End of the ride

Bradford City’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy interest ended at Carlisle tonight and I’m gutted. I’m gutted about the manner of the defeat, and I’m gutted about the agony of coming so close to a mouth-watering two-legged semi final with Leeds United.

But I’m also grateful for the adventure.

Progressing four rounds in a lower league knockout competition might not seem much to shout about, but against a backdrop of years of Bantams cup feebleness this season’s JPT run has been a memorable experience. Each encounter along the way to last night has been laced with drama and ultimate jubilation, with the prospect of City standing in the Wembley Royal Box lifting a trophy seemingly far from fanciful.

It certainly beats year-on-year hoping for progression to the FA Cup 3rd Round and the prospect of a glamour defeat to a Premier League reserve team.

The dream died at Brunton Park tonight, where once again the Bantams were left questioning the officials. Long-serving referee Anthony Bates decided to issue a second yellow card to City’s Simon Ramsden after the defender got into an argument with a home player which seemed to spur on the home fans nearby into screaming for action. It was one where, viewing from across the opposite side of the pitch, it was difficult to see if Ramsden had provided ample cause to trigger an early bath, but it tipped an evenly-matched encounter in favour of the team from a division higher.

City tried to hold out until half time, bringing on Jonathan Bateson for the unfortunate to be sacrificed James O’Brien, but the deadlock was broken with even more controversy as the impressive Vincent Pericard clearly handled the ball in the area, unspotted, and fired a low shot which Simon Eastwood did well to palm away only for Richard Keogh, looking very offside, to fire the rebound home. City behind, and with a mountain to climb.

Falling behind was a regular feature of City’s JPT run. At Rochdale in the first round, highly-rated home defender Craig Dawson hooked the ball into the net after picking up a stray clearance from a free kick. We slumped back in our seats a bit, groaning at the prospect of another defeat at Spotland and another fourth consecutive JPT first round exit, with weary resignation.

But City, recovering from that poor start to the season, didn’t throw in the towel and soon after Michael Flynn belted in a screamer of a free kick and Scott Neilson’s impressive full debut was capped off by a thrilling run and deflected shot which looped over the back peddling Kenny Arthur and into the net. There were only 315 of us City fans their that night, had Wembley being reached this season we should have been awarded our own little royal box. There was a small slice of fortune in the win, with City’s equaliser coming from an attack where Rochdale should have had a free kick, but from that stroke of luck a great win was achieved.

At Brunton Park we spend half time once again bemoaning our lack of luck. The number of decisions to go against City in recent weeks is startling and is playing a far greater impact on the club’s fortunes than any season I can remember. Everyone has a theory so here’s mine, after much bellyaching about Stuart Attwell following the inexperienced official’s decision to dismiss Gareth Evans at Morecambe, the failure to follow up those complaints by appealing the red card may have backfired. Perhaps other referees have interpreted Stuart McCall’s outburst but lack of action as that of a manager too eager to pass the blame for failings elsewhere. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but the standard of refereeing City have since received suggests officials are taking charge of Bantams games with certain pre-judgements.

Still hope remained tonight, despite the 1-0 half time scoreline. City had played some good stuff in the first half. Neilson, James O’Brien and Ramsden had all gone close and though the Cambrians had dominated possession Eastwood was no more busy than home keeper Lenny Pidgley. One scare had seen City twice clear the ball off the line after Eastwood misjudged a corner, but despite Matt Clarke and Zesh Rehman struggling with their distribution City remained solid.  So even with 10 men and a goal deficit to overcome, the glamour tie with Leeds still seemed a realistic prospect.

There was a touch of glamour in the air for the second round encounter at home to Notts County. Despite only being a fifth full, the queue to get inside Valley Parade prior to kick off snaked around the corner as heavy rain flung down. Finding a seat in the packed Main Stand was a challenge, but we were quite grateful to have sat at the back when at half time we realised Sven Goran Eriksson was sat a few rows behind us in one of the exec seats.

By that point each team had traded a goal with the early threat of another Notts County thrashing receding after Michael Boulding’s well-placed low finish from Flynn’s glorious through ball cancelled out their lead. It seemed to take an age to roll in after it had passed Kasper Schemiecal’s outstretched arm, the second of three goals in a week for the inconsistent forward.

