Colchester United and the Crawley Brawl

As far as match reports go few are more erudite than Damien Wilkinson’s comment on Bradford City’s 2-0 defeat in Essex at Colechester United.

Colchester will probably have harder training sessions than that.

The names may have changed but the problems remain for Bradford City. A goalkeeper making a mistake, a team playing without character, a ninety minutes where there were not enough threats to the opposition goal. A replay of Saturday but one could pick a dozen games since City returned to League One where the same could be said.

It has become manager Phil Parkinson’s nadir. The manager who builds teams – including one at Layer Road at the start of his career – based on players who will play for each other turning out teams who do not play for each other.

Original sin

Brad Jones – signed with fanfare – may step down as goalkeeper for the weekend trip to Rochdale after his mistake led to Colchester’s first goal.

Jones’ mistake does nothing for Ben Williams’ ability to control the space between where he can reach and where he positions his central defenders which is more Williams’ problem than his occasional mistake. Goalkeeper – more than any other position on the field – is a judgement made and stuck to. It is worrying that Parkinson believes in a fluidity between his custodians.

Worrying but not unprecedented. The City manager moved between Matt Duke and Jon McLaughlin when they were sharing goalkeeping responsibilities. Only Jordan Pickford – probably as a product of his loan arrangement – has been cemented into the City goal.

Street fighting man

McLaughlin’s exit plays heavy on the mind.

In Jon McLaughlin – who is keeping goal for League One leaders Burton Albion – City had a keeper who some still recall as making more than his fair share of mistakes but was vocal enough and improving to a point where he holds down a spot in the team at the top of City’s division.

McLaughlin’s play aside when considering the character problem in the team which City put out I cannot help but recall the sight of the City goalkeeper sprinting fifty yards to punch Crawley Town players after they had started to fight with City, and City’s Andrew Davies.

And while I’m not suggesting that there is a nobility in scrapping on the field I think back to The Crawley Brawl as a galvanising point for that City team.

I cannot – with all my powers of imagination – see many of the current City squad prepared to do what McLaughlin did that night. I cannot picture Williams or Jones or many of the current team sprinting fifty yards to stick up for their team mates in a fight.

Character study

As City warmed up against Colchester United Radio Five Live hosted a debate where they bemoaned the lack of leadership within the current Arsenal team. Arsene Wenger stood accused of inheriting leaders like Tony Adams and not being able to create anyone to replace them once they had passed into memory.

Journalist Henry Winter suggested that Wenger’s problems were the problems of all football. That in an era of squad players who understand that they will not be in the side every game, and in the era of increased player movement between clubs that can see someone like Mikeal Arteta leave Everton for Arsenal having seemingly become a part of the Goodison Park furniture, that the sort of leadership and character of a Tony Adams was not appropriate.

Expanding on Winter’s hypothesis would seem that managers have pursued players who can be used sparingly, and who understand that they are not essential to a team and can be rotated out, and so they do not grow the characteristics of the ever-present leader.

League One football is not Arsenal’s concern but the hypothesis may hold true.

It is hard to have players who could be described as leaders when those players after often at clubs over relatively short terms. Not every player had it in them to concern themselves with the general performance. Most look after their own game and – if you are lucky – that of the player next to them in a partnership.

Leadership – the type that promotes character in the team – seems an increasingly rare commodity and one which is not suited to being rotate or traded. For a player who has arrived on a two year deal as most do the point in which he starts to grow into a role at the club seems to be the point where the club start to look beyond him.

Take – as an example – Lee Bullock who in 2010 was the player’s player of the year but having spent eighteen months at VP. He signed a new contract that summer but changes of manager and focus saw Bullock play less and move on. While not wanting to comment on Bullock’s skills as a player it seems uncontroversial to suggest that no sooner had Bullock settled in then he was being marginalised in the number of games he played, and ultimately in his position at the club.

With players coming and going in this way it it hard to imagine how a player will establish themselves as leaders in the group of players to have the effect on the field we talk about. After six months you know everyone’s name, after eighteen months you might have everyone’s respect, but if you are marginalised after that how do you lead?

It has always been thus.

Stuart McCall was made, not bought, and both Andrew Davies and Gary Jones who also typified the trait were rehabilitated having started their role at the club as curios and ended them as key men.

Parkinson needs to grow leadership from within the squad – and perhaps allow the squad to promote their own leader – and that is a process which takes time if it happens at all.

Right now we are waiting for that before the club can progress.

A side note, for the foolish only

There is no question of another manager being best suited to carry out that process.

Perish that thought.

History

Until leadership emerges within the squad City are subject to defeats and bad performances as befits any team. Two defeats – marked out because of their lifeless performances – are set in the context of a season which is in turn set in the wider context of the club’s history.

Just like the display against Gillingham in September 2001 – a 5-1 win which represents the best I’ve ever seen City play in a season which had little else of skill – the highs and lows are modulated to fit in with the overall view of the season.

The good are forgotten in bad seasons. The bad in good ones.

Much of what came before the Crawley Brawl is not remembered now. The brawl itself though – the way the squad stood literally shoulder to shoulder in the fight – seemed to jump start the team spirit of 2013 and beyond.

Colchester United 2-0 away will sink into that context too, providing Phil Parkinson can find another way to galvanise Bradford City, to create team spirit where there is none, and to enable the team to create its own leaders and character.

The thrashing by Bristol City that taught us what we already knew

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Gary MacKenzie, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott, Mark Yeates | James Hanson, Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, Tony McMahon, Christopher Routis

The emotion

“Eight One.

Eight Bloody One!

Eight One To Brighouse. They are a team of old aged pensioners! The centre forward wears glasses. During the match!”

Eight goals! Four of them from back passes to the goalkeeper!

They were the worst.”

Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns

The substance

If the one goal defeat at Gillingham did not finalise Bradford City’s inability to make the League One play offs in 2015 then the goal sodden mess of a 6-0 home defeat to Bristol City did.

For those who had seen City only in the brightest moments: the Chelsea, the Sunderland, the Doncaster Rovers, the Millwall at home, the Preston away; then this result might not be able to be set in context. For those of us – and this is most of us – this represents the low watermark in a season which offered equally contrasting highs but was always due to tend to the middle.

That Bristol City looked like the all-stars of the bottom two divisions goes some way to explaining their success this year. The likes of Luke Freeman, Marlon Pack, Wade Elliott, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, and Aaron Wilbraham have been best players for different teams for the last few years. The Robins have put them together with devastating results for the Bantams.

Bradford City – on the other hand – endured a night of compounded mistakes passing through the team like a virus and starting from the dis-effective. There was something in the way that Mark Yeates kept playing James Meredith short that caused Meredith problems and those problems chipped into a decent display from the left back which became a very poor one.

From Meredith it spread. After the left back was beaten by the effervescent Freeman for a second goal which Stephen Darby was massively outjumped for it had passed to the opposite full back (credit Darby, he strode on manfully) but most crucially to the goalkeeper Ben Williams.

Williams’ command of his box was shot and the area behind Rory McArdle and Gary MacKenzie was freeland for the opposition where it should be an area for a all out keeper to come claim balls. This would be seen in the 4th goal, or perhaps the 5th, where Pack bent a ball behind the central defenders and in front of Williams and there was the freedom of the pitch to head home in.

It is horrible to write off a man’s career but Williams seemed a spent force. A technical goalkeeper who needs to show a command of his box which he does not he is like the minutes after a goal when Jon McLaughlin would sulk stretched out for entire games. Jordan Pickford’s mouth on style will take him to places Williams’ laconic ways will not, and are far more useful.

MacKenzie caught what was going around. His defending was average but his failure was in attempts to play controlled passes rather than clearances, and a strange choke that saw him trying to volley away things he would previously have headed.

