneak 1-0 wins that was a weakness when overplayed.

One should never be critical the the days of milk and honey ended but Millwall game illustrates this concern. In one of the forty five minute periods – the first – the Londoners dominated City and in the others the Bantams were arguably the better team but did not repair the damage done.

Perhaps more significantly to the concern is that in those three forty-five minute periods that followed Parkinson’s side did not seem as if it could repair the damage of being 3-1 down. Keeping game’s tight and nicking goals works over a longer period, less so in a two legged tie.

But would overplays this at one’s peril. Parkinson was an exceptional Bradford City manager and as Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp look for his replacement they must hope to keep the best of Parkinson.

Parkinson’s teams were seldom out of games. Rarely were the side over a goal down and always did it look capable of getting something out of an encounter. One of the more compelling reasons to follow Parkinson’s City on the road was the fullness of the ninety minutes of football. Never being out of a game was a watchword of the previous manager, and hopefully will be one of the next.

This was in no small part down to the spirit Parkinson’s side had which was second to none seen at Valley Parade. One could write books about how the players aided each other through bad moments that stopped bad games and probably still not understand exactly how that team spirit worked. Suffice to say whatever it is needs to remain, as to Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle the chief proponents of it.

Finally Parkinson’s pragmatism needs to be a factor in the new manager especially when confronted with the stated iconoclasm of Rahic and Rupp who have a clear idea of how they want the Bantams to play (“High pressing, exciting”) but may have to accept as Parkinson had that tactics are created to suit players and situations. Parkinson’s final season at City was defensive by necessity. The new manager, whomsoever he may be, should hope to make sure that he understands this.

Ultimate / Reasoning

The news that Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle will miss the first month and two months of the season respectively following operations leaves Bradford City in a position of having five players for the opening day of the season.

Of the entire City squad – stripped of those on loan or on contracts that run out at the end of June – Phil Parkinson has James Meredith, Mark Marshall, James Hanson, Josh Morris, Filipe Morais, Paul Anderson and Tony McMahon remaining (see comments below). With recruitment over the summer a problem for the City boss but with investment having arrived one wonders if things were not meant to be this way.

Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp had declared an interest in buying City twelve months ago. One can assume that that interest became more concrete as the season went on. One wonders how much impact the German pair’s arrival had on Parkinson’s winter spending. Had the previous regime known they were selling the club would they have authorised signing players on deals that went beyond the end of the season? Would Parkinson have wanted them to?

Devante Cole – a square peg at Bradford City – left for around £45,000 and a loan deal for Jamie Proctor that became a short term contract. The money – one imagines – went into the books for negotiation making the club look healthier and Parkinson was not saddled with an eighteen month contract for a player (Proctor) who he probably would not want if he had improved resources.

The reported £85,000 for Gary Liddle caused a lot of upset and head scratching at the time but perhaps makes more sense now. The player is sold, the money goes onto the bottom line of the club, and Liddle is replaced with a loan player in Cullen improved the team. Again knowing that the club would be being invested in one might speculate that Parkinson would have been looking to replace Liddle with some Bradley Dack-a-like.

So Parkinson goes into the recruitment phase with a near clean slate which – if the James Hanson to Sheffield United talk come to fruition – could be even cleaner because of the approach to signing players adopted in the last transfer window.

As Alan Sheehan – who departed yesterday to Luton Town – might have been tempted to say. There is just an inner circle left at the club now and that seems to be the way it is supposed to be.

Phil Parkinson and the team of tautology

The Team

Ben Williams | Stepgen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Lee Evans, Josh Cullen, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Filipe Morais | Billy Clarke, Jamie Proctor, Nathan Clarke

It seemed odd twenty minutes later but at half time I waxed lyrical about how good Walsall were.

Walsall were, after all, the first team to put the ball past Ben Williams in over eight games when they scored in what would be their manager Dean Smith’s final game in charge at the Bescot Stadium back in November and they had won that game.

At half time – defending City’s noisy North End – they had gnarled their way through the opening forty five minutes with the type of performance that City’s Phil Parkinson would have been proud of from his players.

Indeed Walsall’s James O’Connor typified the Saddlers approach to gutsy determination to not allow goalkeeper Neil Etheridge’s clean sheet to be dirtied. Away from Valley Parade during the transition period between City’s early season floundering and that eight games without concession it was exactly the sort of determination that O’Connor showed that Rory McArdle was dragging out every game.

But that was then, and this is now.

Transition

Turning this Bradford City team around this season ranks alongside Chelsea, Arsenal and Wembley twice in Phil Parkinson’s achievements as Bradford City manager.

So meek in surrender earlier in the season, and so aimless at times, this was to be a fallow year for Bradford City.

It was a season where signings did not work out – Paul Anderson watches from the bench, Mark Marshall nowhere, Brad Jones elsewhere – and where even the signings that did work didn’t work. How strange does Devante Cole’s decision to join a relegation battle in preference to staying at City look now?

Which is impressive is not just that Parkinson has spun this season into something when it threatened so often to be nothing but how he has done it.

Parkinson has created the team of tautology: A committed group of loan players.

Shut up Wesley!

Josh Cullen, Lee Evans, Reece Burke were a good chunk of the spine of Bradford City in the 4-0 win over Walsall and have been crucial in the transformation of the team. Indeed Cullen’s arrival allowed the much loved Gary Liddle to exit for Chesterfield and another relegation scrap and while one doubts Cullen (or Burke) will be starting next season in the Olympic Stadium with West Ham neither of them are committed to City in the long term.

But in the short term they are? And why is this? Loan players are as Wes Thomas has been. Oddly out of sorts perhaps, and stuck in their ways. Thomas was to the Bradford City support what Jamie Proctor became: The alternative to James Hanson;

Nevertheless Thomas’s unwillingness or inability to play a high pressing game – which resulted in opposition side’s getting an easy route out away from their own goal – has seen the player confronted with two choices: Parkinson’s way or no way at all. Being a loanee and able to ride out the rest of his deal Thomas seemingly did not care for the former and ended up with the latter.

Which has been City’s experience with loan players since their presence went from odd novelty to (apparently) a necessity in the last two decades of the game. If one includes Kyel Reid and Jamie Proctor as loan players (as they initially were) then half of City’s team could not be around next season.

