Bradford City, Brentford away and conformational bias

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.

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

Belief is a funny thing.

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

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

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

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

That is belief in football.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chesterfield visit Bradford City in curious expectations

Oldham Athletic at the end of last season made a decision. It was a decision that some would have had City make and they made it in a similar situation. Morale was bad in the squad and the promotion bid faltered so they sacked the manager and the rest is history.

Well, not that historic really. Joe Royle took Oldham to nowhere – he was replaced by Dave Penny who seems to be doing the same at the end of the season – which is, in the scheme of things, where City finished. John Sheridan – fired from Oldham – ended up at Chesterfield and brings his team to Valley Parade performing – well – about as well as Stuart McCall’s Bradford City.

All of which is to reopen such a debate but just to underline that things do not turn out the way many might hope for or expect.

Few better examples than this could be seen than the career of Graeme Lee since City’s last game with Chesterfield on the final day of last season which was the Bantam’s skipper’s last game for the club. Lee went to Notts County, got injured, got replaced by Sol Campbell who cameoed and left after a single game and now looks to come back into the side. Should either team win on Saturday and the beleaguered County lose at home to Port Vale then they would climb above the Sven Men.

So things do not work out how one might expect and the six game without a defeat run the Bantams are on was not expected after the early season encounter with with County.

The run is typified by the effort put in by strike partnership James Hanson and Gareth Evans who continue to work tirelessly keeping Michael Boulding on the bench and scoring with an impressive frequency. The energy but in up front is mirrored by the hard work of the main midfield two of Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock who are expected to be partnered with James O’Brien although McCall has used Chris Brandon in home games.

Scott Neilson is expected to continue on the right with Jon Bateson behind him replacing the injured Simon Ramsden while Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams continue in the middle. Luke O’Brien is left back and Simon Eastwood plays in goal.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new season is here.

Where we will feel the pain as the cost cut squad is shaped

Seventy minutes into the friendly with Barnsley looking over the City side the shape of the squad for next season post £700,000 cost cut emerged and with it the nature of the squad and season.

Around the field City had replaced first teamers with younger players and Luke Sharry was making a case for being considered a central midfielder rather than a wide man to be back up to Lee Bullock when the thinness of the squad to come became apparent.

Not that you would see this from looking at the front players. Massive kudos to Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne who have both taken pay cuts to stay and form part of a four man team up front with Gareth Evans and James Hanson.

I confess I miss Barry Conlon’s robust style and the idea that Willy Topp might have been good but individually James Hanson and Gareth Evans offer no less than Topp and Conlon – well – is Hanson puts in the energy that Conlon did as his pre-season performances suggest he might then their is no reason why he can not be equally well thought of (assuming one thought well of Conlon that is).

Likewise out wide Joe Colbeck this season is no worse than Joe Colbeck last when he came into the year as a well thought of player of the season aside from the fact that the wide man is on week to week contracts and has had a half year of “atmosphere” at Valley Parade. Colbeck, like Chris Brandon, is an able footballer and Omar Daley (unloved, again, but his importance was shown in his absence) create a threesome of players who should be at the top of the division but starting with one injured City are already down to bare bones and hoping for the impressiveness of young players.

Luke Sharry – as mentioned – could be great back up for Lee Bullock and could be the player he hints at being in reserve games but hoping that Sharry can perform is not the same as dropping in Nicky Law Jnr to cover an injury. At one point last season we had six midfielders out (Colbeck, Daley, Bullock, Furman, McLaren and Brandon) and put together a team that beat MK Dons whereas this season it would be hard to see us being able to withstand such losses.

The hit of cutting costs is felt not as much in the quality of the squad but the strength of it. Good players but one worries if we got injuries and – two seasons in League Two tell us we will get injuries.

Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Matthew Clarke are covered by Simon Ramsden who is covered at right back by Jonathan Bateson. Luke O’Brien faces competition at left back from Louis Horne but both are young players and we are hoping both will transfer potential – to greater and lesser extents – into performances. Good players, little back up.

The signing of Simon Eastwood came with confirmation that he and Jon McLaughlin will be given the chance to fight over the gloves at Notts County and for the first half of the season.

Two inexperienced keepers is worrying – I have seen few good teams without a settled goalkeeper – as is the gap at number four.

City are closer to finding someone to fill the hole only in seeming to have decided that Grant Smith, Joe Keehan and a few others are not “the man”. Last season Dean Furman only signed at the end of August and perhaps in a month we might all be marvelling at John Fleck running riot in midfield.