Boulding is now injured for a month, and with 10 men City looked especially short in the final third as the second half resumes at Carlisle, with James Hanson deployed on his own and Neilson and Gareth Evans eager support workers when claret shirts have the ball. Just like on Saturday, McCall’s half time words clearly inspired the team and for 20 minutes it was all City. An almighty scramble from a corner sees Carlisle players clear the ball off the line three times.  Soon after, Evans’ shot was parried by Pidgley and Hanson rushes in to attempt to head the ball into the net. Pidgley gets back onto his feet in time to claw it out, Hanson has another go and when it’s blocked again it was Evans’ turn to strike the ball goalwards, but a blue shirt just manages to get in the way. The pressure continued to grow, City are impressing,

Sven didn’t look impressed when Graeme Lee was sent off for one too many hacks at Boulding back in the second round, his thoughts were probably occupied by questioning the judgment of his then-manager Ian McParland ,who had signed the defender been given the run around by former team mates. Yet with 10 men County grew strong and re-took the lead with five minutes to go. We’re out, what a shame but hey it’s only the JPT.

But then City get second wind and Chris Brandon equalised from a corner in stoppage time. It was one of those moments where it’s at the other end to where you’re sat so you wait for reaction of fans around you to judge if it has gone in, but this rare time I’m the first one to cheer and a split second later everyone around me follows. Time for penalties.

We’d certainly settled for penalties again back at Brunton Park with City pressing hard, but then completely against the run of play substitute Scott Dobie scores Carlisle’s second. There is again a hint of offside, but the fact Lee Bullock had cheaply coughed up possession in his own final third to set up the chance to play Dobie through is the most damaging. It will now take a miracle for City to stay in the competition, but hey City did go 2-0 down and recover in a previous round.

A penalty shootout against County, a penny for Sven’s thoughts. The stakes are hardly the same as Portugal ’04 or Germany ’06, but the memories must stir. Sven is stood up talking to an elderly City fan in the row in front while the players get ready; it’s the type of story oft-reported around League Two that, as ridiculous it is he is with us, Sven is at least making an effort everywhere he goes.

The penalties look like going County’s way when Kasper saves from Peter Thorne and the visitors are 2-0 ahead, but City dig in and start finding the net and Eastwood starts saving. The game is decided by Kasper lining up against Easty and the sometimes-City hero prevails, sparking a somewhat over the top pitch invasion and Kasper to smash a hole in the dressing room wall. Sven looks unmoved. What a night.

If there are any fairytales at Carlisle tonight they would surely involve Omar Daley, who makes the long-awaited return to first team action by coming on as a substitute with 18 minutes to go. His name is sung excitedly and nearby team mates run over to shake his hand. It’s a special Bradford City moment on a night looking increasingly forgettable, it could prove a significant moment if his gradual return to fitness heralds an improvement in Bantams league form.

Daley soon gets his first chance to run at a full back, playing a quick one-two before his cross is put behind for a corner. Daley takes it himself, but it barely reaches the near post and is cleared towards Matty Robson. Despite two defenders staying back he has all the time in the world to charge towards Eastwood and slot the ball into the corner. It truly is good night now.

It was Port Vale in round three, 999 visiting fans and the lower tier of the Kop closed to deter pitch invasions. We went into the top tier this time and chanted like we haven’t chanted at a home game for years. 1-0 down yet again, but coming back strongly in the second half with Flynn and Hanson scoring. Me and my friend start talking about the next round draw but then Vale equalised. Penalties again, does lightning strike twice?

The sense of disappointment at Brunton Park is nearly added to after a defensive slip up allows Dobie in, but Eastwood makes a good save. There is still a spirit to City’s efforts, but this is a beaten side. How we’d love a consolation, something to cheer on a cold night, some reward for the endeavour shown on the pitch. Hanson and Flynn don’t come far away, but the only cheering comes from the Carlisle supporters as they mock.

The penalties against Port Vale lasted forever. Score, score, miss, miss, miss, miss, score, score, score, score. Every adequate-looking City penalty taker has gone and what’s left are defenders who struggle to direct their clearances as intended never mind smashing home a penalty. Oh god Luke O’Brien, he’s going to miss…phew. Clarke? Deary me…phew. Then Eastwood saves a third penalty on the night and the winner is scored by the unlikely figure of Steve Williams. We go mental, we’re through to the quarter finals, bring on the draw and lets make it another home one.