The Choke – an interesting concept in Sports Psychology – I use to to describe a failure to win what was expected but to do what is normally done. MacKenzie – when under pressure and at three goals down – stops being the reliable clearance based replacement for Andrew Davies and starts trying to play the ball like Beckenbauer.

The midfield were out muscled – at times unfairly and Gary Liddle will wonder how his being elbowed in the closing stages is something that can be ignored – but at times by a Bristol City side who were more committed to winning the game. The 442 Phil Parkinson favoured for the evening badly needs a speedy winger to stop an opposition midfield sitting toe to toe knowing it will not be beaten for pace.

Parkinson switched to a 4312 for the second half. If the manager wants to maintain an ability to move between the two formations he needs at least one fast wide player who can make the flat four lass flat and he needs to rethink Billy Clarke’s ability in the playmaker role in a three man with one behind formation.

Clarke drifted out of the game at about fifty five minutes last out never to be seen again. Pack dealt with him well – one seldom comes up against such a player – but to highlight the problem Luke Freeman was offering a masterclass in playing the playmaker role for the opposition.

Freeman was a constant threat – the type of player you do not want to see on the ball – in a way that Clarke has not been. In truth Freeman offers a model the playmaker role – set out for Mark Yeates at the start of the season – to be filled by Billy Knott who does the job of constant annoyance better than Clarke.

As it was Clarke was ineffective as was Jon Stead. Stead fills the heart with joy – Chelsea and all that – and typifies City’s season. Sometimes he is Chelsea, sometimes he is this, and when negotiating with the forward (perhaps in Lira, so to speak) one hopes nights like this where he offered very little of note are remembered.

Which is not to criticise the former England u21 player but while he was an England u21 player James Hanson was working at the Co-op and on the night when he saw his team get battered Hanson emerged with credibility. His head did not go down, his levels did not drop, and he alone could be said to have earned his corn on this woeful evening.

What then for Parkinson and his squad. As obliquely referenced above takeover talk buzzed around Valley Parade with the idea of investment on the horizon. Often a double edged sword this investment may give Parkinson the wage budget to improve his side but Parkinson will look for characters to do that, and it is character that was lacking tonight.

The squad – at the moment – seems to break into three groups. There are players who lead and who have the character needed for success: Hanson, McArdle, Davies, Darby and more; and there are players who when led will show the character to create a great group and team: Morais, Knott, Meredith, MacKenzie and more; and there are players who seem to have failed a test of character or of usefulness: Yeates, Routis, Zoko, Williams and more; who the manager has taken a look at must have found wanting.

The ability to process the side to sift the one from the other is the test that Parkinson faces every year. It seems more pressing when one throws a carriage clock out of a window but it is not.

Promotion this year was an optical illusion based on the curvature of a win over Chelsea and ignoring the displays where City came up short mentally, and in character, and was a practice in confirmation bias.

The 6-0 home defeat to Bristol City confirmed promotion for them but told us what we already knew – that Bradford City were not going to be promoted this season – and so we move onto next.

When Jordan Pickford went back to Sunderland as a man walks into a bar

There is a cliché: A man walks into a bar and talks about how he could have been a great footballer but it just did not happen for him. Maybe it was injury or a couple of good players in the youth ranks in his position. Maybe he got further in the game but maybe a change of manager stopped him from getting the chance, or maybe he bottled the big chance but he probably would not tell it that way.

There are a hundred stories from a million people who almost were, but never was.

(In fact, as an aside, I once talked to former City keeper Mark Evans‘ Dad about how in the early 1990s John Docherty had given Evans the impression that he would jump from number three to number one only for the Scot to be fired a few days later.)

And one of those stories is laid out for Jordan Pickford who returned to Sunderland from Bradford City. After Pickford’s 21st birthday at the weekend the terms of his loan would be restated meaning Sunderland would not be allowed to recall him until the 8th of April 2015.

This was unacceptable to Sunderland where Pickford sits behind Vito Mannone and Costel Pantilimon on the bench and so Pickford returned.

Which is the end of the story for the clubs.

Vito Mannone is out of contract in the summer and Sunderland’s place in the Premier League is a little tentative. One can see Pickford finding a chance to get near the Sunderland starting eleven, and one can see him doing well if he does, but one can see many scenarios where that does not happen.

Sunderland’s right to keep Pickford out of the FA Cup stopped him from playing in the win at Chelsea – not a bad learning experience for anyone – and now his return home will stop him learning about a team chasing promotion.

It is not genius to suggest that is Pickford does get the chance to play for Sunderland next season it will probably be in similar circumstances. The club from the North East do as they wish to do.

But what about Jordan Pickford? How will this decision impact him?

Watching Pickford’s athleticism some have been tempted to see him as a future England keeper. So much more than raw athleticism goes into making a top quality footballer thought and what is more is learnt in games that matter.

Indeed Matthew Syed’s Bounce and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers go as far as to suggest suggests that purposeful exposure to experience that matters is the be-all-and-end-all of development.

If that is true then while Pickford has clocked up some useful hours in goal for City this year his chances of becoming the player his raw athleticism suggests he could be have been hampered by Sunderland’s insistence on keeping him back.

The experience of playing against Leeds United, Chelsea, Halifax Town, Millwall, Reading and for the rest of the season at Bradford City would have made Jordan Pickford into a better player. Not getting that experience increases the chance that he will become the cliché of the might-have-been.

If Jordan Pickford knows this he should be furious at Sunderland.

He should march into Gus Poyet’s office and tell him “I’m in the Sunderland first team from now on Gus, otherwise you are flushing my career down the pan.” Every week he sits out during his younger, development years damages him.

If he is watching Sunderland from the stands knowing that City wanted him in between the sticks he should tell Poyet that he wants to leave to go to a club that takes better care of him – be that Bradford City or not – and he would be right to do that.

Football is full of players who never were. Because of Sunderland Jordan Pickford is already the goalkeeper who could have been playing in the win over Chelsea. While he sits in the stands for the next three months Jordan Pickford might want to think he is going to be the goalkeeper who could have had a decent career.

When the immoveable object met the immoveable object and Bradford City and Reading agreed to a replay in the FA Cup sixth round

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott | Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Andrew Halliday, Mark Yeates, Francois Zoko

Balls in bags

On Monday night, at Old Trafford, something well happen that has not occurred in over one hundred years. Bradford City will be in the draw for the FA Cup semi-final. The goal-less draw at Valley Parade in the FA Cup sixth round with Reading guarantees that the Royals will be in that draw too.

The immoveable object met the immoveable object in the first of the four quarter final ties and while City will look back to a chance or two which could have resulted in more the game which mustered only a single shot on target had the hallmarks of a pair of teams more concerned with losing than committed to winning.

Which is not to criticise either side for that approach – I spoke recently about how Phil Parkinson’s approach puts importance on not being out of a game – but to explain the dynamics of a game which promised everything and left tension unresolved.

Each side enjoyed a half of the game. The first forty five minutes Reading edged possession and hit the post through Pavel Pogrebnyak although the seemed to be a fast and loose being played with left hand touchline calls by a linesman who gave the benefit of geography to the Royals.

Nevertheless Pogrebnyak’s shot – along with a deflected effort by Hal Robson-Kanu – was all that Ben Williams in the Bradford City goal had to do. Williams’ inclusion over Jordan Pickford was a surprise but a pleasant one. Williams kept goal for every Cup tie while Pickford was tied to Sunderland.

“The guy that brung her”

That Parkinson kept faith in the keeper that had got him to the sixth round recalled Paul Jewell’s decision at Wolves in 1999 to go for promotion with the eleven who had been his most regular starters. “A girl dances with the fella that brought her”, I said then and I think it now.