Perhaps not though. This morning comes news of a bidding war for Leeds United’s Fabian Delph between Spurs and Aston Villa which City would take 12.5% of and as last season’s other big money side Shrewsbury Town sell Grant Holt at a £100,000 loss while Joe Hart – who they get £500,000 for should he play a full England game – so City are in a position of trimming the cloth today but perhaps being affluent tomorrow. Sign up a rookie keeper now and it we are in the top half at Christmas and find ourselves well off go get someone else perhaps.

Last season was budgeted as promotion or Delph leaving – this season it is assumed (sensibly) that neither will occur and the cloth is cut accordingly. Delph may stay until Christmas, until next summer, until he retires and City do well to not push out boats on the strength of his transfer status.

Nevertheless it is probable that at some point City will have over half a million coming in to the club and perhaps the season is shaped by staying in and around contention for as long as possible until that occurs. Should Delph leave at Christmas then the Bantams could move through the league in the last four months just as we did last year – only in the other direction. Similarly is we get that windfall on the last day of the Summer transfer window we are left with a squad and money hanging over us Notts County style for months.

There is a school of thought – which I subscribe to – that money in League Two is largely wasted and the teams rise and fall through spirit and morale.

That and keeping fingers crossed than injuries do not hit as hard this year as last.

Back to football as City take on Barnsley

The season, or should that be the open season, started early this year with Stuart McCall and Mark Lawn facing City fans in a forum leaving them happy on the way out but foaming at the mouth when typing.

It was one of those weeks where one is happy to get to the football as we do with the pre-season visit of Barnsley on Saturday.

City face the South Yorkshiremen in good pre-season form with the XI loss to Manchester City being largely forgotten about and McCall is able to further shape a squad that tellingly is numbered for the season but lacks a 1 and a 4.

Andy Holdsworth was to be that four before he jumped on the midfielder pile at Oldham. Some say that as a decent ball player with League One experience Holdsworth should have had the boat pushed out for him – the HMS Infinite Money one assumes – because he was obviously the missing piece in the puzzle.

These people have heard of Paul McLaren and, one assumes, know the concept of irony but these two things do not link.

Holdsworth joins Joe Keehan in exiting with the tanned man not making the grade and going home. Jordan Hadfield and Grant Smith have much work to do before being considered the man for the four but one recalls how Dean Furman did not sign for the club until August and wonders if similar might be in the works.

Hadfield, Smith and Estonian Jevgeni Novikov will have a run about alongside Lee Bullock for City against the Tykes. Joe Colbeck gears up down one flank, Chris Brandon the other although Rory Boulding and Luke Sharry will get runs out.

Behind Colbeck will not be Paul Arnison who formally ended his Bantams career as his contract was cancelled by mutual consent. Arnison and Mark Bower look set to join Darlington and while any miss Bower – I believe that that as good as a player as he is the team needed Matthew Clarke in it in League Two – we will miss Arni who was never massively popular.

As a full back I liked Arnison. He supported his winger going forward better than almost any right back player since Brian Mitchell left the club in the early 1990s which I thought made up for his failings at the back which saw him often too advanced but tellingly played in the City sides that performed well last season. Judging his performances on the field I would say that McCall made a mistake letting him go but the rumours dogging the North Easterner are that he is not a good character to have around the dressing room and so he exits.

Simon Ramsden takes the number two shirt from him and will – with Jonathan Bateson backing up – play alongside the pairing of (Perm two from) Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Matthew Clarke. Luke O’Brien and Louis Horne are the left backs and both will feature.

The number one shirt is up for grabs. Jon McLaughlin may take the gloves but with McCall stating his desire to bring in a loan keeper City might have a new man signed to play between the sticks by the time the teams run out on Saturday.

At the other end of the field James Hanson celebrates his professional contract he signed this week and is looking to continue his good form. Gareth Evans, Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding complete what looks to be a stronger striking line up than last season.

City kick off the season in two weeks – Sven is waiting – and already the season long debate over management has started. The best answers for all are victories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolution meets revolution when Burnley arrive at Valley Parade

Before the start of last season when a should have been ten men Burnley squeezed a last minute pre-season win once City has brought the kids on few would have predicted that in twelve months time the length of professional football would separate the clubs.

Nevertheless Burnley took that scrapping spirit, one supposes, into all their games last year and ended up winning the play off final. One would rather they were in the top flight over Reading so more power to their elbow. There Premier League is a maelstrom and change becomes revolution fast. Two years in the top flight changed Bradford City forever and tomorrow marks the end of that old Burnley.