And as the game at Brunton Park comes to an end it is the one factor of luck we could do nothing about which sees the JPT run end unsatisfactorily here. If only the luck of the draw had seen City at home to Accrington, or even at home to Carlisle. If this was to be the round progress was to be halted, it would have been nice, if painful. to have gone out to Leeds and at least have enjoyed the occasion and boasted the club’s finances. Instead it’s all over, and the final whistle brings Stuart McCall over to us to applaud. Not a cross word has been uttered about the possibly-under-pressure manager tonight, and while that doesn’t mean no one here doesn’t want him replaced this was not the occasion to air it.

That’s been a difference with the JPT run; because as memorable as it has been to some supporters like me, the majority of fans who turn up to league home games have not witnessed a single minute of this adventure. Low away following at Rochdale, low home turnouts against Notts County and Port Vale. And while this doesn’t make those of us who have attended better supporters than those who have not, the atmosphere each time has been a refreshing change from the usual afternoons of little but singling out players for criticism, moaning about when subs should be made and booing. The JPT adventure has been positive, we’ve all strongly got behind the team and whatever the failings along the way they have not been made too much of in the heat of the battle, as this can so often be to the detriment of the team.

What a shame it can’t always be like this, but despite the crushing disappointment of tonight I’m sure I’m not the only supporter looking forward to starting it all over again next September.

Three steps from Wembley as City face Carlisle in the JPT

City are three steps away from a day out at Wembley.

Carlisle United stand in the way of the Bantams reaching a Northern Final of the Associate Members’ Cup against either Leeds United or Accrington Stanley and while “form” – i.e. the fact that League One clubs take on League Two clubs – suggest that the Uniteds will meet last season’s winners finished bottom of the whole football league beating a team that is now in the Championship in the final event.

Carlisle United have four times been for the big day out at the end of this competition losing three but holding the trophy in 1997 while the Bantams have never performed better than we currently are doing in this cup competition.

Bradford City and cup competitions have long since fallen out with memories of a cup run dim in the mind so this endeavour – the result of two 2-2 games in which Simon Eastwood saved penalties to win the ties and a 2-1 win over Real Rochdale – has warmed the heart on poorly attended Tuesday nights.

A point on those two games which are listed in City’s history as “draws” or “wins on penalties” yet reading The Observer a week ago it turns out that England crashed out on penalties in the last two world cups. City won both shoot outs by a single penalty kick – the same margin that England crashed to – which would seem to suggest that the Bantams pasted Notts County and blitzed Port Vale… on penalties. Now that is spin for you.

Not that one could expect a home and away tie with Leeds United to be poorly attended for either of these clubs and that two legged affair – more than the final – represents a pot of gold although if one were an Accrington Stanley fan one might suggest that if Kettering Town can play Leeds to a stand still then the Lancashire side can too.

Never one to standstill Omar Daley returns for City after ten months having his leg sown back on following a “perfectly fair and legal” (or so the Referee thought) tackle left him out of the game for almost year while Michael Boulding starts a month on the sidelines after being chunked in the air by Pablo Probert (sorry, Mills) on Saturday.

Daley’s return was eagerly anticipated and if one player can raise spirits of a City community rendered flat after a Referee who provoked comments that ranged from “bloody awful” to “awfully biased” and a series of home results that sees the Bantams without a victory at Valley Parade in some time. On the road the Bantams have more success winning the last two keeping clean sheets in the process.

Much of this is – as always – put down to the ability to be more defensive away from home and with Stuart McCall’s side facing a club 11th in the division above few will complain if the Bantams boss employs his 442 once more.

Simon Eastwood keeps goal again – he is made of this competition – with injuries to Steve Williams and – probably – Zesh Rehman allowing Matthew Clarke and Simon Ramsden to pair at the back once more. Jonathan Bateson thus continues at right back with Luke O’Brien on the left.

The four in the middle see Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock continue – Bullock must be suspended again soon considering he is booked whenever he sneezes – but Simon Whaley misses having played for Norwich in a previous round giving Chris Brandon the chance to start on the left opposite Scott Neilson (Scott Neilson/Olly Murs, separated at birth) who will start the game by may come off to allow Omar a run in the team and at the left back.

James Hanson and Gareth Evans continue up front with Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne both injured.

McCall vs Abbott recalls the biggest mistake

Stuart McCall will take his Bradford City team to old Bantams midfield team mate Greg Abbott’s Carlisle United as both club’s look towards a place in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy finals.