Indeed after watching Ramires burst from the Chelsea midfield to put the Blues into a 2-0 lead Williams has not conceded a goal in the FA Cup. Thinking back to that day one recalls how Chelsea were lacking a Claude Makélélé in holding midfield.

While Chelsea had allowed the Bantams to build in the forward midfield positions Reading deployed a man to sit in front of their back two and make sure that Billy Clarke’s influence on the game in the first half was as minimal as possible. Nathaniel Chalobah sat next to Clarke and forced a gap between Jon Stead and James Hanson which split City’s forward options leaving the Bantams disjointed in the final third.

Chalobah put in a very impressive game – especially in the first half – and looked as if he may be the decisive difference between the sides until Phil Parkinson tweaked his approach at half time to play more through left and right midfielders and less through his front man. Chalobah – oddly – is on loan from Chelsea. He has a very brought future.

Tweak

Parkinson’s tweak was to have the ball played through Billy Knott and Filipe Morais – and to have Knott and Morais pick the ball up deeper – and then allow Clarke to drift left and right effectively taking himself and Chalobah out of the game.

And so City enjoyed more of the game in the second period. Morais had a chance just after half time which he passed when he could have shot – he seldom is accused of “making the wrong decisions” as a Kyel Reid or Omar Daley was although he probably does as much – and James Hanson swept a ball the wrong side of the upright after good work by Jon Stead.

The best chance of the game presented itself when Morais bent a free kick in and Andrew Davies connected but watched his headed chance take the paint off the post as it skimmed wide. Davies’ reaction suggested he knew that the best chance of the game had gone, but that the tie would have more chances in it, and so it will prove on Monday week.

Reading’s Pogrebnyak tried to handle the ball into the goal in the last moment. That was all the City defend had to cope with in the second half.

It would be easy to miss

In the swirl of a crowd of 24,321 at Valley Parade and the first FA Cup sixth round since the mid-1970s, and in the media coverage which seems to have decided that this game was not worth watching, it would be easy to not give credit to Phil Parkinson’s team. (Hob Nob Anyone? can give Steve Clarke’s team credit.)

That City went toe to toe with a Championship side is impressive. If one were to ask which side regularly played at a higher level one would be simply guessing an answer. There was a character needed from City’s side today to handle being favourites and there was a character needed to turn the performance around at halt time.

That good performances and great character are common does not make them less impressive.

Looking forward

One wonders what City have to do to win the second game which was not done today. Away from Valley Parade the Bantams have a tendency to replace Billy Clarke with Billy Knott and play Andy Halliday – a late sub today – to create a different shape to the midfield and that shape seems more effective.

City have won more games away from Valley Parade this season in League One than at home, and on travels to Chelsea, Millwall and Halifax Town have shown character in different ways. The Valley Parade turf was better than it has been (which is, of course, not down to Roger Owen who is not responsible for the pitch) but is heavy and the ball bounces little from it. A better surface will not suit City any more than it does Reading, but it will allow for City to play the tight triangles that much of Parkinson’s attacking play is built around.

City face trips to Coventry City and Gary Jones’ Notts County in the nine days before Reading. In League One today City slipped to tenth and the expereince in the build up to this tie did not suggest that the Bantams will be turning games in hand into three points.

1911, and all that

But those worries are for another day. It will be the 16th of March and City will still be in a cup competition and that has not happened in over one hundred years.

Not for Parkinson though. The manager who has as a modus operandi not being out of a game is not out of a tie. Nine days to assess Reading, and the game that passed, and to plot a victory which will make City more than a name on a ball in a bag.

Nine days cannot pass soon enough.

The refereeing of “So What?” as City beat MK Dons 2-1

The Team

Jordan Pickford | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott | Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Mark Yeates

As Sky TV pushed a camera into his face at the end of Bradford City’s 2-1 victory over Milton Keynes Dons Jon Stead was challenged by the presenter as to if he had committed a handball in the build up to the winning goal and answer succinctly “It hit my hand, but so what?

“So what” indeed?

As he did MK Dons Karl Robinson manager was fuming. Robinson watched the game from the stands for most of it self-imposing another game to a punishment the FA gave him for abusing Christopher Routis. Routis would have been seated not ten yards away and so Robinson remained in the stands.

When charged by the FA Robinson had used the Matthew Simmons defence when accused of mild xenophobia. When attacked by Eric Cantona at a game in 1995 Matthew Simmons had insisted he had incurred the wrath of The Frenchman with the words “Off, Off, Off! Its an early bath for you Cantona!”. The FA heard the defence and dealt with it in absentia of anyone from City. Indeed it seems that no one including Routis seemed to care about Robinson’s offence or punishment.

Robinson was furious about something Routis did that night, and was furious about Referee Paul Tierney‘s decision not to give a handball decision against Stead in the build up to the winning goal in this entertaining 2-1 encounter. The defeat at the boggy Valley Parade cost MK Dons the top position in League One but Robinson was smart enough to admit that – handball or not – his side were second best all game. Handball? Well, so what? MK Dons were not going to win anyway.

That Referee Tierney had not given the decision was typical of the sense of confusion which swirls around football in relation to a subset of the Laws of the Game including those around handball which the authorities seem uninterested in solving. If Tierney was pressed now he would say – no doubt – that Stead’s handball was not a deliberate handball and because the word “deliberate” features so heavily in the Laws of the Game it thus was not a handball offence even if the ball did hit Stead’s hand.

In return the MK Dons defenders might ask if they is supposed to pay the same attention to the hands of opposition players as they do the feet or head if those appendages can be used to control the ball, albeit inadvertently. We might all ask that if the Stead offence was on the goal line (either) then would it be considered to have not been an offence?

The Laws of the Game have created a margins for errors to creep in that is significant, and the game’s attitude to those errors seems to be “so what?” and that mistakes happen and are a part of the rich fabric of football to be debated.

Those debates will probably not have even been at the back of the mind as Stead played a low ball to James Hanson who kept a cool head to slot in a winner completing City’s comeback from a goal down. Stead’s form has given Hanson a new role in Phil Parkinson’s City team and the striker plays wit the relief of not being the only target. The ambition of Hanson slotting between the legs of the keeper suggested a player, and a team, who believed that they could create chances in the game. No need to snap at the first one that comes along and all.

Returning to offences that were not offences, and saying “so what”

Elsewhere Filipe Morais is given offside when walking away from the ball when Referees (and Assistant Referees) are instructed to only give a free kick when a player interferes with play and as such Morais – who had not turned to the ball and so was not interfering with play although certain had the potential to do so – should not have been called offside.

This offence (which is an ill-fitting word) happened in the corner of the field and had virtually (or perhaps actually) no impact on the game. It was the wrong decision but it was an unimportant decision and so the reaction is “so what?”

Players have got used to wrong decisions. Phil Parkinson has said that he has told his City players to not try claim penalties any longer because of the infrequency of their awarding some of which must be justified. A few moments after MK Dons took the lead Billy Clarke slipped through the well organised backline to control a Gary Liddle pass and slot in to equalise. Before he celebrated he looked over his shoulder at the linesman, ready for the wrong decision to be made, and to be told that yes he had scored, but so what? It would not count.

No flag came, and the first of three important home games for The Bantams turned to City’s direction.

Alarmingly frequent

Dele Aili will be joining Spurs for £5m in the Summer and scored when Jordan Pickford and Andrew Davies got in all sorts of trouble as for a moment neither seemed to understand that the least of all mistakes was to clear the ball for an opposition throw in. Later in the game he kicked the ball at Jon Stead while Stead was on the floor.

He did not kick the ball hard, nor did anyone really complain about it, and he accepted his booking with the shrug of the shoulders which suggested that all this would soon be someone else’s problem but everyone saw someone deliberately kick the ball at another player who was on the floor.