In contrast City rumble onward after last season’s late collapse put pay to all that justified early season promise and arriving into this season are blessed with the stability of not having replaced manager Stuart McCall at the end of last.

McCall has enjoyed the near unheard-of luxury for a City boss of being able to continue crafting his squad as a work in evolution rather than the club throwing all away and starting again and as such will only be in a stronger position this year than last, and than a manager who would have replaced McCall would have been in.

Such is the virtue of stability – not to be confused with indolence – which allows for the exit of Graeme Lee for financial reasons and his replacement by an already bedded in Zesh Rehman. Rehman plays his first game full time for City and his reaction to the element of the Burnley support who shamed their club last year may give an indication for his readiness for the available captain’s arm band.

Lee was joined in exit by Paul McLaren although Michael Boulding talks of reducing his wage to allow him to stay and Chris Brandon, the last of the expensives, is training for his first season proper for the club he supports so should need no encouragement to provide good value, value being the lesson learnt from last season. Value and the need for harmony.

A lack of harmony seems to have cost Paul Arnison his his career at Valley Parade and Simon Ramsden and Jon Bateman both joined the club in the summer and can play right back. Luke O’Brien was the left back slot to himself while Rehman and Mathew Clarke seem to be the choice for the middle two but with only Simon Ainge at senior level as back up another body is needed.

A body is needed beween the posts too. Rhys Evans was moved on quickly at the end of last term and Jon McLaughlan is off saving penalties for Great Britain. It will be interesting to see who pulls on the gloves tomorrow.

Up front Peter Thorne returns but may not play, none of us are getting any younger, however M. Boulding and new boy Gareth Evans along with Rory Boulding will show their faces expect “that lad from the reserves” to play, scuff in a goal and not be shut up about for months.

Last season that oar was Luke Sharry who looked like an able midfielder and is, in my mind at least, worth putting in the squad as back up to Lee Bullock following the fruitless and pointless chase for Nicky Law Jnr.

The chase for Dean Furman was equally fruitless but much more required. Oldham signed him leaving City looking Jordan Hadfield, who looked up for a scrap when he played at Valley Parade, to try fill empty boots. We can but hope. Three of last season’s five central midfielders have gone and with one of them, Brandon, half out the door and needed to replace the still injured Omar Daley on the left it is not hard to see where City need to strengthen.

Joe Colbeck looks for a better season on the right with Daley injured and Steve Jones, last season’s sometimes effective winger back At Burnley after his loan giving him a free run at the side.

Expect that, a few kids, a pile of people you don’t know on trial and a lot of huffing and puffing that tries to extrapolate the most random ninety minutes over the next ten months.

Time for pre-season optomism?

There are times during the season where it’s neigh on impossible to get some City fans to say anything positive – but the prevailing mood amongst many so far this summer has been as dark as any last-gasp home defeat.

Some have gone as far as to believe the club faces a grim relegation battle next season, others can’t hide their envy towards clubs we were once able to look down our noses on. Within the last week though, it seems the new season is increasingly something to feel excited about. The fixtures are out, the majority of players we wanted to keep have agreed to stay and Zesh Rehman and Gareth Evans have joined Simon Ramsden and Jonathan Bateson on the ‘Players In’ list. It poses the question, is it time for pre-season optimism?

Those supporters who’ve taken a glass half empty look towards the future can fairly argue they are only following the club’s lead. At the end of last season, a gloomy picture of the playing budget for the next emerged. Manager Stuart McCall has consistently spoken of players needing to take wage cuts and played down the chances of capturing some of his transfer targets. Meanwhile the joint-Chairmen, Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn, have only been noticeable by their silence. No proclamations of targeting back-to-back promotions, no news of novel initiatives such as Lawn’s trip to Mexico last summer.

Undoubtedly, the uninspiring messages have been deliberate. Expectations over the past two seasons – much of which triggered by management and boardroom – have proved too high for the players to cope with. The feeling was that City had to get promoted in each of the last two seasons, but the much lower level of hype this time around may be about reducing the pressures of failure. The ambition is surely the same as the last two seasons, but the confidence in achieving it third time around is guarded against making public declarations.

