There were plenty of notable results across England’s four professional divisions on Saturday – emphatic victories for Chelsea and Norwich, surprise defeats for Man City and Leeds – but while events at Saltergate provide an interesting talking point for Bradford City supporters, they should not come as a shock.
Barry Conlon, signed by Chesterfield on a month’s loan only that morning, marked his debut by netting the winning goal over Torquay United. The crisp strike from the edge of the area was typical of the Irishman – in the sense of starting well at a new club. It is the 14th transfer the Irishman has been the subject of, it is the 13th year of the 31-year-old’s playing career. There’s a reason he doesn’t stay anywhere long.
For Conlon has proved himself to be an effective short-term impact player. His one and three-quarter seasons at Valley Parade characterised by short spells on the sidelines and short spells in the team. It can be argued he wasn’t given a fair run of games in the team, it can be argued he made it impossible for manager Stuart McCall to give him that run.
I was always a fan of Barry, but it was Bury away almost a year ago that my tolerance of his short-comings vastly-reduced. Three days earlier at Luton, he’d come on a sub and made a decent impact in a second half the Bantams dominated. At Gigg Lane he partnered Steve Jones up front, and though the on-loan Burnley was unhelpful in his positioning and link up play, Conlon’s anonymous performance and miss of a sitter in the final stages of the 1-0 defeat summed up his lack of reliability.
It left me looking back over his City career up to then and realising just how inconsistent he generally was. It seemed to be a never-ending cycle. Brought into the team to give it a boost, he would make a good impact and often score. The next game he’d be a definite starter and usually carry on where he left off. But then the week after less effective, then the week after even less so. The hauling off as sub wasn’t far away, the bench his home again the following week. Then the odd cameo appearance before the cycle started all over again.
A perfect example was in late October 2008. Conlon came on as sub in a battling home game with Bury and scored a late winner. The following Saturday against Barnet, he started the game and scored two excellent goals. Then his performances began to drop off in away games at MK Dons and Wycombe. He was then dropped against Rotherham, before returning in the home game against Chesterfield, playing well and scoring from the spot.
When on form it wasn’t just Conlon’s work rate which impressed, he was very effective at holding up the ball and enabling others to get forward. He was had a great shot on him (often unlucky with some great efforts hitting the woodwork) and he showed intelligence in his passing and positioning. His poorer performances were notable in that the work rate was clearly missing. He wouldn’t chase causes as vigorously, he’d try illogical passes to others when he needed to show more endevour in trying the harder things, he’d fluff his lines in front of goal.
It was as if he only played well when he was under pressure or had something to prove – such as why he should be in the starting eleven.
Of course that point to prove led to him becoming a hero when he moved to Grimsby Town on loan towards the end of the season. Scoring in each of his first three appearances, he pulled a struggling outfit away from the relegation trap door.
In doing so, he also made life that bit more uncomfortable for McCall. Having allowed him to leave with rumours of off-the-field indiscipline circulating, Conlon’s on-loan like-for-like replacement Paul Mullin failed to work out. As Barry made the headlines in Cleethorpes, Mullin struggled to make any impact and City’s season continued to implode. Promotion hopes were as good as ended by a 3-0 defeat at Dagenham where Mullin looked dis-interested. At the exact same time, Conlon was smashing home a double which almost virtually sealed the Mariners’ survival.
But this was a few games, not a season. Whether he’d have made a difference to City’s collapse is highly doubtful. Since that double-strike against Barnet on November 1, he’d only managed one goal from open play during his final four months at Valley Parade.
Conlon’s ability to make a short-term impact was only re-affirmed. His capability of doing it long-term a remaining question.
And one still unanswered, for despite a bright start at Grimsby this season after making his move permanent, Conlon’s form faded badly and with the club struggling more than ever, this time he couldn’t be counted on when the chips were down. Two sendings off, more rumours of off-the-field misbehaviour, only one goal – a penalty – since October. When we went to Blundell Park in November, City were up against a mere shadow of the player Conlon could be. The work rate was nil, the passing poor, the finishing hilariously bad.
His manager has put him on the transfer list, with the excellent Cod Almighty stating, “Conlon is a player who might have been genuinely useful to the Mariners had his head been right but has looked less and less interested as Town have sunk deeper into the mire – so fair play to the manager for deciding to get shot.”
