When pre-season is not pre-season

If you missed Bradford City’s 4-0 win over Stambridge United last night then you are not alone. BfB did little to cover it and a straw poll of City fans responding to news of the opening goals on Facebook seemed to show that they knew that some games in Essex were coming, but they did not know when.

City won the game with goals from Leon Osborne, Scott Neilson, Omar Daley and James O’Brien – a second four goal win in as many days following the 5-1 victory over North Ferriby United – and word came from the South that City had been given a good game by the part-timers from Essex although many would debate how much of a game non-league footballers at the level of the club’s City gave played so far can give professionals.

Indeed there is a charge at Peter Taylor’s door that his pre-season preparations are weak and that is is no benefit to the players to have easy victories over poor opposition. Certainly Taylor’s aim is not to create an interesting and exciting set of games but is he creating a useful set?

Sadly – or perhaps not so sadly – no answer can be reached for some time. Since the days of Chris Kamara – if not before – every City manager has looked at pre-season as if it were non-competitive league matches to be treated as significantly as Johnstone’s Paint early rounds or end of season dead rubbers (which is to say as lightly as a professional club every takes a game, but still as if it were a “proper” match) but Taylor seems to take a new approach.

Taylor is doing everything he can to ensure that pre-season matches – at this stage – are not taken seriously by his players and that the games are re-contextualised as a part of training. A means to an end and not an end in itself.

Which is not to say that there is not a seriousness to the training that Taylor, Junior Lewis and Wayne Jacobs put the players through – quiet the opposite – but that Taylor is keen to ensure that his players know the difference between training time and the business time of the season.

Matches kick off at three in the afternoon, seven forty-five in the evening in proper games but Taylor breaks this association moving the kick off around an hour here, two there and ensures that games are presented to players and to fans in a different situation.

Eccleshill United aside the games – up to the race trim of the final week – are all far flung keeping the Bantams away from City fans who season on season extrapolate the entire league’s nine months or play on the basis of the first game they see in July. Rightly or wrongly players are judged in their rawest form. I never – and still don’t – think much of Michael Symes based on watching his first performance for City at Farsley Celtic. The likes of Stambridge might get a few extra people to have a look at the Bantams but in all likelihood two men and a dog will be watching City rather than the backing of an active travelling City support.

These things break the link between what happened at Stambridge and what will happen at Shrewsbury on the first day of the season. Breaking that link says to the players that they are in build up now suggesting that they are preparing for something in August not playing for the tiny glory of winning in a pre-season game.

Not that winning is in question. The teams are a distance below City’s standard but win, lose or draw one doubts Taylor would care any more than he would care if the Red Bibs beat the Yellow Bibs at Apperley Bridge. The aim is not to show how good – or poor – City are by winning games over the best opposition available it is to prepare the players.

Taylor believes this is best done by taking the pressure away from these games, making them more like a practice match than what we now know a pre-season games. It is building relationships between players, patterns of play on the field, understandings and partnerships. In a way Stambridge United, North Ferriby United and Eccleshill United are doing the job of human traffic cones to be trained against but not designed to challenge the City players in any way other than not allowing them to fail.

I mean that with no disrespect. Taylor approach presents City’s players with the opportunity to play against an opposition which as long as they approach the game in the correct way they will benefit from it. City played Didi Harmann and Joey Barton in a Manchester City midfield five years ago in pre-season and Steven Schmacher and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson spent the afternoon having passes picked off which – while purposeful practice – was unrewarding and represents a slight return. If Lee Bullock and James O’Brien play as they can then they spend games in possession, using the ball, building confidence.

The merits of Taylor’s approach will be evidenced in the season itself but – rarely in modern football – City have a manager who wants to approach pre-season as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

First day back

Like the final stages of the return journey from a lengthy holiday, where the streets and surroundings suddenly become recognisable, Bradford City’s opening pre-season friendly at Eccleshill this evening delivered a mixture of joy and surrealism at the familiarity of it all. Life as we know it is just around the corner again, but the freshness of the ordinariness makes it all seem hard to imagine. Soon we’ll be uttering how it feels as though we were never even away.

City were comfortable winners this evening – eventually. A less than steady first half performance had all the hallmarks of that first day back in the office after vacation, where we’re more keen to show off our suntan and share holiday stories than settle back into the humdrum of work . City struggled to pass around the ball on a ridiculously bumpy surface, and found their non-league hosts more eager and focused to make an impression.

Though that thin line between competitive and combative was sadly crossed in the middle of the first half, where an over-the-top challenge by a home player left City youngster Luke Dean laid on the floor for over five minutes – eventually departing on a stretcher and straight to hospital. The half time queue for the Gents included a City director who told us supporters how Dean not long since recovered from a broken leg (the same one now badly injured) and we all hope a promising career has not just come to a premature end.

Fresh from warning friendly opponents to play these warm-up games in the right spirit, a clearly livid Peter Taylor ordered his counter-part Ian Banks to substitute the player who made such a reckless challenge. Those within earshot of the City manager claim he threatened not to bring out a team for the second half if the change wasn’t made.

But there was a lack of justice about withdrawing the player similar to that seen in the Burnley game two years ago. Why are such actions excused on the grounds it’s a friendly when they carry such potentially significant consequences? Despite Eccleshill hosting City’s reserves this season, if Taylor is still City’s manager next summer there will be no pre-season return to Plumpton Park.

But aside from a few other over-eager first half tackles, the game was played in the spirit it should and Eccleshill deserve credit for an industrious first half display which saw Jon McLaughlin much the busier keeper. City’s new number one tipped one long range effort onto the crossbar and palmed away another shot as the midfield badly failed to grasp control. If there was one minor positive of Dean’s withdrawal, it is that his replacement James O’Brien immediately exerted more influence in the middle of the park.

Going forward City struggled to make an impact. Matthew Tipton made his debut up front and within the first two minutes began lecturing Omar Daley about how he expected to be supported, in a manner you wouldn’t assume a guy from Macclesfield hoping to impress would talk to an experienced international. Daley looked tentative and failed to make much impact, a few dribbles ending with the wrong option taken.

The relative quietness that pre-season games are typical of was interrupted at one stage when Tipton unsuccessfully kept in an over-hit pass. In a league game opposition supporters would sarcastically cheer such a moment, so Tipton decided to produce the sound effect himself. A character, as they say.

Gareth Evans put City in front shortly before half time, when he hurriedly closed down a dithering keeper, who’s attempt to clear the ball upfield smacked against City’s number nine and bounced into the net.  The keepers’ embarrassment was shared by Evans, who looked uncomfortable celebrating that he’d shown him up. The impressive Luke Oliver almost made it two from a corner, as the second half City team warmed up on some grass behind the goal in preparation to take over.

Only the two O’Briens continued after half time, where a much stronger performance ensued. Michael Flynn took over alongside O’Brien in the centre and the visitors dominated the play. There can be few meaningful lessons to take home tonight, but the first half midfield without Flynn and the second half with the Welshman offered a visible reminder of his importance to the team this season.

The forgotten Scott Neilson also impressed, taking players on for fun and regularly bursting into the box. On the opposite flank the development of Leon Osborne seems to continue as he showed glimpses of his talent. It’s a big season for both players, but the early signs are encouraging. With second half captain James Hanson looking sharp and second trialist Lee Morris showing a few nice touches, the play was almost entirely in Eccleshill’s half. Numerous good chances were created with clever football, the woodwork was called into action twice.

Although not really tested, Shane Duff and Robbie Threlfall both caught the eye at the back, and a clean sheet was never in doubt. With a few minutes left, Hanson latched onto a rebound and powerfully fired the ball into the roof of the goal. Full time whistle blown seconds later, the handshakes between rival players and coaching staff was notably warm given the anger of an hour earlier.

So City up and running, but still with a long way to go. The first friendly is always a novelty which quickly gives way to tedium and anxiousness for time to pass more quicker. But there’s something hugely enjoyable about visiting friendly non-league grounds at this time of year, and the chance to drink beer while watching the game in the evening sunshine was a too-rare opportunity.

Football without the anxiousness, worry and inevitable pain. Joyful and surreal indeed.

Believing in evolution as Taylor gets to work on next season’s squad

The back end of May has become a disengaging time to be a Bradford City supporter.  The season has just ended, and it’s way too soon to be looking ahead to the next one. But then the inevitable disappointment of the campaign just gone means few want to spend much time reflecting on its ups and downs.

Meanwhile the play offs are in full flow and there’s a tinge of jealousy towards the clubs who beat us to earning an extended end to the season. Next year will be the Bantams 10th consecutive Football League campaign – pretty much all of them began with perceived realistic expectations of earning at least a play off spot. Each ended in relative disappointment, leading us to watch others enjoy the experience on TV, while at-the-time City managers – Stuart McCall last May and Peter Taylor this time – are often employed as pundits for Sky.

If only, we whisper quietly. Maybe next time, we hope.

But as Taylor surveyed Dagenham’s 6-0 annihilation of Morecambe on Sunday for Sky, his real job has to remain at the forefront of his mind. He, like the rest of us, will enjoy a holiday at some point, but putting together a squad good enough to at least be appearing on Sky at the back end of May 2011 is an objective for which the hard work has already begun.

There’s a notable change of direction to the recruitment plan this summer, and it’s not just because a new manager is having  a go. The back end of May is traditionally a time where a large number of players from the season just past are beginning their search for new employment, as they are released, with the summer then about recruiting better alternatives. It’s an approach that inevitably produces mixed results, but this time the focus is on building rather than replacing.

For besides the questionable departures of Matt Clarke and Jonathan Bateson, almost everyone who could be released is being offered a new deal. It means there won’t be such a huge influx of new signings and trialists, as is often witnessed during pre-season friendlies. Try to form a team of City players who will be at the club next season, and for once you can already name a full XI.

Taylor’s decision to keep faith with most of the existing squad shows that the past season hasn’t been a complete waste of time. A number of players were given their debuts by McCall and allowed to develop, often at the detriment of results.  The rewards are the basis of a squad which Taylor can spend the summer strengthening, rather than the oft-seen approach of starting from scratch.

Evolution, rather than revolution, is in the air. Sure we saw some poor individual and team performances from those who’ll led the club to a dismal league finish and who will be back in June, but the high turnover of players approach of recent years has hardly led to success. The opportunity is there for every player staying to firmly write themselves into Bradford City’s modern history and be loved by supporters years after they leave, rather than appear as a footnote alongside a large number of quickly-forgotten Bantams.

The first priority for Taylor this summer will be to ensure everyone he wants to stay sign new deals – far from a given in some cases. Will the players be offered the same terms to what they are on now, or will they be asked to take pay cuts? Did some sign on relatively low wages and now be expecting a decent rise for decent performances last season? Will other clubs show interest and make better offers?

Keeping hold of Michael Flynn is a must. The Welsh midfielder quickly established himself as the heartbeat of the team in his first season and many supporters would like to see him made captain. Lee Bullock also impressed in the new role of defensive midfielder, even some of his biggest critics in the stands saw fit to recognise his improved performances by laying off.

Leon Osborne took a late season opportunity to avoid the released list; following the example of Jon McLaughlin, who is in pole position to become number one keeper. Next year will be make or break for both, as impressing in a few end of season games is a lot different to doing it for a full campaign.

Steve Williams and Simon Ramsden are signed up for next season, but what of the other out-of-contract defender, Luke O’Brien? Last summer he rejected a long-term contract from City, apparently choosing a one-year deal so he could negotiate improved terms this summer. It was a risky move; although the home-grown youngster had built on a solid first season to take on more team responsibility, many supporters were critical of his performances.

More crucially are the views of Taylor, one look at him as left back at Accrington and O’Brien never got to play in his position again. He was switched to left winger, before moving out of the starting line-up completely for the last six games. This was partly down to Taylor feeling he needed a rest; but with on-loan Robbie Threlfall impressing at left back and apparently set to be offered a contract, O’Brien may need reassurances of his own future before signing a new deal – one which is unlikely to be especially improved on the past season’s either.

Once the existing players are either signed up or departed, Taylor’s initial summer signings are likely to be the loanees he brought in during the final few weeks. As well as Threlfall, Luke Oliver – released by Wycombe – is very probable to return. He impressed as centre back, but the sight of him as emergency forward in April was a grim one that hopefully will only be repeated when City are trailing in a game and time is running out.

Like Threlfall, Adam Bolder will probably have other offers to weigh up, but appeared to enjoy his stay and may be enticed by the prospect of regular football. Ryan Kendall looked an accomplished finisher but offered little more; a competent back-up striker he could prove and he will probably jump at the chance of that, as he isn’t likely to make it at Hull – despite Flynn talking up his potential in their local paper.

With Gavin Grant also set to stay, Taylor should already have a large squad before even beginning to approach players with no previous City connections.  Zesh Rehman, Omar Daley Gareth Evans, James Hanson, James O’Brien and Scott Neilson already had contracts running into at least next season, though whether Taylor would have chosen to retain them all and where they fit in with his plans is questionable. Neilson has barely had a look in while James O’Brien struggled to hit the heights he enjoyed in the first half of the season, under McCall, on his return from a lengthy injury.

There is also the option to sell any of them. Rumours have already started up that Hanson is attracting interest from Championship clubs. If founded, it presents a difficult dilemma for the City manager. Cash in to have more transfer funds to develop the squad, or believe a suitable replacement wouldn’t be available so keep the young forward?

On Hanson’s part, the lure of a move to a higher club and better wages must be balanced with the likelihood of regular football and whether it is better to continue developing at the club which plucked him from non-league. It is quite a dilemma, though it’s rumoured on the message boards that an improved contract has been agreed in recent days.

But whether one or two leave, the sorting out of the futures of out-of-contract players and loanees wanted permanently should then leave Taylor with a clear idea of what is missing. Aside from the odd back up player – McLaughlin and Ramsden will need cover – Taylor’s focus will be on improving what he has – a clear head start on previous City managers who spent the summer desperately filling holes.It will be about evolving a decent but limited squad into one capable of challenging for promotion.

This time, the disengaging back end of May is about ensuring the foundations for next season are more solid than usual.

Knowing what you have at Chesterfield

When Barry Conlon unceremoniously left Valley Parade following a fall out with Stuart McCall many were pleased to see the back of the Irish striker.

Conlon had sniggered – or so it is said – at a dressing down that he was given by the manager and thus when the chance came to push him in the direction of Grimsby Town it was taken. His time at Grimsby seemed to have similar results with some goals but an unimpressed manager who shipped him out.

Barry is at Chesterfield now and has scored seven as the Spireites stumble in a chase for the final play-off place with seventh being surrendered after a 2-0 defeat at Macclesfield last week. One doubts the blunderbuss forward has suddenly started to show the skills of Lionel Messi so when seeing Barry for a second time this season City fans can expect more of the same.

Big forward, a lot of effort, maybe a goal. That was what Conlon produced at Grimsby, that was what he showed at City, it is what he does.

The fact he does it well was illustrated by his replacement Paul Mullin – the Accrington Stanley forward who moved to Morecambe after a stint at Valley Parade – and the chasm in effectiveness between the pair. Barry did the business, Mullin did not and as the Bantams slipped from the play-off picture one had to wonder how many people who criticised him would have bought Barry all the booze he wanted in exchange for a goal or two.