The Laws of the game say that this is violent conduct but there is enough grey area that a Referee like Mr Tierney can make up his own rules, if he wants to, and perhaps he is right to want to but should football games be Refereed on the question of “so what? So what if I don’t do what it says in the Laws of the game, I’m doing what I think it is right.”

The regularity of these “so what?” moments is alarmingly frequent.

Pick a random five minutes of a random game and you’ll see a few instances where they grey area of the laws of the game is interpreted by the officials. Some offences will be ignored while some non-offences will be given and the judgement on these will be given to a Referee who – with the best will in the world – is being asked to do impossible things.

Was Jon Stead’s handball deliberate? Tierney is not able to read Stead’s mind, just guess it. Was Morais interfering with play? Tierney is not able to look at a future of the game where he did not blow the whistle, just guess at it. Was Aili trying to hurt a player when he kicked the ball at him and accidentally kicked it too softly or was he trying to kick it to land short and hit the ball to hard?

When faced with questions like this the football authorities seem to believe that getting the decision wrong is not important if it happens in situations which are not important. Most Referees mistakes are not important. Is it bad for Bradford City that Aili has not been suspended? Not especially. Is it bad that Morais’ offside was given? Not even slightly. Is it bad that Stead’s handball was not given as a handball?

For Karl Robinson and Milton Keynes Dons it would seem so, for the player himself his response said much more than the two words he uttered.

How we will all be sorry after Bradford City drew 2-2 at Port Vale

The Team

Jordan Pickford | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Christopher Routis, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Andy Halliday | Billy Knott | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Mark Yeates, Ben Williams

Football, not football

Writing about football is difficult.

Writing about writing about football is easy.

In fact I would argue that the vast majority of the coverage of football is, in one way or another, the coverage of the coverage of football. The most viewed BBC Sport page is an abstract of a lot of newspaper stories of “gossip” – which is to say stories which no one even attempts to claim are true – while picking up the collection of local papers after the 4-2 win over Chelsea revealed column inches of reports on what City fans had said about the game on Twitter.

It is reaction to reaction, and while it is often confused for writing about football it is not. Football is that thing that happens on the field between three and five on a Saturday.

This is a preamble as to why the week of accusation followed by apology at Bradford City has been both the most and least interesting subject of conversation.

It is interesting because it concerns two of the most fundamental considerations at a football club that impact on football.

Most obviously the pitch. Literally the core of a football club Phil Parkinson pointed out, rightly, that the pitch was in very poor condition. Colchester goalscorer Chris Porter said it was the worst he had played on.

Worse Gus Poyet, manager of next Sunday’s opposition Sunderland, suggested that the forthcoming FA Cup tie between the two clubs might be moved to The Stadium of Light to provide a decent playing surface.

He did not mean it really. It was a joke but the butt of the joke was Bradford City’s ability to maintain the basic needed for a football match – a pitch – and so the butt of the joke was Bradford City.

Bradford City are a laughing stock.

The lack of blame game

Parkinson had pointed the finger squarely at Roger Owen and his co-director Graham Jones for failing to do anything about the state of the pitch which the manager had believed was within the remit of Mr Owen. He later apologised for mentioning any specific director and agreed that the quality of the pitch was a collective problem.

The club – in turn – issued a statement which read that Mr Owen and Mr Jones had no specific responsibility for the pitch but iterated through things that the pair had achievements including “sourc(ing) funding for equipment and improvements through the connection with fans group, Friends of Bradford City where they are the link to the Board” which would seem to be an act of receiving, rather than raising, funds.

Other achievements of a similar scale were mentioned and as the statement made it clear that they were responsible for small achievements but carried out those responsibilities without any remuneration. The message from Bradford City seemed to be that Parkinson was wrong to think that the pitch was the responsibility of Mr Owen and Mr Jones because the pitch was a little above the pair’s pay grade to be involved with.

Parkinson had thought that it was Mr Owen’s job at directorial level to look after the pitch but he was wrong. It was nobody’s job, at least not specifically, and so no specific director deserved any specific criticism for not doing anything about the pitch because – as a collective – all the directors shared responsibilities and thus – one assumes – any criticism shared between the directors too.

And Parkinson had made criticism, albeit pointed in what the board of directors said was the wrong direction, but that criticism was not responded to. Not responded to in in public at least. In public had been where Parkinson’s apology was made. It was carried on the club’s website which seemed to have misplaced the City manager’s original criticism from the news section.

Without portfolio

I think at the time they thought I was making excuses because the home form was poor but I don’t make excuses. Nothing was done, no help was given to the groundsman and now he’s the one with all the stress of us playing on probably the worst pitch I’ve ever seen.Phil Parkinson, 2nd February 2015

So one considered the second point which was Parkinson’s apology to the Directors without Portfolio for suggesting that they had responsibilities they did not have. Parkinson had said that he had been left with the impression that it was considered the problem of the pitch was an excuse for poor results. In Parkinson’s apology he did not, nor did the club, attempt to put right the statement Parkinson had made about the directors believing that the manager was making excuses.

Indeed there was no clarification from any specific directors or the whole of the board as to if Parkinson was right to think that it has been considered he was excuse making, that he was wrong to get the impression, that the board would perish the thought that the manager who had taken them from the bottom of League Two to the fifth round of the FA Cup via Chelsea, Arsenal, Wembley, Twice might incorrectly walk away from a board meeting thinking that he was doing anything other than a near unprecedented superb job as manager, at least from the business’ point of view.

So the picture was complete. The manager who beat Mourinho had walked into the boardroom to complain about a fundamental problem with the pitch but left having his judgement on football questioned and with the impression that it was thought he was making up excuses.

Football has a right history of managers clashing with Directors. Sam Longson got his own way at Derby County against Brian Clough and that is why Nottingham Forest ended up with two European Cups and not The Rams. You either think that football managers should be second guessed by local businessmen or your don’t. Most managers do not believe they should and some find a place where they are in harmony with the boardroom. One wonders what Phil Parkinson spent the week considering.

And so to Saturday

All of which is 1,016 words that are only tangentially about football in that they threaten the club’s ability to play the game well at home – the pitch – or under the successful manager in Parkinson who has attracted admiring glances from clubs in the top two divisions. The grass at Port Vale allowed City to settle quickly into an easy pattern of attempted ball retention against a Valiant’s side which looked as poor as any City had faced this season, Millwall aside.

Nestled in lower mid-table Rob Page’s Port Vale allowed Parkinson’s Bradford City as much time on the ball as wanted – at least in build up play – and there was something about the ease on the ball which concerned the Bantams. The popular diagonal pass between Rory McArdle and James Hanson went unplayed as McArdle enjoyed the time to pick a pass to central midfielders who moved forward uncomfortably.

With too long in possession City were indecisive and allowed the first half to all but peter out without a chance. At times it seemed like there was a game being made of attempts to play the perfect pass into Jon Stead, other times City looked like they would dominate in the box only for the ball to go unfinished for the want of players looking for flick downs.

In such situations one always worries about Filipe Morais. As a player Morais is alternatively impressive in position and undisciplined in action. He suffers a tendency to try shortcut build up play with a lashed shot at goal or an attempt to dribble from the centre of the midfield which fail but is a key part of build up when he succeeds.

For Parkinson this must be frustrating because of the frequency in which when Morais goes “off-message” fortune favours him. Forty minutes into the game and Morais decides that it is time for him to lash a low shot from outside the box which is easily charged down but the same player – doing as manager and team mates would want him to – grasped the ball and took it to the byline to cross to the waiting James Hanson who headed the first goal.

Filipe Morais squandered possession with a daft shot but got the ball back and made the opening goal. The tendency to do the former seems symbiotic to the ability to do the latter. In the second half when a good run from James Meredith saw Hanson test Vale keeper Chris Neal again and the ball fall to Morais, exactly where Parkinson would want him to be, to finish smartly, exactly what Parkinson would want him to do, and make the game 2-1.