Meanwhile some other clubs are spending significant money or at least talking about it. Rotherham have seemingly changed overnight from a club who end each season with an asterisk next to its name in the league table, due to points deductions, to big spenders. The seemingly terminally under-performing Notts County are set to acquire Middle East backers who are talking of lifting the club to the Championship within five years. That City and Shrewsbury began last season in similar positions of apparent affluence compared to others but still failed is forgotten by those who believe City can’t compete. But if a smaller budget rules a club out of triumphing over others, how on earth are Exeter City kicking off a League One campaign at Elland Road in a few weeks time?

Much of City’s finances depend on the future of the so-called ‘Big 4’ – Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee, Michael Boulding and Chris Brandon – who arrived last summer to widespread excitement. Their continuing employment is said to have severe repercussions over who else can be brought in alongside them, leaving McLaren, Lee and Boulding encouraged to take up their release clauses and Brandon free to talk to other clubs despite having another year left on his contract. Had any of these players not managed to disappoint last season, it would have been interesting to see how much their high wages really are an issue.

It’s not just getting them to move on that’s caused unrest among fans, but that plans to bring in new faces have apparently had to be delayed until their futures are determined. A couple of weeks ago Nicky Law’s decision to spurn City for Rotherham was seen as the fault of these players, by compromising Stuart’s ability to match the Millers’ offer. The arrival of Gareth Evans, who has turned down other offers, contradicts this and suggests City do still have the resources to compete.

That said it’s far from ideal that Stuart is trying to build his team for next season while not knowing if some of the positions are filled. It’s claimed Lee and McLaren are attracting interest from other clubs but, given the wage budget-cutting measures at City are far from unique in the bottom two tiers of English football, it s improbable all four will receive attractive offers to move onto pastures new. Will they be prepared to take a pay cut and stay? It seems unlikely and, while footballers can largely be tainted with the same brush of money-grabbers, it’s doubtful we supporters would volunteer to take a pay cut in our own employment and these players won’t find it that much easier to pay the bills than most of us do.

Of the four, Boulding and Brandon’s continuing presence in Claret and Amber next season would be the most popular – yet even if they all stayed it might not be the disaster some fear. We’ve seen plenty of players over the years disappoint during their first season but become well-liked players in time – Peter Beagrie and Claus Jorgenson spring to mind – and, given their previous careers, if they were joining us this summer as new signings we’d probably be excited to welcome them.

At least the futures of the rest of the wanted squad members have been largely sorted. For a club which ultimately only narrowly missed out on a play off place and can largely thank a dodgy run of form for undermining a top three challenge, tearing everything up and starting again makes no sense. With Omar Daley not expected back much sooner than Santa, Joe Colbeck’s role will be more significant. Despite suffering a disappointing campaign, only five League Two players set up more goals for their team last season. Lee Bullock and Matt Clarke get more stick than they deserve, and will hope to maintain their best form for longer periods next term. They may be at different ends of their careers, but Luke O’Brien and Peter Thorne were two of City’s best performers next season and can once again play a key role this time.

One player we won’t be welcoming back is the aforementioned Nicky Law who, along with fellow loanee Dean Furman, was one of the bright spots of an ultimately disappointing season. When on form Law looked too good for League Two level and, if not City, his next destination was surely at a higher level. Instead he’ll be plying his trade at Rotherham and, while the son of the former City manager might claim he doesn’t owe the club he was on loan to any loyalty, the fact it wasn’t long ago he was thanking its manager for saving his career leaves a bad taste. Still, his previous relative obscurity should give us confidence in Stuart’s ability to unearth more gems like him.

Whether there are many more like Furman is another matter. Said to have been offered a deal by Stuart, his acceptance or rejection may determine the level of pre-season optimism. If it proves to be the latter decision, it will surely be due to the offer to play at a higher level, which in its own way may make the pain easier to bear compared to Law’s defection. Whatever happens, the success of Law and Furman should give other clubs’ more talented younger players the encouragement to follow in their footsteps if offered the chance to move to BD8 on loan.

Furman signing would leave City’s central midfield looking strong, though there are still other areas of the team for Stuart to build. More faces will arrive, the pre-season friendlies will commence in three weeks time and pretty soon it will be time to head down to Nottingham for the season’s start. Between now and then, the excitement should only grow.

The reality of the last two campaign is we’ve felt better about our team when they’ve not been playing, through the summer, than during the season itself. Pre-season optimism can be dangerous, foolish and, when looking at the mood among other clubs, too wide-ranging to have any meaning; but during these long summer days it’s all we’ve got and it would be preferable to countdown to the start of another 10 months of ups and downs by at least looking forward to it.

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