So City are once again in a situation of not knowing what they have until it was gone. Conlon joins a list of players who have been Bantams, were pushed through the door and replaced with players who – well – were very little better. One could pull out any number of examples and argue the toss over most of them from Michael Symes – including the Grimsby boss who tried to swap him for Barry and money – who many look longingly at to Danny Forrest who was considered not good enough by club and many fans but – when watching David Wetherall’s side slip to the wretched 2-0 defeat at Huddersfield with wandering loanees up front – would have been much welcomed.

Players come, players go and the replacements come and then go with the expense of replacing or the unevenness of a constantly changing squad never seeming to be questioned. Barry’s replacement was no better and as he came and left within three months Paul Mullin seemed significantly worse.

Mullin’s replacement – however – is better than both and the exceptional thing about James Hanson – injured today at the end of a great first season – is that he represents a player who has come in and improved the squad. Examples of this over the past decade have been rare.

So perhaps the moral of this story is that if improvement is rare then as Peter Taylor looks to start working on his squad in the summer perhaps it is better to stay with what you know rather than change in the idea that the next free transfer to a league two club will be better. A Barry in the hand is worth any number of Paul Mullins in the bush, but a James Hanson is better than all.

Hanson’s absence as given Gareth Evans the role of chasing direct balls from the back and shaped Peter Taylor’s side’s approach seeing more channel balls and more chasing from the widemen of Leon Osbourn and Gavin Grant and the Bantams boss seems likely to repeat the 433 that has started the previous two wins however the return of Michael Flynn – the five o’clock hero last week – give the gaffer the ability to opt for the 4411 which won at Rochdale with Flynn and Evans up front.

So a three in midfield might see James O’Brien dropped for Flynn to partner Adam Bolder and Lee Bullock while a four would see another goalscorer Luke O’Brien recalled on the left with Grant on the right and Bolder and Bullock in the middle. Stephen O’Leary seems to have seen the boat sail on his chance to stay at the Bantams but James O’Brien seems to be well thought of by Taylor.

The back four seems to pick itself. In the absence of Simon Ramsden Jonathan Bateson plays right back and Robbie Threlfall at left back. Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams take central defence.

In goal Jon McLaughlin – who played at Saltergate last season in what was an end of season affair – and suggested himself to many (on what it has to be said was slight evidence) as an able replacement for Rhys Evans. Of course Simon Eastwood was brought in and given the gloves for the start of the next season and McLaughlin had to wait until two weeks ago to get back into the side.

There is something there about knowing what you have.

Reflections on a chapter still waiting to be ended

As uplifting as Tuesday night’s victory was, the meaningless end of season nature means that it may be the events before kick off against Barnet which capture the most attention. At 2.45pm the 1984/85 Bradford City Division Three promotion winning team will be presented to the crowd. 25 years on from their fantastic achievement, they are sure to receive a warm reception; but it will be the presence of one of its biggest stars in particular which adds intrigue.

Stuart McCall from the Panini 1990 Sticker AlbumLess than three months after resigning, Stuart McCall makes his public return to Valley Parade. He will join other celebrated names on the pitch, he will be warmly cheered and probably hear his name sung from all four stands of Valley Parade. Then he’ll sit in the stands, as a guest of honour, to watch a team he was in charge of only 10 weeks ago.

After staying firmly out of the spotlight, McCall made a guest appearance on BBC1’s Late Kick Off show last Sunday. It might have been expected he’d be asked a question or two about his views on City’s form, though with results disappointing probably had a quiet word with presenter Harry Gration before about avoiding the topic. He’s not a person likely to stir matters, he’s too nice a person to have an axe to grind. But as low as he must have felt when quitting Valley Parade in February, he must also be able to allow himself to feel better.

For 10 weeks on not much has changed at Valley Parade, and though Tuesday’s impressive win was a welcome shot in the arm for Peter Taylor, the interim manager has impressed without taking the Bantams further forwards. The slide was at least arrested, but the argument McCall simply didn’t have the resources to make a better shot of promotion has been supported by the continuing up-and-down form.

Instead McCall can sit back and look on his old charges with some pride. Gareth Evans may never reach the legendary status the man who signed him achieved at Valley Parade, but his incredibly high levels of work rate and passion, showed all season but especially impressively on Tuesday is closely follow his example. After a mid-season dip, Steve Williams’ form is returning to the heights he achieved at the beginning of the season. Williams has greater potential which can be unlocked next season, a great find by McCall.

McCall will be disappointed to find James Hanson, his other non-league gem of a signing, is still injured – but a measure of his impact is how much the former shelf stacker has been missed since limping off against Bournemouth. Then there’s the potential of James O’Brien, Jonathan Bateson and Jon McLaughlin, who all excelled in midweek and can all play key roles next season, and the clutch of youngsters who’ll probably start from Taylor’s bench, eager for a chance. Youth Development Manager Peter Horne was full of praise for the way McCall focused on the youth teams when in charge, he can take some credit if they emerge into senior contention although the manager may wonder – as many do – why at the start of the season McLaughlin was not favoured and Simon Eastwood was.

If McCall is able to meet his former players, he might also have some words for captain Zesh Rehman. The debate over the merits of the Pakistan defender continues to rage despite the man-of-the-match contender performance and goal in midweek, which followed an encouraging display at Burton last Saturday. It’s a debate which some of us supporters feel unsure whether to add to and risk inflaming or quietly hoping it all calms down. For his part Rehman ignores the abuse which – distressingly – he has got used to during his career.

Having spent most of his career bathed in success McCall would not have been used to criticism or abuse as a player and any wisdom he could pass on to the man he made captain would be based on the last two years of his management. Talking about McCall in a superb interview the City Gent released this weekend Peter Taylor likens his first management role at Southend to McCall’s time at the Bantams and speaks about the healthy distance he has between himself and the job that he learnt from the experience.

Watching Robbie Threlfall could give McCall chance to raise a smile – he was on the former boss’s shortlist and his delivery once again proved telling on Tuesday night – and one doubts he will find anything to dislike in Adam Bolder. McCall’s teams were defined by the presence, or absence, of hard-working midfielders such as he.

One wonders if McCall will be rueful when watching the game seeing the directness of Taylor’s side. McCall’s teams were more committed to playing the beautiful game beautifully than Taylor’s are and perhaps that is a regret for the former manager. Had he used the strength and height of James Hanson as Taylor does, had he told his defenders that Row Z – rather that attempts to start attacks from broken up play – offered the safest policy would things have turned out differently for the former gaffer. Will they turn out different for Taylor?

Taylor sends out a team to play a struggling Barnet side who look over their shoulder at Grimsby’s slow trundle towards them with an increasing worry. The London side are not in squeaky bottom time yet, but a defeat at Valley Parade would draw that day closer.

Taylor’s side is still beset by injuries with first team players Simon Ramsden, James Hanson, Omar Daley and Michael Flynn all edging slowly out of the treatment room. Taylor is expected to play the same eleven who started on Tuesday night with McLaughlin in goal, Bateson, Williams, Rehman and Threlfall at the back a three in midfield of Lee Bullock, Bolder and James O’Brien with Gavin Grant and Leon Osbourne supporting Evans up front.

Universal effort needed as City head towards their lowest league position in 44 years

In attending away games, there are certain irritants you get used to regularly experiencing; tedious travelling, getting lost around town centres while struggling to spot floodlights arching over buildings, hideous visiting supporters’ toilets, unwelcoming home fans and hit-and-miss food. In addition the home advantage factor increases the likelihood of seeing your team lose, subsequently making the journey home that much longer.

Yet one thing I’ve always struggled to accept when watching City on the road is lack of effort from the players. If I’m going to travel many miles and spend lots of money to cheer you on – often meaning the entire day has been given up for it – the least I should be able to expect is a minimum level of passion.

With great difficulty, I can accept heavy or unlucky defeats and the pain of questioning my sanity being there, but I’m only ever left to feel stupid for going if the players I’m cheering on are blatantly going through the motions. At least they’re paid to be there, and are being paid to do a job we’d all give our rights arms to be good enough to do.

Saturday’s trip to Burton was largely a brilliant day out – the sunny weather and choice of Bloc Party and Kings of Leon on the stereo meant the car journey flew by; the ground was impossible to miss and very impressive, featuring that rarest of qualities in new stadiums – character; the Burton stewards and staff were over-friendly and the food and away bar facilities inside enjoyable. But once more, the afternoon was let down by suspect passion from those wearing Bantams colours.

It was a strange performance,with a very wide spectrum of respective efforts from each player. If there was a sliding scale illustrating the difference, it would feature Jon McLaughlin and Gareth Evans at the top of the high effort barrier – closely followed by Zesh Rehman – and Gavin Grant right at the opposite end. Other players fell somewhere in the middle, with some efforts to commend and others to question.

When taking over in February, Peter Taylor had been able to harness a team ethic to City’s approach which took much of the good of what Stuart McCall had left behind. Injuries in recent weeks has robbed Taylor of the team’s spine, and many of those who’ve remained available have failed to grasp the mantle. How Michael Flynn, James Hanson and Simon Ramsden in particular have been missed. Many fans have again openly questioned the commitment of Omar Daley in recent weeks, they should have watched the 90 minute performance of Grant at the Perelli Stadium.

City were highly fortunate to take a point from this game, despite taking the lead in the second half. Jon McLaughlin put in arguably the best goalkeeping performance of the season, impressively keeping out numerous Burton attempts at goal which included saving a first half penalty. Matt Glennon has failed to make a notable impact since signing in January, and after this display McLaughlin should keep his place for the remainder of the season. First choice keeper for next season he has the potential to be.

But McLaughlin aside, the resistance was limited. Robbie Threlfall has impressed greatly to date and looks likely to sign during the summer when his Liverpool contract expires, but at Burton he was badly showed up by the outstanding Cleveland Taylor. All afternoon, the Burton winger easily dribbled the ball around the young full back, while Threlfall was repeatedly caught out by a ball played from midfield over his head to unoccupied space Taylor was charging into. It was a poor performance, which made the sight of Luke O’Brien relegated to the bench all the more frustrating.

And though the rest of the defence were generally solid – Zesh Rehman back in good form and Steve Williams enjoying a decent end to what can be considered a memorable season, though Jonathan Bateson struggled at times – the midfield allowed Burton to pass their way through too often. Lee Bullock was among the more committed players, but Adam Bolder and Steve O’Leary were again disappointing as Taylor lined City up in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation.

When Bolder has been on form he’s looked very accomplished – the Millwall loanee’s second half performance at home to Aldershot perhaps his stand out game. But recently that form has dipped and he has struggled to make any impact, at times looking disinterested. It’s been a funny season for Steve O’Leary, who impressed during City’s opening home game against Port Vale before injury ruled him out until the New Year. Despite an encouraging belated second start, away at Rochdale, opportunities have been limited under Taylor.

Although starting the last two games, he is giving the impression he knows he has no chance of an extended deal this summer, and so has nothing to play for. It was no coincidence City began to play better after the more zestful James O’Brien replaced him.

And though Grant and Luke Oliver did well for City’s goal, the rest of their efforts were not good enough. Oliver is a defender playing up front, so allowances have to be made, but he is not good enough to play such a role despite his height and goal return over the last game and a half. There was also something curiously flat about his goal celebrations in front of the City fans, as though it didn’t mean a lot to have put his temporary club into the lead.

His performance was hindered by how isolated he was from Evans and Grant, but, other than his effectiveness in the air, he lacks the hold up or passing ability to make a positive contribution as a frontman. A defender up front is a rare but not unprecedented occurrence at Valley Parade, remember Andy Tod? If the now-recalled Wycombe defender returns next season, it will be solely for his defensive ability.

While if Grant is still at Valley Parade next August, it will surely be due to past form witnessed by Taylor rather than the very fleeting glimpses of ability shown since signing for City on a non-contract basis. He looks tentative and slow to react to situations, and very unwilling to chase lost causes. But for his excellent run which lead to the goal, he offered nothing towards City’s cause and was deservedly subbed.

End of season is perhaps the time to try out players like Grant, rather than signing them up without properly viewing them only to regret it later. But end of season is also the time to try out youth players and, despite Taylor saying he will look to blood some in over the final few games, this was a missed opportunity to try out players who would have been guaranteed to show more commitment. Tuesday’s home game with in-form Morecambe looks less the occasion to risk them and, with City still to face promotion chasers Chesterfield and Northampton, further opportunities are limited.

Of course any player has to earn the right to get into the team, and young players shouldn’t be promoted to the starting line up ahead of more experienced players on the sole criteria they are more likely to try harder. But the lack of effort shown by some of the senior players City are relying on is worrying and there’s a risk of next season’s plans being disrupted if this campaign is allowed to end on the low note it’s heading towards.

Because as this draw saw City drop down another place in the league table, recent from is pushing the Bantams towards a lowest league position since 1966 – 44 years ago. To more than one generation of City supporters, it could be argued this team is the worst we’ve ever seen. In 1976 City finished 17th in Division 4, beating or least equaling that over the final five games of this season will be the smallest of consolations.

But not exactly much to market the season ticket offer on. There are three home games before the £186 offer comes to an end on Sunday 9 May – 11 years to the day City’s last promotion was achieved – but there is little beyond blind faith to suggest the Bantams will be celebrating a rise to League One come next May. Perhaps more than ever bold action is needed to entice supporters who may not go to games often right now but who might be persuaded into buying a season ticket; free entry to the Northampton game?

The players need to do their bit. Whatever their motivation may be, they need to find it or else stay on the sidelines. Certain players are almost carrying the team right now – that City didn’t lose to Burton was due to the commitment of some, but that City didn’t win is due to the lack of commitment from the others.

It caused more damage to the league position, but even more significant is the damage this poor form could cause to realising next season’s forecasted budgets.

Peter Taylor and the Bradford Bug

City earned a hard fought victory against playoff contenders Aldershot, as Peter Taylor’s influence on the club continues to yield positive results.

The manner of the defeat to Port Vale in midweek was disappointing given recent progress – and Taylor was quick to admit the City players had not lived up to the standards that he expected in the Vale game.

But it was the reaction to that defeat that was the question this afternoon – and City didn’t disappoint despite a bumpy start.

Matt Glennon disappointingly split a long range shot – only able to palm the ball into harms way – which allowed Anthony Straker the chance to nip in and slot home the opener as Aldershot took the lead.

But City did not let the goal affect their confidence. Within five minutes, they had drawn level and produced a goal of real quality.

Michael Flynn, again playing in a more advanced role compared to his usual central midfield position, chased a long ball on the right and shielded the ball away from the Aldershot left back Charles. He then turned and produced a perfectly flighted cross with his left foot from the right wing, which top scorer James Hanson brilliantly headed home to level things up.

Hanson has had a dream first season at City – his first in League football. Combining hard work up front with some quite superb finishes – he has proved he can finish in the air (as you would expect), but he also has got some great finishes up his sleeve with his feet (remember that bicycle kick against Crewe at home?!).

And in this game, he was everywhere. Defensively clearing crosses from corners, and tracking back to defend like I have seen no City centre forward do in many, many years. It all seems to be part of Taylor’s ethos of “not letting any player neglect their defensive duties” and not allowing any player to cruise through games, regardless of their position, which Omar Daley confirmed in his post match interview.

After the equaliser, City had their tails up and produced another fine goal, which proved to be decisive. A very good run and cross from Luke O’Brien on the left ended with Omar Daley taking possession. After feigning to shoot once, he then turned and produced a rocket of a strike with his left foot that sent the Kop wild.

City then engaged in a tight contest for the remainder of the game, with the emphasis being on defending and trying to stop the opposition from scoring rather than adding to the lead.

Glennon redeemed himself for his earlier error with an excellent save from a first half Aldershot effort, and the City keeper commanded his area brilliantly and caught every cross in the second half.

