The character of Bradford City’s goalscoring problems

To understand the problems Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City are having scoring goals at the end of the League One season – a season which has gone far better than one would have thought for much of it – one has to go back to the problems that marked the start of the season.

By August 2015 Parkinson had put the final nail into the coffin of his 4312 playmaker formation by signing Paul Anderson to add to other recruit Mark Marshall to give his team two out and out wingers.

Marshall and Anderson would be Jamie Lawrence and Peter Beagrie for the 2015 generation and City would rampage through the division with an attractiveness which joint chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes have asked for previously.

However in the opening week trips to Swindon Town and York City, and the game at home to Gillingham, Parkinson’s plans faltered and they faltered because his team were vulnerable to counter-attacks and crosses and these vulnerabilities were caused by a hole in City’s defence.

Joke Hole

That hole was an key. The hole was a gap between goalkeeper Ben Williams and the centre of the defensive line. Whenever a ball would come into the City box Williams and the defenders would struggle with one being too far from the other and as a result opposition strikers being given the freedom of the penalty spot to exploit City again and again.

This coupled with the counter-attacking problem in that Swindon Town exploited ruthlessly. When a City attack broke down the opposition recycled the ball past the wingers and brought the ball into dangerous wide positions challenged by only the City full back, or took it past the central midfielders.

Parkinson’s first solution to this problem did not work.

Brad Jones came and left very quickly and is widely considered to have been a failure at the club. After Jones’ exit a kind of media spin was given to the remaining keeper Ben Williams – that he had “seen off” the more experienced Jones – and so could be considered solid number one material. Williams bought into that and his grown since.

Williams’ record breaking run of clean sheets has written him a paragraph in the history of Bradford City and he deserves credit for it. But how those clean sheets came about is the root of the current goalscoring problem.

Because as Jones left and Williams stayed Parkinson changed City’s approach to games, or their tactics if you will.

Mints

(Brian Clough used to say there is a lot of nonsense talked about tactics by people who could not win a game of dominoes and I’m very aware that I may add to that but I’m not a believer in the reductionist view of tactics which had taken hold at all clubs in modern football where tactics can be boiled down to how the ball is delivered to the final third of the field: long pass or series of short passes; and I’m not a fan of making the word synonymous with the word formation which is also too inexact for our uses. For the word tactics to be of use it has to be nuanced, else it is a nuisance.)

Staying with his philosophies on the game Parkinson changed how City played to stop them conceding goals. His five years at the club have shown us that Parkinson works from a solid defence forward. To this effect the midfielders would take a step back in the course of play and not commit to attacking in forward positions when City had the ball.

Flash your mind back to 1999 and Jamie Lawrence crossing from the right. In the box Lee Mills would be in the six yard box, Robbie Blake would dally at the penalty spot and Peter Beagrie would be just past the far post, just out from the touchline. That season Mills, Blake and Beagrie scored 75% of City’s goals. In addition Stuart McCall and Gareth Whalley – one forward one back – would offer short options and there would be a full back in attendance.

attacking-1999

Consider last night at Coventry City when Kyel Reid had the ball and in the box was Jamie Proctor, and that was it.

Billy Clarke offered a short option but staying outside the box and both Josh Cullen and Lee Evans were back down field. The support from the full back was there but on the opposite side of the field Tony McMahon was not in the box looking to add to the forwards, or forward if one were more honest. Instead McMahon is stepped back making sure that if the keeper catches and throws the ball out City are not exposed.

attacking-2015

Reverse the wings and the story is the same. This is not an issue with personnel it is a part of the way that City are playing. Everyone is a step further back than they could be, and the are further back because when they stepped forward at the start of the season they left holes which were exploited and results were terrible.

That Williams and the back four can claim a record number of clean sheets is a function of the fact that they are not fielding as many crosses, or taking on as many shots, because the midfield is balanced towards making sure that defensive holes are plugged.

Being Reice Charles-Cook

zones-on-a-field

When Reice Charles-Cook – the Coventry City goalkeeper – caught the ball on Tuesday night he looked to get play started quickly for the Sky Blue team that make a fetish of possession but the quick throw to a midfielder on the wing or a player in central position in zones 4-6 are not possible because Reid, McMahon and Clarke are already in zones 4-6 getting back to zones 7-9 while – by contrast – Blake, Lawrence and Beagrie would be in zones 1-3.

Likewise when City attack Cullen and Evans do not need to venture to zone 14 – Billy Clarke lives there – so they stay in zones 8 and 11 making sure that any breakdown of play does not leave the defence exposed. No counter attacks through zone 8/11, no wide attacks leading to crosses through 4/7 and 6/9.

This approach has done wonderful things for City in the last few months – the move from struggling in lower mid-table to third in League One is a result of this approach – but were Parkinson to alter it now for more of an attacking focus then the defensive issues that mandated the approach would no doubt reappear, or at least Parkinson might worry they would.

The defence – and specifically the control gap between Williams and the defensive line – has not been solved just been filled up with players sitting back. It is control through numbers. Shrewsbury Town’s equaliser will remind you that that issue between Williams and his defensive line has not gone away.

And Parkinson knows this.

Character and confidence

He knows that if he were to add – for example – Filipe Morais to the right flank over McMahon with instructions to get into zone 17-18 then the team would return to the same concession problem it had at the start of the season. He knows that if he had Billy Clarke (or someone else) press alongside Proctor in zone 17 rather than staying in zone 14 then the result without be that Cullen and Evans came forward, making the entire defensive unit harder to control, and the concession problem would emerge again.

Parkinson might try beat opposition sides in a scoring contest a la Kevin Keegan trying to win games 4-3 but considering the statistic talked about about City’s forwards scoring one goal in thirty shots over the last two games – which I would argue were low quality shots, because of the options in the zone 17 mentioned above – one doubts that the manager will change his approach so drastically.