So how are they not a team of Wes Thomas’s?

The fault is not with the stars

The answer to that question probably resides in Rory McArdle and James Hanson, who both returned to the side for the Walsall game, and with other long time servers like Stephen Darby, James Meredith and perhaps the aforementioned Reid.

There is an adage in football – which is attributed to Brian Clough but I’m sure pre-dates him – that a club is as good as its senior players. It seems that Parkinson believes that to be the case. There is a circle of players like Hanson, McArdle, Darby, Meredith, Reid, and perhaps extended to Ben Williams and Tony McMahon who create a tone and an atmosphere at the club which has in its way become a repeatable pattern of success.

To that circle – an inner circle perhaps – Parkinson trust everything. It is to those players who the manager turns when defeat to Coventry City and a draw at Shrewsbury Town has questioned the club’s play off credentials. And with rich reward too. Hanson scores his first professional hat-trick and remains the club’s top goalscorer while McArdle returns the club to clean sheets. The 24th of the season.

For younger players who arrive on loan at the club the message is obvious. Take your cue from that inner circle in how you play, and how you train, and learn the lesson about how far that sort of attitude will take you in football.

What do you learn

One wonders what a young player gets from League One football. Dele Alli – named PFA Young Player of the Year – started last year scoring against City for MK Dons. The intelligentsia have it that it is his blooding as a child in the lower leagues that maketh the man. As if the sort of cold Tuesday night in Crewe that the football media so often sneer at is actually of crucial importance in some way or other.

If it is then Cullen, Evans and Burke have those lessons which are attributed to Alli, and to his partner Harry Kane who wandered the lower leagues as a part of the loan system. Parkinson’s approach to the game involves making sure you are never out of a game – never cast adrift two or three goals behind – and keeping the competitiveness for ninety minutes.

To not lose easily perhaps sums it up best and contrasts with a Walsall side who saw the tide turn away from them on Saturday and did not want to get their feet wet in it. From dogs of war to puppies in the space of fifteen minutes and incapable of stopping the game from going away from them. Parkinson’s approach would have been to close the game down at 0-1, and he has been criticised for that, but only once or twice have City been out of matches all season.

That approach has become the season and there is something about Parkinson’s approach – about following Parkinson’s approach – that is instructive to young footballers. Certainly they show the trappings of players who understand the nature of league football. Burke is committed against Walsall ensuring nothing goes past him. Evans has a poor first half but Cullen carries his team mate through a bad forty five minutes and the pair emerge imperious at the end.

Cullen carries his team mate. A 20 year old loan player prepared to put some of his performance into making sure his team mate’s performance can recover. If that does not tell you the scale of Parkinson’s achievement with this group of players nothing will.

And the achievement is in the approach and the approach relies on the inner circle of players who maintain an attitude throughout the club.

After all these years City have finally got good at loans.

Do you remember the last time?

Just as City start to master loan signings then loan signings disappear. The loan system as we are used to it in the Football League is changing and next season loans are restricted to transfer windows. No emergency bringing in Kyel Reid after an injury to Paul Anderson, no drafting in Lee Evans because things are not going how you want them.

Next season’s summer recruitment has to be more fruitful than this year or the club face a long slog to Christmas but the same was true this season and when Hanson wandered off with the match ball – two headed goals and a powerful right foot finish – one might have wondered if Parkinson were forced to work with the players he had would he have been able to get them to the play-offs this season? If Paul Anderson had not had his leg broken would he be doing what Kyel Reid is now?

In this case retrospect does not have to provide an answer.

When to start pressing your palms together as Bradford City beat Oldham Athletic 1-0 at Valley Parade

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Nathan Clarke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Christopher Routis, Lee Evans, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Billy Clarke | Josh Morris, Devante Cole, Mark Marshall

Bradford City ground out a win against an Oldham Athletic team who played most of the match with ten men after Connor Brown was sent off for a late and long lunge at Kyel Reid and were defeated when James Meredith’s deep cross was lob headed in by Tony McMahon.

City had chances to add to the lead which were squandered – strikers James Hanson and Billy Clarke both were guilty of missing the target in the final third – but it seemed that there was little commitment from City boss Phil Parkinson that his team would add a second, or third, goal against a team in the bottom four and playing with one fewer men.

Parkinson was happy with a one goal win. Parkinson is always happy with a one goal win. Parkinson has been Bradford City boss for around 250 games and we know that he approaches football like this. He likes clean sheets and takes a geological (“Geology is the study of pressure and time“) approach to winning matches.

This approach was in evidence at Parkinson’s finest hour and in many other fine hours before and since.

The game this time last year against Millwall which saw the visitors fold after an early sending off was the game that everyone wanted once Brown was sent off but it did not happen. Oldham under new manager John Sheridan were more robust than that Millwall team and approached the game trying to not be beaten rather knowing they needed to trying to win.

Wedded to that was City’s struggle to make play. James Meredith had one of his better games but most of the other players have had more fruitful afternoons. None of the players have got more points on an afternoon – there is no four points for an entertaining win – and so City continue to occupy a place in League One where with games in hand and a good wind the Bantams would trouble the play-offs.

Pressing palms

After around eighty minutes of the win over Oldham Athletic a cross from Mark Marshall was headed wide by James Hanson. It was a bad miss and received only a smattering of applause from the Valley Parade crowd of 18,522. I did, and was (in a roundabout way) ticked off for a friend who sits nearby at VP.

“I’m not clapping that” he remarked with what could be described as a cheery grump, before asking me why I was. The exchange was good natured with fifteen minutes of him turning to ask if it was acceptable to clap now and me telling him that he could not.

This exchange culminated with (and I shall let you, dear reader, judge if this is a high bar to clear) my point which encapsulates the argument crisply.

“You can clap when the fourth goal goes in against Chelsea, or you can start before then, its up to you.”

It all comes back to Chelsea in the end.

Gnomic

What is supporting a football team? A disinterested friend of mine calls it “cheering laundry” while a friend of his defines his life by the fact that he has a season ticket at Old Trafford. One suspects that there is a type of support for every supporter.

But there does seem to be an Isthmus of Suez between those who believe that supporting is an active participation in creating a better football team and those who believe it is appreciating the endeavours of that team. The former see supporting as an active process of involvement in a community while the latter look at it as a reactive experience in which their involvement is largely immaterial.