City had a real let off with 15 minutes to go when substitute “Marvellous” Marvin Morgan took on debutant City defender Luke Oliver, beat him, and whipped in a perfect cross onto the head of Marlon Jackson, who astonishingly missed his header from 5 yards when it looked harder to miss than score.

But the Aldershot defence were certainly not immune to mistakes, – in particular second choice keeper Venezuelan Mikhael Jaimez-Ruiz, and the concession of a third goal could easily have happened. In particular with two very strong penalty shouts. Omar Daley went one on one with a defender, and with Daley leaving the defender in his wake, he was clean through before he appeared to be impeded before trying to finish off the move with a goal. But the post match interview with Aldershot manager Kevin Dillon told a different story – with Dillon angrily suggesting that he thought that Daley took a blatant dive that would apparently be shown on “Soccer AM” next week. Surely they are not that short of material? I suppose only a replay will settle that score.

The strong shout for a penalty for City late in the second half. Debutant Gavin Grant, only for Omar Daley with 25 minutes to go, produced a strong run and seemed to be felled in the area when surrounded by two Aldershot defenders. The penalty shouts were waived away by the referee but City hung on to clinch all three points.

There is a definite improvement in this City side with Taylor in the managerial hotseat, and his record now reads four wins from seven games, including highly impressive away victories at top three sides Rochdale and Rotherham.

Admittedly, he has brought in players on short term deals until the end of the season, but there is no reason why any of the players he has brought in (expect for Robbie Threlfall, who might go a League or two above) could be playing for Bradford City next season. Adam Bolder in particular has impressed, and did again today, breaking up play, playing simple balls well and having an influence on the game.

For me, Peter Taylor needs to be handed a new deal as soon as possible. His positive vibes around the club, about how he is enjoying it and has caught the “Bradford Bug” is very pleasing to read. He is and was an outstanding appointment, and if he is enjoying it that much, then lets hold up our end of the deal and give Taylor this chance to finally get Bradford City out of this awful league next season.

But to leave the much discussed managerial debate behind, wont it be interesting to see which of the current crop of players will be with us next season? For me, I’m afraid Peter Thorne’s time at the club looks to be over. Thorne has been brilliant and prolific for City in previous seasons, but I don’t think he fits into Taylors ethos of “a striker that is willing to put in the work defensively”.

Equally, the expensive and underperforming Chris Brandon looks to have been given the boot by Taylor. And James O’Brien, Michael Boulding, Zesh Rehman and Scott Neilson look to be players that Taylor doesn’t seem to rate as the “right” kind of players to get us promoted from League Two. I trust his judgement and that seems to point towards us having an almost completely new squad once again next season. How many times will we need to rebuild the squad before we get it right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sven probably really has never had it so bad.

 

A silence

There was a temptation to simply link to the previous four match reports this website has offered and invite you – dear reader – to mentally flip a few names to make your own Cheltenham report.

It is easily done. A referee who once again begged the question “bent or bloody rubbish?” A City defender sent off for two yellow card offences that even after the argument as to if either offence was actually a foul – today for Steve Williams one was, one was not – were offences repeated across the field without punishment being given (Append:) although whatever one things about the challenge Williams certainly did not foul Richards in the penalty area.

Cheltenham striker Justine Richards and City's Steve Williams

Penalties feature heavily of course. Williams was sent off for a dive which frankly was better than Stephen Leslie’s dive Shrewsbury but was still a dive. Justin Richards – today’s woeful sprawler – is a cheat but at least he is better at it than Leslie is, in that he dive looked more convincing.

Once you have mentally created the match report add the odd comment to the bottom. Add one that blames the Bantams for the run of refereeing decisions and another that manages to aim that blame squarely at manager Stuart McCall. It is the masochist opinion but one that is often heard.

Nevertheless long after I had accepted the machinations of another official who was either unfit to Referee or had decided he wanted a specific result (I know what I think) the Bradford City players – told to spend more time playing and less time sulking about the string of corrupt/useless that blights their games by manager McCall – turned in a performance of credit. Down to ten men with a sending off which was at best a mistake/came courtesy of a bottle of whiskey in the referee’s room the players turned in a performance that took control of of the match.

Indeed the first half lead given by James O’Brien’s tidy finish after visiting keeper Brown had flapped at a corner was the least that City deserved and a chunk of luck for Michael Flynn when he drove from long range or James Hanson when he got into the box after a smart move through a packed midfield would have resulted in a more healthy scoreline.

That that midfield was packed caused problems for the game. With Simon Whaley return to Norwich the previous day and Omar Daley not yet fit enough to start a diamond midfield with Lee Bullock at the base – Bullock pretty much neutered the visitor’s midfield single handedly – Flynn and James O’Brien in the middle and Chris Brandon at the tip. It was a tight middle and robbed of flank players compressed the game into what was often a frustrating to watch mass of football.

Nevertheless the protection to the back four – and latterly back three – offered by the midfield snuffed out the Cheltenham threat comprehensively and the single goal should have been enough to win the game but Referee Craig Pawson and his intervention in the game that was oh too familiar. The game was perverted and rendered – well – boring as Pawson like the previous four officials at Bradford City matches decided he and his decisions would be centre sage. It is football pantomime, and everyone grows out of pantomime.

What does the club do from now? Stuart McCall told his players to focus more on the game and less on the Referee and so they did but the focus of the game – the reason for the result – was another inept/biased performance by an official. Should the club kick up a stink about the way that the last five games have been tipped in one direction or another by this brand of officiating then it seems to exasperate the problem but saying nothing is unnatural and goes against our need to protect our club.

The Bantams plod on though doing enough to win games but having them turned away from victory and as people turned away from Valley Parade trudging home in the snow on Saturday evening there was not a criticism or players or manager but a silence.

The way to the middle

Teams like Aldershot Town provide a stark contrast for Bradford City supporters. Aldershot – as with the Accrington Stanley fans who out sung the 10,000 Bantams fans at Valley Parade – have struggled seen their club cast out of football and brought it back from the bottom. City, on the other hand, have fallen from the top.

The Shots were thrown out of the league Mid-season in the early 1990s following a series of chairman abuses but returned to the league in the last few years having shown the kind of spirit to rebuild the club that City fans did to raise the £250,000 to keep the club in business in its centenary year. In the words of Lester Bangs “Everyone meets again on the way back to the middle.”

Aldershot sit a place behind the play-off positions but are nursing heads from a 6-1 thrashing by Burton Albion last time out. City struggle for results but have shown admirable hearts in the two defeats last week to Rotherham and Carlisle. It is thought that the Bantams are entering a crucial time in the season and a crucial period for manager Stuart McCall but honestly – when is it not a crucial time?

McCall goes into the game without Simon Ramsden – sent off the first half of the Carlisle defeat – but will slot Jonathan Bateson in at right back alongside Zesh Rehman and Matthew Clarke should Steve Williams not be fit to return in the place of the latter. Luke O’Brien and Simon Eastwood continue at left back and in goal respectively.

The Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock midfield is starting to resemble the pairing of Dean Furman and Nicky Law last season in that all agree with it, all think it is good, but it seems to be the middle of a team which loses too often. Both Flynn and Bullock work hard – certainly they bossed Law’s midfield last week – and offer the best option for the positions.

James O’Brien had a cameo in the JPT game before being taken off as a result of the red card – many feel that without him City lack set piece delivery – but with Simon Whaley having struggled to live up to early form culminating in his annoyingly slow run off in the Rotherham game and Chris Brandon seemingly prepared to meander through a season has highest paid player for his home town club O’Brien could be the best option.

Adding James O’Brien to the left and creating a tight three with a right winger able to provide a link to the forward line which is very much what Scott Neilson has been doing all season from the attacking coming back but with the last sixteen minutes of Carlisle returning Omar Daley to the fold there is a chase the Bantams could field both Daley and Neilson in a pair of attacking widemen.

Gareth Evans and James Hanson carry on up front.

As Seen On TV

I’ve got a bad throat. That means I can’t shout at the referee, which would normally take all the fun out of going to a football match. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

In a game where six goals were scored by five different players, it may seem churlish to spend much time discussing one man, even when that one man comes straight to Valley Parade from the Premier League. So, for a while I shall leave all mention of the referee. But you have been warned.

City were forced into one change from last week, with Steve Williams failing a fitness test, Simon Ramsden moving to centre back and Jonathan Bateson coming in at right back. What looked like a fairly predictable 4-4-2 showed rather more fluidity than might have been expected, albeit frequently at the cost of depriving the team of any width.

Simon Eastwood had a mixed game. As early as the fifth minute he was saving with his legs to send a shot over the bar and two or three other excellent first half stops kept City in touch. The benefit of one of those saves was, however, very short-lived once Kevin Ellison put home the rebound for Rotherham’s equaliser. Lee Bullock had reacted first to an earlier rebound off a Simon Whaley free kick – of which more in a moment – to give City an early lead. But another Ellison goal following some neat, but defendable, build-up play saw the visitors go in at half-time with a 2-1 lead.

Whatever the team talk had been, Luke O’Brien’s surging run and Michael Flynn’s crashing shot in the first minute of the second half looked to have set up an exhilarating pre-Christmas cracker. Andy Warrington in the visitors’ goal (who is nowhere near the superannuable age he may seem) had had little to trouble him in the first half. Now he had to make one save at the foot of his near post to beat out an Evans pile driver; another to tip over Bullock’s shot after an Evans run and cross; and a third, toward the latter stages, when a 30 yard thunderbolt from James O’Brien looked a certain goal.

Meanwhile, at the other end, the now largely unemployed Simon Eastwood was tasked by nothing worse than the occasional back pass to his left foot. That is until the 78th minute when he was beaten by a quickly taken Roberts free kick from just over the half-way line. The lob went over him as he scrambled back to his line, entering the net via the cross bar to put the visitors 3-2 in front. Their fourth goal, two minutes from the end, was a tap in for Drewe Broughton, which brings me back to the start of the game and all the bits I’ve so far missed out – each and every one of them featuring Lee Probert, our star visitor from the Premier League.

Only a few weeks ago everyone at Valley Parade was bemoaning the woeful performance of the referee against Accrington, one Mr Cook. Bad as his display was, City still had only themselves to blame for not sending Stanley home empty handed. Mr Probert showed how it should be done. He’s a Premier League ref and they do things a little differently. They’re on first name or even nickname terms with the players; they know who has a reputation for diving and who pulls shirts all the time; and they are more likely to play the advantage rule, as Mr P did, to his credit, several times.

However, they also like to talk – and talk and talk and talk. Mr Probert illustrated this perfectly in the first five minutes. He adjudged, quite correctly that the aforementioned Drewe Broughton had struck Simon Ramsden with his elbow. Broughton must have considered himself well and truly told off, judging by the length of the lecture. The rest of us judged him extremely fortune not to be shown a card of either colour, despite the early stage of the game. (What difference, by the way, does it make if you commit a bookable offence five or thirty-five minutes into a game? I bet Mr Probert can answer that one.)

Broughton, however, had clearly not been sufficiently well told off, because in the ninth minute he swapped defenders and Matt Clarke felt the power of his elbow. This time even Mr Probert had to produce a yellow card and leave us wondering what might have happened if he had done the job right four minutes earlier. Playing with ten men after nine minutes tends to have its effect on the game.

But within four more minutes Mr Probert set an entirely different standard for what constitutes a bookable offence. Lee Bullock hung a leg out just outside the centre circle. It wasn’t a dangerous tackle and it was his first foul. Perhaps 13 minutes into a game is acceptable for a yellow card to be produced for an innocuous offence. Bullock shrugged his shoulders at the waving referee, while others tried in vain to point to the disparity with the much more serious and dangerous offence which had previously resulted in a telling off.

But, having set the 13 minute standard for innocuous fouls in midfield, Mr P had changed his mind by the 17th minute. Michael Boulding, with his back to goal and the ball at his feet, attempted to turn Pablo Mills. Mr Mills is not noted for his gentility, as the City physio will be able to confirm when Boulding’s injury has been fully assessed. For hacking Boulding to the floor from behind, a few yards outside his own penalty area, Mills’ punishment was a free kick. Not a card; not a lecture of even the shortest duration; not even a firm stare from the ref. It could, in fact, be argued that Mills won his side a distinct advantage for the rest of the game, given that Boulding remained on the pitch for just three more minutes. The standard had changed back again. The only justice was that this free kick gave City the lead.

Lectures, bookings, goals and other stoppages produced just two minutes of added time, but that was enough to see Simon Ramsden flattened again after yet another leap from Broughton. Neither Mr Probert nor his fourth official, who must have been within a very few yards of the incident, saw anything wrong and play was restarted with a throw in, but only after Stuart McCall came on to the pitch and Ronnie Moore troubled the referee with a few words of his own.

Just five minutes into the second half, Gareth Evans was away down the right flank, outpacing Pablo Mills with some ease until, just in front of the assistant referee, Mills took both his legs, ensuring that the threatening run came to an abrupt and illegal end. So, for his second blatant offence of the afternoon, each depriving a striker of a run on goal, Mills had to be punished. And aren’t Mr Probert’s talking-to’s severe? You just ask Mills, because that’s exactly what he got. In another part of the pitch Lee Bullock must surely have been wondering what he had done wrong.

Within five minutes of that Mills lecture, Michael Flynn was late with a sliding tackle and there was a holding of breath from the City faithful. Anything might be about to happen to Flynny, but the actual result, a yellow card, while entirely correct, came as a great relief.

Which brings us back to that third goal from half-way and another difference between League Two and Premier League officials. We are used to ‘the correct blade of grass’ syndrome with our refs; perhaps we should watch more TV to spot how far away from the foul you can take the free kick if you have a Premier League ref. This one was so far away that it brought Stuart McCall on to the pitch again, this time without the excuse of an injured player.

A pretty obvious hand ball, so clear that even the handler, Nicky Law, almost gave himself up, produced nothing and Michael Flynn being pulled back brought only a theatrical wave of the arms from Mr P. Two very decent penalty claims, either of which could have changed the course of the game, were not seen. The additional five minutes, which became six, brought another booking. Matt Clarke must have spoken out of turn, unless, of course, Mr Probert had by now reverted to the Lee Bullock standard for yellow cards.

The game ended in stunned silence from the home crowd. City had not deserved to lose and this time the standard of refereeing really had had a major impact, many times over, on the outcome of the game. I almost (but not quite) could wish for the return of Mr Singh.

But I should end on a positive. There were some splendid displays in claret, with Bullock, Flynn and Ramsden to the fore, but none more so than the man who never missed a header all day and made sure his clearances were definitively cleared. He has his detractors and is not the most cultured of players, but Matt Clarke deserved any Man of the Match award. Not that I heard who was actually given it, so furious was I with our visitor from on high.

A muted victory

From a fixture Stuart McCall couldn’t feasibly win, at least the Bradford City manager was able to enjoy the satisfaction of three points.

Against an already doomed home team which has lost its last two games 4-0, only a similarly convincing scoreline for the Bantams would ensure victory would truly be considered a victory. That Steve Williams’ 23rd-minute strike was the sole occasion the ball found the back of the net will have done little to ease the darkened mood triggered by the midweek Rochdale humbling. Indeed the sight of City players’ blatant attempts to time waste long before the final whistle was due offered a clear indication that, while the win ultimately reduces the gap to the play offs, a vast improvement is needed for the season to conclude with a top seven place.