And why should he? That approach has taken a team which struggled badly at the start of the season into genuine contenders for the play-offs. That prospect did not look likely at Gillingham when the third goal without reply went in back on the 2nd of January. Parkinson has shown that he can build confidence from teams that do not concede, and that is what he has done this time.

The arguments over Billy Clarke’s missed goal at Coventry – it never looks any better – or his goal should have stood goal at Shrewsbury – it never looks offside – can continue but on a longer timeline City’s goalscoring is not about players missing the target but rather about decisions made to patch defensive weaknesses and to give the team the chance to build confidence by not being beaten.

Like it or not that is the character of Bradford City 2015/2016.

Who’s better

I want Bradford City to be better.

A glib statement of the obvious? To some, probably. But for me it’s a genuine, earnest desire. I mean I really want Bradford City to be better. A lot.

The statement isn’t a direct reaction to the club finishing in it’s lowest league position for 45 years this season, the winning of a mere 15 league games in a season that averaged less than a goal a game, or even the wrangling over rent and where we are to make home. I have, and will always, want Bradford City to be better.

As they walked out at Wembley. As Wetherall belly-slid across the Valley Parade turf. As we greeted a grinning Carbone and a beaming Geoffrey. I looked forward to getting better.

It’s a want that all connected to Bradford City share, from the boardroom to those in the cut-priced seats. The truth is, however, we seem to have forgotten how to get better. And as we have seen in the last ten years if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.

In our four seasons and counting in the basement of English football, permanent and interim managers alike have bemoaned a lack of consistency from one week to the next. I find consistency an odd concept to embrace or value. I’m a believer that you’re either on the gain or on the wane.

Whilst sporadic fluctuations in the quality of human performance can be expected, and excused, more important is the general movement towards ‘better’ from the collective or any individual contained within it.

Great sportsmen and women will see a steep and long upward curve in ability and performance. They will then, at some point (and probably unknown to them) hit a peak, followed by a decent, which they will try to make as gentle and elongated as possible.

Tiger Woods will never eclipse the near golfing perfection he achieved at the start of the century. His challenge now is to minimise the rate of his decline and hope his still immense ability sees him to future victories as his powers diminish.

Sir Alex Ferguson has been the master at putting together team after team that have improved as a unit, then dispensing with those individuals that have peaked whilst retaining those with the longer curves of improvement.

We used to have knack for improving players. Remember that young, skinny lad McCall and his ragbag teammates in 1985 that grew individually and became more than the sum of their parts? Dean Richards oozing pure class from his debut to his departure and beyond. Sean McCarthy smashing up Norwich City in the Coca-Cola Cup before going on to score at Old Trafford for Oldham?

What about the lazy lad Blake we signed from Darlington? Wayne Jacobs seeing off an almost annual replacement left-back? Lee Mills? Jamie Lawrence? You’ll no doubt have your own favourite, dear reader, but what we saw were players getting better and our club benefitting from it greatly.

Bradford City players don’t seem to get better anymore. Last August the squad were pre-season promotion favourites, now, despite Jacko’s “everything must go” approach to the retained list, City would be forgiven for thinking the new telephone lines aren’t working properly . We witnessed the incredibly hard-working Gareth Evans seemingly give up on his City career with two months of the season left, and last week even the ever-positive Michael Flynn conceding that Bradford City is “a negative place to be“.

It’s telling that the last four Player of the Year recipients were all enjoying their first full season within the professional game, and as such, we cannot apply any metric of improvement:

  • 2008: Joe Colbeck. Burst on the scene, all bundles of energy and direct play. 16 disappointing months after his award he moved to Oldham, and then Hereford.
  • 2009: Luke O’Brien. Burst on the scene, all bundles of energy and direct play. Last seen sat next to Leon Osbourne on the substitutes bench as City were dismantled by Crewe.
  • 2010: James Hanson. Burst on the scene, all strength and no shortage of finishing ability. A second term disjointed by injury and questionable priorities.
  • 2011: David Syers. Burst on the scene, all bundles of energy and an eye for goal.

Time will tell if Syers can buck the trend, but the preceding three represented our most exciting and talented young prospects and all have failed to improve after their first season.

Jackson has signed the exciting prospect Ross Hannah, and the enthusiasm leaping from his twitter feed should hopefully see his first season in professional football be filed alongside that of Hanson, Syers and Steve Williams rather than that of Scott Neilson. But, in many ways, getting a good season out of Hannah isn’t the most pressing issue or biggest challenge for the next permanent manager of Bradford City.

Whether the board reluctantly appoint Jackson, or, as rumoured, continue to wait for John Coleman and subsequently expect him to repeat a decade’s growth and endeavour at Accrington in a 12 to 15 month period, the major challenge will be to get individual and collective development out of more established and experienced players. Creating a culture of improvement which is both inspiring and contagious within a dressing room.

There’s seems little point in throwing more of the precious wage budget at talents like Paul McLaren, Tommy Doherty, Michael Boulding, Graeme Lee et al when we continually fail to get the best from them, and then discard them without examining why. League Two has never been about having the best players, it’s about getting more from your players.

Off the field there is a lot of work to do, but lots of opportunities to get better. For all the criticism and scepticism aimed at the board recently, it’s worth remembering that they too want things to be better.
David Baldwin’s announcement about the new training facilities deal with Woodhouse Grove is incredibly welcomed. Negotiations with our landlords continue with the hope that a deal can be worked out that’s better for Bradford City.

We, as fans, can help make things better. Rival managers and players talk often of how the impatience of our large crowds can play into their hands. It seems odd that the greatest strength of our opponents is something we control. Let’s make that better.