To start to characterise the two groups the latter group Hanson’s miss has nothing to applaud. It is a failed attempt to produce an aim. To the former group Hanson’s miss is a subject to improvement and that that improvement is made through hard work by the players and that hard work comes as the result of encouragement. It is not hard to imagine what the latter group would think about that.

The latter group look on a miss like Hanson’s as being similar to a duff album track, or Star Wars Episode One, as something that could be done better but was not. Why get excited about something like that? Why clap Jar Jar Binks as a good attempt that went wrong?

The former would reply that the heights of achievement are only possible because of the support at the bottom and that when teams are playing poorly, or when players miss headers, it is the role of supporters to rehabilitate and return to the heights.

When to start and when to finish

The classic Chicken or Egg situation exists here. Are Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United et al popular because they are successful or successful because they are – or were – popular? Is there a symbiosis of the two?

The Chelsea game gives a case in point. The cheer for the fourth goal – the footballing cherry on the top – was so much full-voiced than that for the first which seemed a consolation at the time, or the second which equalised. Instinctively I know why this is but it would be better to have cause and effect explicit.

I clapped Mark Marshall’s cross, and James Hanson’s effort to get to the ball, and Jon Stead’s 1-2 goal and the effort which created the single chance City mustered at Accrington in a Peter Jackson inspired 1-0 defeat which represents the lowest ebb of City’s play I’ve seen.

Hanson’s header went a long way wide but his header against Aston Villa put the club into a Cup Final. The approach, losing a man, getting in front of a defender, the effort required, everything to the finish was the same. Is only one admirable?

Perhaps I should have saved my applause for the moment Yeates had put the ball past Cech or some other rung on a ladder between there and here and somewhere lower. I did not and I cannot help but wonder what football would be like if people did that.

The Neville Southall problem returns to Bury as City draw a blank in the FA Cup third round

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Christopher Routis, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Lee Evans, Gary Liddle, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Billy Clarke | Luke James, John Morris, Mark Marshall

Bradford City fans saw the end of Neville Southall’s career, Bury fans saw the start. Southall – who many regard the best goalkeeper of his era – played 39 games at Gigg Lane and presented manager Jim Iley with a problem.

Southall’s predecessor John Forrest had kept goal for the Shakers for twenty four years but such was the new goalkeepers nascent ability was such that that Iley’s strikers – who included future PFA chairman Gordon Taylor – were struggling to beat the him in training.

So much so that Taylor and his team mates got used to spending training sessions putting their best efforts at Southall and seeing them saved.

They got used to not scoring. And they lost confidence.

The Phil Parkinson era

Southall had been gone seven years, Iley four, when Phil Parkinson made his debut for Bury. City manager Parkinson played 145 games at Gigg Lane most of them as the position of midfield spoiler that he would make his hallmark at Reading.

There is an adage that one can trust a manager to know his own position. The suspension of Nathan Clarke following a sending off at Gillingham that also saw Reece Burke injured and then returned to West Ham United had given Parkinson a problem in the middle of his back four. Rory McArdle needed a partner and while Christopher Routis had returned to fitness Parkinson had previously dropped Gary Liddle back from the holding midfield berth to he him in the role.

And that approach had failed. It had failed at the end of last season and failed at the start of this and – to my estimation – it had failed not because Liddle can not play the position (he spent a season in central defence at Notts County before arriving at Valley Parade) but rather because he was missing from the middle of midfield.

Phil Parkinson decided he would not be without his Phil Parkinson.

The best from the worst

Liddle in central midfield presented the problem of using Christopher Routis in the heart of the defence – a role he has not played since Joe Garner spent fourteen minutes ripping him apart before he was sent off – in front of a keeper in Ben Williams with whom there is a direct correlation between McArdle and Burke being in front of him and him keeping a clean sheet.

One recalls with horror Williams struggling to set the defensive line at the start of the season and the number and type of goals conceded as a result.

Looking over the field and almost half the City players: Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Kyel Ried, James Hanson and James Meredith; had joined the club as it struggled in the bottom half of League Two. Bury are a peer at of City in the top half of League One and all those five players are worth their places a league and a half above where they were when they first got on a training pitch with Parkinson.

Which is something to describe in assessing the skills of Phil Parkinson. He picked up the players signed when CIty were (arguably) at their worst and got the best out of them.

And so it proved with Routis, and so it proved with Williams, who both performed superbly. I would have written off Williams as not worth the work to improve but when Andrew Tutte got behind McArdle in the first half and was in a one on one situation with the City keeper my heart was not in my mouth as Williams narrowed angles, made himself large, and ended up pushing the ball away.

Likewise Routis kept le coeur from la bouche most of the afternoon matching McArdle for vigour and showing the physical strength that was missing from his game previously. He went too far and one two footed tackle in the second half should have seen him sent off.

Parkinson had decided that the way to battle Bury was to battle Bury and City were physically robust bullying the Shakers into the playing the game as the away team in the own stadium a fact made easier by the decision to put Bantams fans behind both goals. They do not like it when you suggest away fans outnumbered the home around these parts but that seemed to be the case from my corner of Gigg Lane.

What did John Iley do about that problem?

Having been bullied onto the back foot by a City team pressing high Bury struggled to create a tempo to their play and while they had two chance to snatch a lead it would have been snatched. The Shakers best moment ended with Darby and McArdle taking control of the ball between them in a six yard box scrum and wandering away with it as if it were a training game.

But at the other end of the field the Bantams struggled to convert chances. Tony McMahon hit the post with a free kick, Liddle headed wide when everyone expected him to score, and Hanson scooped over from inside the six yard box in the last minutes of stoppage time. Confidence is obviously low and shows with all City’s players.

Difficult to score against but labouring at the other end with strikers. What did John Iley do about that problem?

The Iley way

Iley effectively banned Southall from training – albeit with a smile – and in doing so allowed the 1981 vintage Bury strikers to get used to scoring in practice again. Southall’s rise was inexorably unaffected.

The Shakers ended the season blasting in fours and sixes, clearly with confidence recovered, and finished above City in the 1981 Division Four table. Southall left for Everton and glory at the end of the 1981 season and so the problem solved itself the next season having been fixed on the training pitch before.