Not that Stuart seemed to be overly-perturbed after the final whistle. A victory is a victory and the points reward for winning 1-0 is the same as winning 4-0. Darlington showed a degree of spirit in the second half – on the evidence of this and City’s recent trip to Blundell Park, there is more hope to be taken from the Quakers’ efforts even if the League Two table makes it implausible to argue they can avoid relegation – and with City wasteful in front of goal for the game’s first two-thirds, the home side might have snatched a late point due to endeavor if not ability. In the end it was an afternoon for getting the three points, climbing back on the coach and moving on.

A more convincing victory still appeared on after a first half easily controlled by the visitors. Back to playing 4-4-2, Matt Clarke took the place of the injured Zesh Rehman, and a more solid performance from the former Darlington centre back alongside Williams was the platform for a 45 minute period where possession was dominated by claret and reasonable chances were readily created.

James Hanson came close early on with a shot deflected over, Simon Whaley almost scored direct from a corner, the recalled and impressive Scott Neilson might have done better after charging into the penalty area and seeing his low drive blocked by home keeper Nick Leversidge.

Lee Bullock, Hanson and Williams continued to go close and soon after Williams was rewarded after popping up at the back post to head home Neilson’s corner. It was a good moment for the former non-league defender after the difficult evening he’d endured midweek, it was also the third away league game in a row he’d netted. City continued to press and Hanson headed just wide.

At the other end Darlington’s efforts to pass the ball around on the deck were admirable but largely impotent. That the half chances they created almost all came on the counter attack said much about their lack of authority on the game.

But it was during the second half where the promotion credentials of the Bantams could again be doubted. City have held a 1-0 lead at half time in eight of their 20 league games this season, but the dilemma of whether to continue in the attacking manner which had earned that advantage or sit back and protect it is one which is leading to uncertainty and awkwardness.

Initially City’s intent was to get that second goal with Hanson again twice going close, but slowly the team began to drop back and ambition became limited. Stuart attempted to encourage fresh impetuous by introducing the dropped Gareth Evans from the bench for Michael Boulding, but the former Macclesfield striker’s confidence has clearly taken a dip of late, and he did little to reignite purpose to the attack.

Though questions must again be pointed at Boulding, who was well shackled all afternoon by former City defender and Quakers captain, Mark Bower. His introduction from the bench against Accrington helped City to pile on late pressure and he almost won the game late on with a shot that hit the post. Boulding can consider himself unfortunate not to have started the next game against Grimsby, but having got his chance at the Darlington Arena his failure to again take it was mystifying.

Often Boulding is excused for anonymity by relative poor service, and while he was provided few sights of goal, he must surely be prepared to work harder. Boulding looked unhappy to be subbed and went straight down the tunnel, where he was followed a few minutes later by Stuart for what may have been a tongue-lashing.

James O’Brien was shortly after brought on for Whaley – the on-loan Norwich midfielder again looking the best player on the park in terms of ability, but often failing to make the most of many opportunities to cross the ball with some poor deliveries.  As the home side finally starting to exert some pressure, Simon Eastwood had to tip one effort round the post and blocked a shot from further out which was straight at him. By then the visitors’ time-wasting got too much for referee Neil Swarbrick, who booked Neilson for unsubtly kicking the ball away. City’s ball retention was poor and will not go unpunished if it continues during the next four league fixtures, all against promotion rivals.

When the final whistle was blown it was met by a faint smattering of boos in the away end, but the overall cheering and chanting of Stuart’s name suggested the general mood was that, while dissatisfied with the performance, at least a difficult week had ended in a positive way.

There are still plenty of issues for Stuart to ponder – the return to playing 4-4-2 may have made City look more solid, but the high work rate the 4-3-3 formation has been built around was curiously lacking. Little confidence can have been taken from the second half display, though the clean sheet is not to be sniffed at.

So a muted victory, and one which may be best judged retrospectively in a few weeks. The hope for Stuart must be that this the game acts as the springboard for a run of good form going into the second half of the season, rather than proving a blip which had more to do with the Darlington formbook. Perhaps, in a week where we at BfB have looked back to the last promotion season and how the team ultimately benefited from losing 3-0 at home to QPR late-autumn, this win will have provided the tweak which makes the difference.

The tweak being the change back to 4-4-2 and return of Clarke, who has surely earned the right to now keep his first team spot. It wasn’t spectacular, but the first game after the tweak in the 1998/99 season, a 1-0 success at struggling Oxford thanks to a header from a set piece in the 23rd minute, offered few clues of what was to come then.

Anything similar this time around, and this will be later judged a fixture Stuart won in more ways than one.

Reacting to the cold, sifting the good from the bad

Defeats are always worse in the cold.

A miserable night and a miserable result for Bradford City going down 3-0 at home to a Rochdale side that – in a League Two context – redefined ebullience.

As the bitter winter drew into Valley Parade the Bantams were beaten by what was probably the best team to come to the stadium in the two and a half years since relegation.

All had started bright enough for Stuart McCall’s side when the early exchanges saw City pinging a cross over that James Hanson turned just wide of the post and the 433 formation that saw James O’Brien return to a midfield alongside Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock and Gareth Evans and new boy Simon Whaley flank Hanson up front seemed to pile pressure onto the side which had ambitions for the top of the division.

Ambitions they would realise by the end of the evening and with no little help from City – Steve Williams’s attempt to clear a ball and his inability to step up after he had given that ball away saw a ball ended up being fired under Simon Eastwood for Dale’s first goal scored by Chris Dagnall.

The visitors played like a team brimful of confidence and as drilled as any who have been to VP for years with every man pressing at City. The full backs added to the wide men to force City’s two wide strikers to come back and be employed as weak midfielders – almost wing backs at times – resulting in a poor first home start for Whaley and Evans’s worst game since he signed for City.

The two wide played stolen away James Hanson cut a lonely and easily policed figure up front while James O’Brien struggled to get a grip in the midfield – the problem with 19 year old players is that they are, by nature, inconstant and hindsight says that McCall would have been better with the more experianced head of Chris Brandon, not that I would have made that decision at 19:45.

Luke O’Brien and Simon Ramsden – who later switched inside to cover (one assumes) an injured Zesh Rehman leaving Jonathan Bateson on the flank – were exposed by Whaley and Evans’s inability to perform both jobs adequately and the ball inside Ramsden ten scattered minutes after the first goal was centred by 39 minute City loanee Chris O’Grady for Dagnall’s second.

The Bantams players got heads up after but the support on the whole rounded on the players with not one player saved a lashing of tongue (and often worse than lashing, but let us concentrate on the main thrust) and a suggestion of their inability. All teams who are not winning at half time are booed of these days, but is there not a distinction to be made between a team playing badly and another team playing well and – if that is a distinction – was it the case on this evening?

Rochdale played as well as any side who have come to Valley Parade in this league have done and showed signs of belief in each other that the Bantams aim towards. One could spend fifteen minutes at half time reviewing every City player to find a problem in his performance but ultimately the main problem the Bantams had tonight was that they were playing against a side that played brilliantly. Swapping out any of the City squad, switching formations, changing personnel: none of those things would have altered that.

Last season’s 3-0 reversal at Spotland saw Paul Arnison hung out to dry for not being able to cope with Will Atkinson who presented a myriad of problems for Simon Ramsden tonight. When does it stop being the fault of our right back that a cross has come over and start being the credit of their left winger? Did right backs up and down the First Division lose their jobs the week after Peter Beagrie ripped them to shreds in 1999?

The build up of understanding between Dale’s pairings – the two at the back, the midfield pair, wide payers, the forwards who caused problems all night with a running off the ball and movement that border on zealous – was honed and the strength of will in the squad was evident and there as an example – no, as something to aim for – to City and to all sides in League Two and beyond. Well drilled, confident teams will always do well, they should always do well.

Rochdale got a third – O’Grady scoring after some more defensive hi-jinx – but any bad luck the Bantams had in the odd run of the ball was made up by two or three great saves which earned him a man of the match award in a match that City could hardly get into. Scott Neilson arrived late and nudged a headed chance at goal but the result was a long time decided at that point.

Ultimately while supporters will no doubt go into a catatonia of debate over the reasons and machinations behind tonight’s result – and while everyone will have a different take on those elements – it will be Stuart McCall’s decision as to sift out what he considers to be issues which can be addressed and those which came around as the result of an excellent performance by the visitors.

I have said many times in the past that the key to dealing with results good and bad is to minimise and move on and that is McCall’s task now. To isolate the problems which can be addressed and to address them, then ignore the others and not let the fact that another team has played well force his thinking away from the idea that the side – the young side – is learning and improving. Tonight was a lesson, and a spanking, but it is something which is learnt from.

The Rochdale fans asked if they could play City every week – considering the one win each of the season then we might take them up on that – but in all likelihood should they maintain that level of performance it would have to be in a division above. The last time Rochdale were promoted The Beatles were number one (with Get Back, which, oh irony, they did) and Keith Hill’s side have managed to escape promotion twice over the last two years.

City on the other hand take stock, sift the good from the bad and move onto Darlington on Saturday. Seasons are made up of cold winter nights like this and how they are reacted too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mastering the winning habit

There’s a saying connected to self-improvement. It’s about how everything you can confidently do now, at one stage in your life was considered difficult.

As Bradford City’s campaign of personal development progresses from learning to create chances, to scoring goals, to becoming difficult to beat, to the new challenge of turning draws into three points more often, tentative steps were taken at Blundell Park towards elevating the Bantams to credible promotion candidates. And while it will be hoped last night is looked back on as significant come the end of the campaign, like a kid learning to ride a bike with stabilisers, it was a progression aided by support which won’t always be there.

You see Grimsby Town were just that bad.

It’s seemingly become a tradition for City to arrive at Blundell Park with the home side on a wretched run of form; but the lack of confidence, aptitude and intelligence the Mariners possessed last night suggests relegation from the Football League is no less a formality than that of rock-bottom Darlington. In each of the last three trips to Cleethorpes, City manager Stuart McCall has shook hands with three different managers in the opposite dugout. On Monday Grimsby appointed former City forward Neil Woods despite a winless caretaker stint. This removed the possibility of a short-term lift from a new appointment, though perhaps rather late in the day the Town board has grasped the concept of stability.

Stability for City was the return of the previously-successful 4-3-3 formation and more positionally-solid James O’Brien for an off-form Chris Brandon, with the result a well drilled team versed in the job it needed to carry out. Simon Whaley was handed a full debut ahead of a clearly exhausted Scott Neilson and brought an extra dimension to City’s play. Confident in possession at all times and making some clever on and off the ball runs, if James O’Brien’s hard-working performance put Brandon to shame, the more effective manner in which the on-loan Norwich winger drifted around the pitch will have been noted by Stuart too.

With Lee Bullock carrying out another unassuming but valuable role protecting the back four, the platform was set up for City’s forward players to attack inventively and Whaley’s long range effort sneaked past one-time rumoured Bantams target Nick Colgan to put the visitors 1-0 up on 24 minutes. City had knocked the ball around impressively at times, but the goal was the result of a more direct manner after Simon Eastwood’s long kick and Bullock’s flick on. Stuart has previously made no attempt to apologise for his team mixing up their play and this goal provided a strong argument for incorporating such a style.

Grimsby’s resistance was limited, defender Oliver Lancashire’s header from a corner forcing a stunning save from Eastwood the only time the impressive central defensive partnership of Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams was troubled. And the biggest concern at half time was that surely the home side couldn’t play any worse and of the increasing regularity second half leads have been lost by City this season – Burton, Barnet, Northampton, Port Vale and Accrington. Time for those self-help guides.

Yet with so many doubts to plague the mind, the continued assurance of City after the interval saw the predictable early second half Grimsby urgency dampened with ease. Nicky Featherstone shot wide and there were a couple of throw ins into the box to defend, but it didn’t take long for City to be back into the ascendancy and the determination to finish off the game was obvious.

Whaley and James Hanson both went close before a corner was only half cleared and James O’Brien whipped over a troubling cross which Town defender Paul Linwood bizarrely headed across his own goal, presenting Williams with an opportunity to head the ball into an unguarded net from two yards. As every City outfield player rushed over to congratulate the former non-league defender, the sight of Grimsby players’ heads down, not even bothering to berate each other for conceding so poorly, will surely have troubled every Mariners fan.

From there onwards the game was comfortable with City continuing to carry the greater purpose and intent. Gareth Evans, who’s not quite reaching top form at the moment, should have scored a third after been played through one-and-one and shrugging off a defender, but curled his shot wide. Luke O’Brien, also not quite at his best last night, hit the side netting. Hanson then finally wrapped up the evening after racing onto Evans’ through ball and finishing emphatically. It was the top scorer’s seventh of the season and the superb manner he lead the line all night – winning flick ons and also displaying no little skill with the ball at feet – was a contrast to his target man predecessor and now Grimsby’s number ten, Barry Conlon.

It’s at this point I should really add comment about how disgraceful it was that the majority of away fans booed and sang uncomplimentary songs about the Irish striker. Whatever his failing were in a City shirt, effort was not among them and the great moments he provided us City fans should not be discounted. So I should really add comment about it was a disgrace, but…well, to be honest, I have a sense of humour.

The stick he received was hilarious and the comedy was added too by how badly Conlon played. His big chance to silence the barrackers came shortly before half time when the ball flashed across the box towards his right foot. He ended up kicking fresh air. In response the abuse was interrupted by a mickey-taking chant of “Barry! Barry!” Once sung in affection, but as Conlon was subbed in the second half and Hanson scored a minute later, it was clear we’ve all moved on. Sorry Barry, though given the way you smiled towards us after chasing an over-hit ball which went out of play, I figure you have broad shoulders and a sense of humour too.

A late save from Eastwood preserved the clean sheet – important as it was only City’s second on the road this season. But while City have played better and not won this season, the qualities which delivered the three points stand them in good stead for the tougher battles ahead. In hindsight, that City were only 1-0 up at half time was the best thing which could have happened. A chance to face up to previous fears and play through difficult memories of tentative starts to the second half been punished by conceding.

Every player took responsibility in pushing City on, and by the end of the night every individual battle had been emphatically won. With Michael Flynn and James O’Brien driving the team forward and the movement of Whaley and Evans causing problems, the workmanlike performance was not without its flair.

The win elevates City to 10th and the distance to the play offs has been reduced to two points. After a week off which will allow the fitness of returning players to improve, the self-improvement programme of developing a winning habit continues. From a visit to second bottom of the league to a home game against second top, Rochdale.

This time City will have to do it without the stablisers.

Accrington nearly don’t come to Valley Parade but the happy ending becomes more predictable

The heavy rain of the past few days must place Bradford City’s home fixture with Accrington Stanley in a modicum of doubt, but then the prospect of Saturday 21 November being a blank Saturday for the Bantams seemed very real a few weeks back.

Accrington, the club that wouldn’t die, almost died. Given six weeks to pay a six-figure tax bill, the collection buckets were rattling around the Crown Ground earlier this season as part of rescue efforts which brought out the best in its North West neighbours. Yet not enough money was raised and its claimed officials arrived at the club’s High Court hearing with no plan B and left with the gratitude of a local businessman stepping in to make up the shortfall. Accrington live on, and the prospect of early season results been invalidated – to the joy of those Stanley beat and the despair of those they lost to – and of a 23-team division with only one relegation spot was ended.

