Bradford City, Brentford away and conformational bias

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Carl McHugh, Matthew Bates | Kyle Bennett, Gary Jones, Chris Parkinson, Nathan Doyle, Adam Reach | Aaron McLean | Gary Thompson, Andy Gray, Adam Drury

The words we are looking for are “conformational bias”.

You know how when you look at your watch and it is always 11:11 except it is not always 11:11, it’s just that you only remember the times you look at your watch (well, phone) is when it reads 11:11 and you forget all the other times you look at your watch (well, phone). That is conformational bias. We remember the times that support our hypothesis and forget the ones which do not.

(By the way Uri Geller believes that it is always 11:11 and has lots of very curious ideas on the subject which prove nothing at all and are basically confirmations of conformational bias)

Being a Bradford City supporter at the moment is to be judging between (at least) two different conformational bias. Phil Parkinson’s team are not performing as well this season as they did last season and a 2-0 defeat at Brentford is seen as confirmation that Parkinson is not good enough or it is not because a team in City’s position would not expect to go to a promotion chaser and win is seen as contradicting that and is thus ignored.

Likewise the two wins in a week were confirmation that Parkinson was “the man for the job.”

A lifeless first half in which neither side threatened goal much was a confirmation of how canny Parkinson was to keep things tight and try steal a point from a team which ends the day third but the fact that City were unable to do that because of second half goals from the generally annoying Clayton Donaldson and George Saville shows how limited Parkinson’s plan is.

Without James Hanson up front and Andrew Davies at the back against a team in good form the afternoon always seemed beyond the visitors and again one is stuck between scenarios as to why. Parkinson gave up the game and rested his two players because even his full strength side would struggle on the one hand and that is the smart thing to do on the one hand. On the other Parkinson’s side’s failings are his failings and depth of squad is squarely amongst those failing.

It does seem like the team that finished seventh last season/the team that went to Wembley twice – pick your own description to continue the theme of this article – have reached a plateau. While Brentford trooped off at half time unimpressive it never looked like the area between Carl McHugh and Matthew Bates would not afford Donaldson a chance during the afternoon and so it did when Donaldson drove in low. Only his proficiency stopping him adding another later but Saville gave the scoreline a perhaps undeserved polish. The Londoners edged most things on the day – but not by much – although Will Grigg and Adam Forshaw provided everything a League One midfield needed to go twenty two games with only a single defeat or twenty three games with two, if you are that way inclined.

City’s midfield is the start of the limits that Parkinson faces by by no means the end of the. Gary Jones has made a virtue out of the level of dedication he puts into all things and he will know more than anyone that the number of games he has at League One level is limited but – in my never humble opinion – he remains value for his place on his performance and the energy he puts into it which one only wishes was matched by Nathan Doyle. Doyle displays last year were excellent but that has been the exception in a career which has seen him more often than not fall below the standards he reaches on his better days on too many of his days. Doyle can play better, and has often, and to be a reliable part of Parkinson’s team next season he has to.

Kyle Bennett remains a mystery to me, Adam Reach continues to let how impressive he is one moment stop him impressing the next. Aaron McLean works hard and for that he will remain in Parkinson’s side because Parkinson prizes that above all else.

And if one agrees with that philosophy then a defeat like today is just a part of the grind. The fact that the club will shake itself off and go to the more winnable game at Colchester with more fit players is confirmation that the manager knows what he is doing. Looking at the table City have twelve games left to play and need as many points to reach fifty three which would guarantee safety. That simply requires Parkinson’s side to score points at the same rate that it has all season.

If one does agree with the hard working philosophy (or perhaps does not agree with something else that sets one to suggest that Parkinson is doing something wrong) then it is unacceptable not because it is a defeat but because all defeats highlight problems because it offers confirmation that there is a problem.

So one is left to decide if retaining a place in League One for next season represents progress or a problem.

A Jon Bateson season that finishes at Crewe

Jonathan Bateson has been released by Bradford City after only nine months at the club and if ever a player summed up a season it is the young right back signed from Blackburn Rovers and released to an uncertain future.

The players released are Bateson, Rory Carson, Matthew Clarke, Matthew Convey, Matthew Glennon, Steven O’Leary and Luke Sharry and few of those names surprise. Matthew Clarke always seemed to be on the edge of leaving the club and Peter Taylor is expected to try sign Luke Oliver as a replacement. It seemed that only one of James O’Brien and O’Leary would stay and it was O’Brien.

It is Bateson – however – who sums up the season. A decent pre-season prompted optimism which was burst down in Nottingham with the team beaten 5-0 and 3-0 in four days and Bateson sent off for a two footed lunge on his debut.

Following that there was a tough comeback. Hard work and effort that brought lots of positive reports which struggled to be transffered into the results everyone wanted. Bateson was labelled as having great potential which his manager Stuart McCall’s team looked capable of putting in great displays but seemingly incapable of winning great results.