And one suspect that it is on the training pitch that Parkinson will solve his team’s goalscoring problems. The team are defending well, are creating chances, are controlling games. The ball will not go in and confidence has suffered as a result but Parkinson (and I) believe that it is easier to add goals to a team that defends well that stop a free scoring team conceding.

This is Parkinson’s way. He builds teams that are hard to beat and capitalises on what can build the confidence. Sixth choice striker off the bench against Rochdale blasts it in and he becomes Nahki Wells. Middling League Two team beats Arsenal and Parkinson galvanises the club around it. City bob along in League One, beat Chelsea, and end up a a place outside the play-offs.

Parkinson takes a clink of the light of confidence and bathes the players in it. How that is done will probably not become a part of football folklore like Iley and Southall have but everything we have seen from Parkinson in the last five years suggests it will.

The Ben Williams season continues with City facing Aldershot Town in the FA Cup

Williams from Williams

The first time Ben Williams became known to Bradford City supporters was during the first round of the FA Cup when – minutes into the game with Halifax Town – he was picking the ball out of the back of his own goal.

An inauspicious start to a campaign that would see Williams keeping goal at Stamford Bridge but his afternoon at The Shay better when Phil Parkinson switched formation and Filipe Morais and Billy Clarke turned the match and the season around.

Jon Stead scored – he always scored in the FA Cup – and Williams’ role was largely forgotten but he did make a very good save from a Williams’ close range header. I’d describe it as memorable but it seems that not a lot of people remember it.

Ben Williams save from Steve Williams. Steve Williams is a former Bantam who exited Valley Parade around the time of the change from Peter Taylor, to Peter Jackson, to Phil Parkinson . In the words for former Chief Scout Archie Christie when asked why the talented Williams had left said that the player “did not want it enough.”

Wanting it enough was big for Christie, and is big for Phil Parkinson.

Wanting it

The last three weeks of Bradford City have been the definition of “wanting it”. A trip to Millwall, a visit from Blackpool, a trip to Aldershot for the 0-0 draw that brings about this reply, and a 2-0 win over Crewe Parkinson’s team had dug in hard to turn a few good wins into an impressive unbeaten run.

Parkinson’s has taken his Bradford City back to the most simple of building blocks creating a team which fetishises not conceding in the same way Barcelona lust for possession. Parkinson’s City will not concede – so the thought goes – and as a result the result will take after itself.

One has to go back to 24th of October when Wigan Athletic took the lead past Ben Williams for City’s last concession. Williams could have done better with that strike, and he got lucky with a shot from Crewe on Saturday that slipped greasy off his body and flew back into play but Williams has earned his luck with his graft.

My issue with Williams’ goalkeeping style – that he allows too much of a gap between the defensive line and himself – is addressed by Parkinson compressing his defensive unit at the expense of his forward line leaving the forward line lacking numbers. It is meat and potatoes and City are criticised for a negative approach to the game.

Criticism is always relative though, and relative to the criticism one gets for losing.

The work

The work which Phil Parkinson’s team have put into the last two months is transformative. Players have developed pairings where previously there was confusion. Stephen Darby has found an unlikely partner in Tony McMahon while James Meredith probably thought reuniting with Kyel Ried was unlikely too.

The central midfield pair are of two of Lee Evans, Gary Liddle and the much improved Billy Knott are a product of days at Apperley Bridge. Knott would be the poster boy for improvement with his push back from the Ghetto of being an “attacking midfielder” into a genuinely useful box to box player.

Would be if it were not for the backline of Rory McArdle, Reece Burke and Williams himself. Calm has replaced barked blasts. Control has replaced scrambles. Stern has replaced soft when running at the heart of the Bantams team.

There is a significant need for a collective improvement. It has happened.

A Ben Williams sort of season

Bradford City’s season has become a Ben Williams sort of season. Capable of slips, and at times doing things wrong, but improved with hard work and no better/no worse as is shown on the field.

I’ve always found this aspect of football as – perhaps – the most understated joy in football.

To support a Liverpool in the 1980s, a Manchester United in the 1990s, a Manchester City now is to experience football top down where expectation is winning and winning is everything. Bristol City supporters last season – with a team outspending its league – expected the same. It is rare to have that in football, I’m sure most at City never will have had it.

For the rest the drama is in watching teams which are – and I struggle to find a better description – only as good as they are on the field. City are in a morass of teams in League One who are in a similar situation. The FA Cup against Aldershot Town offers the kind of assumption which the Bantams seldom get, and can never enjoy.

Aldershot Town are struggling for form in the National League but so were City when City rolled up at Chelsea last year – everything in the FA Cup is set in the Chelsea context for a while at least – and while the Bantams should win they will only do so with the same hard graft that has turned the season around.

Hard work, and hoping the mistakes go unpunished. A year on from his debut and we are all having a Ben Williams sort of season.

The first day, the fourth year, and Bradford City beating Doncaster Rovers 1-0

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Lee Evans, Gary Liddle, Kyel Reid | Steve Davies, Devante Cole | James Hanson, Mark Marshall

Day one

There is a much mangled by often said phrase which mumbles around the words that time will make strangers of us all. It is is a gnomic observation and one which has little denoted meaning. “Death” is sometimes substituted for “Time”, “Angels” for “Strangers”

But it is not perhaps unfair to suggest that if the phrase can be applied to mean anything it means that people change over time. I am not the man I was four years ago, dear reader, and probably neither are you.

And nor is Phil Parkinson who has been Bradford City manager for a shade longer than that period.

The friend who is a new manager

The talk before this game is about the new manager. The new manager of Liverpool Jurgen Klopp has taken the national headlines. At Doncaster Rovers Darren Ferguson arrived on Friday to take charge of the home side.

Doncaster Rovers and Liverpool are not often united in expectations but both are united in a sense that pervades that both feel as if they should be higher up in football without any real justification for that. Klopp’s arrival at Liverpool will not make Manchester City any poorer, or Arsene Wenger any less keen to focus on finishing third or forth without risk of second of fifth.

Likewise there is little about Doncaster Rovers that suggests they have a natural place in The Championship and plenty to suggest that – as with a few other club in this level – they do some things right and others not. Standing around the Keepmoat Stadium looking at the pitches for juniors, the modern facilities, the ample parking one cannot help but be half impressed and half underwhelmed.