As Southend prepare to take on the national media’s attention as club basket case, that Accrington survived may have caused some to indifferently shrug their shoulders and consider how, for every League club that it’s reported is on the brink of financial oblivion, something always turns up and their survival is assured. And while everyone enjoys a happy ending, the reputed predictability is breeding subsequent hostility from some, just ask Darlington. Poor old Accrington, struggling to get by. Hang on, didn’t they spend £85,000 on one player (admittedly later sold for a profit) 18 months ago?

Last Saturday Bournemouth were in town with the strong criticisms of Rochdale Manager Keith Hill still echoing. Ahead of Dale’s 4-0 success at Dean Court, Hill had stated, “They overspend and it is to the detriment to clubs like ours and it is happening too often now…i’m sick of it continually happening.” Having been stuck in the basement league since 1974 and with a largely untroubled recent financial history, Hill and Chairman Chris Dunphy are clearly aggrieved at how their efforts to live within means see them lose out to others who gamble more recklessly with their future. One wonders if Hill’s pre-Bournemouth mood was influenced by his team’s home defeat to Accrington the week before.

For as Accrington seek to climb back onto a more stable financial future after the local community helped to prop it up, what’s the most morally appropriate way to progress? There were stories of a nine-year-old Accrington girl emptying the contents of her piggy bank into a collection bucket last September, would it be right for the club to spend money during the January transfer window? And if not then, when? Hill’s views on Rotherham United, with two recent spells in administration, purchasing his star striker Adam Le Fondre earlier this season probably aren’t printable.

Rochdale and their supporters don’t seem to care much for Bradford City, but the Spotland club may have a small degree of respect for the way joint Chairmen Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn cut the cloth accordingly over the summer after pushing the boat out a year earlier in the quest for promotion. City were the first club to fall into administration following the ITV Digital collapse, but while many others who followed were quickly able to brush off mistakes and get busy in the transfer market again, the self-inflicted scars continue to cause pain for the Bantams. Plenty of people lost out due to the infamous six weeks of madness, but Bradford City and its supporters remain high on that list too. Those financial woes may largely be a thing of the past, but the lesson has not been forgotten.

The conservative but sensible actions of the City Board has seen Manager Stuart McCall’s playing budget reduce by a third  but, though its widely agreed he’s used it admirably, regrettably it appears a small minority of supporters don’t appreciate the ramifications. City’s 1-1 draw with Bournemouth, joint leaders no less, should have generated a greater mood of approval if not satisfaction, but the injury list which hindered efforts was brushed off by some to make way for criticism.

Theres nothing like managers playing people out of position to trigger red rage from a certain breed of football fan, and the circumstances which saw Zesh Rehman in midfield and Michael Flynn up front were slammed in a manner which deliberately ignored the bigger picture. A reduced budget means Stuart simply can’t retain the strength in depth and the same level of quality, so the length of the injury list is likely to prove a more telling factor this season. And when it does, players will be asked to take on unfamiliar roles and performances are going to suffer to a degree. A negative perhaps, but one which has to be tackled positively.

The injury situation clears up slightly this week with James Hanson returning to partner Gareth Evans and Scott Neilson up front, which will allow Flynn to return to the attacking midfield position he is performing so effectively alongside Lee Bullock and either Chris Brandon or James O’Brien. Just one player’s return it able to make that much of a difference, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that competition for places continues to be undermined by the unavailability of Peter Thorne, Michael Boulding, Steve O’Leary, Omar Daley and Leon Osborne. No longer down to the bare bones, but Stuart is hardly flush with options. A loan signing has been suggested, at the time of writing there are no few faces.

At the back the big question concerns whether skipper Zesh Rehman will reclaim his place in the back four or whether Matt Clarke – impressive in the last two games – will retain the role. Rehman has struggled for form of late and Clarke’s general solidness alongside Steve Williams may give him the nod in the way he took Mark Bower’s place in the team two seasons ago after the former defender also vacated the back four to help another area of the team.

At right back Simon Ramsden should also be fit enough for a return, ahead of Jonathan Bateson. The former Blackburn youth player has struggled with his distribution of late, though continues to display a great attitude and a confidence to get forward.  Luke O’Brien is left back – and there are a couple of interesting talking points concerning last season’s player of the year. The first is that O’Brien has been asked to take on more responsibility, as part of the new-look 4-3-3 formation, with strong encouragement to bring the ball forward more.

The other talking point is how, in recent games, the lack of cover afforded to the 21-year-old from midfielders in front  has been targeted by opposition managers. At Macclesfield, for example, Emile Sinclair was instructed to use the space in front of O’Brien to cause problems. It’s for this reason the selection of James O’Brien to play in front of him, rather than Brandon who likes to drift around the pitch, is widely preferred by fans.

Simon Eastwood keeps goal and has shown improvement of late. He will need to be wary of a reasonably strong Accrington line up that will include former City striker Michael Symes. An away win would see Stanley climb above City and give rise to promotion hopes, but such success may not be considered the fairy tale stuff it would have before the tax bill reminder came through the door.

As City try to achieve more from less this season, it could be argued a Bantams’ promotion would be more romantic than a club who’s name is often-proclaimed the most romantic in football.

Money changes everything as AFC Bournemouth come to Valley Parade riding high

Often unable to field a squad of eighteen, crippled by financial problems and with a manager just out of his twenties it is something amazing that AFC Bournemouth are top of the league.

Eddie Howe’s side sit ahead of the likes of Rotherham United and Notts County and while they were panned 4-0 by Rochdale last league game out they lead League Two with supporters and an increasingly excited media looking at Dean Court with admiration talking about the spirit the young manager has built.

The Cherries recorded an impressive win at Valley Parade last season when the Bantams were confident that they expensively assembled squad would roll over the visitors and perhaps it is that spirit carried on that drives Bournemouth.

Perhaps it is the mentality that saw the club escape from a seventeen point deduction gives them the self-belief that puts them top. The theory has it that football matches are won – on the whole – by the team that needs to win most and AFC Bournemouth want to win when they roll up to Northampton, Crewe of Hereford because they are used to needing to win.

Rotherham United and especially Notts County need to win for different reasons. These big money clubs in League Two are a new phenomenon but one which is increasingly reoccurant. Peterborough United where one a couple of seasons ago and Shrewsbury and City were – one supposes – last year. City’s experience was that when the winning mentality slipped away and the change that an injection of cash had made was negligible. Money changed everything, but it changed back.

City face AFC Bournemouth in middling form following a 2-2 penalties win on Tuesday night and a 2-1 reversal at Notts County the match before with a wasted two points in a 2-2 at Macclesfield being the last league game out and a 1-0 win over Hereford being the last league match at VP and the last clean sheet. City’s habit of conceding two a game is making winning hard.

So the news that Simon Ramsden is returning to fitness is heartening. The abilities of Jonathan Bateson were well showcased in the week when he slotted in nicely at right back compared to fellow youngster the unfortunate Luke Sharry who meandered the field for forty five minutes before exiting. Bateson will step down when Ramsden returns but having only been in training for a day the impressive signing from Rochdale is expected to be on the bench.

Similarly Gareth Evans is expected to make a place on the bench following his heel injury last week with Michael Boulding – also pulled off a half time (“Blimey, at Mansfield we only used to a half an orange.”) after a poor forty five minutes. To see why Boulding blows so hot and cold one need think back to Mansfield’s 2-1 win at Valley Parade two years ago in which Boulding stormed from forty yards with pace to get behind David Wetherall and Mark Bower who – as always – defended high up the field.

Watching Boulding struggle against a Port Vale side that played two lines of four and compressed the defensive areas Boulding could not use his pace to get in behind the back four because there was no space behind the back four. Boulding always stuggles in these situations but when one looks at his best displays for City – the two at Gillingham last year – he has room to run into.

AFC Bournemouth – riding high and confident – might be more liable to leave that room than Port Vale were and perhaps forty five minutes for Boulding before Evans’s return is a wise idea.

Elsewhere Lee Bullock returns from suspension and will return to the midfield alongside Michael Flynn and James O’Brien who put in a superb display for his forty five on Tuesday night with his two deliveries from set plays getting the Bantams back into the game. O’Brien’s display on Tuesday seems to have cemented his place in the City side alongside Bullock and Flynn. The emergence of a solid and trustable midfielder set up is something manager Stuart McCall was not able to do last season.

Scott Neilson links up between midfield and the attack of Boulding and James Hanson who scored his sixth goal for the Bantams this week and is the leading scorer.

At the back Ramsden or Bateson feature alongside Zesh Rehman – back in the back four after midfield duties – and Steve Williams with Luke O’Brien at left back.

In goal Simon Eastwood who is back to heroic status after his three penalty saves on Tuesday night. Eastwood had high tribute paid to him by Williams in the week who called him “shot stopper number one”. Williams is a right of course and perhaps the confidence of the visitors will see them punting shots at the reflexes of Simon all afternoon and forego the cross which causes the problems.

We should be so lucky.

Finding out what you are good at

Rather unexpectedly, Bradford City become involved in a cup run.

The 2-2 draw with Port Vale saw the Bantams win on penalties and ended up as one of eight in a competition since 1989’s League Cup all of which seemed unlikely after a first half in which the Bantams seemed to have forgotten any or all of the elements which have made the club enjoyable to watch this season.

After an initial ten minutes against a Vale side who predictably defended deep in which the Bantams showed some fluidity but soon the attempted midfield of Zesh Rehman sitting behind Michael Flynn and Luke Sharry. If the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy is for anything it is for blooding young players and it is admirable that Sharry was given a chance but the midfielder did not take the chance with two hands and and with Rehman sitting naturally atop Steve Williams and the recalled Matthew Clarke the midfield triangle became more of a string.

As a result the ball was punted long – punted as opposed to passed – with the ball often going to an out muscled Michael Boulding or Scott Neilson rather than the powerful James Hanson. It was from this that John McCombe gave the visitors the lead with a corner being cleared to Boulding who’s attempt to hold the ball up was lacklustre and so as the Bantams came out the ball pinged back in to the flank and then the centre with McCombe converting.

Micky Adams has Port Vale playing at what they are good at. They sit deep and attack with pace and as City had failed at their endeavours in the first half and Vale had not they deserved the lead. Moreover though Stuart McCall took his team into the dressing room knowing that there was a problem which he set about addressing.

Sharry may not get another 45 minutes to press his case for a contract so it is a shame that he did not grasp this game but his replacement – James O’Brien – floated a corner into the middle which good running by Rehman and a ducked header by Flynn which levelled the game.

Flynn had moved to the forward line to replace Michael Boulding – brought off for Chris Brandon – to give the attack more sticking power against a Vale side who looked to up their muscle with West Yorkshireman Anthony Griffith coming on.

Griffith seems to be a player born without any footballing talent. He can – however – tackle and battle which he does to various degrees giving away a free kick for a foul on James Hanson. Luke O’Brien middled the free kick for Hanson who rose to head in.

Football is sometimes very complex but most other times it is utterly simple. Good delivery to players who are good at heading it. Two goals and that seemed to be that until Robert Taylor his a choice shot across Simon Eastwood and into the the far post to set up another round of penalties after ninety minutes.

Penalties – taken at the Kop end to the eternal credit of someone – started with Marc Richards and Michael Flynn scoring Simon Eastwood saved Louis Dodds, Vale keeper Chris Martin saved from James O’Brien. Eastwood’s on line bouncing gave him the edge over Kris Taylor but Chris Brandon became the only player of sixteen to miss the target.

Lewis Haldane, James Hanson, Tommy Fraser, Luke O’Brien, Robert Taylor and Zesh Rehman scored. Eastwood saved from Adam Yates and Steve Williams won the game.

The credit, the songs, the mobbing of his team mates went to Simon Eastwood who had saved three of eight stop kicks and once again had put the Bantams a step closer to Wembley. Eastwood is the new Barry Conlon. Some get on his back but on nights like tonight – just as Barry would get match winners – he was the difference.

At least we have found something he is good at: saving penalties.

Everything changes

Ninety nine times have Bradford City entered the FA Cup since the 1910/1911 season – give of take the odd World War – and ninety nine (well, ninety really) times we have failed to win the competition once more. Next season it will be a century since the Bantams – Jimmy Spiers et al – picked up the old trophy and considering the club’s centenary was something of an horrific damp squib with staying in business put above celebration perhaps the club could look at throwing a proper party in May 2011 to mark that anniversary.

Bringing the FA Cup to Valley Parade as anything other than a visitors seems a remote prospect to say the least though. City are in the bottom tier and the height of our ambitions at present ranges from getting though the season without a visit from the administrator to starting a return up the leagues which some would say will cap out in the Championship.

The ambitions of League Two clubs are simply not that high.

Aside from Notts County the huge spending of which City caught the eye of the storm in a 5-0 defeat at Meadow Lane. That day marked something of a low which the Bantams went on to recover from slowly until a point where we sit in the middle of the league waiting for consistent victories or the return of Omar Daley – or perhaps both.

Since that opening day City have recovered while County have done well although probably not as well as expected. The likes of AFC Bournemouth and Rochdale battle out at the top of the division and County’s idea of rolling over the division with Premiership stars came unstuck when Sol Campbell wandered away from a defeat at Morecambe never to return.

The were asked to name the people behind them beyond “Middle East Investors” and they did citing themselves as packed by various people who would not be named in public – although the FA knows and approves of the people named as The Munto Group – although it did emerge that they were from Japan and Pakistan neither of whom are in the Middle East.

Campbell left and rumours had it that director of football Sven Goran Erikkson would follow until the Swede saw manager Ian McParland replaced by Sven’s former assistant Hans Backe. The club seemed to be waiting for McParland to do something the merited the sack and – the 2-2 penalties defeat to City aside – the manager was doing well enough to keep the position. Without a reason to sack him County seemed to just decide to get rid of him anyway.

The Bantams are talking much about a desire for revenge following that 5-0 defeat but one expects that that revenge for an obnoxious club who lionise a man in Lee Hughes who definitely does not deserve lionising and in Luke Rodgers have a player who is as skilled at cheating as he is at football will come further down the line when the Munto Group’s flexible definitions of truth come back to haunt the supporters.

Stuart McCall is expected to keep faith with Simon Eastwood – providing Huddersfield Town do not mind his being cup tied – in goal despite mounting and justified criticism. Jon McLaughlin would take the clubs is Town seen Eastwood keeping goal after Alex Smithies leaves in the transfer window.

Jon Bateson – who was sent off in City’s last trip to Nottingham continues to fill in for Simon Ramsden at right back in a settled defence of Simon Williams, Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien.

Chris Brandon is out with a hamstring strain allowing Lee Bullock to return to the side in a midfield three of Bullock, Michael Flynn and James O’Brien the latter of which is becoming an unsung hero of the Bantams side. Scott Neilson drifts between midfield and attack on the right.

James Hanson – who Stuart McCall justified pumping the ball to at Macclesfield with the immortal line “Well, he was winning everything” – continues up front alongside the hard working Gareth Evans.

In no mood to speak as City go to Macclesfield

The week had started with a chatter around BfB with articles upon articles about the sending off of Lee Bullock last weekend, about the game in which he was sent off when the Bantams beat Hereford, about the stewarding of the game and on to suspensions and how they work and Leeds and what is going on there.

It was like old times, a little too like old times, and thus it arrived in the form of US Sports Academy in Alabama and an obnoxious report. Mark Lawn speaks for us all saying

“If they want to mention the fire and quote what actually happened then by all means do, but to connect it with hooligans is wrong and for him to actually do that is derogatory to the people who lost their lives.”