Where Bradford City will be in 12 months time, in terms of both league position and physical location, is pure speculation at the time of writing. My only hope is that we all feel that we’re moving closer to where we want to be, and, as much as possible, enjoying the process of getting there.

As the rebuilding begins, let’s not immediately concern ourselves with being the best. Let’s focus on getting better.

In praise of Bradford City 1998/99

This article first appeared in the excellent football website The Two Unfortunates in February 2011.

The Crumbling Terrace: Pre-amble One
Towards the end of the 2008/9 season

There we are, on the crumbling terrace of Morecambe’s old Christie Park ground,, watching Bradford City and wondering how it all came to this.

It turns out in the game that City will be robbed a winning goal when Peter Thorne bundles in from close range and that a line’s flag twitch – the doubt going to Morecombe’s on loan Rene Howe – will bring defeat and more so bring to an end Stuart McCall’s expensively assembled side’s promotion push. Those things are for the future though because the more pressing problem is that the police are taping up a barrier in front of us telling us that we can’t lean on it because “a bit or pressure and it will be over.”

How did it come to this? Why did it come to this?

The Man Who Would Not Walk Again Takes Flight: Pre-amble Two
Late 1998

Ashley Ward has scored for Barnsley – recently of the Premier League – and they are going to sneak a 1-0 win at Valley Parade despite having only ten men but something in the Bantams psyche seems to struggle. Let us not kid ourselves, we have watched Bradford City team edged out of games, losing 1-0 and being a dash unlucky about it, for decades now.

There is something in Paul Jewell’s side which seems to denounce that idea. Jewell is a rookie, younger than his captain McCall at 32, but he seems to have built a team which has the character and desire that was sadly lacking from the man as a player.

Two goals were scored in injury time, both by Gordon Watson a player who 18 months early had almost lost his leg after a tackle described as “The worst I have ever seen in football” by Chris Waddle. This is his comeback game.

Watson had been taken from the pitch to hospital where he had almost lost his leg to a tackled six minutes into a local derby with Huddersfield Town. Kevin Grey’s “tackle” came when City were already one down and while an equaliser was scored the whole game was overshadowed by an horrific injury. Then manager Chris Kamara had burst onto the field in anger, his face turning sickly on seeing the wound. Everything was overshadowed.

Now he was back and in five minutes Gordon Watson scored two goals and turned a blank return into two points. Moreover though he maintained the belief that seemed to have dripped into the club under Paul Jewell. The manager from nowhere brought a belief from somewhere, and it had changed the club.

Two goals in five minutes. It seemed fated, everything seemed fated.

The Promise

May 1999

On the 9th of May at around 2:17 on a bright May afternoon Bradford City were promoted to the Premier Division of English football as runners up to Sunderland following a season which had threatened nothing at all.

The opening day – a defeat to Stockport – saw returning club legend Stuart McCall injured and was followed by two points in six games and suddenly it seemed that the team that cost a staggering £3.5m to build and included City’s first two £1m plus signings in Issiah Rankin and Lee Mills was going to achieve very little.

Hope came after a 2-2 draw with Sheffield United where the Bantams looked more than capable and belief came from that, or so it seemed, and that belief was cemented by the return of skipper McCall and a gradual climb up the table that included Barnsley, 2-1, and Gordon Watson.

Watson’s story seemed to typify the playing squad who had all come back from some kind of injury or – in the case of McCall – exile. A key figure in the club’s failed push for promotion in 1988 McCall always had “unfinished business” with City and so as he anchored the side using the wealth of experience that comes from an FA Cup final, World Cup goals, multiple titles with Rangers he made good on that promise.

When City were promoted – a 3-2 win at Wolves on the final day of the season securing it – it was very much McCall’s promise manifest. Certainly a season of performances represents something precious to any football supporter. We know, as supporters, that players are more mercenary than we would like to admit and when a player seems to match us for how much he cares we cherish that player.

And that group of players, in this case. Players who seemed invested in the outcome of the season which offered a deliverance for many. Watson from injury and the ghost that haunted him, McCall from the previous failure.

Peter Beargie had arrived a summer before under allegations – and later convictions – to do with a sexual assault while he was at Manchester City. Beagrie faced prison when he arrived in his first, ineffectual, season but the change of manager from Kamara to Jewell seemed to have focused the mind. Everything Beagrie did seemed to have a point to it, every cross made to perfection, hanging impressively for Lee Mills to arrive onto. At the end of the season three quarters of the club’s goals came from Beagrie, Mills or fellow striker Robbie Blake.

If Beagrie had faced prison then fellow winger Jamie Lawrence had been there. A convicted bank robber Lawrence had been something of a novelty on his release signing for Sunderland and then Leicester City but that novelty had faded and Lawrence wound his way to Valley Parade which seemed to be another step in a career of wandering but once again Jewell seemed to focus the mind, tell the player that his achievements were limited only by his belief.

This became Jewell’s hallmark with Bradford City and was a trick he repeated at Wigan Athletic. His ability to take a player and make him perform seemed to border on the magical and no more was this true than with idling forward Robbie Blake.

Blake was a bit part player transfer listed for being pulled over for drink driving in the week Diana died and incapable of nailing down a place in the starting line up despite the odd impressive performance. He was a slow right winger, able to show tricks but without the traction to stick in the team, until Jewell’s intervention.

Jewell got under Blake’s skin – famously they used to have bust ups with Jewell offering him nowhere to hide and dubbing him a “sulker” – but whatever the means the ends were impressive. Direct, skilful and cunning Blake formed a partnership with Lee Mills which tormented the division.

Blake’s anticipation allowed him to feed off the £1m costing target man Mills and grow into the type of player the manager himself felt he could have been had he had the application. The man who used to lay out Kenny Dalglish’s shorts Jewell’s playing career was a cautionary tale used to motivate the strikers he managed.