For all that impresses in the environment there is a sense that as Ferguson arrives the manager is an afterthought in a club doing all the right things to be an impressive 40-60 ranked side. They have created a setup for a team at this level. I contrasts sharply to City who are a club built in the image of the manager, and entirely dependent on that manager.

Ferguson might change that at Doncaster. He could take Doncaster to “the next level” that I’m sure has been mentioned in his recruitment. He, and Klopp, are welcome friends. Time has not made them strangers yet.

Phil Parkinson the Stranger

Which is the excitement of a new manager and the contrast with having a manager for as long as City have had Phil Parkinson. Ferguson, and Klopp, are dealing in potential. Today could be the start of the Ferguson-Era at Doncaster – in two years they could have been at Wembley twice – but it probably will not be. What is most odd about considering four years of Phil Parkinson is that most managerial appointments do not work out but Parkinson has.

Nevertheless there is a growing conflict within the Bradford City support that divides along an analytical style of Phil Parkinson’s style of play.

That style of play has always been pragmatic more than pretty and the defence for it – if a defence is needed which I would say it is not – is that the directness brought about success. “Would you rather be playing pretty football in League Two?” comes the retort, as if that sort of weighing of options were ever offered.

It has been noted that City are not progressing up League One – although the league position finished suggest otherwise – and that results at home are not good – especially if one excludes Sunderland and Millwall which in this argument one does – and so if results are not what one would want why suffer a manager playing a style of football which is not pleasing on the eye?

And of course it is never phrased that way – no one suggests Parkinson should leave Bradford City – rather it is phrased that things would be better if Parkinson were to adopt a different style of play. That if Parkinson cannot bring progress (and that is some assumption, considering he is doing) then he could at least have the decency to stagnate in an attractive way.

To wish for the end of things

Time makes strangers of us all, but Parkinson is no so strange.

When he arrived at Hull City – a larger club than Colchester United where he had made his name – Phil Parkinson was offered the opportunity to change his methods. I am told that he believed he flexed too much, and that senior Hull City players believed he flexed too little, and after an indecently short length of time Parkinson was sacked.

That Parkinson walked away from that experience – and from his time at Charlton Athletic – with the belief that he needed to be more committed to his approach rather than more flexible to change as he accuses himself of being in the past says much about why the manager is not about to begin Tiki-taka football now.

(An aside on Tiki-taka)

(It is worth noting that Tiki-taka – lauded as the most attractive way of playing the game that speaks of Spanish passion and flair – is at its heart a statistical reductionism of football tactics based on the correlation between the amount of possession a team has an its frequency of victory.)

(It is a Moneyball tactic that objectives the number of goals scored as a function of possession and thus makes possession the most important aim within a game. Possession in Tiki-taka is more important than scoring goals because retaining possession minimises the oppositions opportunity to score goals. It is, at its heart, a defensive approach.)

Not changing

To wish for Phil Parkinson the Bradford City manager to take a different approach to the game is to wish for another manager of Bradford City.

When after thirty seconds of the game with Doncaster a throw in cleared the first defenders and ended up in the middle of the penalty area one wished for City to have the sort of player who poked the ball in in such positions and there was Devante Cole to do just that.

One goal in less than a minute and to hope that Phil Parkinson would use the early goal as a platform for more is to not understand the manager who it was said of that he made teams which could defend. Recall Parkinson’s coming out party as City manager against Wigan Athletic, or the follow up against Arsenal, and Parkinson played a team of pragmatism and pressing.

The management of players working hard to constantly defend is what Parkinson brought to City and what he will hope to return to. With eighty nine minutes left to play were the situation reversed and who in Doncaster knows what new manager Ferguson would have done?

How does a Doncaster Rovers fan know how a new manager will react 45 seconds into his first game? Every City fan with an attention span know what Parkinson would do.

What Parkinson did

The performance, as it arrived, was in the spirit of 2012/2013.

The midfield pair of Lee Evans and Gary Liddle sat on top of the Rory McArdle and Reece Burke back line, and Steve Davies (and then James Hanson) defended the midfield. Tony McMahon came inside to bolster and Kyel Reid and Devante Cole stretched the home side to prevent them coming too far forward, and to stop them adding pressure to pressure.

Attack sporadic, and pushed wide it was the Parkinson we had become familiar with and perhaps forgotten. The feeling that if Nahki Wells can nick a goal then the defence could see any game out was the stuff of that season that ended at Wembley.

The best laid plans…

Which is not to suggest that there were not chances for Doncaster to get back into the game – indeed they will still be smarting over a chance that hit the bar, came down and was not ruled to be in before it was punched in by a Keshi Anderson – but the chances were minimised, and they were pushed out wide then soaked up by the central defensive pair.

Up front Devante Cole scored – he seems to do that often – but most important ran his legs off chasing down clearances and putting defenders under pressure damaging the delivery forward for Doncaster.

Like Ferguson Devante is another Manchester “son of” and that will take a line in a report despite Darren not taking the job officially until Monday. Whatever Ferguson attempts to do with Doncaster Rovers it would be easier with a striker like Cole to do it with. It is easy to forget after five Cole goals in eight games that had Parkinson had his way then Doncaster forward Andy Williams would have been leading the line for City.

We have got to know much about Parkinson. We know that he is not the greatest recruiter in football – and no one’s idea of a wheeler-dealer – and struggles to replace players he has made on the training field. Wells was replaced by Cole after eighteen months of looking at players like Williams but City still wait to see a new Gary Jones, a new Andrew Davies.

Cole fits more and more into Parkinson’s plans and Parkinson’s plans continue unchanged. Today those plans came good while often of late City have looked incapable of seeing out a lead. Parkinson makes his players, and his teams, on the training field. Improvement happens slowly but is permanent when it does.

The poster boy for this is is James Hanson. There is a school of thought that Hanson – working hard off the bench today – is “not good enough”. The people saying this flatter themselves having said that Hanson was not good enough for the bottom of League Two, and then for the top of League Two, and then to fight relegation in League One, and then to play in team fighting for promotion from League One.

The retort writes itself of course but the more salient point is that under Parkinson players like Hanson, like Rory McArdle, like James Meredith who could have spent careers in League Two are continuing to improve. “Hanson is not good enough” will eventually be right, because time will make a stranger of us all.

