How Bradford City mastered calm seas beating Carlisle United 2-0 in pre-season

The Team

Ben Williams | Tony McMahon, Rory McArdle, Gary Little, James Meredith | Mark Marshall, Christopher Routis, Gary Liddle, Josh Morris | James Hanson, Billy Clarke | Luke James, Steve Davies, Alan Sheehan, Jon Lewis, Luke Hendrie

And the day continued well. Phil Parkinson and his entire back room staff are in talks over new contracts and that was the discussion as fans mingled with players following the 2-0 pre-season win over Carlisle United. The drizzle gave way to a pleasant sun the early evening and all seemed to bode well.

Parkinson’s team had been in full race trim for the only Valley Parade friendly of pre-season and while Carlisle United had a moment or two they seemed a keen poorly set up by manager Keith Curle and set to struggle.

Curle approach centres around switched on midfielders who can dynamically move from the holding role to forward positions and he gives that responsibility to Jason Kennedy as if Jason Kennedy were able to be Steven Gerrard if Curle wants him to. I doubt he will last the year.

Parkinson’s approach is as contrasting as one can get. James Hanson is target man, Billy Clarke plays off him and with two banks of four behind them. For forty five minutes City play meat and potatoes football and they play it well grinding Carlisle in the first half and scoring two in the second.

The second saw Parkinson’s playmaker return but rather than trying to play through the man behind the front two the role was more space hunting third striker looking for the ball that came from Hanson’s head or – later – Steve Davies.

Davies was an inch away from scoring with his first kick but rather was next to Gary Liddle as he tapped in a flick down. Josh Morris had scored the first after switching to the right wing following a productive first hour on the left hand side.

Morris was impressive on the day, as was Liddle who played next to Rory McArdle in the back four, but all impressive performances were set in a context of how little trouble the visitors caused.

And there are things to write about the squad. Things to write about how Josh Morris provides a better supply of crosses than Mark Yeates in that he will cross from the byline. There are things to right about how when Gary Liddle moves out of central midfield there is no cover for him. Things to write about how Parkinson has a better first team but a weaker squad.

But all those things are conjecture based on a weak sample. Most pre-season tells one little, this one has said virtually nothing. Leyton Orient’s Nathan Clarke watched the game from the stands an looks set to sign during the coming week which will replace Andrew Davies.

One wonders if Parkinson hopes that he can maintain a small squad with players able to cover more than one position rather than bring in poor characters. Tony McMahon seems to cover one half of the defence and Alan Sheehan the other while Parkinson would rather play Christopher Routis in whatever hole the team presents than he would bring in players he does not know, who might not have the character he wants, who might not fit into his dressing room.

At the end of August Phil Parkinson will have managed more Bradford City games than Trevor Cherry did which we can broadly define as being the longest serving manager in the modern era. At the end of the season he will be the third on the list of most games managed.

This, it seems, is what stability looks like. Parkinson has players he trusts in the dressing room – players like McArdle, and Stephen Darby, and James Hanson – and he understands that those players have bought into an ethos. With that comes the tacit understanding that that ethos will be maintained.

That puts the onus on Parkinson to only bring in the right sort of character. Football is replete with players who can kick a ball well but are bad characters and it is those people who Parkinson has spent the summer avoiding. Judging a players ability to kick a ball can be seen in a friendly game, seeing how well a player fits into the dressing room will only be obvious as the season goes on.

The end of a season which asked more questions than it answered

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Andrew Davies, Gary Liddle, James Meredith | Christopher Routis, Tony McMahon, Billy Knott | Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Matty Dolan

One could be excused for not knowing that Bradford City’s season finishes on Saturday at Crewe Alexandra such as the finality of the last home game of the season with Barnsley that saw the Bantams win by a single, excellent Jon Stead goal.

Stead hit a volley across the Tykes keeper Adam Davies and into the far side of the goal after a well floated Billy Knott cross had found the striker running deep in the penalty area. It was the type of moment of excellence that City’s season has produced sporadically and that suggested that the year that was could have been more.

Indeed next Saturday when 2014/2015 has ended and assuming a set of results The Bantams could finish the year a single place outside the play-off.

Seventh would underline the improvement of the year – Phil Parkinson will once again have improved on last year – but continues the theme of the taunting of what might have been for this team. On the final day of the season that saw City produce (some argued) that greatest shock result in history The Bantams will be playing for the chance to allow Notts County the chance to avoid relegation.

Notts County – home of Gary Jones and Garry Thompson, formerly of this Parish – played a small part in City’s season refusing to move a home game in the run up to the Reading FA Cup Quarter Final. The result was a knackered City being outplayed on the BBC which seemed to deflate the rest of the season.

Jones and Thompson and a host of other players who have been a part of City in the last four years were obviously absent from the post-game meander around the field. It was not so much a lap of honour or appreciation so much as an acknowledgement of the end of a chapter for Bradford City.

After four years of Phil Parkinson the manager had taken City to a point where the club had reached a ceiling of sorts and – with rumours of investment – contemplated which parts of its soul would be exchanged for a chance to crack that ceiling.

56

There is little to say about the observance of the minute’s silence, the singing of remembrance songs, the wearing of remembrance hoodies, the fact Roy Hodgson and FA Chairman Greg Dyke laid a wreath and so on which is apt to say in relation to the memorials for the fixty six supporters who died at Valley Parade in the fire of 1985 and who are commemorated at the final home game of the season.

People express their grief in different ways and I have spoken to a number of people who have an unease at the commercialisation and branding that has recently grown up around the tragedy as I have people who find the commemorations moving. Again People express their grief in different ways.