McCall and Abbott go further back than that though. When a young Abbott moved North from his Coventry home when he signed for City in the early 1980s he was housed by the club in the bedroom next to Stuart at the McCall house. Andy McCall – father of Stuart and a former footballer – can take credit for the good habits that both were brought up with and it is no surprise that both have made management.

Watching the pair in the midfield for Trevor Cherry’s Bantams in the mid-eighties was something of a cathartic experience for the City both before and after the fire of 1985. The pair battled, tackled, prompted and played in a way that demanded respect for the team in claret and amber who were moving up the football pyramid and for the City at as a whole. Bradford – in the hands of Abbott and McCall – was bouncing back.

Naturally McCall – who went on to the World Cup, six titles with Rangers and being cheated out of the European Cup – was impressive as the side moved through the leagues but Abbott struggled. A player of heart and tackle Abbott’s suspensions – and make no mistake Abbo could put it about – allowed others a chance to take a place in the side.

Trevor Cherry’s replacement – and even with the club floundering second bottom of the second tier playing nomadically around West Yorkshire and up to Odsal few demanded Cherry’s head – was Terry Dolan who as caretaker won eight of ten games and steered the club to tenth in the division being given the job full time as a result. It was perhaps as deserved at the end of those ten games as it was unexpected at the start.

Abbott’s absences – and his deficiencies – were filled as Dolan employed skilful young midfielder Leigh Palin in his place. Palin was an opposite to Abbott lacking the heart of Abbo but having skill which could surpass even McCall. One time City assistant boss Norman Hunter – who went to the World Cup in 1770 and won Championships – once called Palin the best footballer he had ever seen but qualified it with “but only for ten minutes in a game. For the rest of the match he is…”

Such was Palin’s problem. When he was not magic he vanished and while he is in Bradford City’s history for a headed goal against Everton in Stuart McCall’s return and 3-1 defeat the next season his level of ability – no matter how transient – should have seen him achieve more.

It seemed though that Dolan – who had his City team riding high in the second tier in the first third of the season but was watching them falter – thought on the one hand that Palin could provide an edge of quality which would rival fellow promotion runners Aston Villa’s attacking midfielder David Platt but on the other longed for Abbott’s ferocity. He veered between the two all season but identified a player he believed could give him both and went to the chairman – Jack Tordoff – to ask for the money to make the purchase.

Enter Mick Kennedy who at £250,000 was a record signing from Portsmouth. Ultimately he offered neither the skill of Palin nor the commitment of Abbot although he could match the latter for violence in play. City faltered, McCall left, Dolan was fired the next season and the top tier remained a distant dream for some eleven years.

Perhaps this moment was the biggest mistake. Some thought Palin a passenger and that Abbot should be in the side, some that were Palin given the time in the side to settle rather than being in and out of the side then he would be the player he promised to be, others – significantly in the boardroom – had ideas about the signing Dolan wanted.

Dolan had wanted to sign a young Andy Townsend – who was a better footballer than he is a pundit – an equally fresh faced Keith Curle and a striker called Jimmy Gilligan which would have set the club back around £1m but he got Kennedy and the word from the chairman that there was no point paying for a footballer who “might break his leg tomorrow.”

Perhaps it was a weakness on Dolan’s part – he has not been appointed by Tordoff who went on to give former assistant Terry Yorath the job prompting Jimmy Greaves to say on “On The Ball with Saint & Greavies” that it was “just the chairman giving his mate a job.” If it was a weakness on Dolan’s part then it might be noted that when he got the job as caretaker it was at the expense of the wannabe manager who had been successful in the application process: Martin O’Neill.

All of which said we have seen at the club since the effects of spending money that would only be recouped later with success and Dolan’s ambitions might have proved catastrophic. Hindsight in this case is not 20:20 and had O’Neill been City manager, had McCall and Townsend been a midfield pair, had Palin or Abbott been assured the shirt, had Dolan had spent a million we did not have, had John Hendrie not been unfairly sent off in the away game at Manchester City then would things have worked out better? One can only guess, but guess away.

Some twenty years after those events McCall and Abbott square off as managers for a place in a cup final – albeit a minor one – and put all those experiences to the test.

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.

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

The right path, and sticking by it

Whatever direction Bradford City was heading towards following the home defeat to Lincoln City two weeks ago, the corner has seemingly been turned.