Parkinson is at City – Parkinson is in football management – because he believes that a team that plays as City did today defending, pressing, working with each other, will be successful.

After four years that is no different than it was on his first day at the club.

Bradford City from all angles after the 2-2 draw with Sheffield United

The Team

Brad Jones | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Mark Marshall, Lee Evans, Gary Liddle, Paul Anderson | James Hanson, Devante Cole | Billy Knott, Steve Davies, Luke James

Angles

…and what made Bradford City’s pay so impressive was the number of angles on which they attacked.

When the ball was in the middle of the field Lee Evans was able to use his not inconsiderable passing abilities to play in Mark Marshall on the right, or the much improved Paul Anderson who is starting to look like the player promised when he signed, on the left and to find Devante Cole who ranged around the forward line.

The old standby of the long diagonal pass from Rory McArdle to James Hanson was still a feature – coming as it did with the usual brutalising of Hanson by defenders – but there was much more for the Bantams to do to cause a threat.

The irony being that at the end of the game it was exactly the kind of attacking play – the long ball and the bluster – which ended up denying City victory.

Trajectories

That City should have won the game is to say that during the first half in which the Bantams were on top of the game there should have been more than a one goal lead after forty five minutes. The goal – coming ten minutes before the break – came from James Meredith following a ball which the full back had given up on and dinking the ball over Sheffield United keeper Mark Howard.

It was a break through based on pressure. City had been able to apply pressure many angles and as a result circumnavigated the Blades holding midfielder Louis Reed in a way that they were not against Bradley Dack of Gillingham or Shrewsbury’s Ryan Woods earlier in the season. Sheffield United, on the other hand, seemed to be at a loss for any kind of response.

The Blades wanted Phil Parkinson in the summer but settled for Nigel Atkins. Atkins’ teams try to play their football on the grass, and they try to pass and move, and the fail on the whole. Sheffield United look like a team who have gone backwards since last season while City look better.

Which is not to say that City have eclipsed United but that the trajectory of both clubs seemed obvious.

Obtuse

James Meredith – who it seems is on the brink of joining new goalkeeper Brad Jones in (or around) the Australia national squad – put the ball past the keeper who was making his first appearance following a hurled in Sheffield United throw in.

That City had a second goal came from Devante Cole chasing down another ball that it seemed the defenders would take but did not. Cole’s speed is impressive and so is his presence of mind in his play.

He charged down Howard’s attempt to clear and scored his third goal in four games. One day he will actually kick a ball into the goal at Valley Parade but until then his knees and arse efforts are validated by getting into dangerous position.

Meredith’s goal at each end was unfortunate and the result of the Blades having either run out of ideas in their passing game or abandoning them altogether. Long throw ins, long punts, and the Blades got back into the game but did so by sacrificing whatever principles they have adopted.

City, on the other hand, and under that pressure from Sheffield United’s more direct play fall back more gracefully to the default position of playing into a target man. Steve Davies replaced Cole and headed wide. James Hanson saw Jose Baxter head his powerful attempt from a corner off the line in the last action of the game.

That City were 2-2 at that point. A long pass from defence was picked up by Billy Sharp who race between Rory McArdle and in behind Reece Burke and the striker put in a rebound after Jones had saved well. Sharp took his goal well and Atkins will be pleased with the spirit his side showed in coming back into the game but worried that the way they were able to get back to parity was a long way away from the way they started the game, or want to play it.

I had one, two, three, four shots of happiness

In nineteen ninety-eight Bradford City started slowly. This is not rare. Many seasons have started badly but that is exceptional because it ended with promotion to the Premier League. Eight or so games in City drew 2-2 with Sheffield United – Dean Saunders was exceptional for the Blades that day – and following the game Paul Jewell’s struggling side started to gain admirers.

“I think we will make the play-offs” I observed, and was wrong, because Jewell’s side went better. Watching over recent years has been an extension of that feeling. It seems that Parkinson is building another team, making a another set of people to be better players, getting more and more out of the squad.

We only had one chance to see Paul Jewell do that at City – he only got to build one team – but Parkinson is in his third era now (The Wembley Team, The Chelsea Team, and now this) and his methods of blending the ill fitting Anderson into the useful player we saw today seem to work.

The post-script

Referee Neil Swarbrick would not have been in charge of this game had it not been “treated” to being played on Sunday morning for Sky TV and one cannot imagine the bog standard League One official who would have been there making such a mangling of the game.

Swarbrick presents himself as a man who believes that the Referees job is to be a part of the unfolding story of the game. Phrases like “playing the referee” seem to have ligitimised this type of thinking in officials who revel in their role as deus ex machina of events.

They are not. And when they are – as Swarbrick clearly enjoyed being – they ruin the narrative that a football match creates.

Starbrick has a single role: To enforce a set of rules handed to him dispassionately. Another referee once said “I’ve never sent a player off in my life, players get themselves sent off. I’m just there to make a note of it.”

No one forced the booked Billy Sharp to dive, or continue fouling, or scream at the referee following every decision against him and I’m not saying that I like that those things should result in cautions but they should. Swarbrick decided that it would be the turn of his hand that decided who lived or died, who could play and who could not, as befits his self appointed role beyond his remit.

Which took something from the spectacle.

The type of creativity Phil Parkinson wants as Bradford City start 2015/2016 beating Farsley 3-0

“Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity” – Charles Mingus

Bradford City’s 3-0 win over neighbours Farsley was a given but the players in the first half who ran up a three goal lead through two James Hanson headers and a low finish by trialist Sanchez Watt deserve credit for starting the 2015/2016 season with good tempo but the theme of the afternoon was how this new generation of Phil Parkinson’s side was to do with the team’s syncopation.

Within thirty minutes James Hanson had shown that his much converted prowess in the air would figure heavily in Bradford City’s arsenal this season with Phil Parkinson having spend both forty five minute periods playing the 442 with a withdrawn striker which had seemed to be his modus operandi in his first few years at City. Full backs were instructed to go beyond wingers – which they did resulting in a third goal – and a thin slice of the performance suggests that next season will see the tactics of simplicity at Valley Parade.