What is to be done about such massive mis-representation. The Bantams supporters simply do not have the numbers of Liverpool supporters who so often find themselves in similar situations and cannot mount the boycotts and rapid responses. People write the odd letter and they fire off emails and they are right to do so but unlike the Comeuppance Steve Cohen had visited on him we will never cause a quake that can shake financially and so are left to appeal to whatever good nature might be found in places like Sport Journal.

Mis-representation then that sours a week and very little in the way of a solution aside from this suggestion. Misinformation in the form of the Sport Journal or When Good Times Go Bad 3 is not going to go away nor will the clips be removed from You Tube and the likes. They will not be removed but misinformation can be competed with and better with information.

Information similar to Paul Firth’s book on the subject – well researched, truthful, honest – which stands in competition to the misinformation to allow those curious to find that truth. The club could do this but better that it works with supporters – the same supporters who are rightly activated and appalled by events like this week – to create a web resource of information for those who want to know the truth and put right shocking, shameful, disgusting lies.

So to Macclesfield and the mood is soured. The Bantams are looking to build on last week’s hard win despite the absence of the suspended Bullock who will be replaced by James O’Brien who signed a new 18 month deal with the Bantams following three months of excellent play after his arrival from Birmingham City while Chris Brandon – who is said to be keen to press his abilities in central midfield – will make a three with O’Brien and Michael Flynn.

The midfield three will have Scott Neilson dropping back from a three up front to join in with James Hanson and Gareth Evans – who faces the club that he credits with turning around his career after his release from Manchester United – in the forward line.

Jonathan Bateson will retain his place at right back with Simon Ramsden still injured. Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams are in the middle and Luke O’Brien at left back. Simon Eastwood is in goal.

The chase continues as City welcome Hereford to Valley Parade

As was learned two years ago, the chase is rarely fun in football.

Bradford City’s first season in League Two was defined by a poor start which left too much ground to make up during the campaign’s final two thirds. Good runs of form had led to hopes of a late play off push, but each defeat felt that more significant as the chasing pack remained out in front. A contrast to the emotions of last season where a strong start kept City in the top seven for virtually the entire first three quarters of the campaign, meaning defeats felt more careless then terminal.

The slow start to this season has left City with catching up to do again. Although the eight-game unbeaten run in the league saw the gap close, the last two defeats have seen it widen again. Stronger conclusions can be drawn from the league standings with each passing week, and the 13th position the Bantams currently occupy – albeit only four points off the play offs – make less than enthralling viewing. Saturday’s visit of Hereford offers the chance to kick start the chase.

The two defeats have prompted a slight puncturing to the growing mood of optimism, exposing the fickle nature of some City supporters with a small number re-commencing with questioning the ability of manager Stuart McCall and prematurely writing off the season as another destined to end mid table. It’s easy to have faith when things are going well; the most encouraging outcome of the recent setbacks is that only a minority of supporters have lost theirs.

Nevertheless Stuart will know as well as anyone the grumbles will increase if another weekend goes by without a win and, with no reported new injury concerns, will have spent much of this week contemplating a few dilemmas ahead of picking a team to bounce back. The biggest question raised by supporters’ concerns goalkeeper Simon Eastwood and the slim balance he offers between stunning saves and stunning cock ups. Both goals at Dagenham could be blamed on the Huddersfield loanee, further testing Stuart’s patience.

As is often the case in these situations, the level of criticism has gone somewhere past sensible. While few supporters would be willing to argue Eastwood’s case, he has not been as bad as some are making out. The cries for Jon McLaughlin to take over ignore the reality that barely 1,000 supporters have seen him in competitive action, or that he began this season with the same level of senior professional experience as his young rival and has shipped in more than a few goals for the reserves. He may be a better keeper, but no one can know for sure and his name might as well be Jon McAnyone-else. It’s an all too familiar type of argument in recent years, you could almost rehash some of last year’s debate about Matt Clarke and Mark Bower, replacing their names with Eastwood and McLaughlin where applicable.

The back four too is prompting unease, with Steve Williams and Zesh Rehman impressing at times but struggling to retain their command through a full 90 minutes. The smart money is on Simon Ramsden eventually moving over to centre back for one of the pair as the season progresses, with the promising Jonathan Bateson brought in at right back. Luke O’Brien continues to hold his own at left back.

In midfield Stuart must decide whether to continue employing the three across which works well on the road but less so when City are the home side, or go back to a more traditional 4-4-2. Lee Bullock’s superb performance against Crewe didn’t prompt the level of praise it deserved while Michael Flynn is matching him in the consistency stakes. James O’Brien is a bit more hot and cold, but is surely worthy of a longer deal when his temporary one expires at the end of this month. Chris Brandon may be brought in to make a four man midfield, although has plenty of convincing to do after a woeful showing against Crewe.

Up front Michael Boulding is expected to have shaken off the bug which ruled him out of playing at Dagenham and be back in contention. Conspiracy theory fans were happy to speculate that his late withdrawal from the matchday squad at Victoria Road was due to him being upset at Stuart for relegating him to the bench following three goals in three games, though if even the tiniest grain of truth was found in this rumour it would look worse on Boulding than it would be considered a harsh managerial decision. The fact Stuart stated after the match Boulding would have started if fit also blasts more than a few holes into the unfounded speculation.

Which may mean an instant starting eleven recall for Boulding, but more likely he will be on the bench with James Hanson, Gareth Evans and Scott Neilson up front. After a bright start Neilson has struggled for form of late, though the difference he made when coming on against Crewe and lack of alternatives makes it unlikely he will be benched for now. It’s worth noting Stuart began the season with Joe Colbeck while still waiting for Omar Daley to recover from injury, with Neilson signed up on Joe’s departure but probably expected to be back up when the Jamaican returns. Neilson has another month at least to prove his worth on a more consistent basis.

Visitors Hereford were last here during Christmas 2007 and the questionable refereeing decisions which paved the way for a 3-1 away success that day left City languishing in 16th place with 24 games to play and prompted Stuart to effectively rule out City’s promotion chances. Promoted to League One that season before coming straight back down, Hereford are improving after a slow start but are yet to register an away win.

For both, the league table reveals there is much work to do in climbing among the promotion runners and then staying with them. Defeat may not be a disaster tomorrow, but the chase would seem that little bit tougher.

The excess approaches as City look to start again at Dagenham & Redbridge

I was asked by the wife “Who are City playing next week?”

“Dagenham and Redbridge.”

“That is not fair,” she said “having to play two teams at once. Do they have 22 men on their team.”

Mrs Wood’s cheekiness aside Stuart McCall may soon start to wish he could field two teams on the field as after he saw his side’s ten game unbeaten run come to an end last week against Crewe and was left in the rare position of wanting to reward – rather than make corrective changes to – the side.

None of the City players left the 3-2 defeat with anything other than gold stars leaving the City skipper looking at excesses of talent in all areas of the field.

Up front – for example – Gareth Evans has returned from a highly unjust sending off at Morecambe which interrupted him in excellent form but in his absence Michael Boulding has three goals in three games and the principal of motivation by visibly rewarding achievements says he can not be dropped despite the odd dereliction of duty in the endless chasing role against the Railwaymen.

James Hanson’s ball winning abilities are endlessly useful and he scored a superb goal last week making him hardly droppable and Peter Thorne – well Peter Thorne has the luxury of being able to be benched at the moment which considering the club practically put his left arm up his back until he signed for another season with his right I’m sure he appreciates.

Three players and – should the City manager keep the formation that sees a tight three in midfield with one lose on the wing that worked so well, or should he retain the diamond that looked great going forward in the opening half hour against Crewe but let in two goals – then he has two slots in which to place them or the option to start fudging players out of the positions which seem to suit them such as dropping Boulding into the advanced midfield role where Scott Neilson has sat and where Chris Brandon played last time out for the latter two thirds of the game.

The solution is to play three forwards.

McCall gave Neilson great credit for his performances since he arrived at the club from Cambridge City despite giving the toothpaste smiler a bench place only on Saturday which allowed Brandon’s return. Brandon had performed well – a late goal against Notts County included – and won his place in the side despite a nagging feeling that as a player he does not put in enough “work”, “work” being defined as running around chasing the ball and tackling people which while simplistic has been an important addition to City’s arsenal this year that was lacking last.

Of course the figure of Omar Daley – looking at a return at the end of October in a Tuesday afternoon reserve game against Leeds United – looms large over the pair. Opinion on Daley was divided but his injury and the decline and fall of the promotion campaign are linked post hoc, ergo propter hoc and my breath is baited at the thought of this side which needs a tiny bit more to win games having a player who does that tiny bit more that wins games in it.

For the moment though the solution is to play two wide midfielders.

In the middle Michael Flynn – who put his hand to scribbling this week revealing that he used to be a postman and Peter Thorne enjoys surfing (the sea probably, not in the way that Bobby Petta used to enjoy surfing – is the definition of an undropable player impressing more and more with every game and spending the time out to applaud the supporters at the conclusion of ninety minutes. Lee Bullock has also made himself undroppable having switched from a passable if somewhat frustrating attacking midfielder into a defensive lynchpin. Bullock allows the play around him, moves the ball on, makes himself available. Any success the team has at the moment is in no small part down to him and the management’s belief that he could be switched to that more rearguard position.

Stephen O’Leary made a cameo and impressed before losing his place through injury – he is back soon – but James O’Brien is in good form keeping up the running, harrying and work rate of the squad. Should O’Leary’s come back prove as impressive as his first game then one might expect to see him in the side again soo but as it is the solution at the moment is to play Flynn, Bullock and James O’Brien. Three in the midfield.

The back four is settled although Jonathan Bateson knocked firmly on the door with Simon Ramsden currently an immensely impressive right back and cover for the central defensive roles filled by Steve Williams and Zesh Rehman. Williams continues to wobble in a single minute of a game while looking like a player with ability above and beyond for the other 89 making him the Rio Ferdinand of Bradford City. Luke O’Brien is proving that the season after being player of the season need not be a problem.

Four at the back. Simon Eastwood in goal. No problem then. City need only play thirteen players and considering the opposition have twenty two that will not be a problem.

More seriously though as Stuart McCall challenges his team to put together another ten game run the difficulties of his position having more than a team of players who deserve a team place. The likes of Boulding need to be rewarded for coming onto the team and doing what is asked of them in the same way Barry Conlon did last season but doing so would require other important players to be left out.

The balance, and how to cope with and maintain excess, is the challenge now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bradford City fans celebrate Simon Eastwood's penalty save

Happiness will be revenge as Notts County face City again

The long hard slog against relegation” predicted after the 5-0 defeat at Notts County at the start of the season does not seem to be happening as City continue merrily along a middling path in League Two eight games without defeat performing but three points worse than the big spending visitors.

Not that would have been surprising after twenty five minutes of the first day of the season when the Bantams and County traded blows – an hour later the idea that ten games on and the difference between the sides would have been that opening day win would have been more surprising but League Two football is full of contradictions such as the fact that a former barber from Bamber Bridge makes a better signing than Sol Campbell.

City’s unbeaten run goes back eight games and includes the opening match in this the oft renamed Associate Members Trophy against Rochdale and will continue regardless of the result at Valley Parade where a defeat would simply see that game at Spotland expunged from what would be a seven game winning league stint. That is the context the game is set in.

So as Ian McPartland reads in the national papers that David Platt is about to take his job – Platt is a friend of Sven but a former Forest boss and one wonders how well that would go down with the locals who seem to matter not one bit in the saga of football’s tedious rich – while Stuart McCall reads little about his position making a welcome change from the last eight months.

Not that one should suggest that McCall has proved his critics wrong – one doubts that will ever happen with every football manager from Sir Alex down having a steady stream of criticism as background noise – but that he has crafted a team which he seems to enjoy managing as much as the supporters seem to enjoy watching them.

The City manager has undergone something of a change over the last three months having ended last season a near broken man scampering around the touchline kicking every ball to his more passive approach now where he seems to trust his young, eager charges to kick some of the balls themselves. Win or lose, perhaps he thinks, at least I can enjoy watching them without the feeling that some of them want to be somewhere else.

As was said last week by Scott Neilson it takes only one bad apple to spoil the mood of the dressing room barrel and we look West and think how it is not going great at Tranmere Rovers at the moment.

City go into the game carry suspensions and nursing illness and injury that robs the team of strikers and midfielders who pretend to be strikers. Lee Bullock will rest a bad toe following his hard working turn as target man replacing the suspended Gareth Evans and the poorly James Hanson who could return but with the rest of Bradford sniffing and sneezing for a week each one suspects he might be on his sick bed a while longer.

Michael Boulding – who scored on Saturday – is perhaps at his most useful in a game against a team like County who are expected to attack and will not sit deep allowing the striker’s pace to count. Boulding reunites with Peter Thorne – back from injury – for the first time since the opening day.

The midfield will see Scott Neilson out wide with Michael Flynn, James O’Brien and Simon Ramsden continuing although the competition being what it is – and his last appearance at Valley Parade being promising – Luke Sharry might get a call to play. Likewise at the back Lewis Horne is knocking on the door of place in the side and keeping Luke O’Brien’s form up. Only two of the back four of the opening day of the season remain in place with Steve Williams having replaced Matthew Clarke alongside Zesh Rehman and Jonathan Bateson being in the right back slot. Simon Eastwood continues in goal although of course changes could be made.

For County one wonders which team they will field. They have a plethora of players of high ability and low morals. One can read this article and compare and contrast with the revolting Lee Hughes but also spare a different type of disdain for Luke Rodgers who seems to want to carve out a niche as League Two’s Didier Drogba combining ability with an utter disregard for the rules and a willingness to dive at any opportunity. One wonders why if County are as good as they can be – and make no mistake they can play with Ricky Ravenhill and Ben Davies a fine midfield – then why do they have to cheat so much? Even the opening day of the season saw Rodgers throw himself to the ground to “win” a penalty.

The Bantams go into the game looking for a kind of revenge for the opening day defeat but in the eight games in which County fans have seen Sol Campbell’s arrival and departure and results which do not match up to the thirteen men of AFC Bournemouth despite the one week of Sol costing more than the entire Cherries team. As City fans saw last year such a team can do as expected, they can be efficient, they can bring satisfaction but enjoyment is harder to muster.

Since that week in Nottingham the Bantams have been – well – fun to watch with men honest and true putting in hard work. I for one will take happiness over revenge any day.

Weekend preview part two – I believe that Northampton vs Southampton is a local derby

Belief is a funny thing.

When I was a kid it was my belief that Northampton and Southampton was a local derby in the same way that Manchester City vs Chester City or West Ham vs West Brom was.

One former footballer – for example – believes that The Queen is secretly a lizard.

It is a curious view point but looking at how this ethereal thing that is belief rules footballers lives it is probably not hard how one could convince himself that what he decides is, is. The Bradford City team that lost 5-0 to Notts County trudged off the pitch believing they were going to struggle – one suspects they did – but that was the last home league reversal because the belief that courses through the veins has come from seven games without defeat.

The belief is now that Bradford City can go to somewhere like Northampton – as we do on Saturday – and win the match. Belief that is distinct from expectation levels. The players believe they are a good team, a team who deserved to win in the week against Morecambe in the week, thus they are a good team.

That is belief in football.

Disbelief in football was Tuesday night’s sending off of Gareth Evans which goes down as one of the poorest decisions in a Bradford City game ever. There are so many reasons why Stuart Attwell got the decisions wrong that to enumerate them is almost cruel – like pointing out the poor quality of a child’s painting compared to Mona Lisa – but while Attwell continues to foul up football matches his misunderstandings rather than his mistakes should be highlighted.