After starting the season with three defeats, one point and no goals, it’s now three consecutive wins, nine goals and a progression beyond the first round of the Football League Trophy for the first time since the club was awarded a bye to pass it in 2005. The gloom is fading away and quiet optimism is becoming louder.

Tonight was the first time Stuart McCall’s team has managed to convert a losing position into victory since a 2-0 Chesterfield lead was overturned at Valley Parade 10 months ago. As the players raced over to congratulate Scott Neilsen’s winning strike in front of 300+ City supporters, the spirit in evidence was a welcome contrast to the referee-influenced collapse at this ground last season which was to trigger the beginning of the end to City’s promotion push. On a night where the sponsors were all about paint, an attractive picture of City’s prospects for the campaign was completed by the final whistle.

In the second half especially, City were excellent tonight. Since the relegation to League Two in 2007, envious eyes have been cast towards the Lancashire hosts and the attractive, effective manner Keith Hill lines up a team which has achieved consecutive top seven finishes. With the support of a well-trained ball boy team ensuring throw ins could be hurriedly taken, it was quick-fire, incisive passing in and around City’s penalty area with the skillful Will Buckley, Adam Rundle and Chris Dagnall leading the threat. Yet City were able to respond with some of their best attacking football of the season.

Limited chances were created by both sides during the first half; save for a rattling of the cross bar at both ends with the impressive Luke O’Brien’s miscued cross deceiving the less than impressive Dale keeper Kenny Arthur and coming back off the woodwork and Dagnall being brilliantly cued up at the other end but smacking a well struck shot off Simon Eastwood’s bar. Neither side were able to take control, but each had spells of dominance where the final ball was narrowly lacking.

An early impressive feature about Stuart’s team this season is the movement on and off the ball and, when on the attack, Neilsen, Chris Brandon, Michael Flynn and Gareth Evans were particularly effective at popping up all over the final third and dragging markers out of position in the process. A high level of work rate, a missing ingredient in the second half of last season, was evident too. A good visiting attacking move saw a low cross only narrowly avoid the onrushing Evans, but instead of allowing the ball to simply roll behind, Brandon willingly chased what looked a lost cause and was rewarded by the ball bouncing off the corner flag onto his feet, to allow him to force a corner. Little things such as this were witnessed across the park in this game and recent matches, and so far appear to be making up for any loss of quality the summer’s departing players took with them.

City especially began to get on top in the second half with Steve Williams and Flynn going close, and it came as a surprise when Dale defender Craig Dawson smashed the home side into the lead after a free kick wasn’t adequately cleared. This provided another test for City, with memories of the poor responses to going behind in games last season still raw. Rochdale threatened to finish off the game for a five minute spell and City had to thank Eastwood for one especially brilliant one-on-one save to deny substitute Scott Spencer. In fact the on-loan Huddersfield keeper enjoyed a largely encouraging evening, making a number of excellent saves at crucial times and only causing the briefest of flutters when he miscued a clearance. Even then, it was a moment later overshadowed by the number of times Arthur did the same.

Eastwood’s save would prove crucial, as City regained composure and began to threaten again with Neilsen and Brandon going close. The deserved equaliser came through Flynn’s powerfully struck free kick which Arthur was unable to keep out. With an early injury to Peter Thorne, Flynn had taken the captain’s armband and delivered a strong audition for the job full time by the manner he notably kept geeing up his team mates and leading by example. Special mention should also go to the oft-maligned Lee Bullock alongside him. Bullock by his nature is quiet, unassuming and easy to criticise. His discipline in holding his position allowed others to make those clever runs and, though the former Cardiff midfielder is rarely going to produce match-winning cross field passes, he equally rarely gives the ball away. A player appreciated by the manager and team mates, if not all supporters.

By now City were in the ascendancy and it was Neilsen who was to strike the winner on his full debut. Rochdale had been on the attack, but when possession was gained it was quickly played up to the young winger, who charged at Dale’s back-peddling defence and used the support of Jonathan Bateson  to create space for a shot which deflected off a defender and looped over the despairing Arthur into the top of the goal. On the day Joe Colbeck was sold to Oldham, Neilsen’s all-round performance indicated his is capable of nailing down a first team jersey.