As a signing Mills – sadly – turned out to be a one season wonder after problems with drink cost him his place in the Premier League but for that season he represented some canny business for the club. Chris Kamara had been keen on Mills while the player was at Port Vale but it took Jewell’s determination to put in the £1m bid and secure the player. Belief, it seemed, was the watchword.

Another player who suggested much for some season and was anointed by Jewell’s belief was midfielder Gareth Whalley. Whalley, a £650,000 recruit from Crewe, became a midfield partner for McCall adding a sly pass to the captains driving heart. Darren Moore seemed too big, too cumbersome, to be a Premiership player but Jewell made him the defensive rock partnering him with one of Jon Dreyer, Andy O’Brien or Ashley Westwood on the basis of the opposition.

Gary Walsh, veteran of the Manchester United bench was as sure as one could imagine between the posts. He had a calm confidence about him that seemed to exude throughout the team. Walsh had left Old Trafford after collecting a lot of medals while hardly getting his kit dirty and ended up at Middlesbrough where he had been a small part of Bryan Robson’s Teeside revolution but in Bradford City he seemed to have found a place where his achievements would be recognised on the merit they had.

As a keeper Walsh was something to behold. Possessed of an unerring sense of positioning Walsh was the type of goalkeeper who seemed to suck the ball into his hands. Not for Walsh the need for acrobatics but rather a calm sense of seeming to play the next few second of an attack out and conclude where the best place to be to gather the ball at the end of it would be. A belief, if you will.

Late on in the season £1m brought Dean Windass to the club – a perfect match or player and team – but Windass’s contribution was minor although not insignificant. One bank holiday Monday at Bury with the team running on empty it was Windass who – like Watson before him – pulled three points out of seemingly nowhere.

Not that every signing Jewell made worked well. Full back Lee Todd was signed to replace club man Wayne Jacobs but Jacobs – as he would do all his career – saw off the challenge to win back his place. More obvious though was the £1.3m spent on Arsenal’s young prospect Issiah Rankin – a player of whom Jim Jefferies remarked “could not finish a bowl of cornflakes”- which proved profligate in excess.

A player with lighting quickness Rankin struggled for goals and after a fruitless pair of games at Huddersfield and at home to QPR was dropped for Blake to shift from the right hand side and Lawrence to join the team. Rankin never looked forward again.

Belief, it seemed, was lacking.

And It Was About Belief, Of Course
May 1999 and onwards

All these things eclipsed: The players, the manager, the belief; and they eclipsed in a game at Wolves that lead to two seasons in the Premiership, Benito Carbone, Stan Collymore and the story which is too often told. The first season in the top flight continued much of what had been good about promotion but the sense of hunger that Jewell used to feed the belief had gone. Within a month Watson was gone, Blake and Moore on the transfer list, and slowly things fell apart.

Those years continue to define the club – the financial fallout ruins the club to this day, we are the footnote in discussions about a Paul Scholes wonder goal – but seldom is the making of those days, how we got to a point where we could throw it all away, considered.

So a crumbling terrace in Morecambe and the failing of a promotion campaign and everything seems so far away now. Much further than the positions in the league and the comparison of Christie Park to Old Trafford or Anfield.

The reality of football is that most Autumns turn into hard Winters and joyless Springs. Most players want to achieve but fall short, most teams lack collective belief. This is not the game’s tragedy, the tragedy are those years having seen such a thing, and the wanderer waiting for its return.

What to want from the time remaining as City lose to Chesterfield

The Team

Lenny Pidgley | Lewis Hunt, Steve Williams, Luke Oliver, Luke O'Brien | Gareth Evans, Tom Ademeyi, Lee Bullock, Michael Flynn, Kevin Ellison | Scott Dobie | Jake Speight, James Hanson, Leon Osborne

Two thought tracks banded around in my mind as I was walking away from Valley Parade. One was a feeling of optimism, that if we show a similar second half spirit in the full 90 minutes against supposedly lesser opposition, Stockport, on Saturday then surely we’ll come away with a positive result. The other, more concerning thought, was whether Peter Taylor would be willing to set the team up the way he did in the second half (442), from the beginning, in the hope that playing positive football may in turn breathe some confidence and belief into players clearly lacking in these areas.

After having watched the Port Vale game on Friday night on the box it was obvious that City’s ambition and effectiveness was lacking with the 451/433 system that employed a front line of Dobie, Evans and Ellison. On that occasion, when 2-0 down, City switched to a 442 that included a lively Jake Speight and immediately seemed more likely to create goal scoring opportunities.

You would think then that after having a positive effect that this would be something that Taylor would employ from the start against table-toppers Chesterfield, in a bid to go toe-to-toe with League Two’s pace setters? Not the case. Back to 451. Speight back on the bench. The only change being the added steel of Lee Bullock for Leon Osbourne, which allowed Michael Flynn to push up in a midfield three.

In the first half City seemed to struggle with themselves, again looking confused as to what they were asked to do by their manager. At times they would hoof the ball aimlessly at an inter-changable front three in the hope that the one furthest up the field could hold up the ball and release either of the other front men. This proved ineffective and posed little threat to the Spireites, who were more than happy to play on the counter attack and force City to make the play.

On fifteen minutes, after another City punt forward had been collected by the opposition, it gave the away side the opportunity to break away down the left flank. A precise cross-field ball by Chesterfield midfielder Kieran Djilali, left Luke O’Brien indecisive as to whether to slide in or close down the on rushing winger Deane Smalley. O’Brien did neither leaving Smalley clear to smash the ball into the roof of Pidgley’s net.

Indecision seemed to be the theme of the half as City had the majority of possession but were often in two minds as to whether they should pass their way forward (a ploy mainly backed by the home support), or opt to by-pass the midfield in the hope that the forwards would hold up the ball for knock downs for the midfield. In the end neither tactic proved useful, leaving the half to meander to a close that was met with a chorus of boos from some City ‘fans’.