Martin Fletcher, for example, has channelled his grief and need for answers into a set of questions which make up a part of his work “56: The Story of the Bradford City Fire” and Fletcher has been criticised – and abused 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 – for doing this. I’m not here to suggest that Fletcher is right or wrong although I am sure that he has the right to ask questions, and that asking question is the right thing.

On Saturday every ground in the country stood silent for a minute to remember for the victims of the fire of 1985. The England manager and the Head of the FA visited Valley Parade to pay respects. It was a national football event. It was the recognition which some people maintain the fire of 1985 has never had in the English football community.

Succinctly

Succinctly: It is time for the Bradford City community to step back and allow the bereaved families and friends to remember the individuals who died as they see fit.

We talk about “The Fifty Six” but to the wife that lost a husband, the son that lost a father, there is no fifty six. There is one or two or three or four with memories which need to be kept, graves that need to be tended, and years that never happened, and lives that were not lived.

We – the Bradford City community – are not involved in that and we need to recognise that.

Individuals who support Bradford City are, and often groups of individuals who support City are, and those people will go on tending graves, feeling loss, and being haunted on empty Tuesday afternoons in September regardless of the ribbon shown into the shirt or the silence at Goodison Park.

We need to recognise that.

Money

Driving away from Valley Parade on Sunbridge Road a Rolls Royce belonging the the Dorchester Hotel overtook us. The imminence of money is all around Valley Parade. Gianni Paladini, Bernie Ecclestone, Latish Mittal are reported to be in talks to buy Bradford City and to invest millions into the club starting with an eight figure sum just to buy League One players.

One side says that the deal is a long way off but other sources say that it is all but signed save creating a name plate for the honorary title that Mr Lawn will retain at the club.

Why buy Bradford City?

A list of clubs owned by people willing to sell which have shown the ability to fill Wembley Stadium is not a long one. It includes QPR – who the people who are trying to buy Bradford City own/previously owned – and a few other clubs.

There are worries about what new owners would do at the club. The worries seem to take two forms. That they might ruin the supporter base with expensive season ticket prices and that they might ruin the playing side by sacking Phil Parkinson.

On the second point it is probably worth remembering how insecure Parkinson’s job is under the current regime.

Earlier this season it seemed from the outside that Parkinson had to be dragged into apologising to board member Roger Owen after complaining about the state of the pitch. Parkinson had believed – with good reason – that the pitch was Owen’s responsibility and criticised that.

At one point I heard – and there is no guarantee of the veracity of this comment – that Parkinson had been told to apologise on pain of being held (and sacked) in breach of contract. He went home with this in mind but cooler heads prevailed and he humiliated himself with an apology the next day.

I repeat the no guarantee about this information just as there is no guarantee that the other times the the board have considered sacking Parkinson were accurate. Former players have been asked if they would be able to become Interim Managers, or so they say in private, but they could be lying.

Without winning

Bradford City’s have had spells under Parkinson where wins have been impossible to come by. When City went twelve games without winning in 2014 there was no full throated support from the boardroom to dispell the rumours that clouded Parkinson’s future.

There was uncertainty at a boardroom level – at least perceptually – and while it would be far from me to suggest that new owners would behave any different it is important not to idealise the current regime (not a problem I have) or forget how quickly things turned to see the exit of Peter Jackson, for example, or the situation at the club under Peter Taylor which Shane Duff reported as a picture of a manager undermined.

Worry about Parkinson’s job position under new ownership if you will, but if there is no takeover then worry about him under the current board too. The Devil you know might be better than the Devil you don’t, but they are both still Devils.

Bradford City are not so much managerially stable as they are successful. When Parkinson’s stock is low he beats Arsenal, or Chelsea, and it rises again. You can call this stable if you want but to do so is to ignore the meaning of the word as it is used in football.

If one were to buy Bradford City then chief in its assets would be Phil Parkinson and so removing him would seem counter-productive.

Were one to buy a League One club and look for the best manager available then Parkinson would be high on one’s shortlist anyway. It is not for me to ventriloquize Paladini but why buy Bradford City and sack Phil Parkinson? When looking at Bradford City’s structure or a vision on the field what else are you buying into?

Season ticket prices

Likewise if one were to buy Bradford City because of the support then why damage that with increasing season ticket prices? The current pricing structure has allowed for an increase in permanent support and the ability for City fans who are not taxed by massive home season ticket prices to spend more travelling away.

The broadness of City’s support which is not exclusive of people on lower incomes, nor the young, has given a lively and exciting fanbase. Why buy Bradford City if they intended to damage the support base?

One could increase prices per person with the drop in attendance and increase revenues in the short term but one risks decreasing numbers, (audio) volume and support levels to the point where City stop being an attractive club to buy.

Double season ticket prices and one might as well buy the comfortable few of Chesterfield, or the tidy support of Doncaster Rovers.

Sitting Bull

Phil Parkinson has ended a season having won plaudits on one hand, and been bullied on the other. In my hand I do not have a season ticket renewal form which – had it been issued around the time City were plastered over every newspaper in the World for beating Chelsea – would have guaranteed that the new owners would host 2015/2016 at 2014/2015 prices and probably been very well subscribed as a result.

This would have secured the impressive supporter base secured for another season. We hear constantly how the current boardroom act as custodians for the club but that does not extend to committing new owners to honouring the (good) practices in place for supporters at the moment, or so it might seem.

Bradford City has two assets: Phil Parkinson and the supporters; only bad business would change these on a whim.