Bateson struggled to win a place in the side as other players such as Simon Ramsden established himself and the idea of Bateson winning his place started to seem more and more remote. Sure he could put in a good display when needed but it always seemed that he was settling in to the middle of things, despite the odd Johnstone’s Paint win.

So a change in manager brought in optimism but not a massive change in position because it seemed that the season had been cast in the middle. Zesh Rehman dipped his toe into playing right back and Bateson appeared again showing some stability but the die has been cast and stability saw out the season into mid-table.

Changes were made. Bateson exits.

So Peter Taylor finishes three months as City manager with a end of season middle of the table game which could see the Bantams reach 13th or may drop to 16th. Of the players released only Clarke featured in the side last week and he is expected to be dropped to allow for a Steve Williams and Zesh Rehman middle with Simon Ramsden and Robbie Threlfall at full backs in front of Jon McLaughlin.

Matt Glennon’s release is a big thumbs up for McLaughlin who seems set to be City’s first choice keeper next season.

Also looking at being nailed in for next season is the three of Adam Bolder – who may return to Millwall with Taylor wanting him back – Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn in the middle. Gareth Evans leads the line with Gavin Grant and Leon Osbourne supporting.

And no room for Bateson. Not been his sort of season.

Reflections on a chapter still waiting to be ended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The articles of association football club Bournemouth

The story is that in 1972 – Britain having ditched the hour shifts of summer time and gone decimal – some of the directors at Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic F.C. decided that the modernity that swept the land needed to encompass the football club on the South Coast of England.

So taking a lead from the naming conventions of the continent and the playing strip of AC Milan the club – which had just been promoted to the third tier – was renamed AFC Bournemouth and nothing was ever to be the same again, so the story goes.

Of course things were the same. AFC Bournemouth, Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic F.C. and further back Boscombe F.C. have similar league histories going up sometimes, going down sometimes but generally doing well for themselves as a steadfast member of the bottom half of English football.

Perhaps there was an idea that the AFC element would alter that patten – that following a more exciting European model – might move Bournemouth on in the world. It was a plan and in retrospect it seems like a far fetched one – but it is a plan to take the club forward never the less.

Planning is the talk of Valley Parade at the moment. It is said that after a meeting this week with Peter Taylor and the trio of the boardroom Mark Lawn, Roger Owen and David Baldwin that the interim manager is pleased with the plans that the club have hastily put in place at his behest and a gambling man would bet on the manager remaining in charge next season.

The club’s planning over the previous decade and a half has been – in places – dreadful from the days of signing Dan Petrescu and Benito Carbone and having them change in one place and train in another to the wandering blindly into giving up the club’s biggest asset in Valley Parade to the current, much discussed situation.

Let us not rehash these problems, dear reader, but concur that they exist and consider how they could be circumnavigated.

Having spend much of yesterday in and around Fanny’s Ale House in Saltaire within a stone’s throw of the buildings of Shipley College I recalled the Business 101 class I took back when The Doc was still City boss – which was rather grandly called The Organisation In Its Environment – and the lesson that said that businesses were guided by a set of principals.

The businesses – as a rule – were plc’s of which the Bantams are not but the principals which took the similarly grand name of Articles and Memoranda Of Association were in place to define to any and all what that business was about.

They divide into two sets being Articles – the aims of a company – and the Memoranda – which are the objectives. In short what the company is trying to do, and how it is trying to do it.

Aim: “Bradford City aim to offer season tickets to supporters at affordable prices”. Objective: “The club will ensure that season tickets price going to games in line with similar activities such as a trip to the cinema”.

One has to wonder if such a constitution exists at Valley Parade – they may do – and if such a constitution could be made public. A set of principals that tell supporters exactly what they are supporting and tell those involved in the club at all levels what they are signing up for.

If Peter Taylor does sign up to be City manager next season them signing players from the current set up will occupy him. Of the team that is expected to take the field at Dean Court tomorrow a half dozen of them are contracted to stay at the club and the rest are looking to impress.

Matt Glennon and reserve man Jon McLaughlin are both out of contract and one doubts that the senior man has done enough to ink his name on a contract. New manager’s often mean new goalkeepers.

Zesh Rehman is contracted to be around next season, Simon Ramsden has no deal but most would keep the latter – who returns to fitness – and release the former. The topper most of the achievements Taylor could have is to get Rehman playing like a player capable of operating at a higher level once more.

Taylor is said to be a massive fan of Steve Williams and one can see him being around next season and the same could be said for the massive Luke Oliver who seems to have stepped in front of Matthew Clarke who – it seems – is playing through his last days at Valley Parade.

Robbie Threlfall has no deal at Liverpool and one suspects no future there – when was the last time The Reds brought through a local lad? – although his performances have suggested that he is worth a deal from the Bantams if no one else offers him anything.