2-1 because minutes before Vale were allowed to cross in with ease as Morais allowed the left back all the time he wanted to make his cross. The problems with a wingless team are the number of crosses that come in. Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle deal with a lot of them but not this one which was rolled in by Achille Campion from a flick down which both central defenders would probably wish they had attacked more firmly.

Who then does Parkinson charge with the responsibility for the goal? Morais for not cutting off the supply? McArdle and Davies for allowing a flick down? Billy Knott for having seen a close range chance which would have made the game 2-0 earlier saved by Neal who would do the same to Hanson later on?

By the time the game entered injury time City should have been leading by some margin and would have been but for Neal. Vale’s goal was a rare foray forward in a game which was increasingly about City coming forward. The late entry of Mark Yeates for Knott was Parkinson putting on a player who could make the most of late possession but Yeates was caught on the ball and a few seconds later Jordan Pickford was being sent off as the rapid counter-attack saw the keeper slide Greg Luer’s legs away.

All Ben Williams did was pick the ball out of the back of his goal.

The reaction to the reaction

And so back in Bradford blame was assigned.

It was the fault of Jordan Pickford for the foul, or of Mark Yeates for losing the ball in midfield, or of Hanson/Knott for not finishing the chances that Neal saved, or of Parkinson for not going for the win but the game ended level and a point away is always a good result at any level.

The disappointment – it seems – is that there was a growing consensus in support in the reaction to the Chelsea win that City were upwardly mobile and making a surge for the play-offs. This may still be true and this result may be a part of that but the narrative is not about conceding goals in the last minute.

The problem with the growing consensus is that it is based on reaction to the reaction.

City beat Chelsea, and so should be able to beat anyone in League One, and if not then there must be a reason for it and if the reason is at all mitigated then that is “excuses” and not tolerated. Anything other than a victory is because the team failed to do something they should have done, and failure is something that should not be tolerated.

And the people who fail, and who make excuses, should be told that they have failed and made excuses.

It is through this bastard child of logic that one can come to the conclusion that Phil Parkinson is the reason that City are not successful rather than the reason they are. People with that way of thinking honeycomb the support of football and get far too much attention for my tastes. These people flatter themselves that they present an alternative view of a situation but what they offer is a twisted view based on misunderstanding and ignorance. They should be pushed to the edge of the community of Bradford City support with the other trolls.

However, and this is worth considering, if a person was able to do it without pay there would be nothing to stop such a person with such a twisted view of how football works and the reasons for success from joining the board of Bradford City, from not have any specific responsibilities of any note, and from using board meetings as a place to let Phil Parkinson (or any other City manager) know he is making excuses for his poor performance face to face.

And let us hope is not something that happens or we all really will be sorry.

The moment when Andrew Davies would have done something different

The Team

Jordan Pickford | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Andy Halliday | Billy Knott | James Hanson, Jon Stead | Mark Yeates

The war on cliché, Part 2

Was Andrew Davies playing badly or was Gary Liddle leaving him exposed? Davies struggled on the heaviest, muddiest Valley Parade pitch most could remember and with Colchester United front man Chris Porter. Porter is a 31 year old journeyman but he is wide, tall and capable with the ball at his feet.

Davies watched Porter hard trying to decide how much space to give the forward. Was he so mobile that he would be quicker over short distances and so should be given a yard of space or should he be met with strength man on man and marked close? These calculations Davies makes on a game by game basis in the opening few minutes of matches.

What impact the pitch too? The mud was hard to turn in favouring the ball over the top of defenders and Davies could not rely on beating Porter in the air. The mud was heavy too and too pace from Davies as it did Porter. Davies did not have the speed to spare though and with Gary Liddle not closing down the midfield Davies had much to consider.

As it was Davies would get to grips with Porter and silence him. He would spend most of the afternoon beating the not inconsiderable Porter to the ball in the air and frustrating him on the ground. Porter would spend eighty minutes with hardly a kick of the ball but not until after Porter had beaten the City defender all ends up to the ball and bent a fine finish past Jordan Pickford.

Davies got the measure of Porter, but by then the damage had been done, and Davies was thinking that he should have given Porter a few yards of space before, while Porter was probably in the process of sizing up Davies.

At this point football is a game of scissors/paper/stone. If Davies goes close on a player he has not sized up and the player is fast then he is exposed, if he goes deep and the player wins the ball in the air and sets something up he is exposed. It the Porter runs at a player he is not sure of the pace of runs and the player is as fast he is frustrated, if he tries to win the header he risks getting cleaned out.

Paper, on scissors, and it was 1-0.

Or, if you will

It were after the Lord Mayor’s show for City as they suffered a cup hangover and saw Colchester race to the lead.

What was impressive when City were impressing

It took around twenty minutes for Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City to get to grips with the Colchester United side who played a compact three at the back with wingbacks and two holding midfielders on top the backline. United took the lead after five minutes and could have scored more with Jordan Pickford taking credit for one extremely impressive save but one in the lead the visitors were forgiven for sitting deep.

Forgiven and very well prepared. The two holding midfielders Tom Lapslie and David Fox trapped Billy Knott between them and there was little space for James Hanson and Jon Stead. Lapslie, 19, was very impressive in the role and it was not until Knott started to come deep and pull those two shielding players out of position that the Bantams started to get an understanding of how to create an attack against the visitors.

When they did those attacks were hampered by a playing surface that cut up badly under foot making floor play hard, and by the size and numbers of the Colchester defence. The more the game progressed the more the game suited defenders.

Most pleased Parkinson

And it is these moments that one suspects Phil Parkinson is most pleased with his Bradford City players. Having opened the game poorly, and been punished by Porter’s strike, the response was all the manager would have wanted. Slow building from the twentieth minute City got back into the game, and then controlled the game, and finally claimed an equaliser when Jon Stead found space behind the full back and crossed for Filipe Morais to finish from close range in a rare moment when the visitor’s box was not over-peopled.

Morais, more than anyone, had been guilty of trying to force a performance but once again knuckled down and was rewarded with his goal. Parkinson will be pleased that – once again – the collective effort and character of Bradford City was the defining factor in the game. In the last ten minutes City pressed for a winner but Colchester United held firm.

The Bantams turned the performance around, but not the game, and were left thinking what might have been had Davies done something different.

On how the sending off of goalkeepers is a punishment without proportion

Imagine, if you will dear reader, a different scene on Saturday when Bradford City lost to Rochdale when Jordan Pickford was sent off for denying Matt Done a goal or goal scoring opportunity which had almost certainly gone. Imagine Done more central, no defenders, and Pickford taking the man squarely and cleanly.

Imagine that Pickford had unequivocally denied Rochdale a goal or goal scoring opportunity. The Referee would have sent Pickford off with the same haste and City would have faced the same situation of facing a penalty kick and playing a game with ten men.

Even though in this hypothetical situation Pickford would have been guilty of the offence the punishment given would still have been too harsh. The sending off of a goalkeeper for denying a goal or goal scoring opportunity is a disproportionate punishment for the offence and does not offer recompense for the offended against team.

Cold goalkeepers

In no other situation in football are you required to make a substitution in haste. If a player is injured you can withdraw him and bring on a replacement when that replacement is warmed up. You can take as long as you want to do this.

This includes goalkeeping changes which often result in close to minutes injury time rather than goalkeeper sendings off which are completed with such speed that the replacement keeper does not have the time to prepare and he is not in the flow of the game.

If a defender is sent off for denying a goal or goal scoring opportunity then the goalkeeper is warm when the penalty happens, if the goalkeeper is replaced he is cold. Why is the team punished extra by having a cold goalkeeper because of the identity of the sent off player?