The season ends, the season begins

Gary Liddle played well covering Rory McArdle in the centre of defence against an aggressive Barnsley attacking line up but his relocation from holding midfield seemed to highlight the problem of the season and why in a year of dizzying heights the Bantams end up firmly in the middle.

Liddle shifted out, Christopher Routis in midfield, Tony McMahon in the holding position, Billy Clarke in the role earmarked for Mark Yeates, Mark Yeates nowhere to be seen. The method of Phil Parkinson’s success is in character and – simply put – he does not have enough character to go around.

Rightly – in my opinion – Parkinson would rather play someone with good character out of position than give a shirt to someone who he believes does not have the mentality he is looking for.

Christopher Routis is the prime example. Often poor but also willing he goes his place because – to paraphrase – a better man than he is a footballer. With players out of contract in the summer the question that Routis poises (and he is by no means a great leader) is key.

How does Parkinson assemble a squad with both character and capabilities? What value do you put on each? Andrew Davies has both only plays two thirds of the season. Jon Stead has both but only for two thirds of the season and at other times his character goes missing. Should both be given contracts? Should either?

All season there has been an issue with players outside the match day squad struggling without Reserve football to engage them. Players who are decent enough when in the side are not options when in the squad.

The poster boy for this is Jason Kennedy who will leave City in the summer and look back at his time before Filipe Morais’ second half against Halifax Town as being his best while at the club. As soon as Morais started to play regularly and Kennedy stopped having games to play in it seemed obvious who should be selected and who should not be but it is easy to forget just how rusty players like Morais, like Francios Zoko, like Oli McBurnie become without Reserve team football to play.

Whatever reason there is for not entering a second string side into a Reserve League must be balanced against the impact it has on the fringe players of the squad. At the moment City can maintain around fifteen or sixteen players who can be called on to play and – tired legs, injuries and suspensions being what they are – that has proved too little to mount a promotion challenge.

The squad needs a depth of quality but – at the moment – the fitness of players outside the match day squad cannot be maintained and even when it can large squad beget their own problems with players too far away from a starting shirt to keep motivation and bad character creeping in.

If – as talked about – there is an influx of money into the club in the summer these questions become easier when answered by the fundamental questions remain unchanged. How to keep a squad of 22 players happy, and at peak fitness, and all getting on with each other. City and Phil Parkinson are nearly there and have been there at times this season, and over the last few years.

Get that right next year and – money or not – the end of season would be more than a 1-0 win over Barnsley.

Bradford City and Peterborough United ab ovo

The Team

Jordan Pickford | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, Alan Sheehan | Oliver Burke, Jason Kennedy, Billy Knott, Andrew Halliday | Jon Stead, Billy Clarke | Francois Zoko, Mark Yeates, Oliver McBurnie

Nec reditum Diomedis ab interitu Meleagri, nec gemino bellum Troianum orditur ab ovo; semper ad euentum festinat et in medias res.
Nor does he begin the Trojan War from the egg, but always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things…
Horace on Homer, Ars poetica.

To watch a a football match is to experience life in medias res. While every game has a structure starting, middling, and ending those games are largely only understandable in a wider context. Uninteresting is the match which does not continue a story at the start and suggest one at the end. The meaning of the 32nd game of a season is given by the 31 game which proceed it.

Not so Bradford City’s trip to Peterborough United where both clubs seemed to be attempting a start of things.

Most obviously in the case of the home side who dispensed with the services of Darren (Son of) Ferguson in the week and replaced him with Dave Robertson. That Robertson ended up winning his first game in charge of The Posh was largely down to a first half in which Bradford City wasted some chances and wasted more chances to create chances against an ill fitting wing back formation.

With Billy Clarke playing removed from Jon Stead in the forward line and Billy Knott partnering Jason Kennedy in the midfield City’s compact 442 once again committed only to not giving away too much of the game too early while Peterborough were laid raw in wide positions. Oliver Burke looked fast and had a fine chance to claim a lead which he squandered and from that point he faded. Andy Halliday returned to the left wing where he had been unimpressive at the start of career and looked unimpressive showing perhaps that he has found a calling in inside midfield that should not be ignored. When he switched inside later in the game his seemed more comfortable.

City’s side was marked by its absences today. The point where Filipe Morais and Gary Liddle became cemented into the team sheet might only be obvious in retrospect, but it is obvious. James Hanson spent the warm up going through his paces with the coaches but was not included on the bench. James Meredith warmed up a few times but that was all the stretching his legs got and it seemed to become clear that minds were on next Saturday’s FA Cup quarter final with Reading and not on Dave Robertson’s first game as a football manager.

Indeed when Oliver Burke was removed following Peterborough’s scrambled first by Gaby Zakuani – and when Parkinson moved to a 4312 – Meredith remained on the bench with Knott taking the holding role rather than Alan Sheehan moving forward. Parkinson may reflect how much more comfortable his side seemed in the 4312 having switched from the 442.

Robertson in the home dug out found his victory from going to a 442 and launching the ball into the City box as often as could be. If this is the start of his time as Peterborough manager then the home fans who this week went through possible replacements for Ferguson discarding some for not playing good enough football may find that they have to get used to something less beautiful. There is enough about Peterborough to suggest that they will be aiming for promotion to The Championship next season.

For City the game was players not playing with injuries they would previously have battled through, and a general lethargy in the display, and at some point in the afternoon a plan formed which is probably not spoken at Valley Parade.