The response from Rochdale was limited and City continued to look the more likelier to score with Evans deserving a goal for a performance full of effort, but finding Arthur equal to his long range effort, and James Hanson, who had replaced Thorne, also going close. Leon Osborne, who had come on for Brandon at 1-0 down, caused problems on the left against Dale’s struggling right back Matthew Flynn.

But on a night of strong performances from City, it was the back four which perhaps deserve the most credit. Bateson’s debut at Forest had been one to forget after his disgraceful lunge on Nathan Tyson resulted in a red card, but he began to redeem himself with a strong showing at right back which included getting forward well. In the centre, Williams continues to look anything but a hairdresser and the man of the match was probably returning Dale defender Simon Ramsden, switched over from the right back to play alongside Williams and seemingly unbeatable in the air and on the ground.

All of which leaves Stuart with new defensive options to mull over ahead of a return to league matters at Shrewsbury on Saturday. Such a trip would have seemed daunting two weeks ago, but can now be taken with increased confidence. City might lose and with it some of the gloom would return, but the excitement in watching this team develop and grow in stature will continue to be felt regardless. Increasingly I feel proud to be a Bradford City supporter and proud to support the young players who wear our colours. Three wins in a row isn’t a time for getting carried away, but the  early building blocks are taking shape and beginning to make sense.

The only thing which hasn’t really changed in the two weeks since defeat to Lincoln is the reality it’s going to be a long season; but with the right direction seemingly found, it increasingly feels like a long season to relish.

City take the pride, but could have left with more from Leeds

The new season may be less than a month old, but for Bradford City it has already featured defeats from its two biggest rivals. Unlike the 4-0 humiliation at Huddersfield in the Carling Cup, Tuesday’s narrow defeat saw the Bantams leave the field with pride. Yet for how well merited the standing ovation 4,000+ City fans awarded their team at the end was, the feeling that it was an opportunity not fully taken remained.

It was a night of agonising what ifs and if onlys. The penalty decision that set Leeds on their way seemed harsh, there was the controversy of the disallowed equaliser by Omar Daley which captain Graeme Lee held an animated conversation with the referee about at half time. Barry Conlon’s miss, which was punished two minutes later by a momentary lapse in concentration for the second goal, and a few chances in the second half where the ball just didn’t fall in the box in a way City players could profit from. Leeds were deserving of their victory and, if they weren’t necessarily a class above in terms of their play, that extra professionalism and concentration to take advantage of the luck which came their way was evident.

It was no surprise to see both managers make changes with the league in mind, or for City to line up in a 4-5-1 formation. The collapse at Huddersfield has clearly been weighing on Stuart’s mind since the draw for this game was made and he set about at least avoiding a repeat. City packed the midfield and denied Leeds space but going forward there was a lack of support for lone striker Barry Conlon, who had an average game at best. City needed to have more runners from midfield and would arguably have been more effective had Lee Bullock started, as late surges into the box are more his game.

Defensively City were shaky on occasions, with Mark Bower and TJ Moncur not having the best of first starts of the season. Rhys Evans also had a disappointing first half where he flapped and panicked too often; had this been Donovan Ricketts the abuse would have been reigning down from City fans behind his goal. Joe Colbeck was praised by Gary McAllister after the game but, given he was up against a 16-year-old left back starting only his second game, he might have hoped to make a bigger impact. Daley and Lee were probably City’s best players but Dean Furman and Kyle Nix also did well, if the latter giving the ball away a bit too much.

At half time we were unfortunate to be 2-0 behind but, until a goal was pulled back, the second half was a frustrating affair as the game became too easy for Leeds. It’s questionable why an attacking change wasn’t made sooner so City could force more pressure and Stuart’s thoughts were probably influenced by that horrible night at Huddersfield, but for a while it seemed City’s ambition didn’t stretch beyond walking off the field only losing 2-0.

I can understand the decision to rest Thorne, but if there was no intention to even give him 10 minutes on the field why include him on the bench? Rory Boulding was kicking his heels somewhere and the wait for changes to be made was frustrating. Belatedly Lee Bullock and Michael Boulding came on, but only after the heavy pressure that pulling a goal back sparked had died down and Leeds were firmly in control again.

Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference; but as I stood there surrounded by fellow supporters looking nervously on while singing our hearts out, desperate for a late equaliser that would have sparked scenes of celebration probably not matched since the Liverpool game eight years ago, it was hard to escape the feeling that the belief it could happen was not shared on the bench.