And what about the risks of demanding a cold player come straight into action? What about when the cold goalkeeper pulls a muscle diving for the penalty? Is that to be an additional part of the punishment?

In no other situation is a player expected to play cold.

The ten men

Whilst considering the concept of additional punishment the penalty not considered reward enough for a denial of a goal or goal scoring opportunity offence and so the team must play with ten players for a spell of time which is decided by when the offence occurred.

If we put Pickford’s hypothetical offence in the last minute of a game where then the punishment is a penalty and playing a minute or two with ten men. If we put it in the first minute minute of a game then the penalty is faced but the team have to play with ten men for a full 89 minutes. What about a keeper sent off after fifty eight minutes in a final already lost?

It is impossible to say that those three situations represent the fair punishments. To play without a man for almost a full game is clearly a more harsh punishment to be missing a man for injury time.

Of course there is an argument that says that goals earlier in the games are more formative of the match and thus important than goals later in the game and so a player denying a goal or goal scoring should be punished more severely if he does it early in the game than late. Try telling that Asamoah Gyan and his Ghana teammates.

Reducing an opposition team to one fewer men is only sometime a punishment. For City at Wembley against Swansea City Matt Duke’s sending off was neither here nor there – the game was gone – but had the score been been 3-0 to the Bantams then it would have obviously had a different importance and be more of a punishment.

The formation

A football manager’s role on match days is to assess the ebb and flow of games and respond accordingly. When a manager sees a goalkeeper sent off for an incident that results in a penalty kick and he must make a decision on who to remove to bring on a replacement before the penalty is taken.

But he cannot make that decision. He does not have a vital piece of information. He does not know if the game is ebbing or flowing? He does not know what is going to happen from the penalty.

If the game is in the balance – say 0-0 – and he takes off a defensive player he assumes that the penalty will be scored and he will chase the game for an equaliser. If he takes of an attacking player and needs to score he is a man shy in achieving that goal. If the penalty kick is missed then his plans have to be rethought.

Again at no other point in football is punishment so disproportionate. If any other player is sent off the manager is allowed the fullness of time to decide who to remove and how to change his formation in knowledge of the score of the game.

Only in this specific instance does the manager have to make a decision before the game can continue knowing that the next action in the game has a great chance of rendering his decision wrong.

If the game is 0-0, and a player is sent off for a bad tackle in midfield the manager can decide if he will move defensively to try maintain a draw or press on and try win. If a defender is sent off for the denial of a goal or a goal scoring opportunity then the manage is able to make the decision as to a replacement knowing if any resulting penalty has been scored.

Why should the goalkeeper being sent off be given such a special and specifically disproportionate set of punishments which exceed the punishment given to a team when a defender commits the same offence?

What Phil Parkinson should have done against Rochdale

Ten minutes into the game and Matt Done has done what he had done and Jordan Pickford has been sent off. The first thing Phil Parkinson should do is to send Matt Williams to warm up but rather than removing Andy Halliday Parkinson should have given a green shirt to whichever of his players still on the field has even the slightest ability between the sticks.

Jon Stead is tall and agile. Stead gets the gloves and goes in goal while Williams warms up.

Rochdale take the penalty. Penalties are most often scored regardless of the quality of the goalkeeper.

85% of penalties which are on target go into the goal. 94% of the time keepers move one way or the other and when that way is the right way they have a 40% chance of saving the ball hit in that direction but when the ball is hit centrally, and the keeper stays in the middle, they have a 60% chance of saving the ball.

The best strategy for penalties, in other words, is to stand in the middle of the goal and hope the player misses the target. Which is what Parkinson should have told Stead (or whomever) to do. Probably he would not have saved it but probably all penalties go into the goal.

And so after the penalty is scored Parkinson would know that Halliday was the man to remove because there was a game to chance and remove him for a now warmed up Williams with Stead returning up front.

Had the penalty been missed or Stead have saved it Parkinson could remove a different player, probably Stead, and tried to grind out a victory with the eight players in defensive position as he has previously.

But what is to be done, part one

In the case of denial of a goal or a goal scoring opportunity Referees have to understand that they are handing out the single biggest on field punishment in the game – the A-Bomb of football – and perhaps consider if a player running away from goal with covering defenders who is – shall we say – brushed is really the situation that whomever framed the rules envisaged when this ultimate sanction was created.

Those Referees who do feel they have to send a goalkeeper off and that the punishment they are mandated to give is without proportion might want to complain to their superiors and try get the rule changed.

I shall not hold my breath for that.

But what is to be done, part two

Football needs to look again at what the role of Referees is and what he is trying to achieve. Football’s laws have evolved rather than been created and many of them do not achieve the aims we should expect them to.

The redress given for the denial of a goal – as Ghana attest to – is not on a level with a goal scoring opportunity. Consider the Luis Suárez handball in 2010 and the Jordan Pickford sending off on Saturday and reflect that Pickford’s punishment was massively greater than that of Suárez.

My brother and I have talked long into the night on the merits of awarding an unopposed penalty as redress for the denial of a goal. That is a way that the offended against team could have redress.

It is thinking like that which can start to level the injustice which is codified into football’s laws.

What they heard back at Chelsea as Rochdale beat Bradford City

The Team

Jordan Pickford | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Alan Sheehan, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Andy Halliday | Billy Knott | James Hanson, Jon Stead | Matt Williams, Mark Yeates, Jason Kennedy

With all due respect to Millwall FC

Dear Mister Mourinho,

Allow me to start, Mister Mourinho, by saying let us be thankful that any fourth round tie between Bradford City and Chelsea will be played at Stamford Bridge.

I arrived in this part of West Yorkshire in biting cold, and watched a game on a wet pitch which cut badly under foot. Mister Mourinho, if you want to avoid the same, you will try beat this Bradford City within one game.

The weather aside I do not envy the man who was sent to watch Blackpool beat Millwall 1-0 for I have much to tell you Mister Mourinho and tell you it I shall.

There is much about this Bradford City which you should know

This Bradford City are a which will not be defeated, even in defeat.

Today Mister Mourinho I saw a football injustice when Bradford City were beaten in the last moment of the game by Rochdale Football Club having performed far better than Rochdale Football Club during the course of the game.

That this Bradford City played the game with only ten players was hardly noticeable Mister Mourinho. Indeed often in the game it seemed that Bradford City had played the game with eleven players and Rochdale Football Club had played it with ten, but that was not the case Mister Mourinho.

A player on loan from Sunderland (prob. not play. Gus is like that) in goal for Bradford City was sent off after ten minutes.

What shall we say about the sending off Mister Mourinho? Shall we just say that you would not have found it acceptable were it Thibaut Courtois dismissed for denying a goalscoring opportunity when the striker had run so wide and did not have control of the ball.

You would say Mister Mourinho that it was not denial of a goalscoring opportunity because the striker had run so with and did not have control of the ball. And you would be right Mister Mourinho, although I suspect you would not continence the possibility of being wrong.

And for the striker who were fouled Mister Mourinho I found myself wishing that he, A player called Matthew Done, was to be playing against John in two weeks time. I found myself wishing as he constantly tackled late on defenders who were clearing the ball on Mister Mourinho that he were to try that on John and found myself imagining what John would do in reply.

A note Mister Mourinho. We should be careful if Gavin Ward referees one of our games. Today he allowed a penalty to be scored from a rebound when the taker was in an offside position as the ball was struck. He made mistakes that compounded mistakes. He is a weak and poor Referee and obviously easily influenced and carried away Mister Mourinho. The beautiful game deserves better Mister Mourinho even at this level.

Character

But when reduced to ten players this Bradford City showed character Mister Mourinho which suggested that they were not a team to be taken lightly even with the obvious gap in quality between our side and theirs because that gap in quality would be seen by this Bradford City as another challenge which they would attempt to overcome.