Which is to say that most of the afternoon in West Leeds was spent wondering how creative this version of Bradford City would be and how important creativity is to a football team.

“Creativity comes from a conflict of ideas” – Donatella Versace

The head of Hanson is a tried and tested route to goal for Bradford City. Hanson flicks on, Hanson heads in, let us take it as read that Rory McArdle – not playing today but wandering the stands – will be hitting diagonal balls towards Big Jim all season long.

This presents two problems. What is Big Jim is not there? There is an argument that the main problem with the now departed Andrew Davies was not that he suffered injury and suspension is was the impact on the team in his absence. Take out Andrew Davies and the rest of the squad would be given am excuse for defeat. Of course we got beat by Preston North End and Bristol City – the mental process goes – we did not have Davies in the side.

This is the idea that a player is almost “too good” for the team he is in and that removing him improves the team. It is counter-intuitive and often seeps into debate as justification for making a team worse and one could dismiss it for that if it were not for the occasions when it is accurate. Chris Kamara’s Bradford City with Chris Waddle beat Everton, and Waddle was the best player by a country mile, but the team lost and drew a lot and only when Waddle exited for Sunderland to be replaced by Shaun Murray, Tommy Wright and other inauspicious names did staying in the division look possible.

The best player left but because the team had to do more than just giving the ball to Chris Waddle and seeing the outcome then there was a general improvement. Without Andrew Davies will the rest of the players be unable to use the excuse – and I use the term in the context of mental reasoning and not about what is said in the T&A – of Andrew Davies’ absence? We shall see.

And we shall also see if the same is true of James Hanson. Steve Davies sat out Farsley too and he may be a Hanson in waiting but none of the other forwards looked capable of replacing Hanson. Those forwards included Billy Clarke who picks up this season where he left off last as prolific but probably not prolific enough and Luke James who caused some problems with his energy but suffered in comparison to Sanchez Watt who enjoyed the forty five minutes before him.

Watt scored and showed a left footed touch to play the sort of ball which will be useful to overlapping players. He slowly got into the game and started to demand the ball more than wait for it. He looks every inch a confidence player who has not got confidence, or at least not where he needs it. Parkinson has a few weeks to decide if he and Steve Parkin can get into Watt’s head and press the right buttons. If they can Sanchez Watt would be a real asset. If not he floats away as it seems he will do.

(If he does though he will still give me this Abbott and Costello moment for the ages heard from two men over my right shoulder.)

Man One: “Who is that?”
Man Two: “Sanchez Watt.”
Man One: “I don’t know what?”
Man Two: “That’s his name.”
Man One: “What?”
What Two: “Watt.”
Man One: “That’s what I’m asking?”
Man Two: “Watt’s his name.”
Man One: “Yes.”

(Humour like that – and I swear that is verbatim – is worth ten pounds of anyone’s money.)

That aside aside there is an obvious problem with Hanson being a single point of failure within the team which was auditioning central defenders with the ability to play a long pass. Gary Liddle best asset as a defender is his abilities in midfield and Alan Sheehan took the second half in the middle of a back four with Greg Leigh playing left back for a half in which he registered nothing of note.

More impressive was the six foot five Jamie McCombe who seemed to quickly find a place in the Bantams side. McCombe is thirty two and has had his own injury hell but I would be very surprised if he were not a City player next season.

Which is not to say that he was especially good against the limited opposition – he was serviceable – but he fit into the role Parkinson has for him so well. Tall enough to offer a threat from set plays, comfortable on the ball enough to play it with control, and massive. Youth player Kesi Omolokun was the fourth central defender on show. He was untroubled during the second half.

In the second half midfield Christopher Routis epitomised Mingus’ point about being weird not being the same as being creative. Routis continues to be an impressive physical kicker of a ball but one who seems to lack a position. We know he is not a central defender in League One and as a midfielder he tackles sometimes and uses the ball badly. I want so much to be proved wrong about Routis because if his abilities to kick a ball could be put into a position then he would be very useful but I cannot see how it will happen.

And trying to force Routis into central midfield makes that a player like Sam Wright – full of energy for the first half and able to take responsibility for the ball – would have his development curtailed. A product of the youth set up Wright burnt himself out after a half hour but he showed his willingness to take positions and offer options to team mates as well as his control of the ball. It is not to damn him with faint praise to say that he could be a man to take a space on the bench this season but rather to suggest that doing so would bring better results than constantly trying to shoehorn Routis into positions he does not show the discipline to play.

Discipline being a key for Parkinson. Routis winning the ball in midfield and having options in front of him – only to see him smash a ball high and wide – is no more useful at Farsley than it would be at Wembley. Routis has a choice between trying to score blistering goals against weak opposition and trying to show how he can perform in a team. He makes his choices, Sam Wright made his, and I know who I believe the club should reward with first team football.

Josh Morris looked able next to Wright in central midfield although one might think that he is best used on the left flank with James Meredith going past him. Morris run and shot off the bar showed a player who enjoyed having the ball but most of his play focused on usefulness and that was a good start. Daniel Devine took a role in the second half but would need to do more to commend himself.

At full back Tony McMahon returned and Luke Hendrie – son of John (although I shall try to not hold that against him) – played at right back with McMahon strolling through the second forty five minutes and Hendrie overlapping well but defending poorly in the first half. Hendrie has spent much of his career to date as an attacking midfilder – a position which borders on fiction – and that showed but there seemed to be some potential going forward but a lot of work to be done as a right back.

Sons of Fathers include Harrison Gilkes – the son of Michael – who was generally unimpressive in the first half on the left flank running at players and losing the ball. Dylan Mottley-Henry and Joe Brennan took the second half wide positions and both looked eager. A note too on Filipe Morais who showed accuracy which gave a second route to the head of Hanson. Increasingly Morais looks key to Parkinson’s plans.

In goal Ben Williams causes me worries, and Joe Cracknell has nothing to do.

“Creativity is the thing that everybody wants and nobody wants to pay for” – Me, this week

And so considering the game the questions arise around how creativity should function in Phil Parkinson’s side. We have always known that Parkinson as a manager wants a controlled, dependable creativity. The Versace idea of creativity as being a clash of ideas is something which City tried last season and got success at but that success was limited. It game us – one could argue – the greatest season to support Bradford City we’ve ever known: Chelsea, Sunderland, Leeds; and it saw an improvement in the League One position but it saw fluctuating results.