So Conlon is on the move again and, with Grimsby drawing 0-0 at home to Cheltenham on the same afternoon Conlon was a goal-scoring hero on his Chesterfield debut, it’s the turn of Mariners manager Neil Woods to feel uncomfortable.
Chesterfield have signed him on loan with a view to making it permanent for the rest of the season. McCall and Woods – not to mention the many other previous managers Conlon has exasperated – would probably advise John Sheridan to reserve judgement for a few weeks.
The scarcity of football in these snow bound weeks seems to have set the fan’s mind set into watching pretty much anything as so after the delight of the improvised Portsmouth squad beating Coventry on Tuesday night came the supposedly wondrous triumph of Reading at Anfield where Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool side were knocked out of the FA Cup.
Benitez cut Shakespearianly tragic figure on the side lines as he watched his team capitulate to a Reading side that showed all the Hallmarks of the Royal’s great sides: They cheated a bit, moaned a lot and – for some unfathomable reason probably connected to the fact that they are the club in closest proximity to your average tabloid newspaperman’s house just outside London – they were lavished with praise for their effort.
How Benitez – mic under nose and awkward questions to answer about his future – must have longed to grab the TV crew and march it to the Referee, to Brian McDermott, to Shaun Long and demand a reason why the 93rd minute penalty that levelled things for Reading was given considering the fairly obvious nature of the dive. No penalty, no extra time, no news story from this Third Round FA Cup game.
Nevertheless Benitez is “in trouble” now and many are calling for him to be fired from his job. Unless he is stealing for the Anfield stationary cupboard, using their computers to write his CV or as in the case of one former Anfield player turned sacked manager at another club running up £44,000 work of sex line bills on the club’s phone then sacking is not an option.
The word sack is thrown around liberally in football and is misnomic. When a centre-forward plays badly he is dropped and someone else plays the position for a time while the player himself is paid to sit on his backside or play in the stiffs.
We would never say that Jim Jefferies “sacked” Benito Carbone by paying him to not do anything yet we use it all the time for the process of taking the roles and responsibilities away from managers but continuing paying them. Sven Goran Eriksson’s time out of football after England finished almost to the day that The FA stopped paying him after his “sacking” by England ad some say that we paid Sven more to sit on his backside for a year than we did Steve MacLaren to work as manager for two.
Of course a manager without any management probably starts looking for another job and might get one soon taking away the contract from the previous club just as a player in the reserves might move on to a new team but there is no onus on either to do so while they are being paid as City found out with Carbone back in 2001.
So rather than Liverpool sack Benitez – or any club sack any manager – it would probably be more accurate to suggest that the Reds might drop him and if they can stomach the idea of paying £4m a year to someone who they don’t use in the company – and a further £4m to his replacement no doubt – then they could do just that but the club would end up in a situation where it is paying £8m a year for the managerial position to be filled and – and England’s experience suggest that this could be the case – not even getting half the value of that back.
All of which concerns Bradford City only slightly and this slight way is this. In a post game discussion with a Liverpool website (us football site webmasters have a secret club – seriously) I suggested that Martin O’Neill would be the only choice for the job to which I was told my man on Merseyside has discovered that a similar thought had passed around Anfield to a point where though back door channels O’Neill had been sounded out and had said that he was not about to break his contract with Aston Villa – he had refused to do the same with Leicester City preventing him from taking up the Leeds United job once – and so either a deal had to be worked out with Randy Learner at Villa Park or Liverpool would have to wait.
So wait they do, because while they take no joy in Third Round exits they have a plan for replacing Rafa that involves bringing in a man they feel will do better rather than throwing a wide net open after getting rid of the incumbent and seeing what they find. If they are not able to get the man they want then they will stick with what they have.
Such thinking is thin on the ground at most clubs in and out of the boardroom where little attention is paid to the person following the current, to be dropped, incumbent of the manager’s position, much less to the idea that the exiting man might be falling below whatever standard is drawn for a reason which is not solved by replacing him.
John Sheridan – manager of Oldham Athletic – was fired about a year ago and replaced with Joe Royle who allowed the teams faltering play-off push to fizzle out entirely. Royle was replaced with Dave Penney who has taken the Latics to 19th in League One hovering over the relegation places and one must wonder who pitched the idea of sacking of Sheridan and if they are considering the same with his replacement. Certainly whatever the problem was that saw Sheridan relieved of duties does not seem to have been solved by his exit.