After a half time break of penny dropping, Speight was introduced and the formation switched to 442, one that oddly employed Speight up front with Flynn and Ellison and Evans on the flanks.

Speight looked a handful from the word go and caused the Chesterfield defenders problems that they had not had to face in the first 45 minutes. A number of Bantams’ chances were pushed upon the away team’s goal: Evans worked the keeper from the edge of the box; Speight turned on a few shots that went narrowly over the bar and when City introduced the Hanson in the 63rd minute, the partnership he made of providing knock downs for Speight to latch onto seemed to have City pushing for what would be a deserved equaliser.

Whilst City were looking brighter it was hard not to think that Chesterfield were playing comfortably in 3rd gear and if it were required then they could have raised their level a notch to cope with what City could throw at them. This being best exemplified by some neat play in the midfield followed by an accurate, powerful cross that dissected Pidgley and his defenders and only needed a tap in to put the game beyond doubt. A similar move resulted for City later on only to see the left foot cross of Flynn slice out into the Kop end.

City persisted to the final whistle and were vocally backed by all sides of the ground in search of an elusive equaliser. The best chance again fell to Speight, who wriggled his way past two defenders, feeding off a Hanson knock down, only to shoot on the turn and slice his effort over the top of the bar. It looked as if a little more match sharpness may have seen one or two or Speight’s efforts work the keeper more often.

His partnership with Hanson looked good, and for me personally, has been one I have been vying for all season as big man – little man combinations have proven successful in the past – cf. (Mills and Blake: 1998-2000).

For this reason I hope that Taylor takes note of the positives and attacking ambition shown in the second half and on Saturday, in a seemingly must-win game, I hope he opts not to cut off his own nose, but show the guts to play some positive football. It’s what the fans want, it seems to be what the players want and now we’ll see what Taylor wants from the remaining few months in charge of Bradford City.

Vintage Claret (and Amber)

After sitting inside Ewood Park for 30 minutes before kick off and witnessing the singing efforts of Blackburn Rovers’ supporters getting louder and louder, the temporary stunned silence former Bradford City striker Robbie Blake has just triggered left me wondering where to look.

Blake had just received the ball out wide, darted inside and unleashed a stunning curling shot which flew into the corner past former England keeper Paul Robinson to put Burnley 1-0 up over Blackburn Rovers in an East Lancashire derby they would go on to lose. I’m sat in the perfect position to appreciate the distance of Blake’s effort (I’m at Ewood Park thanks to a freebie, not a change of alligence) and as all around me Blackburn supporters are on their feet yelling abuse towards ecstatic Burnley fans at the other end of the field, I’m relieved no one has noticed my smile.

Robbie Blake, is it really eight years since you departed City? What are you doing here, scoring brilliant goals in the Premier League? When he departed Valley Parade, the move across the Lancashire border to Burnley felt like a sideways step, or even a move downwards.

Robbie Blake, the guy signed by Chris Kamara and then almost instantly placed on the transfer list for off-the-field misbehaviour. I remember meeting you a few weeks later when you and Craig Midgely attended a community programme which was also my poorly-paid summer job.  You joked with my then-boss about how Craig had to drive you about because you were banned, but I was too awestruck at meeting two City players to cringe or laugh along.

Robbie Blake, the guy who Chris Kamara belatedly put in the team mid-way through the next campaign as an early season promotion bid started to hit the buffers. Too bad it was too late to save him from the chop. Chris, what were you thinking persisting with John McGinlay? All he did was complain to the referee and stand by the opposition keeper as he tried to kick the ball forwards. Robbie came in and scored against Huddersfield, but after defeat to Man City the week after Kamara was gone. I used to appreciate Paul Jewell employing Robbie and Edinho together subsequently, shame you couldn’t sustain your form. Sent off on the last day of the season against Portsmouth, by the time you could play the following season there were two £1 million strikers in front of you.

Robbie Blake, part of the dream double act with Lee Mills. After winning your place, initially on the right wing, you helped the team recover from a bad start to join the promotion-chasing pack. We all liked Issy Rankin for a bit, but he kept missing chances even that fat guy who used to start anti-Peter Jackson chants on the Kop behind me could have scored. Then Jagger dropped him and Mills and Blake was formed. Each week it was Mills and Blake, or Blake and Mills, banging in the goals. That wonder strike you scored against Crewe, that double against Sheff United on the tele. You got the winning goal against Wolves on the final day after earlier setting up Mills’ effort which put us 2-1 up. As the person sat next to me at Molineux remarked near the end, it was the only two things you did that day. Still it got us promoted to the Premier League, so not bad going.

Robbie Blake, the star in waiting for our Premier League who threw it away. What were you doing handing in a transfer request on the eve of the season, Robbie? We were going to shock those pundits who said we’d be relegated by Christmas, and at the end of the season, after finishing comfortably mid-table, you’d be leading England at Euro 2000 as the next Peter Beardsley.  Two Premier League goals was all you managed that season. Mind you, Millsy wasn’t the most reliable guy when the chips were down either. Thank heavens for Dean Windass.

Robbie Blake, back to form in Division One. The second Premier League season was marginally better for you but not very good for City. Back in the Football League, you were the main man after Benito Carbone was loaned here and there, but the financial catastrophe was around the corner and £1 million from Burnley looked good business from the Bantams point of view. We quietly chuckled when you didn’t manage a goal for Burnley during the rest of that campaign. It was less amusing when you returned to Valley Parade and netted the following season, though.