It is not that Attwell just saw the wrong thing – we could argue about what did or did not happen for eon – but it what he choice to do with the offence he perceived. Evans and Morecambe goalkeeper Barry Roche both contested a ball outside the penalty area. When dealing with goalkeepers the rules of football are based around exceptions so they do not state “A goalkeeper can handle the ball in the box” but rather “no player can handle the ball aside from the goalkeeper in the box”.

They are written this way to ensure that the goalkeeper – once he leaves his box – is not treated any differently from any other player. Watch the Evans/Roche again and imagine the Morecambe player is not a goalkeeper and try picture a situation where it would be a red card.

Evans goes in to the challenge from the front and with a single foot sliding along the floor. It is not violent conduct for sure – that covers punching and headbutting – and it is almost impossible to interpret it as serious foul play which covers things such as two footed tackles. Once again imagine the tackle between outfield players.

So either Stuart Attwell thinks that Evans’s slide was some serious foul play – and if he did then he missed many similar red cards in the game – or he saw that a goalkeeper was involved and decided to ignore the rules of football he is there to apply. Or he did it for some other reason tied into the fact that he is the sort of Referee that gives goals when the ball does not go in the net but he has a belief it did.

The Attwell’s rubbish – which is what the red card incident should be known as – means that Gareth Evans will not be eligible to play against Northampton, Notts County in the Cup or Crewe at home on the following Saturday and frankly the only reason I can see what the club is not screaming to the rafters to have the decision overturned is out of a fear of a Red Riding style corruption that haunts Refereeing.

Jim Gannon said that because his Stockport County side showed up a Referee they were victimised and City’s dealings with Joe Ross seemed to start a good few years of frankly bizarre Refereeing that included a five match ban for Dean Windass for being cheeky. Indeed The Owl and The Badger of the corrupt West Yorkshire Police of Peace’s novels would find it hard to justify that incident where accused was not allowed to speak in his defence and the only witness was the case for the prosecution.

I digress. Maybe appealing is City not making waves and maybe in the long run that is the right thing to do. Certainly I would not trust the FA, the Referees or the appeal process. That is my belief.

I have another belief though which may not be given much regard by most but as Evans sits out and Michael Boulding returns to the side I utter my belief that Boulding is – well – not that useful.

We are told he works tirelessly but Evans and Hanson’s graft put the signing from Mansfield Town to shame. We are told he is a goalscorer but the evidence of last season suggests that Boulding’s big goal tally for Mansfield came from attacking on the break which City seldom get to do with deep sitting defences. If the Bantams play a certain way Boulding will bang them in – or so I’m told – but players who force a single way of playing from the ten men around them always make me think of Ashley Ward and that is never a good thing.

None of which to say that Boulding is not a good player just that he is not as useful as Evans is and as he is paired with James Hanson in the forward line City lose the strength and effort they would have had and gain a forward who occasionally does something superb but often, well, does not. The current Bantams squad is made of consistent performers of which Evans is a leading light.

Also leading is Michael Flynn who with Lee Bullock and James O’Brien form a midfield that protects the defensive line which has not conceded in 180 minutes and as Scott Neilson beds into the side there is a bursting power out of the middle.

The backline sees Jonathan Bateson continue to deputise for Simon Ramsden – no goal past the defence in the 180 minutes Bateson has started says much about the unit Stuart McCall has assembled – while Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien seem to be shaping into the best Bantams defence in ten years.

Goalkeeper Simon Eastwood is improving too. That is belief again.

The wonderful world of zero welcomes City and Morecambe

Zero.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City enjoy being the little bit better

Seven games, five win and two draws and it seems a long time since the Bantams left the two games in the opening four days in Nottingham looking at the season to come with desperation, a desperation further vanished following the 3-0 win over Chesterfield at Valley Parade.

In those days there was talk about Stuart McCall The Player and Stuart McCall The Manager – a distinction between the two – and there was questions about the latter’s selection of captain, captaincy changed by exclusion and injury to Peter Thorne that saw Zesh Rehman take over the armband and culminates today in the sort of display which Stuart McCall The Captain would have been proud.

The Bantams’ win came from a solid and constant display of superiority over the visitors minute by minute being better by increments, grinding down John Sheridan’s Chesterfield with the better performers in claret geeing and improving those around them.

James Hanson will have better games, so will Luke O’Brien but those two players can take huge credit from the way that even in tough situations – and Hanson was up against a fine defender in Robert Page – neither hid from the ball or the game. Players made their mistakes in public, recovered in public and were encouraged and supported by their team mates in public.

All of which is tribute to Zesh Rehman, captain today, who put in one of his best performances for the club and one of the City defensive displays of sometime making a useful Chesterfield side look ordinary. Rehman and Williams marshalled Wade Small, Donal McDermott and towards the end of the game Jack Lester using the Zesh’s power in the air and Williams’s ability to nip in and emerge with the ball to end the game in control of a good set of forwards.

Credit too to the midfield three of James O’Brien, Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn who used the advantage of numbers and an abundance of confidence to win a midfield battle against an impressive Derek Niven who deserves credit for running his legs down to the knees trying to win back control from a City side who were capable of switching from the directness of a ball to Hanson or Gareth Evans to the patient possession.

It was an early, direct ball to an isolated Michael Flynn – lost up field and oddly alone – who meandered into the box and with the away defence expecting a cross bent the ball into the far side of the goal past Keighley born keeper Tommy Lee.

Perhaps there is a way to measure the togetherness of a team – lacking last year but in evidence this – that comes when looking at goal celebrations. Flynn slid on his knees in a cover version of Emmanuel Adebayor enjoying the moment, his team mates enjoying it too.

From then on the game was City’s to lose and Chesterfield enjoyed a spell of fifteen minutes around half time when they tested the Bantams. Lee Bullock deserves credit for his work in this period. Bullock arrived at City as an attacking midfielder but since his move into a containing role he has been a revelation and was my man of the match.

Chesterfield’s best chance caused their defeat. McDermott had a chance which Simon Eastwood did superbly to save from Niven and Darren Currie airshotted. Eight seconds later Scott Neilson was sweeping the ball in for the Bantams’ second goal after Gareth Evans had won an aerial ball, taken it into the box and dragged a shot that was pushed out and popped in.

The celebration. An eye on Zesh Rehman charging back to congratulate Eastwood’s save, Steve Williams joining in. Credit for all, credit deserved.

A third goal came when Chris Brandon – off the bench after a great display by James O’Brien – lashed in a lose ball in the box after Lee had committed himself making a save from Neilson. Another sub – Michael Boulding – could have rounded the keeper for a fourth while Luke Sharry’s cameo saw him set up Neilson who pinged the ball off the post. Four would have flattered and this was a game about taking advantage of being a little better and not thrashing the opposition.

Not ill deserved would have been a red card for Jack Lester who put feet and arm over the ball in a vicious foul on Lee Bullock. Most of the City squad piled in to a push and shove brawl with the game won and no need for further cards.

I guess they just felt the need to show togetherness. Nine games into the season and the table starts to look both relevant and interesting. City nicely positioned, trips of Morecambe and Northampton on the road to come. This season – and City – is up and running.

Denmark, Barnet vs Bradford City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gosh managing a football club is hard.

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

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

Recognising a team

So far it’s been a season of two halves. For good or ill, forget about the cup games and concentrate on the league. Everything changed exactly half way through our six game season. I can remember the very moment I brought about the change.

We’d got to Whaddon Road early and I was passing the time with one of the stewards at the away end. He knew we hadn’t scored in any of our previous games and, once it became clear that Thorne and Boulding weren’t going to start, I told him with great confidence that we were obviously playing for a nil-nil. And there it was; everything changed from that moment.

Actually, it did change right from the kick-off at Cheltenham. City were quite literally a different side. James Hanson, previously a giraffe stuck on the left wing, reminiscent of Ian Mellor or even Stix himself, became a central striker. James O’Brien came in from the bench and Gareth Evans got a second start, very much as the experienced man up front, despite his years. But the main differences were in the approach to the game brought about by the change in personnel.

Suddenly City had energy that hadn’t been seen in a very long time indeed. City had players who just wanted that ball. OK, so from time to time they lost it. Even Arsenal, masters at keeping possession, lose the ball quite often in a game. But when Michael Flynn and the others lost it, they wanted it back straightaway. Not in a few seconds; not when the opposition gave it away; they wanted to win it back the moment they’d lost it. There was no standing around feeling apologetic.

And so it has been ever since, typified at Shrewsbury, where Flynn’s example has clearly rubbed off. Some of these opposing defences had better get the hang of being perpetually harassed by Evans and Hanson. There is no longer any such thing as an easy stretch of possession either for defences or midfielders. Opposing forwards can expect to see bodies flying across the path of any attempt at goal. Bradford City are a team of battlers. They challenge everybody for everything. They scrap all the time. And if one or two sets of legs get a bit weary, there are still some more battlers to come.

But there’s another point that needs to be made. Even since the sea change that brought the first goals and the first win, the cry still kept being repeated with less and less justification that there’s a reduced budget and that these players aren’t as good as some of those who were at Valley Parade last season. The response must now be short and not very sweet. Stop it. Shut up about the drop in quality of individual players. Talk instead about the rise in quality of the team.

Let us remember, this is the fourth division. After 25 years in higher divisions, this is our third season here, so we should be used to it by now. We do not expect the most technically gifted players to appear either in our team or our opponents’. They are playing in another division, possibly in another country. We are what we are; our expectations should match our position. We may not want to start from here, but we have no choice in the matter. We are indeed here, trying to be a good fourth division team, trying to be higher.

Bradford City have faced the player-team dichotomy before and the current manager surely remembers it well, since he was captain last time this happened. As one season followed another, City brought in better players and created a worse team. That better team, made up of less gifted individuals, had kept City in the Premiership.

The only difference this time around is that we’re doing it the other way about. It looks remarkably like we finally have a better team, regardless of the individual players. And, just like team spirit went a long way to preserving that Premiership status ten years ago, so it can go a long way to achieving promotion from the lower divisions. Again, the manager might have to cast his mind back a bit further, but he will surely remember the effort that Bradford City players put in for each other back in 1982, when he was only watching from the sidelines, and 1985 and 1988, when he was right in the middle of it all.

Work rate, hunger, the will to win; call it what you want. It goes a long, long way toward achieving something in this division. Even then, without sufficient ability nothing will be achieved. Maybe, for the first time in a number of years, Bradford City has returned to the right blend of youth and experience, enough ability and enough hunger, a recipe capable of producing something tasty.

Six games into a new season is far too early for predictions, but not too soon to spot signs. Then again, as the Cheltenham steward pointed out nine goals later, some of us are not especially accurate with our predictions. With a mere forty games to go, I’m not going to guess the future. But I do hope I see more of the recent past and that the team gets the recognition it deserves.

Togetherness

The six minutes of injury time at the end of the second half seemed to last forever but when the referee blew his whistle to signal the end of the game there was much relief in the away end where about 500 Bradford City supporters had cheered their team on to their fourth consecutive victory. The players and management team approached the City faithful and responded to the applauds from their supporters at the end of the game. Michael Flynn, scorer of City’s second goal even had a kiss for his good lady (I assume it was his wife) who was in the away end.

The key characteristic to this fine 2-1 win was the togetherness shown by the City team. This was especially displayed by substitute goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin who put his arm around current first choice keeper Simon Eastwood as he walked off at half time following a nasty collision with ex-Brentford striker Nathan Elder. Indeed there were chants of “there’s only one Simon Eastwood” from the away supporters which has certainly not been heard at Valley Parade yet following his loan move from Huddersfield Town. However, Eastwood produced a couple of excellent saves in the first half including one in the opening few minutes from an Elder header, when the home team started strongly.

City scored with virtually their first attack of the game on the quarter hour mark and it owed alot to the impressive Flynn who out fought Shrewsbury captain and ex-Plymouth and Sheffield Wednesday player Graham Coughlan to the ball. Flynn having won the ball crossed from the right and Gareth Evans was there to produce a clinical finish to put Bradford one up. This goal seemed to settle the Bradford players down with Jamie O’Brien and Lee Bullock playing well in midfield. With about ten minutes of the first half remaining, City doubled their lead thanks to a wonder strike from Flynn. He was about 25 yards out when he unleashed a long range shot which gave the Shrewsbury goalkeeper, Phillips who was making his home debut, no chance with a goal that would have been shown a dozen times on Match of the Day if it had been scored in the top flight. This goal will hopefully banish those memories of the saved penalty kick in the Lincoln home game.

City went in at half time 2-0 up and although we had played some good football, we were probably fortunate to be two goals up. Like the first half, Shrewsbury started the second half stronger although Flynn produced another long range effort which Phillips was equal to this time and tipped the ball over for a corner. Shrewsbury continued to press forward and hit the woodwork. However, just when you thought that it could be City’s day, up popped ex-City loanee striker Hibbert who scored with a glancing header to reduce the arrears. At this point, there were mutterings in the away end and you thought that City might throw away a two goal lead. However, the defence stood firm with Rehman, who was injured in a clash of heads with Hibbert, continuing to develop his partnership with Steve Williams. The former non-league player is getting better with every game that he plays and although it is still very early on in his City career, Williams is looking very assured in his play and reminds me of Dean Richards.

As the game progressed in to the final stages, Simpson saw his shot hit the woodwork as the City goal led a charmed life. However, it would have been harsh on the Bradford players who showed plenty of determination and periods of neat passing to come away with only a point. We’re only six games into this season but who would have predicted that a City team without Thorne, Michael Boulding and Brandon would come away from the New Meadow with three points?

The Bradford City management team deserve a lot of credit for spotting the potential in players such as Ramsden, Williams, Neilson, Flynn, Jamie O’Brien, Hanson and Evans. I’m not getting carried away, indeed I predicted a mid-table finish for us this season before a ball had been kicked, but it’s so good to see these young and hungry players starting to form a strong unit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably won’t be Scott Neilson’s.

Everything changes after City gorge in nine goals

The nine goals that City and Cheltenham enjoyed on Saturday changed the context of the debate on the Bantams as rapidly as they hit the back of the net at Wealden Road.

Within eight minutes when Gareth Evans powerfully ran from the left to slot in suddenly suggestions of how best to use Michael Boulding and what to do with Peter Thorne were cast far from the mind and as equalisers followed goal the discussion switched to the defence and how to stop it leaking goals. With Bradford City – it seems – there is one glass worth of water and two glasses. One is always going to be half full.

Nevertheless without want to pre-empt or even join either of these discussions one recalls City’s two recent odd wins in nine goal thrillers and how they effected things at Valley Parade hoping to get a pointer as to what the upshot of this match maybe.

Colin Todd’s men who went to Tranmere Rovers on the back of three straight wins won 5-4 thanks to a late David Wetherall goal. That 5-4 win at Prenton Park became the stuff of short term legend with the gate – then a more mutable figure – rising as a result as the Bantams made some news for a display full of character and in that say Stuart McCall’s side may be similar to that of Todd. The Bantams are opt characterised as being a spineless team who are too ready to use adversity as a chance to put heads down.

However three times City were dragged back to level terms and three times the players established a lead once more. Also tellingly every lead was given by a player Stuart McCall had brought into the club following the collapses of the end of last season. James O’Brien, James Hanson, Gareth Evans and Steve Williams all were brought in in the summer by the manager and all gave City the lead at some point.