There was a lot to be proud of – the atmosphere from the City fans (I’ve a croaky voice today), the commitment and resilience from the players, receiving a text from a Leeds fan in the home end expressing how worried he was with ten minutes to go and the excitment the match produced.

Stuart certainly deserves credit for the way he lined up City and the performance was very encouraging but, with a bit more positivity, we could have been walking out of Elland Road (after a 25 minute delay) with more than just our heads held high.

Leeds United vs Bradford City – Johnstone’s Paint Trophy First Round 2008/2009 preview

If Bradford City’s 2008/2009 campaign were a film, tonight’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy First Round trip to Leeds United would represent little more than an early sub-plot for added interest while the main one takes shape.

Sure, it could provide an exciting action sequence or two and it may include moments that are remembered long after the closing credits are run next May; but, regardless of the outcome, it’s not what this season is all about – nor will it define it.

Nevertheless the Bantams make the 9.5 mile journey to the other side of Pudsey with some expectation. The League Cup embarrassment at Huddersfield showed that, so far, manager Stuart McCall has been unable to better the efforts of previous managers when it comes to cup competitions, but this trophy is one which joint-Chairman Julian Rhodes said City should be taking seriously during the summer.

The often-maligned competition has rarely been kind to City, especially since the club returned to England’s bottom two tiers in 2004. During the first season back there was the home defeat to then non-league Accrington and while the area Quarter Finals were reached the following year – helped by a first round bye – progress came to a crashing halt at another non-league club, Kidderminster, with manager Colin Todd and player Lee Crooks having a bust-up after the latter got sent off only six minutes in.

The last two seasons have seen first round exits and controversy, first by Scunthorpe in 2006-07 when they went against rules and fielded a largely reserve side – a league encounter at Valley Parade five days later in manager Brian Laws thoughts – and last season when Stuart did the same at holders Doncaster and City were duly thrashed. Both Scunthorpe and City received fines for doing so, with Stuart paying ours out of his own pocket.

Such restrictions on team selection may not be welcomed by former Scotland team-mates Gary McAllister and Stuart this evening, but they should at least ensure both sides take the tie reasonably seriously. The disappointing news that Matt Clarke will be out for a month means Mark Bower will make his first start of the season, while the sight of Graeme Lee playing out the second half at Aldershot with a head bandage may mean TJ Moncur is drafted in. Barry Conlon is also expected to start, confidence lifted by his five-goal haul in the reserves last week. Peter Thorne will probably be rested and Stuart may look to find room for on-loan Dean Furman in the centre of midfield.

Leeds, who’s slow start to this season is in contrast to their flying one to the last, may also make changes; though it should be noted McAllister is making noises about this tie’s importance. On Saturday they drew 2-2 with Bristol Rovers meaning they have collected only 19 points from a possible 42 at Elland Road in 2008 so far.

The City-Leeds rivalry is a curious one given its apparent one-sidedness, with Leeds supporters I speak to, at least, usually at great pains to point out how indifferent they feel towards us. Indeed we are often accused of being ‘jealous’ – though why we would be envious of a club often dragged down by sections of their support, have a Chairman who is no friend to football fans, were voted the most hated club in the country and who’s financial mismanagement has arguably been worse than ours is beyond me. What Leeds should be proud of is the passion and level of their support and, for all the success of the season ticket initiatives at Valley Parade, we certainly wouldn’t mind a few more bums on seats to rival them.

Whether they care about us or not, it’s likely there will still be a sizeable home support and why not? Derbies are a great feature of football and playing their neighbours is arguably still a more interesting proposition than some of the clubs Leeds face in League One and even the Championship, should they return. It’s a tin-pot competition that means little to anyone but the winners, yet tonight’s game is of far more interest to both clubs than if City were travelling to Hartlepool and Leeds were at home to Lincoln.

For us City fans it’s a chance to avenge the previous meeting and gain our first victory over Leeds for 22 years. It might not matter as much to them, but a few thousand City fans will be situated in the South Stand, hopefully chanting non-stop. A victory would be talked about for years and may just irritate those Leeds fans, who would have to put up with our gloating, enough to look forward to the next derby with more relish.

Tonight may be a short lived sub-plot and, in our heads, we’d swap victory for three points on Saturday; but it’s still one for us City fans to relish and create a white-hot atmosphere to spur on our players in their efforts to take bragging rights.

Let’s-make-some-noise…

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