Players have come available this close season – players like George Green – who represent that idea of idea clash creativity. The Gascoigne figure bewitches the mind but Parkinson wants the Mingus idea of creativity. He wants a lex parsimoniae creativity of simple football played in small, well practised units.

Parkinson wants the creativity of dependability, metronomic in making chances. To get this he needs reliable routes to goal. That Morais will find Hanson from dead balls is already obvious as is Rory McArdle hitting Hanson long but Parkinson wants Meredith opening the same path, he wants a player entering in the second phase of attacks, he wants full backs able to go past wider players. He wants to collect a team or reliable attacking routes to goal and he is building that from his 442 formation.

At the moment he has James Hanson’s head. It is not wonder he did not want the striker to go.

The thrashing by Bristol City that taught us what we already knew

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Gary MacKenzie, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott, Mark Yeates | James Hanson, Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, Tony McMahon, Christopher Routis

The emotion

“Eight One.

Eight Bloody One!

Eight One To Brighouse. They are a team of old aged pensioners! The centre forward wears glasses. During the match!”

Eight goals! Four of them from back passes to the goalkeeper!

They were the worst.”

Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns

The substance

If the one goal defeat at Gillingham did not finalise Bradford City’s inability to make the League One play offs in 2015 then the goal sodden mess of a 6-0 home defeat to Bristol City did.

For those who had seen City only in the brightest moments: the Chelsea, the Sunderland, the Doncaster Rovers, the Millwall at home, the Preston away; then this result might not be able to be set in context. For those of us – and this is most of us – this represents the low watermark in a season which offered equally contrasting highs but was always due to tend to the middle.

That Bristol City looked like the all-stars of the bottom two divisions goes some way to explaining their success this year. The likes of Luke Freeman, Marlon Pack, Wade Elliott, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, and Aaron Wilbraham have been best players for different teams for the last few years. The Robins have put them together with devastating results for the Bantams.

Bradford City – on the other hand – endured a night of compounded mistakes passing through the team like a virus and starting from the dis-effective. There was something in the way that Mark Yeates kept playing James Meredith short that caused Meredith problems and those problems chipped into a decent display from the left back which became a very poor one.

From Meredith it spread. After the left back was beaten by the effervescent Freeman for a second goal which Stephen Darby was massively outjumped for it had passed to the opposite full back (credit Darby, he strode on manfully) but most crucially to the goalkeeper Ben Williams.

Williams’ command of his box was shot and the area behind Rory McArdle and Gary MacKenzie was freeland for the opposition where it should be an area for a all out keeper to come claim balls. This would be seen in the 4th goal, or perhaps the 5th, where Pack bent a ball behind the central defenders and in front of Williams and there was the freedom of the pitch to head home in.

It is horrible to write off a man’s career but Williams seemed a spent force. A technical goalkeeper who needs to show a command of his box which he does not he is like the minutes after a goal when Jon McLaughlin would sulk stretched out for entire games. Jordan Pickford’s mouth on style will take him to places Williams’ laconic ways will not, and are far more useful.

MacKenzie caught what was going around. His defending was average but his failure was in attempts to play controlled passes rather than clearances, and a strange choke that saw him trying to volley away things he would previously have headed.

The Choke – an interesting concept in Sports Psychology – I use to to describe a failure to win what was expected but to do what is normally done. MacKenzie – when under pressure and at three goals down – stops being the reliable clearance based replacement for Andrew Davies and starts trying to play the ball like Beckenbauer.

The midfield were out muscled – at times unfairly and Gary Liddle will wonder how his being elbowed in the closing stages is something that can be ignored – but at times by a Bristol City side who were more committed to winning the game. The 442 Phil Parkinson favoured for the evening badly needs a speedy winger to stop an opposition midfield sitting toe to toe knowing it will not be beaten for pace.

Parkinson switched to a 4312 for the second half. If the manager wants to maintain an ability to move between the two formations he needs at least one fast wide player who can make the flat four lass flat and he needs to rethink Billy Clarke’s ability in the playmaker role in a three man with one behind formation.

Clarke drifted out of the game at about fifty five minutes last out never to be seen again. Pack dealt with him well – one seldom comes up against such a player – but to highlight the problem Luke Freeman was offering a masterclass in playing the playmaker role for the opposition.

Freeman was a constant threat – the type of player you do not want to see on the ball – in a way that Clarke has not been. In truth Freeman offers a model the playmaker role – set out for Mark Yeates at the start of the season – to be filled by Billy Knott who does the job of constant annoyance better than Clarke.

As it was Clarke was ineffective as was Jon Stead. Stead fills the heart with joy – Chelsea and all that – and typifies City’s season. Sometimes he is Chelsea, sometimes he is this, and when negotiating with the forward (perhaps in Lira, so to speak) one hopes nights like this where he offered very little of note are remembered.

Which is not to criticise the former England u21 player but while he was an England u21 player James Hanson was working at the Co-op and on the night when he saw his team get battered Hanson emerged with credibility. His head did not go down, his levels did not drop, and he alone could be said to have earned his corn on this woeful evening.

What then for Parkinson and his squad. As obliquely referenced above takeover talk buzzed around Valley Parade with the idea of investment on the horizon. Often a double edged sword this investment may give Parkinson the wage budget to improve his side but Parkinson will look for characters to do that, and it is character that was lacking tonight.

The squad – at the moment – seems to break into three groups. There are players who lead and who have the character needed for success: Hanson, McArdle, Davies, Darby and more; and there are players who when led will show the character to create a great group and team: Morais, Knott, Meredith, MacKenzie and more; and there are players who seem to have failed a test of character or of usefulness: Yeates, Routis, Zoko, Williams and more; who the manager has taken a look at must have found wanting.

The ability to process the side to sift the one from the other is the test that Parkinson faces every year. It seems more pressing when one throws a carriage clock out of a window but it is not.

Promotion this year was an optical illusion based on the curvature of a win over Chelsea and ignoring the displays where City came up short mentally, and in character, and was a practice in confirmation bias.

The 6-0 home defeat to Bristol City confirmed promotion for them but told us what we already knew – that Bradford City were not going to be promoted this season – and so we move onto next.

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