The 5-4 at Prenton Park saw troubled top spot in the league for a while until encountering Luton Town and Joe Ross who combined to inflict a 4-0 defeat which Todd’s side – in retrospect – never recovered from and perhaps it was precinct that the defence at Tranmere was breached by the Hatters and their many account paid players and of which the utterly impartial Ross said “You need to sort your defending out.”

How true – and utterly inappropriate – the Referee was and so McCall will think the same. One never likes to trust the Press Association stats that are produced (and reproduced on the BBC Website) but over the course of the last two games with Lincoln and Cheltenham the opposition has mustered as many shots on target as they have scored goals with the homes side at the weekend (recordedly) having four at Simon Eastwood’s goal and me struggling to recall Lincoln having to make the City keeper do more work than pick the ball out of his net twice.

All of which will worry McCall but he may cast his mind back to the other 5-4 when the Bantams were beaten by West Ham United in the Premiership in one of the games dubbed as the best the top flight has ever seen.

McCall famously chewed out Dean Saunders for not squaring a chance for City to get a fifth in that game but will reflect that the Bantams backline and goalkeeper that day were hardly a settled unit with Aidan Davison the third of City’s three keepers that year not really getting to grips with sitting behind David Wetherall and Andrew O’Brien.

Defensive units are hard things to gel for sure and anyone who is ready to put all the blame for concessions two the goalkeeper – and Simon Eastwood has been criticised from the second he took to the field for City for not being a bigger name keeper – is naive but it will have escaped the notice of none that the triangle of Zesh Rehman, Eastwood and Williams has not been enjoying the greatest of births.

The West Ham game though – while taken in some quarters as a nail in the coffin for the Premiership City – was used by Paul Jewell to bring heart to his players suggesting that the game was proof that while they lost the game they were involved in the scrap and that he would ask of them only that – that the brought the effort needed to compete.

A lesson which McCall will draw for his players in the coming week. When heads are up the far forward becomes so much clearer.

Will things go as expected? City play Port Vale looking to put the week behind them

When it comes to first weeks of the season they have never come any worse than this one for City.

Ten years ago we were sitting fourth in the embryonic Premiership table after a win against Middlesbrough. A decade on and we are at the foot of an equally new League Two table smarting from a 5-0 defeat and out of the League Cup. That was the week that wasn’t.

Wasn’t very enjoyable that is – unless you like the City of Nottingham – but probably not unexpected. When Championship side (and lest we forget, twice European Cup winners) Nottingham Forest came out of the hat for the first round of the League Cup – away to boot – not a single City fan would have said that the Bantams were anything other than rank outsiders.

Likewise when Notts County started spending money in the summer culminating in recruiting Sven Goran Errikson the majority of Bantams fans would have thought it a surprise if the Bantams had come back from the Lower League all-stars who are assembling at Meadow Lane with a point.

That both things came to pass is the way they did – scoreless and remorseless – has distorted those original assumptions that when City kicked off against Port Vale in the first home game at Valley Parade they would probably have no points and be looking at a few midweeks off after a cruel draw.

Stuart McCall has had little but food for thought in the last five days having played perhaps five different formations during the two matches and used sixteen players one of whom – Jonathan Bateson started his City career in the worst possible way with a red card for slicing Nathan Tyson in half for what seemed like little or no reason. Bateson could not have impressed less.

Steve Williams could have impressed more – it was not a week of full throttle – but he has most probably done enough to secure a debut alongside Zesh Rehman and in favour of Matthew Clarke who seems to be fall guy for the five goals that Notts County put past City despite – whisper it – having a better game than Rehman that afternoon.

Simon Ramsden has started his City career well and slots back to right back after a sojourn at centre back and Luke O’Brien is left back.

The midfield should revert to the four in the middle with Joe Colbeck, Michael Flynn, Lee Bullock and Chris Brandon although James O’Brien played on Wednesday night with Brandon cooling his heels. As a boyhood City fan robbed of his first year as a Bantam Brandon should be bursting to impress and one hopes he puts in a performance that suggests the desire than comes from playing for your own club. So far such as been lacking from the left midfielder but tomorrow can be his Alpha, should O’Brien not get the nod over him.

In the forward line Gareth Evans impressed on Wednesday but is expected to step down to allow Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding back into the line.

Having draw with Rochdale on the opening day Port Vale got arguably a more testing League Cup trip than City – to Sheffield United – and won it although that was more down to comedic goalkeepering which one hopes Simon Eastwood – the City stopper who makes his home debut – will not follow.

The season is young – baby young – and already City are thrashing around but in football everything becomes right with a win and at Valley Parade – under McCall at least following years of home defeats – wins have become expected and City are doing as expected thus far.

It’s Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new season is here.

The route to success for Notts County or Bradford City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now though football starts again. Great.

O’Brien signs short term deal

James O’Brien has signed a three month deal with City as Stuart McCall tries to put the finishing touches to a squad that could grow following on from yesterday’s news on Fabian Delph.

McCall has told a number of targets that today is the cut off point to sign for the club and runs the rule over Stephen O’Leary once more in a closed doors game with Sheffield Wednesday.

So it would seem that City have someone to play midfield in what The Times would call the top of the table game on Saturday at Notts County. If O’Brien is that fabled number four depends on how this influx of cash affects the player budget.

Insert Hyde pun headline here in preview of Hyde United vs Bradford City which hardly mentions Hyde

Football seems to have an Armish like devotion to the Fax machine which while long replaced by email for the rest of mankind continues to be used in the beautiful game.

The Fax machine comes into its own on transfer deadline day when it has the last word on who has made a move before midnight and who is left in Phil Whelan limbo having signed for a club they who not in time to transfer the registration needed.

One supposes it is the requirement to have a John Hancock on the document that keeps football’s slavish devotion to the technology of the late eighties alive and well at least in public perceptions.

However we hear that Manchester City have spent the summer pinging offers around written on A4 and passed on by facsimile transmission.

So when Stuart McCall tells all that City have been in touch with the forty four clubs in the top two divisions offering a first team midfield place to whomever can be loaned he tells us that this communication has been done by Fax.

It makes an interesting mental picture. The roll of paper slowly emerging from the beige machine asking Liverpool if the can spare any holding midfielder and perhaps hoping they sling us Xabi Alonso just to spite Real Madrid.

How many other faxes sit on the pile from other clubs? What information is contained within? Who types it? Who presses send?

Moreover is this the way that football works? It sounds undignified and a little needy but perhaps in these days of massive squads the supply and demand of reserve talent means that the likes of Martin O’Neill and Kevin Blackwell are looking for somewhere to put their good young lad where he might get a couple of dozen games.

Whoever answers the call has a run at the Bantams first team. Grant Smith seems to suggest himself more than others if only for his versatility. James O’Brien is acknowledged as having tailed off in his promise while Jordan Hadfield has fallen by the way side.

Smith plays against Hyde for a City team that can be best described as the half that did not play last night. Peter Thorne, Gareth Evans, Matthew Clarke and Jon McLaughin will all get run outs.

The shape of City’s team is know now, as is the squad and at the moment it is Polo shaped complete with a big hole in the middle.

Stuart McCall, the fax machine, Grant Smith and the hopes of supporters try to fill it.

Filling up a vacated role was very much the remit of Hyde boss Neil Tolson who came to City in the pre-Richmond days as make weight in the Sean McCarthy to Oldham move.

Tolson meandered at City looking almost good often but never wowing which is often the way. He left on deadline day a few years after signing to join Walsall.

They probably faxed the bid, it was modern back then.

Bantams beat Alfreton Town

215 people – none from BfB hence the lack of a match report – watched James O’Brien press his case for a contract at Valley Parade scoring the only goal as Bradford City beat Alfreton Town 1-0.

City fielded a team of Simons Eastwood and Ramsden, O’Briens Luke and James, A couple of Bouldings at whcih point we ran out of players who could be easily paired leaving you – dear reader – to amusingly link Phil Cutler, Matthew Clarke, Leon Osbourne, James Hanson and Lee Bullock.

Another half of the City squad play Hyde United tomorrow night.

City visit Bradford as pre-season continues

The Wool City Derby is not what it once was. This former Football League clash is pre-season for both clubs now and, despite the odd fall out over a loan player, it is a fixture on the calendars.

City tend to take the first team to Avenue and last year won through an imperious display by Paul McLaren. This year others look to make a mark.

Chief of these being Alan Mannus the goalkeeper who was bored against Burnley and will hope to have the scope to impress.

The same is true all over the field where the Premiership newbies were tamed but some players were not able to catch the eye.

One who did was Steve Williams who has come from being the barber of Banner Bridge to slotting in well next to Matthew Clarke. It is worth noting that scrapping at grounds like Avenue is part and parcel of Williams career to date (and for that matter also impressive James Hanson) while the likes of Jonathan Bateson and James O’Brien are used to big league reserve football. How well all can adapt to the low key is perhaps the theme of this game.

Fitness is built-up of course and Stuart McCall will look at his formation having played an enterprising game for forty five minutes on Saturday before shutting down with Jordan Hadfield busily impressive.

These men looking for contracts have an inside track to a team which having moved on high earners can look to sign players, should they be needed.

For Avenue’s part City seem on the whole welcomed to Horsfield Stadium. Rivalry aside most would love to see both clubs doing better to reverse what is a staggering downturn in West Yorkshire football in long, medium and with the seeming loss of Farsley Celtic short term.

How does one put the Wool City Derby back on the Football League calendar? One can only guess.

Trusting the outcome of friendlies is like trusting the weather forecast – but what else do we have to go on?

The forecast for today had been heavy showers and a heavy Bradford City home defeat to Premier League Burnley, but the unexpected bonus of bright sunshine shoving through the grey clouds and City coming from behind to earn a deserved victory offers a timely reminder against fearing the worst and taking too much notice of what others say.

Expectations for the new season have been dampened by player sales, wage budget slashing and the glass half empty attitude your average City fan seems to typify, so the prospect of a Bantams side peppered with trialists achieving anything better than a respectable defeat seemed remote. Come 5pm the grey clouds had at least been temporarily pushed into the background – both above and inside Valley Parade.

It would be premature to make too much of this result and performance, but it’s certainly a better start than the 3-0 half time scoreline that City began last year’s pre-season with. It should also be noted that one team performed in front a large number of their own fans, undertook a team huddle prior to kick off and reacted with anger and petulance when things began to go against them – and that team opens the new season playing Stoke and Man United.

Not that it had looked that way after an opening 20 minutes which saw Burnley pass the ball around with a nonchalance that reflected their elevated status, posing plenty of questions of a nervous-looking backline which included trialist Steve Williams. The returning Robbie Blake, again curiously booed by some City fans, looked a menace on the flank and, from his burst towards the box, 37-year-old Graham Alexander was able to unleash an unstoppable shot past youth keeper Matt Convey to put the Clarets in front. City looked disjointed, with the central midfield of Lee Bullock and James O’Brien – another trialist – pushed too far back and the Boulding brothers isolated up front.

Yet City were able to turn the tide largely thanks to two widemen who’ve come in for criticism for much of this summer. Chris Brandon is somewhat unfortunate to be bunched into the ‘big four’ group of high-earning underachievers the club has been trying to discard. He missed almost all of the season through injury and his return coincided with the team’s damaging March collapse in form. Having only made four starts, he has barely had a chance to make his mark. On this evidence he can offer much to City in the coming season, if, as appears likelier, he stays. He worked hard to harry for possession and charged forward to good effect, always looking to play an intelligent pass.

Meanwhile Joe Colbeck, who also suffered from injury problems and the expectation of instantly being able to rediscover form, has upset some with his refusal to sign a new contract. Any doubts about his commitment were quickly dispelled with an encouraging display which saw some surging runs down the right and some threatening crosses into the box. Both Brandon and Colbeck’s willingness to track back, win the ball and then keep it helped Bullock and James O’Brien become more influential, thus creating opportunities for the Bouldings.

It was from good hustling on Alexander by younger brother Rory that City were able to equalise. After winning the ball he charged forward and played a perfect pass to sibling Michael in the box, who pulled the ball back for James O’Brien to fire home. With each passing minute in the first half, the young midfielder looked more at home on the Valley Parade pitch.

Shortly afterwards the other O’Brien, Luke, played Michael Boulding through on goal to fire past Brian Jensen for 2-1. Luke is another player who it’s perceived has messed the club about with contract negotiations over the summer and some appear to want him to fail this season. The excellent way he had charged forward and released the ball at the right time was only surprising for how unsurprising it felt. This kid has come a long way from getting skinned alive by Gareth Grant in previous pre-seasons to become the type of forward-minded full back Stuart clearly craves.

Burnley responded to things going against them in the same manner as last year’s pre-season meeting – strong tackles and petulance. Left back Stephen Jordan deserved more retribution than referee Chris Oliver’s disapproving wiggle of the finger after a string of poor challenges. Maybe it’s this type of will-to-win spirit that City should aspire to emulate, though the resultant lapsed focus saw the previously-confident looking visitors become increasingly ordinary. Record signing Steve Fletcher might have equalised following a goalmouth scramble, but managed to blast the ball into an empty Kop from barely two yards out, while Convey made a decent save from a Wade Elliot shot.

City in contrast looked increasingly assured. New signing Jonathan Bateson impressed at right back, Williams and Matt Clarke were solid. The Bouldings were both lively and Michael in particular looked a different player from the one who too often sulked anonymously for long spells during home games last season. A bit more composure in front of goal would have seen a bigger half time score.

But if there was much from the first half to encourage manager Stuart McCall, watching from the press box, it was the second half that provided the strongest evidence yet that it can be third time lucky this season. The entire team was swapped around, with a higher number of youngsters and trialists, but the apparently weaker side continued to take the game to Burnley and knocked the ball around impressively.

The star performers were again on the wing. We’ve seen Luke Sharry impress in pre-season last year, and in an unexpected right wing role he shrugged off a nervy start to make an impact with some dangerous runs and clever use of the ball. Meanwhile Leon Osborne, who has enjoyed more first team football than Luke, was in excellent form down the left. Never shying from possession, he was regularly charging down the byeline and creating chances for front two Gareth Evans – strong and purposeful on his debut – and trialist James Hanson.

Chances were created and wasted, with almost every second half attack seemingly involving either Sharry or Osborne. There are fears the decreased wage budget will mean City have to rely more on their younger players next season, but if the price of tighter purse strings is the positive development of these two promising footballers joint-Chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes would do well to keep the piggy bank hidden. After all, who would have expected Luke O’Brien’s stunning progress this time last year?

Alongside Osborne and Sharry were the much talked about trialists Jordan Hadfield and Grant Smith – most of this talking from them bellyaching about past injustices. They had a chance to show what they can do and both displayed promise in winning tackles and setting up attacks, as well as making some effective forward runs. It will be interesting to see how they both progress through the other friendlies, but the early indications are that both are strong contenders for a contract. Simon Ramsden made his debut as a centre back alongside Zesh Rehman, while Paul Arnison and Louis Horne looked solid at right and left back respectively.

As impressive City were, it must be acknowledged that Burnley’s performance became more and more disjointed to the point that even threatening a late equaliser would have felt an injustice. The only City player who would have trooped off disappointed at the end was second half keeper Alan Mannus, who had nothing to do in his first trial game. The fact so many City players had something to prove – be they on trial or from the youth set up – must also be a factor. Few Burnley players had stronger motivation than building up their fitness in the final stages, a place in the team against Manchester United is not going to be achieved by busting a gut at Valley Parade.

But if it’s too early into pre-season to be excited by how easy City made it look, the positive signs should not be discounted. At the very least, a revised forecast for what City can achieve this season might be in order.

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