Looking at City’s performance this season and seeing how strong the top four in League One are a case could be made that anyone outside the third and fourth positions in the play-offs has less chance of promotion. Parkinson could send his team out to sacrifice life and limb for a push to get to fifth or sixth but – having been defeated in the play-off semi-final – the result would be that next season the club would be in no better position than it was this.

However if those limbs are saved for the Reading game and if the Reading game were won then the rewards of an FA Cup semi-final would add significant chunk to the club’s income and – with no directors to trouser the cash as a loan repayments – that income would have no better place to go than into Parkinson’s purview. A new pitch, three top quality recruits, and a new contract for Andrew Davies and City start August 2015 as one of the favourites for promotion.

One shot as favourites rather than two as outsiders.

A late penalty made the score 2-0 but that is immaterial as – it may be – is City’s game with Crawley Town on Tuesday night. A win against Reading next Saturday and Parkinson will turn his attentions to next season via a semi-final, just a Robertson will hope that this result and his plan for next term gives him the job at London Road on a full-time basis.

Which would make this game the embryonic start of next season and a rare case of football’s ab ovo.

The basics of football management and how Phil Parkinson might not be able to go back to them

The second half of Bradford City’s win against Halifax Town saw Phil Parkinson move away from his most commonly used tactical approach of 2014.

An hour after the change in the dressing room at The Shay, City fans walked home with a victory, and I tried to summon up a phrase other than the cliche of “back to basics” to describe what had happened.

The discussion over Parkinson’s tactical approach did not last long.

Billy Clarke was lauded by many as if it were him and him alone (rather than the change of approach) that had made the difference, which seemed to lead to a consensus of opinion being framed that Parkinson’s error was in not picking the striker in the first place.

This talk gave way to a discussion on why Bradford City failed to wear Remembrance Poppies during the game, and whatever it was that Parkinson had done seemed to soon be forgotten.

The cliche, however, remained in my mind.

Unpacking the cliche

On any given Saturday afternoon, the losers of any tie will have a section of supporters soon making the case that the manager should leave the club. There is a common set of terms applied: “Taken the club as far as he can” is not unusual, whilst “not good enough” is more blunt.

Criticisms of managers are based on the results of games. The justification for a statement that a manager is “not good enough” almost always being a perception (reasonable or otherwise) that there is an acceptable set of results, and that those results are not being achieved.

This is obviously a judgement which should be subject to some refinement. The results delivered by a football club are the effects of any number of things, some of which are within the manager’s control. When the words “not good enough” are used, they are used as a catch all, but what do they catch all of?

What is a manager “not good enough” at? Our own experience suggests that there are very few situations in which a person has a uniform level of skill across a number of disciplines even if those disciplines are similar to each other. Mark Zuckerberg borrowed Eduardo Saverin’s ranking algorithm for Chess players whilst on the path to creating Facebook because while the Zuck could code like no-one else, that kind of applied Mathematics coding wasn’t something he could do.

Selecting tactics, recruiting players, coaching teams, building motivation… These are (some of) the constituent parts of football management that a manager may do, but all of these things are not done by all managers, and not all at the same level.

On Sunday Phil Parkinson reverted to an approach which was tried and tested in the past – he went “back to basics” – but what basics did he go back to? And since the basics we’re talking about are specific to Parkinson, why are they classed as basics in the first place?

Back to basics

After half-time, Parkinson changed from 4231 to 442 in his tactical approach, and this is regarded as his “basic” because it’s a standard that has has worked for him before. It’s worth noting that this “basic” is contextual. If Pep Guardiola were to send Bayern Munich out playing 442, then it would be a new tactical approach for him, not a basic. The basics of football tactics involve five forwards and a half back.

We can conclude that when we hear about Phil Parkinson going “back to basics” the “basics” we are talking about are in some way specific to Phil Parkinson.

And those who travelled to The Shay will have noted that as Parkinson’s tactical approach changed, so too did the motivation of his players in what my brother and I called “Rear Inserted Rockets.”

It is worth thinking about what Parkinson did not do at half time, and what he could not have done.

He did not sign any players at half-time obviously, nor did he coach the players in set-plays in the way that requires a training pitch. He did not make a decision on who would be in the match day squad because that squad had already been decided. He did not teach the players anything new or at least anything which could not be taught in a few minutes.

These are things which a manager is given the power to do but that are not done at half-time of a game.

The basics that Parkinson went back to are a subset of what makes up his role as a football manager.

This is common sense of course, but how often – when people talk about how good or bad a manager is – do the terms get unpacked? How often when someone says that a manager is “not good enough” are they invited to say what it is he is not good at?

Not good enough

It stands to reason that not all managers are equally as good at all things.

When we look at the meritocratic collection of managers at the top of the Premier League, we can see that the general view of specific managers is that they tend to be good at some parts of the job and less good at others. No one thus far has suggested Louis van Gaal is getting the best out of his players, or that he has a genius for recruitment, but Arsene Wenger, we are told, is good at developing players.

It is difficult to say that Roland Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino’s skills are because both have continued on the paths the clubs were on already. Pochettino’s club Spurs famously employed Harry Redknapp, the beloved “wheeler dealer” of transfer deadline day. Yet when Redknapp wanted to be England manager, the criticism of his skills was that he was more about smart recruitment than he was about tactical game approaches.

Alan Pardew is infamously “not good enough” according to the supporters who created sackpardew.com but seems to be good at creating a good team atmosphere within a squad, whereas supporters taunted Brendan Rodgers with the idea that he was not good at spending the money that the club brought in by selling a player that the previous manager who was not good at spending money bought in.