Robbie Blake, adding to the heartbreak. In hindsight we were always doomed to relegation in 2003-04 season, but you didn’t need to add to our woes with three goals in the two games against us. I’ve rarely felt as heartbroken as the day you, your mate Brian Jensen and Ian Moore poured untold misery on us in the flukiest 2-1 away win you’ll ever see, with the winner from Moore deep in injury time. That was the day we were down and a part of this club died, which we’ve not yet been able to resuscitate. How did you sleep that night, Robbie?

Robbie Blake, back in the Premier League. I remember reading comments from then-Birmingham boss Steve Bruce when he signed you, which suggested he wasn’t convinced you’d prove to be a Premier League player. Two league starts and nine sub appearances later you were heading back to the Football League. I guess you never were Premier league class really, eh Robbie?

Robbie Blake, in a Leeds shirt. Less said the better I suppose, though you were part of the team which got relegated to League One. Thanks for giving us a chuckle.

Robbie Blake, back at Valley Parade summer after summer. Having re-joined Burnley we’ve seen you on the Valley Parade turf three pre-seasons in a row. Like with your previous returns for league games, there’s been a mixed response from City fans with some choosing to boo and others applaud. Me I’ve always been the applauding type, remembering that for how much you messed us about over that contract dispute and how disappointing it was you failed to find your best form in the top flight, you remain one of the most entertaining players to have worn claret and amber that I’ve had the pleasure to watch. I will always remember you for your mazy runs, your powerful drives at goal and your clever tricks and passes.

Thanks for allowing me to admire your brilliance again at Ewood Park today, even though I had to pretend to tell you to ‘eff off.

Five Questions About Bradford City in 2009/2010

Five questions about Bradford City in 2009/2010 were asked to a whole bunch of people connected to City from City officials to long time fans, from mascots to midfielders and naturally to BfB writers. Some people replied, others didn’t but these are the questions and then the answers…

  1. What are your hopes?
  2. …and your fears?
  3. What or who will be the most important thing for City this season?
  4. …and what or who will surprise us?
  5. And finally, how do you see next season ending?

Dan Horsfall
New BfB writer

What are your hopes? We are here as a club this time next year, with you asking this very same question. It’s a few years since we dodged that bullet, but I still feel pretty lucky whenever I realise that we, Bradford City, still exist. A shot at the play-offs would be nice as well.

…and your fears? Our big (league 2) club mentality cannot be shaken; ‘small’ clubs still see VP as a place where the bus should be parked (on the edge of the box), our fans still expect promotion and get on the players’ and manager’s backs. Macca leaves after Christmas, season over, tickets for the subsequent year never really take off.

What or who will be the most important thing for City this season? Zesh Rehman. Is he the ingredient that will alchemically transform our fortunes? Probably not, but he will be hugely important at the heart of our defence.

…and what or who will surprise us? How hard the division will be. It has been a poor division in the past, but this season you can think of maybe 10 teams who will fancy their chances of promotion. Not just the obvious, but the Rochdales, Daggers, Crewes – there will not be many easy away games. I also think Boulding could put in a decent shift, which would make all the difference.

And finally, how do you see next season ending? Sneak the last play-off place and enter the showdown as a team with confidence.

Jason Mckeown
City Gent and BfB Columnist

What are your hopes? As disappointing as last season turned out, it shouldn’t be forgotten it was the closest City have come to gaining promotion for a decade. But for that end of season collapse, a play off spot at least would have been achieved. Hopefully City can build on the positives from last season and finish in the top seven if not top three.

…and your fears? That a slow start to the season results in too many supporters turning on the team and manager Stuart McCall, feeding the sort of negative atmosphere that has undermined efforts on the field in recent years. Last season supporters were too quick to turn on the team. It was easy to sing and do Mexican waves when City were 5-0 up against Aldershot last March, but where was the backing for the players when Port Vale went 1-0 up two weeks later? Let’s get behind the team in victory and defeat, remembering it’s a long season.

What or who will be the most important thing for City this season? The ability to bounce back when things go against the team is vital. During the first half of last season we saw some brilliant fightbacks, for example at Accrington and Luton and at home to Chesterfield. During the second half of the campaign the spirit was lacking and there were too many collapses. When City fall behind, the players need to retain the courage and belief to come back.

…and what or who will surprise us? When reading about a new signing, the words “former Man United trainee” strikes heavy in my heart. I think of Eddie Johnson, Ben Muirhead and Ashley Westwood – all players who looked decent at times but ultimately came up short, appearing to lack something. Gareth Evans arrives this summer with that ex-Man U tag, but I remember been impressed by him when City beat Macclesfield at Valley Parade last season and think he could prove a shrewd signing. Could Evans become the first number 9 widely-liked since Lee Mills? Now that would be a surprise.

And finally, how do you see next season ending? Even though other teams in this division have bigger resources, there’s nothing to fear. A play off spot or even better should be achievable.

Lenny Berry
The City Gent, Mascot Legend

What are your hopes? My hopes are to at least get a play off position this season bit disapointed last year to say the least.

…and your fears? My fears are that we start of not so good and the rot sets in. Its all about getting stuck in.

What or who will be the most important thing for City this season? The most important thing I would think is keeping there head above water financially and 2nd promotion. Come on you Arabs we have a great mascot! lol

…and what or who will surprise us? Lot to choose from on that account with so many new players about looking at some of the young lads to give it a go and show the 2nd division its not all about money.

And finally, how do you see next season ending? I think we may end like I said in Q1 think maybe end up in the play offs at least. Looking forward to doing my stuff.

Tony Pasquariello
City Fan

What are your hopes? Today, 3rd August 2009, I have been to pick my season ticket up, and there was an air of optimism around the ground(everyone from the people in the ticket office to the people in the club shop were buzzing about the forthcoming season) Last season was a season of what-if’s. “What if we had done better against this team?, what if we had beaten/drawn against this team?”. In reality, last season we were 2 points, yes 2 points off the play-offs. But that is LAST season, and we need to build on that position.