Ten years ago a player coming out of one of the top clubs would cost anyone interested £500,000 n the assumption that the Liverpools and Manchester Uniteds only took the best rather than the current situation where they take – well – whomever they can get their hands on. Now they are simply lads like those who City release and are looking for contracts at whatever level they can get one.

Not that Louis Horne or Luke O’Brien will be looking for deals. They both seem set to stay with City next season with O’Brien growing into his left wing role he will continue in tomorrow. The right hand side has Omar Daley and Scott Neilson with one injured and the other out on loan. Gareth Evans – another who is staying – will take the right hand side with Gavin Grant looking to get a chance to impress following his return from injury.

The middle two perm from the three of Lee Bullock, Adam Bolder and Michael Flynn with the latter moving up front to cover the repositioned Evans and Taylor no doubt wanting all three around next season. Certainly the ability to not have to change central midfield tactics with Bullock’s now spent suspension has been a boon and if all three can stay then Taylor has more of a chance to keep continuity in that area of the field.

James Hanson could hardly have had a better season seeing off Michael and Rory Boulding to establish himself as City’s leading striker and there seems to be more chance of his being snapped up from above than leaving to someone below. Ryan Kendall is looking for a club next term but even with his goal scoring antics last week he is to stay on the bench to allow Flynn to join the attack.

Rounding up the others Jonathan Bateson, Jamie O’Brien, Leon Osborne, Luke Sharry and Stephen O’Leary are all looking very much like they will struggle to get new deals partly through a lack of chances in the case of the injured O’Leary and O’Brien and partly through a failure to gasp those chances. The tragedy of the season is Luke Sharry’s first half against Port Vale where a promising player failed to take his chance with two hands while Leon Osborne has never had the impact to suggest he will have a future with the club.

Nevertheless as the club winds down the season going neither up nor down then all these players may get a chance to impress. It is ironic that as the Bantams weigh up who will get a deal and who will not their opponents AFC Bournemouth have had to rely on exactly that sort of player and sit third battling for a play off place with Notts County and Rotherham – teams adapt at spending other people’s money – with any plan they ever had to progress thrown out of the window.

Eddie Howe spins gold from what he has, but he has nice training pitches.

Update Since writing Bradford City – and me – have had various injuries. Simon Ramsden is definitely out giving Zesh Rehman the right back role. Gareth Evans has an injured foot that will allow the right hand side to go to the aforementioned Sharry perhaps and hopefully the youngster can make the impression he hints at. Gavin Grant could also feature.

Ryan Kendall will almost certainly get a game with Michael Flynn’s injury ruling him out while Matthew Clarke has a calf injury that ensures that the Williams/Oliver partnership can play again unless Rehman moves inside and Bateson can feature at right back.

I have a bad knee and am limping around the house getting on Mrs Wood’s nerves and wincing every time I walk. I have no idea where the knee tweak came but I have not suffered a heavy tackle or ran for a ball and as I hobble around the house I reflect on the idea that at times players are expected to get on with the game when they are feeling as I do, or worse.

This leads me to recall this story about former Arsenal man Perry Groves who when playing in a reserve game at Luton Town was hacked fairly viciously as he stormed down the left wing. Groves lay on the floor in front of the fistful of Lutoners who attend second string matches one of whom shouted “Get up off the floor you ginger puff” in the direction of Groves.

Groves, his leg being magic sponge, gingerly rose to his feet in time and turned to the stand to tell the supporter a cold hard fact.

“Mate,” said Groves, “That really hurt.”

Didn’t you used to be Hereford United?

Hereford United sit below Bradford City in the football pyramid at the moment – that is not that easy – and dismissed manager John Trewick who himself had taken over from Graham Turner, the manager who guided the club to promotions from the Football Conference and League Two two years ago.

The Hereford side mugged Bradford City in the first season under Stuart McCall were a big bunch of guys who assembled by Turner at the cost of only half of City’s purchase that year Willy Topp. Ben Smith who was signed from Weymouth for £20,000 in January 2007 and the rest of the squad were either picked up for free – or – in the case of nine of them including Robbie Threlfall they were brought in on loan.

Turner tried the same policy the season after with less success. The team that finished the previous season third and included the likes of Theo Robinson who now impresses for Huddersfield Town and Peterborough’s Toumani Diagouraga ended up bottom of League One with seventeen loanees coming and going in the season including once again Threlfall and former Bantam and, erm, “team mate” of Mark McCammon Moses Ashikodi.

Not that one should dismiss Turner’s methods for taking a team from the non-league to the division above City but the whole story of the rise and fall of Hereford United in the last three years is illustrative of the perils of building teams of loan players. Any progress made is done so on foundations of sand. The players brought in that brought success one year are gone the next and the manager is left scrabbling to find players of a similar or higher quality.

Loan players are a fact of life in all the leagues of English football outside of the Premiership and the odd additional face can help a club, get the mix wrong and the team is full of players who have an eye on the way back to their parent clubs. It is a mix that more often fails than succeeds, but it does sometimes succeed as Hereford prove.