We get a general idea of what is good and bad about these managers, and we might postulate how good a fit they are for the roles they are in. Some clubs want their managers to be restricted to the training ground, whilst others want them to involve themselves at board level and leave the coaching to the coaches.

When we unpack the cliche of “not good enough” we start to draw out a map of where a manager excels. The cartography of ability can be superimposed onto the needs of a club and an idea of the manager’s suitability found.

Phil Parkinson in 2015

I would suggest, based on my experience as a fan of Bradford City, that the needs of the club which a manager must fill are near all encompassing when he is a manager at Valley Parade. Aside from the retarding requirement that the team plays football a certain way one, suspects that Phil Parkinson has, and is expected to have, full control over football at Valley Parade.

There is no Director of Football at the club, no Chief of Player Recruitment, and at senior level seemingly nothing except Parkinson and the people he wants. This underlines a state of affairs where while Parkinson may have a set of skills with peaks – team building is obviously one – and troughs. Being the manager of our club means there’s a need for him to involve himself in all of these things, and be “good” at them all.

Parkinson’s “basics” are, in the end, all the club has. And this is presents a problem for both club and manager.

In 2015, Phil Parkinson will have two chances to improve his squad. Improving a manager’s squad has been given a common parlance of “having a good transfer window”, and it is a long time since Phil Parkinson could have been said to have done that.

In fact one can probably go back to the summer of recruiting Gary Jones – a player who was on Peter Jackson’s list of midfielders he wanted (but could not get) – and Nathan Doyle – who is a former Bradford City Player of the Season – for the last time Parkinson recruited very well. Since then we have had a mixed bag of the good (I like Billy Knott), the bad (Raffaele De Vita is hardly even spoken about now) and the average. It is here where we get to the subject of Jason Kennedy.

JFK

Kennedy is a useful footballer in that he is wholehearted and obviously has the attitude Parkinson wants in his players, but his confidence in his own passing ability (justified or not) sees him play in a specific way which rarely adds greatly to the team’s creativity. Gary Liddle is a steady performer who – no matter which set of numbers that add up to ten and represent playing positions is deployed – seems to be a six out of ten.

We do not know if these players are the best Parkinson could get, the best Parkinson could get for the money, or what Parkinson perceived to be the best, but we can probably conclude by now that Parkinson’s greatest skills are not in player recruitment.

He is superb at building a team out of the right characters (and he is right to make character a requirement), and anyone who saw the reaction of the players to the comeback on Sunday will note how he can get those characters to play for him.

What he needs to do better – perhaps – is bringing together a group of players who can perform at a higher level. The ability to do that – the Harry Redknapp smart recruitment – is not a basic that Parkinson can go back to.

And so we get a picture of the future of Bradford City under Phil Parkinson. It is of a level performance, and a good team, waiting for the manager to get it right – or maybe just get lucky – when putting together a squad.

Beating Halifax Town by returning to a Phil Parkinson team

The Team

Matt Williams | Stephen Darby, Andrew Davies, Alan Sheehan, James Meredith | Jason Kennedy, Andy Halliday | Filipe Morais, Billy Knott, Mark Yeates | Jon Stead | Billy Clarke, Rory McArdle, Matty Dolan

Two years ago Giantkiller. Now giant. Brought down to size. Three minutes and everyone was getting what they wanted.

Bradford City’s trip to Halifax was a defeat waiting to happen and when Lois Maynard ploughed in from close range following a series of corners needlessly conceded defeat seemed to be worryingly unavoidable. It was what the BBC, BT Sport, and a lot of the local media coverage had sharpened pencil for.

The team that conquered Arsenal, have themselves been giant killed.

The overdog role with a depressing ease

A cliche like that proves irresistible even to the subjects of it.

Halifax Town – OK, FC Halifax Town if we must – took the role of the underdog with a lot of the gusto which City took showed in the cup run of 2013. Town made things were difficult for the Bantams. Throw ins were launched long and were hard to head out. Midfielder’s were chased down. Wide men were pushed wider.

The home side made the most of set plays which led to the goal after three minutes and to the general sense that Halifax took their role in a way Phil Parkinson would have been proud of. Parkinson’s City took the overdog role with a depressing ease.

Starting out with a flat four with two in front of them, then a three sitting behind a single front man were disparate and far too easy to play against. Filipe Morais, Billy Knott and Mark Yeates were a line behind Jon Stead but ineffectual and quickly parted, separated, and not difficult to counter. The onus was then put on holding two midfielders Jason Kennedy and Andy Halliday but they failed to provide that and both seemed to be guilty of waiting for someone else to make something happen.

There was a moment – following City’s cup keeper Ben Williams’ save from former City defender Steve Williams’ close range header – where another narrative wrote itself. It was about the decline of a manager in Phil Parkinson and how in the future we would talk about how one could tell that things were over for the City boss when he played that Andy Halliday in central midfield in a 4231.

The rapid switching between formations, picking players in ill-suited positions, and lifeless performances or cup exits are the stuff of the last days of a manager’s time at any club. What happened to the Phil Parkinson who used to so love his 442?

It may have been that that thought occurred to Phil Parkinson at the same time as it did to me. His Bradford City team were not playing very poorly – chances were being created – but the story of the season has been sporadically creating chances without patterns in the play.

Former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi said of Mario Balotelli that is was “not a player, because a player moves as part of a team. He’s just a footballer.”

City had a lot of footballers, just as Arsenal had, but Halifax had a team.

Giantkiller/giantkilled

Perhaps that realisation stung Parkinson.