If Benitez was to be paid by Liverpool to stay at home one could argue that the next manager would not lose FA Cup games to weaker opposition but few could make a case that suggests another manager would definitely perform better in the League than Benitez. Two years ago the Red got 76 points from 38 games making a perfect average of two points per match but still finished fourth. It is not performance but rather of over performance that is the expectation.
All of which seems a million miles away from Bradford City at present save the commonality that surrounds a section of the supporters of both clubs (and many other clubs it has to be said) who look at sacking the wrong way and talk much about removing and little about replacing and certainly do not consider the financial pitfalls of paying two people to do the same job.
Care should be taken around the opinions of these people who are so ready to spend other people’s money.
Sheridan – Shez to Leeds fans of a certain age – was fuming with a Referee who blew for a foul on Luke O’Brien when Wade Small was clean through and booked Jack Lester who did nothing to warrant it clash with Lee Bullock. Further his Chesterfield side were the better team at Valley Parade – despite the scoreline – for most of the game.
It is hard to reconcile Sheridan’s views with the ninety minutes we saw on Saturday even with the partisanship that comes from backing one side or the other. Most combinations of logic and football would say that three goals evenly spaced out and none conceded could be nothing other than a deserved win. Sheridan has his own thoughts on how he should react to the defeat just as Micky Adams – who has transfer listed the entire Port Vale squad – has his but perhaps it is worth looking at those contrasting approaches.
Adams – who saw his team lose at Notts County by a much smaller margin than the Bantams did (although both saw frankly ludicrous dives by Luke Rodgers rewarded with penalties) – has decided that a line needs to be drawn between the squad and himself perhaps worried about tarnish to what was once a great reputation in management rather than just a fit of pique motivated by sour grapes.
Let it be known from now on that Adams is not to be responsible for Port Vale’s performances – at least until a dressing room clear out has been completed – and that the team are on their own if they want to defend themselves against any criticism thrown their way.
Of course in practice while the entire Port Vale squad are for sale none of them can be sold until after Christmas – transfer windows being what they are – and one can be sure that a good few of the squad would not be allowed to leave anyway, James Lawrie for example has attracted interest form Arsenal and Fulham and is not being binned by Adams. It is a big statement but an unrealistic one.
Nevertheless in the here and now Adams has made his big statement.
Sheridan takes a contrasting approach pre-emptively defending his players from any criticism with a controlled mix of “we wuz robbed” and “we didn’t deserve to lose”. None of which is to criticise the protective shield he has thrown around his team just to suggest that it need not be seen as a reflection of the result or the pattern of the game any more than Adams’s distancing should be looked on as a realistic plan.
The impression of a team beaten convincingly is diluted by Sheridan’s comments while no one talks about Jack Lester’s fairly violent over the ball on Lee Bullock because it is excused as a Refereeing mistake. It might not be truthful as you, I, a Chesterfield fan at the game, player or manager sees it but it does mitigate criticism amongst supporters controlling which is increasingly important in the manager’s arsenal of abilities.
The Chesterfield boss knows that his words will reach Saltergate and the supporters who did not travel to Bradford before his team bus gets back and those words will start to create a reality around the game on message boards and forums separate and more favourable for the manager.
In Burslam they here that Micky Adams is not happy and it assuages any anger there, in Chesterfield any criticism is tempered by Sheridan’s view of the reality of the afternoon. Far from being sour grapes Sheridan comes out as a manager smart enough to realise that in absence of a win the perception of the game amongst his supporters – especially those who stayed at home – is the next most important thing.
Would Stuart McCall have transfer listed the entire squad after the 4-1 defeat at Barnet last year? Would he have come back from Morecambe when Peter Thorne had a goal chalked off and a linesman raised and lowered his flag insisting we were robbed? (we were, by the way)
Probably not. McCall’s public face is an honest and emotional one and his public relations and – for want of a better phrase – supporter expectation management skills are poor. Adams and Sheridan – I would guess – would thrash the City boss at Poker.