Peter Taylor’s approach to loanees underlines his abilities as a manager. He has brought a half dozen new faces to the squad but few of them have gone straight into the team. Gavin Grant has not been put in over Omar Daley, Mark McCammon has not gone in over James Hanson, Luke Oliver had to bide his time rather than being put in over Steve Williams.

As with his retention of Wayne Jacobs and his keenness to sign Peter Thorne up as a coach Taylor values stability and knows how to maintain and maximise it.

The Bantams are in exceptional form having taken twelve points in the seven games Peter Taylor has managed (two home, five away) and now are looking up the table to climb towards a play off target that most think is unreachable. Other aspirations have been established: to finish in a higher place than last season, to end with a positive goal difference, to maintain a two points a game average over the next two months.

The Bantams continue with Matt Glennon in goal although Simon Ramsden will miss the game injured at right back so Jonathan Bateson is expected to fill in. Luke Oliver and Matthew Clarke continue in central defence and Robbie Threlfall stays at left back behind Luke O’Brien who is on the left flank.

Lee Bullock and Adam Bolder are building a partnership in the middle with both given a ball winning remit while Omar Daley may make the right hand side despite an injury last weekend. Should Omar fail a fitness test Gareth Evans may return or Gavin Grant could be given a chance to make his first start for the Bantams.

New face Ryan Kendall will probably start on the bench with Michael Flynn continuing up front alongside James Hanson.

Hereford’s aims are to stay in the division which – thanks to Grimsby Town’s continued inability to make a fist of staying in the league – seems likely to be achieved. The Bulls are looking to put a wretched year behind them and come back stronger next season.

They may do, they have before..

The saddest of endings

Stuart McCall’s farewell lap around Valley Parade applauding supporters was a heartbreaking sight – but it was also a beautiful moment.

His actions at the end of the 1-0 defeat to Bury said everything that is fantastic about the City legend. He knew the game was up and that, whether on Monday it will be announced he has resigned, left by mutual consent or been given the sack, it was no longer up to him whether he could stay. But there was no quick retreat down the touchline; he showed typical courage and respect in going out to applaud his supporters.

And the reaction back was equally fitting. Sure there’d be typical murmurings of discontent about McCall during the match and many had exited the stadium before the final whistle, but this was a time for  putting aside misgivings and showing appreciation for the man, the legend, who will ultimately always retain the respect and adulation of City fans.

It was the saddest of farewells, handled with the greatest of dignity.

There’s been a fear among many of those fans who’d been demanding a change that, if action wasn’t taken swiftly, McCall might be subject of the sort of unpleasant abuse other managers have received in the past. No one wanted it end ugly, and it sums up the bond between McCall and supporters that the parting of ways is as amicable as can be. I was close to tears as I applauded McCall’s farewell lap, and I have so much respect to him for taking the time to do it.

Once the farewell had been competed, Bury manager Alan Knill walked over to McCall and hugged him. He was humble in victory, as is easier to be, admitting that, just like at Gigg Lane a fortnight earlier, the Bantams were unfortunate to lose. Undoubtedly City, who hurled everything including the kitchen sink at the visitors during the closing stages, deserved to take something from the game.

Yet I don’t agree that City – and McCall – had been unlucky to lose this time. I was disappointed with McCall’s formation and tactics. And though I wanted him to remain as manager, there is something troubling about the evidence presented in front of us over the lack of progress this season.

Even before kick off, City seemed to have a whiff of desperation about their approach. Playing 4-3-3 is not new this season – the merits or otherwise having been debated on this site only a day earlier – but 4-3-3 with James Hanson, Gareth Evans AND Michael Boulding? Three up front worked earlier in the season due to those employed to take the two wide slots of the front three – Evans and Neilson – been able to play out wide. But Boulding and Hanson are largely better through the middle and leaving Omar Daley in the middle three meant the balance to the team wasn’t right and the style of football suffered.

It reminded me of then-Shrewsbury manager Gary Peter two years ago, realising the season wasn’t going to plan – and therefore his own future was in doubt – and just deciding to “go for it” every match. He picked a team at Valley Parade full of attacking intent, but City tore into them with two of the four goals coming on the counter attack. Peters was shortly afterwards sacked.

Playing 4-3-3 like City did yesterday suggested a lack of confidence in the players. Even in a must-win game, McCall and City needed to show patience and have a greater game plan than just going for it. It was a contrast to the visit of Bury last season, where a more measured and composed approach eventually brought a late Bantams winner.

At the back at least, recent defensive problems were partly addressed with Simon Ramsden moving from right back to centre back alongside Matt Clarke – and the pair put in as outstanding and assured defensive displays since David Wetherall and Damion Stewart dominated at the back in 2006. Luke O’Brien had a tough afternoon, but characteristically stuck to the task.