City had so easily fallen into the giantkiller/giantkilled narrative and responded accordingly. I like to think that the City manager thought that if this game at Halifax was going to be the start of the final days of his time at the club then he would go out on his own terms.

Parkinson of old. Four Four Two and the big man/little man combination of substitute Billy Clarke alongside Stead. Billy Knott – wandering in the first half – was given a place in the midfield engine and the full backs Stephen Darby and James Meredith were given the support of wide men in front of them.

Clarke threatened goal within a minute pulling a good save from Matt Glennon and carried on his direct, provocateur play by pulling the Halifax backline wide and creating a hole that Jon Stead appeared in when Morais had played a fine ball forward. Stead walked the ball around the keeper to equalise.

And two minutes later Morais had been found by Clarke and blasted across Glennon to score.

More dangerous, more determined and stronger at the back Parkinson’s team started to look like a Phil Parkinson team. Halifax huffed and puffed but City looked like a solid unit again and for the first time this season – maybe this year – seemed like they would score more goals. Pressure, directness and confidence. I do not know if it is what the boardroom call attacking football but it was Phil Parkinson football.

Reshaping the squad

City go into the second round, and have beaten a second West Yorkshire club of the season, and move on to face Preston North End next week with Parkinson mulling over which way he takes the City squad.

By returning to his favourite formation Parkinson seemed to free his City players from thinking in terms of their personal displays and enable them to focus on a team performance. The English footballer’s DNA is 442 and as soon as Parkinson switched to it the players seemed to switch to inbuilt positional play.

Morais – lost on one flank in the first half and playing the sort of game Sacchi would comment on – was more effective in a right wing role not only because he knew where to go (Note to pedants: his football education is that of the English footballer) but because every other player knew where he would be. When Billy Clarke flicked the ball forward to him for his goal it was in expectation. It is not that Morais found Clarke in a good position for the first goal or that Clarke found Morais for the second it is that both knew where to expect to find each other which will have pointed a way for Parkinson.

All of which questions the shape of the City squad. Next week Phil Parkinson takes his team to Preston and Kyel Reid who’s pace is lacking from the Bantams squad and seems to prevent City returning to 442. Perhaps when the transfer window opens Parkinson needs to find someone who can add the pace if he wants to return to his way of playing.

Because after avoiding the obvious narrative at Halifax Town Parkinson will probably be afforded the chance to reshape the squad once more.

How Bradford City lost at home to Doncaster Rovers because there is not enough of Mark Yeates to go around

The Team

Jordan Pickford | Stephen Darby, Andrew Davies, Alan Sheehan, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Billy Knott, Andy Halliday | Mark Yeates | James Hanson, Jon Stead | Billy Clarke, Matty Dolan, Oliver McBurnie

Let us clear one thing up

First, before we talk about the 2-1 defeat to Doncaster Rovers and so we can talk of it properly let us clear up this talk about midfield diamonds.

Bradford City do not play a diamond midfield at least not in the way that the term was originated in football tactics. A diamond midfield sees a a player operate between the defensive line and the midfield line and a second player between the midfield and attacking line.

Bradford City played at the start of the season, and played today, three men on the midfield line with a single played tasked with winning the ball back and two players either side of him with dynamically moving between the midfield line in defensive play and taking up attacking positions when attacking. Added to that there is playmaker between the midfield line and the attacking line.

Think of the midfield as a T-shape or an inverted T-shape depending on if the team are attacking or defending.

When defending the two side midfielders need to be level with the ball winner and when attacking they need to level with the playmaker, more or less, and be inwards of the lines of the penalty area.

This difference is import, and is not semantic.

How many steps does Phil Parkinson take?

One doubts that on the walk back to the Valley Parade dressing room after this 2-1 home defeat to Doncaster Rovers that Phil Parkinson would have taken many steps before being clear what problems faced his team today.

Rovers scored twice in the second half after the Bantams had taken the lead. Neither side could have said they had controlled the game and the visitors will go home pleased with a good counter attacking performance.

Parkinson could have been tempted to think of a Refereeing performance which bordered on the random as being the heart of his problems. It was a performance where kicking the ball away before a free kick was not a yellow card and where kicking a player off the ball after the whistle was.

Referee Kevin Wright seemed to be ideologically opposed a way of playing through a target man that rendered City’s best asset James Hanson useless. What they call “hoof ball” might not be the beautiful game but it is not against any rules and the fact that Hanson committed so many “fouls” without being booked told a story of its own.

It would have been tempting for Parkinson to conclude that his defence was a problem and that problem was because he was Rory McArdle who was suspended following two yellow cards that were justifiable last week but – by the standards set today – would not have been bookings. Defensively through City gave little up.

Parkinson might have been tempted to look at how the visitors took few shots and scored two goals and wonder if the problem lay with his strikers conversion rate or give credit to the (excellent) Sam Johnstone in the Rovers goal. Johnstone, on loan from Manchester United, was superb when called upon and is probably a name worth remembering. Profligate strikers and great goalkeepers are sometimes the story of a game but they are not the story of this game.

Parkinson must have walked to the dressing room knowing that his team failed in creating quality rather than quantity in chances and been able to pinpoint which two positions – ergo the players – that problem lays with.

The side midfielders

Run any number of statistical calculations on Mark Yeates at City and you’ll find that he is involved in positive action on the field more than any other player.

It was Mark Yeates who took the ball from the midfield through – through rather than over – the Doncaster Rovers defence and fed it to Jon Stead to kept the ball under him as he dribbled then fired past Johnstone for the opening goal of the game.