Strange though that so much of football management is about how performances are perceived rather than anything rooted strictly in reality. Adams says performances are at a low that he will not stand, Sheridan that his team deserved better and probably neither are true but also untrue are the extreme opinions that pepper message board and forums at 4:50 on a match day and it is the smart management of these that Sheridan is concerned with.
Oldham Athletic at the end of last season made a decision. It was a decision that some would have had City make and they made it in a similar situation. Morale was bad in the squad and the promotion bid faltered so they sacked the manager and the rest is history.
Well, not that historic really. Joe Royle took Oldham to nowhere – he was replaced by Dave Penny who seems to be doing the same at the end of the season – which is, in the scheme of things, where City finished. John Sheridan – fired from Oldham – ended up at Chesterfield and brings his team to Valley Parade performing – well – about as well as Stuart McCall’s Bradford City.
All of which is to reopen such a debate but just to underline that things do not turn out the way many might hope for or expect.
Few better examples than this could be seen than the career of Graeme Lee since City’s last game with Chesterfield on the final day of last season which was the Bantam’s skipper’s last game for the club. Lee went to Notts County, got injured, got replaced by Sol Campbell who cameoed and left after a single game and now looks to come back into the side. Should either team win on Saturday and the beleaguered County lose at home to Port Vale then they would climb above the Sven Men.
So things do not work out how one might expect and the six game without a defeat run the Bantams are on was not expected after the early season encounter with with County.
The run is typified by the effort put in by strike partnership James Hanson and Gareth Evans who continue to work tirelessly keeping Michael Boulding on the bench and scoring with an impressive frequency. The energy but in up front is mirrored by the hard work of the main midfield two of Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock who are expected to be partnered with James O’Brien although McCall has used Chris Brandon in home games.
Scott Neilson is expected to continue on the right with Jon Bateson behind him replacing the injured Simon Ramsden while Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams continue in the middle. Luke O’Brien is left back and Simon Eastwood plays in goal.
There is speculation that the breach of club dicipline that saw Barry Conlon and Matthew Clarke dropped from the squad on Saturday was a punch up between the two biggest bruisers the Bantams had and frankly had tickets been sold for that event I can imagine it would be worth watching in that Clash of the Titans way.
This speculation might be filed next to Paul McLaren’s walk out and will never play for City again or Peter Beagrie’s famously broken leg on the 1st of April 1999 – “Which one is it that he hasn’t broke?” – or it might be grounded. I’m not one to speculate without fact on my side and the paid could well have been fleecing the young ‘uns at cards or staying out past curfew but for something will be proof that Stuart McCall lacks the strength to impose discipline.
His most famous moment – to many – is falling off a car drunk. One can see the problems he would have telling players how to behave but perhaps the punishment for the pair – of which McCall says
We’ll keep it private but it’s over and done with now. They are both back in the squad. – is that strength being flexed.
Not too far away breeches of club discipline became an issue after the Oldham Athletic players were seen scrapping at Belle Vue Dog Track. John Sheridan paid for the problems with his job although a 6-2 defeat at the weekend would not have helped matters and now he has been replaced by Joe Royle.
McCall and Sheridan were on opposite sides of the camp in the 1980s with the Irishman Leeds United’s favourite midfielder and Stuart City’s. Both are in management at the same time and both have discipline problems to deal with.
Boundry Park provides an interesting test case for City fans. Oldham have fallen out of the play-off zone after looking good for promotion earlier and in Royle they have their totemistic manager – their Paul Jewell – back in charge replacing a young favoured former player. If the potato headed one can lift them into The Championship then those City fans who believe that the Bantams should be making a change in the big chair can point to that and make the point that the same should have happened at Valley Parade. If not then one could argue that there is some proof that changing managers does not equate to changing fortunes.
We watch with interest as we watch the reintegration of Conlon and Clarke back into the City side. Neither have enjoyed universal popularity but both have merits. Conlon never gives up and is an object lesson for the rest of the side – an example if you will – while Clarke’s abilities are evidenced not in singular moments but in a sea change in City’s modus operandi. It used to be that the Bantams were bested by big men bullying Mark Bower and now those days are over. That Clarke has failings in other areas one must balance against those benefits and the idea that Zesh Rehman offers similar, if not better.
Both players will live to fight another day – players always do and John Sheridan is out of work while his brawling players continue to be paid – and so will McCall who in having to wield discipline will be viewed by some as lacking it.