However the decision to play Zesh Rehman  at right back was curious and ultimately flawed. Zesh is a good player, but has not had a good season and there’s frustration and even unfair suspicion over why McCall is seemingly unwilling to leave him out. At right back, Rehman kept losing his man and unnecessarily diving in for challenges when he just needed to stand up and block the path to goal – often leaving him on the floor and out the game, while the winger charged on.

Rehman played at right back towards the end of last season with limited success, but that was due to some disappointing performances from Paul Arnison. As well as Ramsden, City have the able Jonathan Bateson as a natural right back who gets forward well, and he should have been included instead.

City nevertheless competed well and were unlucky to go behind, but then the desperation was too strong again. On a difficult pitch and with Hanson competing well, playing a more direct style of football had been tolerated if not approved. Yet with 25 minutes to play Daley was withdrawn for Peter Thorne, and we had the sight of four City strikers and just two midfielders. As intentions go it was clear there would be no passing and running down the flanks, but that the back four would simply be charged with launching it forwards.

This long ball football would be understandable with 10 minutes to go, but with over a quarter of the game still to play it was premature panic. Thorne added a much needed touch of class up front and his link up play saw the ball begin to stick in the final third, but for a period it seemed as though the players had lost heart, couldn’t find a way back and were at a loss of what to do next. Heavy pressure belatedly commenced in the final stages, but the team set up suggested the manager didn’t believe his players could come back by playing football.

It was perhaps the ultimate of ironies. That a manager who made his name as a player for his combative and inspirational skills in the middle of the park, had resorted to abandoning having a midfield in order to save his job.

And yes the argument goes that on chances, possession and territorial advantage, City did not deserve to lose. There’s an argument that the referee should have awarded a penalty and sent Bury’s Afe Sodje off. There’s an argument Bury didn’t look anything special. But ultimately the difference between the sides was the composure and organisation of the visitors and the fluster and anxiousness of City.

I don’t believe this is typical of McCall’s reign, but perhaps why we’re now saying goodbye to the City manager is because it is typical of McCall’s reign when things are going wrong. In his first season there was the autumn collapse of form that saw eight winless games and promotion hopes up in smoke. Last season the collapse came at the end of the season, lasting nine games, and this season’s recent run of poor form since December has been strikingly familiar.

At these difficult points we see too much indecision in the team selection and tactics. We see what initially seems a couple of set backs become a crisis of confidence. We see a slow and stuttered speed to the recovery. We see a manager trying to put a brave face on matters, but taking the setbacks too much to heart instead of instilling confidence into others. We see a football club quickly dropping down the league table.

Ultimately, as Stuart has acknowledged repeatedly in recent weeks, it’s a results business. No matter how much we supporters want him to be a success, the results simply haven’t been there. It is incredibly disappointing that it has come to this and it will take some time for many of us to fully recover and be enthused with City and football again, but if there’s a consolation it is that it has ended more painlessly than it might have.

Indeed the tone of McCall when speaking on the radio after the defeat was almost that of a relieved man. Acknowledging the circumstances of the game been so typical of the season to date, he even allowed himself a chuckle about his own misfortune. He seemed remarkably relaxed – but sad – and perhaps that was because the pressure could now be released off his shoulders. On the BBC One’s Football League Show last night, he even texted in to thank supporters again and to apologise he couldn’t have done a better job.

The special bond he has with the club and supporters remains in tact, and while for many that would always be the case the memories are at least not going to be added to by the sight of ‘McCall out’ chanting and the visible type of abuse which many of his Valley Parade dugout predecessors have endured.  It still sickens me that, after a 1-0 defeat to Doncaster in 2006, then-manager Colin Todd found his car had been attacked by City fans – I can’t imagine how I’d feel if such acts of horror had been inflicted upon McCall.

Nine months before that boxing day incident, I’d written an article for this site about why I didn’t want McCall (or Peter Beagrie) to become our next manager. My reasons were that I feared the souring of the special bond we supporters have with McCall, and that it would end with the usual suspects reigning down the boos.

A year later and, with the club in dire straits, I was prepared to abandon those fears and believe McCall’s installation as manager could have the romantic ending we all felt it would. As he prepares to clear his desk on Monday I feel devastated it was not worked out, I remain unconvinced it is the right move to part ways now, but I’m also happy that is ending relatively agreeably.

The City legend has given so much to this club across four decades, his lap of farewell at Valley Parade yesterday was yet another unforgettable Stuart memory.

Searching for an end to uncertainty as Bradford City travel to Torquay United

After a week in which it had been widely expected Stuart McCall would be given the sack, Bradford City travel deepest South with the immediate future continuing to be clouded by doubt.

The City manager remains; but should the Bantams return from the 600-mile round trip to Torquay pointless, it will surely spell the end. Then again it seemed as though defeat to Lincoln would trigger McCall’s dismissal, and before that the loss to Bury, and before that the draw at home to Cheltenham.