It is Yeates who prompts most of the attacking possession and his work rate in doing that is admirable. Defensively Parkinson knows to not give the Irishman too much of a role and so Billy Knott breaks up play carrying the water for Yeates.

Both players did what they were expected to do today and they did it well. The problem lay with the two positions beside them and regretfully the players in those positions.

With Gary Liddle injured and Jason Kennedy dropped Filipe Morais and Andy Halliday took the side midfield roles.

Kennedy offers hard work but is not creative. Liddle is a consistent performer. Morais and Halliday are more creative than either and while neither shirked their work today – this is not an attempt to pick a (pair of) scapegoat(s) – neither were able to address the balance that these side midfielder roles need for this formation to be more successful than it is for Bradford City at present.

The two side midfielders have not matched either ball winner of playmaker in their performance level. Today Morais and Halliday were found wanting in the bite in a midfield battle and created little.

Yeates creates a goal a game and a couple of other chances – very roughly speaking – and that is City’s main source of chance. Tthe side midfield pairs have not been adding to that. The frequency of which Morais and Halliday, and for that matter Kennedy or many of the other players tried in the side midfield roles, are involved in positive action for City contrasts sharply to Yeates.

It was a deep cross to Reece Wabara from James Coppinger – who Halliday probably should have closed down sooner – that resulted in the goal that pulled Doncaster level and a break away counter-attack that Curtis Main rifled in that gave them the winner that settled the game but as with last week’s lost at Oldham Athletic 2-1, and the defeat at Barnsley 3-1, creating good chances is City’s problem.

Taking the lead in the game and then not applying pressure to score more creates a sense of nervousness in the City side and seems to see the opposition grow. That Doncaster Rovers were behind today was not because of a period of pressure, nor did City’s goal signal the start of such a period, and because of that the visitors had concluded that they had taken what City could muster and survived it.

That became the story of the game. City toiled going forward both a 1-1 when a break away saw the visitors second goal and when behind but it would be hard to say that City putting Doncaster under pressure, or at least under the sort of pressure that brings goals.

And what is to be done

Since the play-off were recently introduced into football (about twenty years ago, time does get away from one) promotion can be as much as hitting form in the second half of the season as it is about marching to the titles.

Phil Parkinson found this two years ago and City’s only other play off success was based on the same. With that in mind one might wonder if Phil Parkinson hopes to take his team to the transfer window and make of it a side that could win more in the second half of the season. Word that comes that Arron McLean is to be loaned out and the money saved to be used to bring in another striker suggests he may have that in mind.

However I am unsure that that fixes the problems that City suffered today.

The side midfield roles are demanding and require players to rise to those demand. At the moment Liddle does sometimes, and Knott has shown he can, but one of those two is required for the ball winning role and so one might be tempted to say that City could have Pellè or Pelé up front and would struggle if the quality of chances created does not improve.

Parkinson’s decision now, as he counts the cost of his cutting his losses on his recruitment of Aaron McLean, is if he has enough in the midfield to justify bringing in a striker to finish off a paucity of creation. Remember that tonight Bradford City’s manager and fans are not left cursing strikers missing chances.

If not he might be left thinking as he no doubt was today. That there is not enough of Mark Yeates to go around.

The worst player on the pitch

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, Adam Drury | Kyle Bennett, Gary Jones, Matty Dolan, Adam Reach | Aaron McLean, Jon Stead | Garry Thompson, Oli McBurnie, Mark Yeates

It is decision time for Phil Parkinson as he tries to decide how he will approach next season in League One for Bradford City and what Parkinson does in the next five games will set the tone for next season as surely as Garry Thompson’s blast against Burton Albion in the play-off first leg last season did for this.

Two of those five games are at Valley Parade and that will suit Parkinson fine. Once again Parkinson picked a team to nullify a side and in doing that it seemed he created more problems than he solved. Oldham’s midfield three of James Wesolowski, Korey Smith and Danny Philliskirk did not seem to possess enough to trouble the Bantams yet Gary Jones and Matty Dolan were detailed with stopping Wesolowski and Philliskirk while Jon Stead ended up spending the first half an hour making sure Smith did not create much.

In terms of tactical bargains it is another display of underweaned ambition but last week at Leyton Orient the plan worked well. For all its lack of ambition it may have proved fruitful today but Dolan stopped his job of tracking Wesolowski as Wesolowski went into the area to finish a Jonson Clarke-Harris knock down.

He was not the worst player on the pitch but Dolan added very little to the City cause being neither the defensive break up man which has been lacking in a team without last season’s Nathan Doyle nor especially adapt at going forward although his ball that played in Adam Reach to score City’s equaliser was impressive.

The Bantams had left the 4411 which seemed to directly counter Lee Johnson’s side’s 433 for a flat four at the back, two midfielders behind a row of three supporting the one up front. As fluid as this left the attacking side of City’s game it exposed the backline and City ended up with six players defending all having taken up a man watching Oldham attack with seven.

It was a nice bit of play followed by a powerful finish for Clarke-Harris but Parkinson knows that having four players up field watching an attack is just going to see your team getting beaten. At half time, walking in having nullified, then unbalanced his City team Parkinson probably though that the worst player on the field was probably in the dugout.

And so City reverted to a 442 which pressed onto an Oldham Athletic team but never looked like making a fist of things. There has been a worry that than Bantams lacked a level of commitment and that was manifest today in a performance by Kyle Bennett which fell below the acceptable standard for a player on loan leading me to conclude that the best course of action would be to tell Doncaster Rovers to expect Bennett back in South Yorkshire on Monday.