…and your fears? My fear is that the team seem to be lacking a leader. An actual battler in the centre of midfield. No offence to the midfielders that go out there week in, week out, but someone in the centre to take a game by the scruff of its neck and turn it around. The captains armband has been given to Peter Thorne in recent matches, but realistically, he isn’t going to play every game.

Also, with new signings, a team takes time to gel, to work out how each other plays etc, and if it is not done quickly, this can sometimes prove costly. Pre-Season has gone well, only 1 defeat, but there still doesnt look to be any sort of leadership in the middle of the park.

What or who will be the most important thing for City this season? The single most important thing for City this season will be the fans getting behind the team 100%. Win or Lose. On the few occasions I managed to get to VP last season, I actually heard people Booing their own team!!

…and what or who will surprise us? I think that some of the younger players will be featuring in the squad more this season, and I think they will be the ones to look out for. Players such as Luke O’Brien, Rory Boulding, Jon McLaughlin and James Hanson. Players that have been on the fringe of the first team but have not seen regular first team action, I believe that it will be their year to shine.

And finally, how do you see next season ending? I can see this season being the year for us. We need to capitalise on the success we had last year. We are 3rd Favourites for promotion! Come on lads you can do it!!!

Dave Pendleton
From Bantams Past

What are your hopes? We’ll surprise ourselves and do very well.

…and your fears? That the moaners will turn on the young team – in particularly the keepers.

What or who will be the most important thing for City this season? Stay positive.

…and what or who will surprise us? If the fans remain positive…

And finally, how do you see next season ending? I can’t shake off the feeling that we’re in for more of the same. However, trying to keep in the positive mood, a late surge grabs us the final promotion place and Valley Parade goes insane!

Luke Lockwood
Young writer

What are your hopes? I hope is that we are competetive in the league and on the last day of the season are still competing for a promotion/play off spot to keep the excitement running until the end. And I also hope we manage to finally end the curse of the cups and manage a little run with a tasty third round away draw against one of the big boys.

…and your fears? My fears are that once again we miss out on even a play off spot, the fans turn their backs on our beloved Stuart and Luke O’brien scurries off on a free transfer with us receiving no more than a small ‘compensation’ fee. Furthermore Omar Daley returns at christmas but has lost his electric pace, without which he would be a very mediocre player, and Peter Thornes ageing limbs stop him from playing regularly or finding the net.

What or who will be the most important thing for City this season? Whoever takes the starting berth next to Lee Bullock in midfield. I’m not sure what we need is another Stuart but someone who can weigh in with a few goals. More of a Marc Bridge-Wilkinson, with Bully doing the ugly stuff. (Since writing Flynn has signed which seems to answer Luke’s worries)

…and what or who will surprise us? Mr.Eastwood in goal. I am unfortunate enough to live with a Town fan, who also works at club and from what I have heard Eastwood is regarded highly by our ‘friends’ down the road but they consider Smithies to be the best young keeper in the country and have just given him a 5,000 pound a week contract to fight of interest from Everton. Also Joe Colbeck, once before when everyone doubted him he went on to become player of the season. I expect him to do the same once more unfortunately due to his contract not being renewed it may result in us losing him.

And finally, how do you see next season ending? The league to me is so open this year and impossible to call. I think we will finish in the top 7 though, but miss out on the automatics. A big day out at Wembley to finish with and a sense of deja vu against Notts County!

Tom Warden
Singer/songwriter and freelance writer

What are your hopes? As they have been for the last 3 pre seasons, my hopes are to get out of the basement division, that we can avoid the traditional slump that seems to spoil every season and that we bantams might have something to celebrate after much frustration and disappointment.

…and your fears? I am afraid that we have not, as of yet (Again, Flynn’s signing came after this was written), filled that hole in the centre of midfield. It is an area where last year we were too often bullied out of games and should this happen again confidence may drop and the team may struggle. The defence and forward line look strong but it is someone to get stuck in and do the dirty work that we may be lacking, if only we could clone Stuart in his heyday…

What or who will be the most important thing for City this season? First of all, the fans. At too many times over the last few years abuse has been thrown at the players far too readily. We are supposed to be the 12th man, spurring our men on, not hurting their confidence because they put in one bad cross. By no means should we be blinkered but we should not be alienating players who can make a difference by getting on their backs. Shout until you’re hoarse and do your best to inspire, then if it goes wrong you can’t say you didn’t do your part. Secondly, whoever plays in goal. At the time of writing, we are going into the season without a recognised goalkeeper, Eastwood or McLaughlin may well step up but if they dont have what it takes, we are in trouble from the very beginning.

…and what or who will surprise us? I’m going to stick my neck out and say we’ll be surprised by the non-league boys. Hanson and Williams will be relishing the chance to play league football, especially at a club with ambitions of promotion and should be hungry to impress. Hanson’s record especially is impressive and with the improvement in quality at non-league level, making the step up is no longer the daunting prospect it once was. These guys should show the passion that has been missing in recent years.

And finally, how do you see next season ending? I see absolutely no reason why we cannot be looking at a top three finish. Injuries permitting we have a strong XI which is capable of beating any opposition in what I think will be a very open league.

A Question of Belief

In many primitive cultures any type of bad fortune, from earthquake to stomach ache, was explained by saying that “the gods are angry”. This was due to a lack of knowledge and understanding that, in many cases, science and reason now fills.

But the past doesn’t quite go away. The language of primitive belief is still with us in many aspects of popular culture and none more so than football.

The news that Stuart McCall is staying at Bradford City will be welcomed by many (not all) as a victory for reasoned thought over primitive belief.