Uncertainty prevails. Visits to the Bantams’ official website have become more regular and tense – such is the expectation of been greeted by a statement announcing McCall has gone. Message board rumours emanated by someone who “knows someone who works at the club, his sacking will be announced tomorrow” become more regular and take added credence. A few times earlier this week, the sound of a text message  arriving has left me wondering if it’s someone letting me know he’s gone. Whether we want a managerial change or not, we’re all waiting for what seems like the inevitable – but it remains all quiet.

The silence, from the boardroom, is deafening. We’ve been in this situation four years ago with Colin Todd – who’s then-unpopularity still far exceeds the growing levels of discontent towards McCall – where growing pressure to make a change was met with no public comment from the club.

It’s clear that Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes can’t really win if they say something now – as any statement would increase the pressure on McCall regardless of what it contained, even public support would be dubbed the “dreaded vote of confidence”.  Yet the lack of comment can also be viewed as a lack of leadership and, with the local media typically falling in line, City supporters remain completely in the dark about the future of the manager.

A defeat on Saturday and it all starts over again. The continued checking of the website, the message board rumours, the bleep bleep of the phone. Perhaps this time it really would be it, but then perhaps McCall will be in the dugout at Valley Parade at least one more time, with Bury at home next. We can say with confidence that Torquay away is a must-win game for City’s already unlikely promotion hopes, but we have little idea if Torquay away is a must-win game for McCall.

Yet the significance of the result at Plainmoor cannot be understated. This week McCall has talked more than once about the importance of winning, no matter how it’s achieved, and the long-awaited delivery of three points would be the perfect tonic for the January blues afflicting everyone connected with City.

A midweek of inaction might have seen the Bantams slip as low as 19th, but instead results elsewhere left the club firmly stuck in 16th. City make their furthest away trip of the campaign with the play offs the longest distance away they’ve been all season, but the 10-point gap isn’t unbridgeable if a revival can begin quickly.

Who will be charged with beginning such an upturn is less clear, after McCall spoke earlier this week about rooting out the faint-hearted and dropping players who couldn’t handle the pressure. If the early substitutions made at Sincil Bank are any indication, that may include Zesh Rehman. The City captain has endured a tough season and may have only retained his place in recent weeks due to the raft of suspensions involving his defensive colleagues. He was badly at fault for both Lincoln goals, in almost exactly the same manner, and, though his half time replacement Steve Williams also looked a bit unsteady, the former hairdresser may take Rehman’s place.

Matt Clarke, left on the sidelines for much of the season, had a very strong second half at Lincoln and is arguably the most in-form of the three natural centre backs. The standout central defensive performance of the season to me remains Simon Ramsden in the JPT at Rochdale, and McCall may consider switching him into the middle and continue playing the promising Jonathan Bateson – subbed at half time too against Lincoln, but more than likely for tactical reasons – at right back. The only certain starter of the back four at Plainmoor will be Luke O’Brien. Matt Glennon keeps goal.

In midfield Omar Daley impressed against Bury and Lincoln and is becoming more effective with each returning game. The Jamaican was used on the right at Sincil Bank, and Chris Brandon may be moved to a more orthodox left wing position to provide balance after a somewhat disastrous first half at Lincoln in the free role. Brandon’s failure to make an impact was the fault of others as much as his, but the slight upwards curve in recent form needs to continue for him to sustain what for him is a regular run in the starting eleven. Scott Neilson is also in contention against opposition he made his City debut against last August.

Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn should take the central midfield spots with Steve O’Leary finally nearing full fitness and expected to be ready to provide competition from the bench. The usually-consistent Bullock was poor last week, while Flynn is struggling to hit the early-season heights. Former Leeds midfielder Bruno Riberio, now 34, has been linked with a move to Valley Parade, due to a long-standing friendship with goalkeeper coach Nigel Martyn.

Up front, Peter Thorne is surprisingly set for a place on the bench after scoring in his return to action for the reserves in midweek. With goals drying up of late, City are desperate for the sort of striking prowess Thorne possesses. Just remember his record at City – 69 starts 32 goals. How different might City’s season have so far been if they could have called upon Thorne more than a mere five times up to now.

Gareth Evans – who looked out-of-sorts at Lincoln and badly needs a rest – will partner Michael Boulding – who has shown decent recent form – in attack. James Hanson – his transfer fee finally agreed – is still injured.

Torquay’s return to the Football League may not be reaching the same heights as their Devon counterparts Exeter last season, but they are reasonably positioned to avoid relegation. Last week they blew a 2-0 home lead to Burton and ended up beaten. On Tuesday Barnet’s Paul Furlong netted for them to earn a 1-1 draw at Underhill. They’ve not won in five games, one less than City’s current dismal run.

Ideal opposition for City to get going again? Nothing is certain with the Bantams right now, although surely City’s winter of discontent and McCall’s reign as manager cannot both continue for much longer.

Can they?