It was seen when Adam Reach came forward and looked for Bennett ahead of him only to see Bennett hell bent on hiding behind a defender. It was seen in Bennett shoveling the ball off rather than taking responsibility for performance and worst it was seen in the moment when he allowed Jonathan Grounds to take a ball he was favourite for in a City attack and then within five seconds the ball was in City’s goal and as Clarke-Harris took the applause the game was all but over.

I will never criticise a player for getting it wrong, for playing the wrong pass, for missing the goal but for constantly and consistently failing to apply the effort needed culminating in a situation where the Bantams were playing with a liability then I reserve the right to be honest and unmerciful. Playing Kyle Bennett is City wasting playing time as a resource.

I’d rather see Oli McBurnie or Jack Stockdill in the team. McBurnie put his head in where it hurt to get a chance for Mark Yeates to hit the post with and Gray Jones to finish in the last minute of injury time. I’d rather see Garry Thompson in the team. I recall reading that Thompson was the worst player on the pitch in games I thought he played well in and the attempt to replace Thompson has failed.

In fact much of Parkinson’s time now is taken up with looking at how judgement on the quality needed for League One has been wrong. From Jason Kennedy to Bennett there is much to suggest that Parkinson needs to find a better quality of recruit.

Right now he is bringing in players who are the worst player on the pitch.

McLean’s debut continues City’s story of the season

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Matthew Bates, Carl McHugh | Garry Thompson, Jason Kennedy, Gary Jones, Kyel Reid | Aaron McLean, James Hanson | Mark Yeates, Nathan Doyle, Andy Gray

With the kick of off his first Bradford City game a minute away Aaron McLean wandered backwards from middle of the field and started to bump fist and slap hands with his new team-mates. He drifted to left back and bumped Carl McHugh, he slapped Gary Jones, and walked forward with purpose to start his this new part of his career.

A player is rarely under more scrutiny than on his debut and McLean was the focus of attention for the three thousand plus Bradford City supporters. His first touch was the kick off, his first in play was a contested ball with Blades defender Harry McGuire which the defender won but McLean put his body into in a way which was not at all reminiscent of the previous occupant of the number twenty one shirt which the new recruit wore.

Phil Parkinson made no bones about wanting to bring McLean to Bradford City and immediately favoured him over seventeen year old Oli McBurnie. As McLean won his first win of the ball from the towering McGuire it was obvious that Parkinson saw this as a physical encounter. A battle, and one which City lost in the opening forty five minutes.

Jamie Murphy was the first recipient of two goals in the first half which will were to prompt action from the City manager at half time as Carl McHugh’s failings at left back were exposed by winger Ryan Flynn. McHugh was an island adrift in the City team not connected to Kyel Reid or Mark Yeates in front of him, adrift from Matthew Bates to his right Flynn first combined with Tony McMahon who whipped a ball low in to Murphy to finish from inside the six yard box and later forced a corner which McGuire headed a second from.

And City struggled. Struggled to find a plan when Kyel Reid went off on a stretcher after turning his back onto a Hospital ball and having a defender tackle through the back of his legs. Struggled to find a way around McGuire and at the heart of the Blades defends. Struggled to find a blend of the midfield in which Gary Jones and Jason Kennedy not only look similarly but seem far to keen to take up the same position.

Kennedy could be so much more than he is at City and hopefully will be. Games pass him by and he seems to do neither part of his role well. He is not the best player of City’s season so far by a long way but he is the story of the season: unable to get out of low gear but not for the want of trying.

The second half and McHugh was switched with Bates to the central defensive position he was more comfortable with but more over performances were stepped up and for a time City were able to take the game to the home side. Kennedy and Jones were at their most useful in that period after half time which brought two goals and it was Jones who got the first – a massive deflection taking the ball past George Long in the home goal.

Jones’ shot, not a well hit one nor would which was going in before the deflection, came after McLean had won the ball and played in the midfielder. Parkinson deployed McLean behind Hanson as he had McBurnie the week before but often with Nahki Wells in the side the faster forward would be on the backline and Hanson withdrawn.

As Jones slapped McLean as a friendly credit for the assist one might wonder if Parkinson is not unhappy with the outcome of January so far. Wells forced a way of playing – big man/little man – and he would have been foolish to ignore the potential of that but big man/big man with both working hard is more in keeping with the manager’s promotion side at Colchester United.

The second goal was an untidy finish by James Hanson and a note goes to the maligned Garry Thompson who made enough poor decisions to keep his detractors happy but did involve himself when it mattered.

From that point on United laid something of a weak siege to City’s goal. They had chances to retake the lead but City had returned to some stability and strength. 2-2 came and City were happier. Away draws are always good results.

And some might feel that Aaron McLean should have had a penalty late on when a bouncing ball bested McGuire and the City man almost got to the ball but McGuire stayed strong and McLean bounced off him. McGuire may be leaving Bramall Lane this winter with talk of £4m bids. He seems to lack a level of mobility for top flight football but he was very impressive.

As was McLean. He worked hard – his virtue we are told – and in offering strength and hold up play as well as some pace he gives Parkinson an option he seems comfortable with. His part in the comeback was no more nor less than his teammates and that will no doubt suit Parkinson who prizes effort over all else.

Which is the story of City’s season so far. There is hard work and there is reward, sometimes, and the way to increase those rewards is to work and work harder.

City lack the steam to go the distance against Darlington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A point is what we got.

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