With ten men this Bradford City played cleverly Mister Mourinho keeping the ball well and using their strength at set plays. James Hanson and Jonathan Stead are bustling centreforwards who upset defenders. Hanson wins most balls played into him and that was the case when a free kick was played too deep. Hanson headed it back and Stead headed in an equaliser. Perhaps Mister Mourinho I might suggest that Gary Cahill and John are a suitable pair to play like on like and I do not want to tell you how to do your job Mister Mourinho but I do worry that they may eat Nathan Ake for breakfast.

The supply to Hanson and Stead comes from Billy Knott and Fillipe Morais. Both have previously played for us in their youth.

Knott is a player of constant motion Mister Mourinho and the energy of Bradford City dissipated as he left the field after being the most influential player on the field for long periods of the game. He will make wrong decisions and expend energy needlessly on occasion but between errors he is the agent provocateur.

We must force Billy Knott into mistakes to cloud his judgement Mister Mourinho, rather than allow his head to be clear. Ignoring him is not an option. He is Bradford City’s finest irritant.

Your friend Fillipe

Fillipe Morais I believe you know. He is not the svelt wide player he was but he has a muscle about him and the ability to play intelligent football that shows your own influence Mister Mourinho. He is a player of discipline and has some strength in the tackle. He has expended his game since first you met and seems comfortable in a number of positions. That a local dubbed him The Man-o-War may please you Mister Mourinho, or it may not.

These players are anchored by Garry Liddle who is serviceable in the pass but not as strong in the tackle as a holding midfielder could be. Today his role was to break any play coming through the middle for Rochdale Football Club and he did break any play coming through the middle for Rochdale Football Club.

The defence is strong although Alan Sheehan, who plays at left back ideally but is covering central defence, is a weak point. All four can play the ball effectively long. Mister Mourinho if we stand away and let them play the ball long then they will pick out forwards with accuracy and while we can call this the dark ages of football we must not mistake it as such.

There is a measured control to this Bradford City Mister Mourinho which I cannot stress enough.

A measured control

With ten players remaining on the field for Bradford City Mister Mourinho Liddle was forced to put in the work rate of two players rather than one player and he did put in that level of work as did the other players of Bradford City. If I could underline one thing Mister Mourinho it would be the level of effort which Bradford City perform with and the character they have in their team.

Mister Mourinho we would beat them if we matched that character, and as with today we could expect to beat them as they will be at a disadvantage (numerical today, perhaps more obvious against Chelsea) but we must match that character.

Because, Mister Mourinho, that is the single most impressive thing about this Bradford City. The character which saw them outplay Rochdale Football Club with ten against eleven will see them come back from defeat today to carry on an unlikely promotion push which seems to have little chance of succeeding just as the team have little chance of beating Chelsea if they beat Millwall.

But if something is made of little chances Mister Mourinho it is made by character.

Yours,
The Scout

Why Sunderland should be begging for Jordan Pickford to play in the FA Cup

Preamble

The BfB legal advisor Joe – who is a man who just occasionally gets time off – enjoys playing Poker. He plays it and he is good at it. Very good.

Often he is asked ask to teach you how to play the game. Those who are are told to get out their wallets. You must bet in training what you do not want to lose. Only when the stakes involved are significant can you learn about how the game is really played.

You can play for pennies and for counters but that will not teach you how to play when the turn of a card actually matters. To get better at Poker – Joe says – the game has to matter.

Mu-Hill-Whaeal

A trip to Millwall for the third round of the FA Cup was nobody’s choice for a reward from beating Dartford. One doubts too that the Londoner’s would have been especially pleased to see themselves paired with Bradford City.

Ian Holloway’s side are struggling in The Championship while Phil Parkinson’s City team bubble in the middle of League One. Not much to pick between the two.

The strength of the teams that either side puts out could tip the game in one direction or another and no result could be considered much of a shock nor will be considered season defining.

Other ties were far more appealing. There was much flapping about the idea of last season’s final being replayed, and of a repeat of the 1973 final when Leeds United go to Sunderland. Sunderland’s interest in the competition being is significant importance to City’s on loan Jordan Pickford.

Remembering Jordan Pickford

Pickford arrived at Valley Parade looking as full of rawness and potential as any goalkeeper I can remember seeing. In his opening month one wondered if the rawness would be exposed to deeply that his potential be lost.

Pickford’s communication with the back four was so poor it was counter-productive. He came for crosses and then dropped back, or came and served only as a distraction, or did not come at all and saw the ball go past him. He was a liability.

But his reflexes were excellent, and his positioning good, and he made impressive saves some of the time. Even that communication problem was mitigated in some way by the fact he shouted at all. The sooner a nineteen year old goalkeeper learns that it his job to shout at seasoned defenders to get them into position the better for everyone.

Real football

A player only learns those things from what is termed “Real Football” but what “Real Football” is is open to interpretation and context. When a modern Premier League player gets a first cap for England against San Marino in a World Cup qualifier he has probably never played against worse players but the experience of a real international is useful. What use it is to someone with fifty caps is less clear.

For this definition when talking about Bradford City and Jordan Pickford we shall say real football is football where the result matters and where something important is at stake. Something like three points, or a place in the next round, or a manager’s job, or just the emotions of supporters.

When Jordan Pickford got into real football at Valley Parade the mistakes he made, and he made them, were forgiven because of the obvious potential in the rest of his game. Pickford needed games. And Pickford got games. Every league game so far. And now Pickford is realising the potential he has.

When Sunderland watch Pickford’s improvement over the last five months they must not recognise the footballing man compared to the juniors kid who joined City, but they must also have been expecting such a transformation, else why send him to Valley Parade in the first place?

But Pickford had played games before on loan outside the league with Darlington and Alfreton Town, and in it with Burton Albion and Carlisle United, with about seventy games under his belt thirty five of them in the league.

Cribbed maths could tell us that it has taken fifty professional football matches for Jordan Pickford stop having to rely on potential as the justification for having him in the team. Sunderland have to find a club, or clubs, who will give a player a season of games they could think of taking him back and having him in their team.

The tickets on the last train home

A first team place in the Football League is a rare thing. Each week less than a thousand players will get onto a field the Football League. Only assuming each team plays two loanees a week in the fourteen who can play then less than one hundred and fifty players are loan players places are available.

That one hundred and fifty includes players like Jon Stead who is both loaned from another Football League club and not a player in development. How many spaces are available for a player to be loaned from a Premier League cup for first team games when he needs development rather than being able to offer something immediately? One hundred? A dozen more, a dozen less? For twenty Premier League clubs with a few dozen kids each.

We are accustomed to looking at this from the point of view of teams loaning players. That teams like Bradford City are given the chance to have a player (like Pickford) who could go onto Premier League or International football and that they sometimes pay for this but sometimes are allowed to borrow future talent for nothing at all.

From the eye of a needle

Rarely is the idea flipped around.

A first team shirt in the Football League is a rare thing. One of the biggest assets that any club has is that it creates eleven development opportunities every week that clubs loaning players out want.

Teams like Bradford City’s side gives them away for free at best, or sometimes even pay for the privilege.

Every player I have ever been impressed by with has proved this to be true. Being able to run fast or kick a ball accurately is one of the first steps a player needs. The rest of the steps he learns through playing in real football matches. And more specifically applying himself well in real football matches.

Without this the talented youngster becomes the typical non-league nearly man who could have had his shot at the big time and seems to have the skills but never does work hard enough.

If clubs in Bradford City’s position knew the value of what they had they would charge clubs to take their players on loan rather than just looking at the system as a way of filling shirts. If clubs loaning players understood the value they would be willing to pay.