Struggling to find more

How do you get more out of 100%? As Bradford City manager Stuart McCall observed his players running themselves into the ground while attempting to get the better of League Two early-pace setters Bournemouth this afternoon, that’s the conundrum which must have occupied his thoughts.

Injury-ravaged to the point a central defender had to play in midfield and a central midfielder was deployed up front, it was difficult to find fault with the level of effort his last men standing devoted to the pursuit of earning three points. Coaxing out a greater level of application and smartness already looks key for effort to be rewarded by success.

For as extreme as the injury list seems at the moment, such circumstances appear more likely to be later repeated than addressed by sizeable team strengthening in January. As the second half began to drift into a pattern of stalemate, a look behind his shoulder at the substitute options offered Stuart few solutions.

The danger of a reduced investment in the playing squad was always going to be a lack of strength in depth. Stuart is left with no choice but to fill his bench with youngsters who may not yet  be ready for first team responsibility and are even less likely to be ready to be trusted to deliver a desired level of influence on matches. The worry is those senior players giving 100% will be allowed to get away with dropping a few percentage points, while still keeping their place. Not only does Stuart face the challenge of getting more from 100%, he must ensure 100% remains the minimum.

For the opening 45 minutes at least, City got about the Cherries in a crafty manner which might well have brought greater rewards than Gareth Evans’ cancelling out Brett Pitman’s opener. The visitors were far removed from then-manager Jimmy Quinn’s defensive stranglehold tactics which had paved the way for a 3-1 success at Valley Parade last season, commendably passing the ball around in a confident manner which ran throughout the team. Eddie Howe’s side were comfortably the best team City have entertained this season, but their attempts to play a high defensive line encouraged the Bantams to find success from playing low through balls in behind it, which might have been punished more often but for some tight offside calls.

Michael Flynn – the midfielder deployed up front – was effective in holding up the ball and working space to thread passes in the path of forward runners, while Chris Brandon and Scott Neilson – playing more as orthodox wingers in the first half – showed a willingness to make runs from deep. Evans wasted the best opportunity when a through ball had been timed exactly right and he charged clear with plenty of time to weigh up his options. His attempt to shift the ball to his preferred left foot saw the angle closed down by Cherries’ keeper Shwan Jalal and the eventual shot was screwed well wide of the far post.

Four minutes later Zesh Rehman – the central defender playing in midfield – helped to gift Bournemouth the lead after his hesitancy in clearing a loose ball allowed Anton Robinson to be played through into space between Steve Williams and the recalled Matt Clarke. With just Eastwood to beat, the former non-league player laid the ball into Pitman’s path for an easy tap in.

There were angry complaints from home supporters, who claimed Pitman had been ahead of Robinson and the ball played forwards, thus making Pitman offside. Both referee and linesman missed any such infringement, and Pitman curiously ran off to gloat at City supporters in the Main Stand.

But if heads dropped, the 100% remained and Evans atoned for his earlier miss three minutes before half time after Lee Bullock’s perfect pass enabled him the time and space to round Jalal and run the ball into an empty net. It remains a troubling statistic that only once this season have City come from behind to win – Rochdale away in the JPT; but since Lincoln triumphed 2-0 at Valley Parade last August, only one side – Crewe – has managed to score first against the Bantams and maintain a lead for the full remainder of the game.

Though City dominated the half’s final minutes they were to enjoy less territorial advantage after the break as Howe re-organised his defence so they held a deeper backline. It was at that point the effects of so many injuries were starkly visible as City struggled to execute a game plan that would lead to meaningful control of the match. James Hanson’s injury had been kept quiet – one suspects the local media are starting to become frustrated by Stuart’s economical sharing of team news this season – and City’s top scorer was especially missed once the space for Evans, Brandon and Neilson to run onto through balls was no longer afforded.

City needed someone who could hold up the ball so other players could get forward and provide options, but despite best efforts this is less Evans’ game and certainly not Flynn’s. Neilson and Brandon were able to pick up the ball out wide, but were too isolated with attempts to dribble forward ineffective. Rehman – the defender playing in midfield – largely stayed deep alongside Bullock and Flynn – the midfielder deployed up front – was too high up the park to make his trademark surging forward runs.

City went narrower in midfield with Neilson pushed further forwards and Brandon encouraged to roam, but by then Bournemouth had reverted to playing on the break and the pace in their locker compromised how far full backs Luke O’Brien and Jonathan Bateson could support the attack. It meant the best efforts to play through or or over the Cherries defence went largely without reward.

Which is where more than 100% is needed. The craftiness to try different things, switch play more often and attack with more fluency was compromised by tiring minds and legs, and the options to freshen things up were limited. Other than James O’Brien’s curious non-involvement and the welcome sight of a recovering Simon Ramsden, Stuart had three youngsters with five career Football League starts between them as his subs bench.

One of them, Rory Boulding, replaced the injured Evans with five minutes to go and looked lively, but the inevitability of the stalemate had set in long before. Bournemouth had the better second half chances, although but for the occasional slip up both Williams and Clarke defended well. Bullock might have won the game for City in the closing stages after his header from a corner was superbly kept out by Jalal.