When Stuart arrived in the manager’s office he brought with him the level of adoration often afforded to a deity based on his reputation as a player and his well-known love for the club. Such was the level of expectation from so many that the status of “messiah” was, unfairly, thrust upon him and we all know the pressures that kind of responsibility can bring.

Hopes started off high and remained so for most of the two seasons he has been in the job. Support both, vocal and financial, was there so all he had to do was “achieve”.

The signs and omens were so good for so long but then came the crisis of confidence that saw the dreams of so many destroyed. Some turned against him as the team and therefore, by association, the manager “failed.” The automatic promotion dream was replaced by the self-imposed target of the play-offs .But that too faded quickly as the promise of the Aldershot victory was followed by a series of results that was devastatingly unpredictable and, more worrying to the City faithful, unexplainable.

The adoration that Stuart carried with him seemed all but lost only to be rekindled in the final home game when the realism of “nothing to play for” became a show of belief in the manager that looked set to leave us.

Whatever the reasons, Stuart changed his mind and remains with us. Science and logic may provide some explanation but, for many fans, Saturday’s show on and off the field appeased their deity. With this came celebration and joy but there was a much greater realisation – the gods were not angry, they were human!

Whatever his status among fans now, Stuart the manager (and by the way how many clubs sing their manager’s praises using his first name?) is now with us in the real world, a world that deals with the contracts and budgets of a 4th. Division football club. Reality has definitely bitten and the expectations for the future should now also be real. Yes we will still be among the favourites for promotion next season but whatever is achieved it will be in a climate of constraint that exists in so many clubs.

Many fans will still choose to live in the world of unconditional belief but reality is no bad thing. I for one still have “idols” but I prefer my idols to be on the pitch.
The Gemini-like twin partnership of Lee Mills and Robbie Blake is gone and the like of it not seen since at V.P.. The former faded fast from view, the latter forced to spend time in the “Underworld” – Ellandworld? – before re-emergence in claret if not amber. Add to these the legendary Bobby Campbell, the iconic Dean Windass, even the totemic Barry Conlon, they are the ones that have been out there on the pitch expected to perform the miracles we have all craved.

Stuart as a player will always be revered. But Stuart the manager has chosen to stay and live among us in the world of men (and women).For that I am thankful. He may have arrived in a blaze of glory but I feared that his loss and the inevitable period of chaos that would follow would have been epitomised in his departure in a big yellow taxi. (Forgive the mixed metaphor.)

The legend on the pitch remains but surely we all now see the man in the manager – not a superior being. I am glad we still have Stuart McCall as manager, even if he has now lost his divinity!

Bantams In Partnerships

Football teams play good football when partnerships work together. Teams may be made up of individuals but that’s no good if they’re not working together. In the past we have had the SAS (Sutton and Shearer), Cole and Yorke, Bruce and Pallister etc. These have all been great partnerships – and all for successful teams.

Even at City we have known a few good ones. Mills and Blake and Jacobs and Beagrie are ones that stand out for myself. We’ve had the odd great individual, such as Windass and Carbone but, without a partner for them, the team suffered. And this is what gives me great optimism for the current City side.

Watching us play this season has been frustrating. We have the players who have the ability to do well, they just haven’t delivered on the pitch. There are many reasons being given as to why, but I think the most obvious reason is “lack of partnerships”, and especially ones that work. Watching the City side on Saturday against a poor Notts County I saw a side that was littered with partnerships.

First of all, at the back you have the captain Wetherall and Matt Clarke. Wethers looked rusty at the beginning of the season and Clarke wasn’t even in the side, but now, Wethers is back to his best and Clarke has become one of the vital members of the side – who can imagine the defence without him? They are solid.

On the left side you have Heckingbottom and Daley. Heckingbottom has been on and off this season, although mainly on, and the last few matches have seen good performances from him. Daley is you’re Marmite – you either love him or hate him. He frustrates at times, but against County got forward, got back and the inter-play between the two was good.

On the right it’s much the same story. Colbeck, having come back from Darlington, looks like the player from two seasons ago. Things may not go right all the time, but some great runs and crosses have seen him become the right winger for us. Backing him up is Williams. A bit like Wethers he started slowly, but is getting better all the time. His link up play with Colbeck is good and gets forward to support Colbeck, just as Heckingbottom does with Daley.

Up front, after nearly 30 games, Stuart seems to have stumbled on what most fans have wanted to try for a while – Conlon and Thorne. Fans favourite Conlon may not be scoring, but does the “donkey” work to great effect. Make no mistake though, Conlon is no donkey. He has a great touch, good vision and puts 100% effort in. Just a bit more composure in front of the net and goals will come. Composure is something his strike partner Thorne has in abundance. Injury has meant a delayed start to his City career but, now he’s with someone who can hold the ball and take the hits, Thorne is reaping the rewards. His hat-trick on Saturday showed that if you set him up, he’ll take the chances. Together they are making defending hard work for the opposition.

You may now expect me to go on about the partnership in the middle, however, as we’re 17th in the league everything cannot be rosy and this is the case in the middle. Although the Bullock/Evans partnership is in its infancy (like the Thorne/Conlon), it hasn’t been as effective. Bullock comes across as a decent player. On Saturday he didn’t seem to be involved much, but when he was he did everything well – certainly good to have in the side and a much needed spoil for his partner in midfield. Evans, however, has a question mark over him. Yes, we all know he does have a good touch, good passing ability and a great shot – but that’s not much good if it isn’t working. If Evans can get it right then the partnership in midfield could prove to be the best of the lot. If it doesn’t, Kyle Nix – my favourite of the season so far – stands on the sidelines waiting. He may be a left winger, but has shown can cut it in midfield and is dangerous going forward.

So, all in all, the City side is nearly there. We have a great square of partnerships around the pitch, we just need the centre one. If that can be built on, then 2008 could be more than we hoped for than at the beginning of December.

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