And if Sunderland understood the value of playing in a competitive, FA Cup tie at Millwall that really matters to the development of Jordan Pickford they would not be refusing to allow him to play, they would be begging Bradford City to put him in the team.

City beating Dartford in dressing rooms, manager’s offices and boardrooms

Bradford City beat Conference side Dartford 4-1 in the second round of The FA Cup with an ease which would suggest that the Bantams were old hands deposing of lower teams in knockout football.

It was hard to remember that three years ago around half the number of people here tonight saw City beat Burton 3-2 AET in the League Cup that concluded at Wembley in a game which less than half the first team played. Or so it seemed at the time when Gary Jones, James Hanson and Nahki Wells sat out the match.

If one were to look at the litany of failure than was Bradford City in knockout competition in the 2000s one would recall half teams being half interested playing in front of half full grounds.

The very obvious result of 2013’s run to the League Cup final and the transformative effect it had on the club has been convincing Bradford City that using games like this to rest players is a poor idea. Whatever one gains in freshness one loses – or perhaps just fails to gain – in the positive effects of playing teams in knockout football.

Winning games brings confidence. Confidence is what makes groups of footballers in football teams. One recalls how Phil Parkinson’s side found itself after Aston Villa and Arsenal, or indeed after Burton, and one cannot help but think that if anything is to come from this season over and above the middle of League One then it will come from a similar path.

So Parkinson prepares the team properly and sets out the team properly and one can expect that in the dressing room the team was told to take Dartford as seriously as any League One side faced and one also expects that that message has been repeated in at the training pitch. One also doubts that the chairmen will have questioned Parkinson’s decision to push the club forward in Cup competitions. The days of vague mumblings about the cost of progression either on legs or bank balances are over.

The club is changed. When walking onto the field the City team was noticeably unnoticeably changed from last week. Jon Stead was favoured over James Hanson who made a late appearance that would see him cup tied. Billy Knott and Gary Liddle were given the opportunity to continue what looks to be a fruitful partnership in central midfield and Filipe Morais was given the chance to replicate on the right what Mark Yeates does on the left.

Watching Phil Parkinson’s return to 442 the most obvious deficiency is a lack of pace in the side and the most obvious place to add that pace is on the right wing or in the player who plays off the front man. Which is to say where Kyel Reid or Nahki Wells played.

This creates a situation in which Filipe Morais and Billy Clarke approach games attempting to show how useful both can be almost to point to the other as being where the change should be made.

In fact today when City were leading by three or four goals Billy Clarke was upset with Morais for not finding him in the penalty area when Morais bulled away on the flank. The criticism of Clarke is that he does not threaten the goal enough – good approach play in Mark Stewart was the first thing that Parkinson was not satisfied with at Valley Parade – and so the striker looks to add to his tally wherever he can.

Today he did, a close finish after a scramble on ten minutes that set the tone for an afternoon where City would be largely untroubled. Jon Stead got a second twenty minutes later after turning in a low left hand cross from Yeates and all was going well at half time.

Morais’ third took a deflection to take it past Jason Brown in the visitors goal and Yeates finished off which a curled finish after delighting and tearing into a right back Tom Bradbrook who was never able to cope with the Irishman’s direct running and control of the ball. Lee Noble tucked in a nice back heel for the visitors who deserved something for their trouble and approached the game with a good spirit.

City’s back four of Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies and James Meredith coped with a new keeper Ben Williams sitting in for Jordan Pickford who Sunderland would not allow to play. The back four have joined together strongly and Andrew Davies is the keystone. There are rewards for progressing in this competition and Davies’ contract needs renewing. One hopes the one begets the other.

Bradford City go into a third round draw as a reward for the approach to knockout football which seems to have taken root at the club, at least in The League Cup and The FA Cup.

Dartford were treated with respect and respectfully beaten. There will be hope of what we might call “another Arsenal” to follow of course but seeing the club having learned something from the last few years one might thing we might settle for another Dartford.

Bradford City vs Gillingham being settled by threefold repetition

In the game of Chess there are five ways to draw. Most of them involve no move being playable within the rules but there is a method called “threefold repetition” in which a draw is called should the same position occur for a third time in a game.

The purpose of this rule is to avoid a situation in which the two players go into a stalemate situation. It is rare in the world of perfect objectivity which is Chess. Not so much a rule to say that a draw has happened, but one which pre-empts the draw.

Even before Gillingham substitute Antonio German scrambled a stoppage-time equaliser to give his side a 1-1 draw at Bradford City a threefold repetition could have been called on the game such seemed like the inevitability of the result.

Inevitable in that watching Peter Taylor’s teams for his brief time in charge of Bradford City – especially the way he set up his teams to play away from home – was seeing a manager comfortable with a point.

Inevitable in that Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City teams hold close to the believe that games are on gradually rather than but great pushes and even when an own goal by Leon Legge following great work by Andy Halliday on the flank the Bantams did not commit to getting a second goal.

Inevitable that Gillingham keeper Stuart Nelson made two saves which turned goal-bound shots onto the post one in the first half from Billy Knott and a second from James Hanson in the second. With goal efforts at a premium Nelson’s reactions were as valuable for the visitors as Jordan Pickford’s were at Preston last weekend.

That City had the better of the chances seemed to suit their being the home side but as both teams were comfortable with a point a draw was the result.

Which returns to the the threefold repetition rule and its place at Bradford City. The rule is in place to stop games in which no progress is being made and on a cold November afternoon turned evening it seemed that no progress was manifested on the field.

All animals are equal, but some…

This week there had been talk from the Inner Party of the Bradford City Supporters Board that the club were aiming to be in the Championship by 2017. It was not clear why exiting administrator David Baldwin had made this claim to the selective group without adding any detail as to how they would be achieved – it would seem that the feedback from this curious organisation is a one way process – but make it (it seems) he did.

What is the plan for that? And why is there an assumption that everything tends to improvement. City seem to sit at a crossroads in the club recent history. There is the will to improve the clubs and many paths to take to do it. The management of the club is in a good position – Parkinson gets a lot out of his players – but there are questions about recruitment that were highlighted by Aaron McLean’s exit this week.

Likewise there are questions about the structure of the club the exit of David Baldwin – a man rated above his abilities in my opinion – and how to craft the business as it tries to grow. Further there are questions as to how those improvements would be translated into success. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s contention in Why England Lose is that the only real guide to one’s place in the pecking order in football is turnover and that increasing turnover moves a team up the divisions.

Aside from wanting it to be so, and hoping that the statistically improbable falls in a way that benefits, what right have Bradford City got to expect that next season will be better than this? If Andrew Davies were to leave when out of contract in the summer why would we expect someone better to replace him? Why is there an expectation that Gary Liddle – excellent today – should be better than Gary Jones?

These are points which need to be addressed before the club start talking about 2017 in the Championship.

So now then

Phil Parkinson’s side could have been accused of not being committed to trying to win the game but Parkinson was no more going to send his team to be gung-ho than Peter Taylor’s were of doing anything other than defend.

Two teams cancelling each other out and neither looking in a position to make progress. Phil Parkinson is a good manager doing a good job at Valley Parade but one wonder what he is up against week-in week-out and how the teams who do progress support managers?

This is an open question. I am not suggesting a plan to be followed but what I am wondering is who at Valley Parade had the domain knowledge that would be helpful to Parkinson? In a week where City have agreed to pay 75% of the wages of a player in a side chasing promotion I think we all have to admit that there is scope for improvement.

On the field some games are won, some are lost, and like today some are drawn and that is how it will stay unless for outrageous fortune one way or another. That or the intervention of the boardroom at the club who – at the moment – seem to have aims without plans.

Peter Taylor, a miserable night and a miserable football match, that all reminded me of what happens when the board have aims without plans.

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