The result leaves City exactly where they were before kick off and exactly where they were five weeks ago – four points off the play offs. With another 30 league games to play it’s a reasonable position to be, particularly taking into account the woeful start. But that the last seven league games have returned just one win suggests more is needed in the tank to stay in touch with and ultimately climb amongst the front runners.

The returning injured players will add to what’s in that tank, but getting more than 100% from the players available is the puzzle which must be solved to avoid the busyness of the physio room determining the outcome of the season.

In no mood to speak as City go to Macclesfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stalling

At 2-0 ahead and with only 15 minutes to see out, Bradford City’s players might have been forgiven for considering the hard work to be complete and that their smooth climbing up of the gears to control the game boded well for the season’s journey ahead. But if the cruise control option was slipped into, a late Northampton bump punctured any daydreaming and saw three points demoted to one.

A point which at least stretches City’s unbeaten run to nine – the last time such a feat was achieved came when Lee Mills and Robbie Blake shared 15 goals during the December and January spell of 1998/99 promotion season – but the missed opportunity leaves an increasingly-meaningful early season League Table still displaying City behind the early-season pace setters. Those nine games now include four draws – three of which saw City advantages succumbed after the clock passed the 70-minute mark. But for dropping those six points, the Bantams would be sitting joint second. The conundrum of having enough in the tank to last the distance during matches needs solving, so early season form can advance into promotion-challenging.

It should have been a heartening afternoon’s work for City. Robbed of the services of Gareth Evans, James Hanson and Peter Thorne, manager Stuart McCall was left pushing square pegs into round holes in order to keep faith with the 4-3-3/4-5-1 system which is serving his side well on its travels.  Lee Bullock was moved into the unfamiliar role of target man, with right back Simon Ramsden taking his holding midfield slot.  The opening 15 minutes offered largely negative indications to the yet unanswered question over the squad’s strength in depth, with Northampton forcing pressure and only failing to open the scoring due to lack of composure. But gradually City’s players found their feet and took more of a command as a dull first half came to its conclusion.

Bullock in particular came out with plenty of credit for the level of competence he displayed in holding up the ball and winning knock downs. Of course it wasn’t the same as having Hanson’s extra running all over the final third and greater willingness to track back, but the discipline of holding position in a crucial area, which Bullock does so well in maintaining when undertaking his regular deep midfield role, was something other players could utilise, firing balls towards the part of the pitch they had confidence he would be in. Either side of him were Michael Boulding and Scott Neilsen who both worked hard tracking back and making darting runs down the  flanks. Boulding has arguably not contributed such a level of effort for the team during his previous 40 Bantams career starts.

Ramsden too looked solid protecting the back four and marked his return from injury by opening the scoring five minutes after the interval when his shot from the edge of the area was deflected over Cobbler’s keeper Chris Dunn’s outstretched hand.  The goal was part of a more purposeful start to the half by the visitors, which continued four minutes later after a free kick was aimed at Bullock to knock down into the path of Boulding, who brilliantly volleyed home. The subsequent celebrations seemed to involve every outfield City player and the obvious happiness they possessed towards Boulding for netting his first goal of the season suggests the strong team spirit on evidence in recent weeks stretches beyond the regular starting eleven. Boulding continued to play in a manner which makes it impossible for Stuart to drop him when others return – now he needs to maintain it.

Further goals might have followed for City, most notably when Boulding was denied a second by a superb low save from Dunn, after his view of the shot from a fair distance had been obscured until the last second. Northampton continued to show spirit, almost getting a goal back after the referee David Phillips bizarrely ruled a sliced clearance by Jonathan Bateson caught by Simon Eastwood was a handled backpass. Awarding Northampton an indirect on the six-yard box line, the 11-man City wall was able to scramble it away. Eastwood also made two brilliant saves to add to his growing collection of notable stops, but continues to look weak when dealing with crosses. Despite some questionable decisions by Phillips, the game was petering out.

Which is when cruise control may have been adopted and when Northampton unexpectedly came back, netting first through substitute Alex Dyer when his effort from the edge of the area flew past Eastwood; then equalising with a minute to play after a hotly disputed free kick was crossed into the box for the oddly-named John Johnson to fire home. As City’s players came over to applaud supporters at the final whistle, the looks of dejection were clear.

A lesson of sorts had been issued to the players. The incredible level of hard work and dedication they exhibit is something which must be maintained throughout because, as Northampton proved, there are other teams who can muster similar levels of determination to challenge them back. And though Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams, Luke O’Brien and Bateson all enjoyed outstanding games at the back and Michael Flynn was as inspirational as ever, the spine of City’s team still needs to get stronger in order for these nine unbeaten games to prove the start, rather than the peak, of something.

Achieve that and City really can put the foot down and accelerate into the distance.

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