Making no excuses

It is all about excuses, and who has to give them.

Take Phil Parkinson for example. He stands accused after the 1-0 defeat at Macclesfield Town of making an excuse about referee Rob Lewis. Parkinson pointed out that his team – who have faced not one shot on target from inside the area in the last 180 minutes with the exception of that penalty – would have had something from the evening were it not for Lewis’ intervention. This was “making excuses” – or so we are told.

We get no excuse – the City fans who travelled to Macclesfield – about why the penalty was given and the Macclesfield supporters who shouted for a red card with some justification got no excuse from Lewis for what they were not sated. BfB tried to get the match report with our usual polite email to the Football League. We were told no. Rob Lewis need not give an excuse for ignoring the Laws of Football.

He may be called to give an excuse for his language towards Craig Fagan. It seems that Fagan asked Lewis about the booking he got and was replied to by Lewis swearing. Industrial language is not uncommon in football but the Laws of the game were used to send off players (and after the game) turning games and even seasons and we were told that there was no excuse for that behaviour. One wonders what Rob Lewis excuse will end up saying to the authorities, if they ask him as a result of the complaint City have put in about the official.

“Excuse” has been the phrase de jour for sometime around Valley Parade for some time. As a club “making excuses” has been verbalised from top to bottom of the club. Mark Lawn – when talking about training facilities – said that the lack of them could be used as an excuse while Stuart McCall and Peter Taylor were both “excuse making” when they talked about various issues which hampered their team’s performances.

Should a manager find something else to blame when the slings and arrows of Referee misfortune rain down on his team? Should he go straight to problem number two stepping over the first issue? When it comes to criticising officials Ron Atkinson had a hard and fast rule: “I never talk about Referees, and I’m not making an exception for that berk.”

What is Parkinson to do? His belief is that a robust team that do not concede will pick up points on the road. Michael Flynn’s red card stopped that robustness at Hereford, the penalty robbed a point at Macclesfield. If Parkinson can put hand on heart and say that he was happy with the performances otherwise then should he make something up rather than saying something that could be called an excuse?

Are we – as Bradford City supporters – really a community which is too immature to handle the interpretation of the game as the manager sees it and do we need to have that game retold to us in a way we find more palatable?

Which is not to say that Parkinson’s approach is to everyone’s taste, that is is great to watch or that it will work in the long term just that it is the approach that he has always used and the one he believes to be right. It is also the approach that many teams come to Valley Parade with and that has caused so many home reversals so it would be wrong to not point to a certain validity in the frustration game. If people are criticising Parkinson for using it away from home then they perhaps may recall if they criticised Colin Todd for not being able to break it down at VP.

The culture we have in the Bradford City community would reject excuses and anything that sound like excuses casting babies down Manningham Lane with bathwater to follow. It is to say that we have no truck with with anyone offering reason, it is the denial of the ability to be analytical.

Imagine if you will – and dear reader imagine it is so rather than questioning the premise if you have a mind to – that the only reason that Bradford City did not return from Macclesfield Town on Tuesday night with at least a point is because of atrocious Refereeing. Would you want to know that? Would you want to be lied to? Would you want Phil Parkinson to make changes to a team which would have performed well otherwise?

The question is yours to ponder, but as Macclesfield Town headed towards the play-off places and people without the ability to do basic mathematics said that City’s season was over they did so with an undeserved result, if you would take my opinion.

To paraphrase: “You train all week, you do everything right, and then Rob Lewis decides the result.”

City go onto Swindon Town to play against popular fascist Paolo Di Canio’s side who sit seventh in the division. The Robins are much talked about for the enigmatic Di Canio’s presence but more importantly they have not lost for five (four wins and a draw) which is a run started at Macclesfield.

City go into the game with Matt Duke in goal behind a back four which will probably see Marcel Seip step down to allow Andrew Davies to be recalled alongside Luke Oliver. Luke O’Brien is likely to come in at left back for the injured Robbie Threlfall and Liam Moore will retain his place at right back.

Adam Reed looks is unlikely to play – his loan deal is up on Saturday and he does not have a clause in his contract that guarantees him a place – so Richie Jones and Michael Flynn will reunite in the middle. Chris Mitchell is hoping for a recall either on the right or in a three while Michael Bryan will hope that Phil Parkinson opts for a flat four in the midfield which would give him a place on the right. Kyel Reid continues on the left.

Craig Fagan will start up front alongside or to the side of James Hanson.

The walking stage as City head to Macclesfield looking to build a running position

Functionalism seems the most fitting label when reflecting on the way Phil Parkinson has lined up Bradford City in the last three games, at least.

Functionalism is a theory that design (in this case tactics and team selection) should be determined by its practicality rather than by aesthetic considerations. Like buying a supermarket brand of baked beans because money is a little tight, aside from the slip up to Hereford, the Bantams have accomplished their objectives in a largely efficient manner. The style will have to come later.

A run of disappointing results had intensified the need to start winning at all costs, and so for now at least the attractive manner of passing football that had featured in the Bristol Rovers and Port Vale games has been shelved by Parkinson. That’s not to say City under Parkinson have become as dour as they were a year earlier under Peter Taylor, but there are certainly similarities in the more organised nature of the way City have played.

As the saying goes, you need to learn to walk before you can run. City couldn’t afford to carry on playing well but losing points, so for now we are watching a different approach that is proving more effective in grinding out results and slowly tightening up a defence which has been far too leaky.

Expect more of the same at in-form Macclesfield tonight. City have only managed to pick up three points on the road this season, and haven’t won in the league away from home since James Hanson’s first half header at Moss Rose six months ago did much to preserve the Bantam’s league status. Parkinson apparently adopted a more defensive approach in the last away match at Hereford but didn’t get the sufficient levels of performance from his players; but it seems plausible he will prioritise not getting beaten this evening over playing in the open way at Port Vale a month ago, which was highly unfortunate to go unrewarded.

Should the slow and steady improvement be continued, it will be interesting to observe when Parkinson begins to give his attacking players more of a free reign to show their flair. Perhaps he has looked back on his early games in charge and concluded he tried to implement that passing, expansive style of play too soon.

As much as we can say recent tactics are more in the thinking of Taylor’s ethos, the former City manager had his team playing in that manner from day one and made no attempt to disguise such intentions. Parkinson, you feel, is different. Complaints about the style of football he played in previous jobs are well-known, but you don’t get to be a scout at a club with the philosophy of Arsenal – like Parkinson was when out of work last season – by being anti-football.

The need to earn wins and push City away from the relegation worries is hugely important, but that doesn’t mean Parkinson has found a formula that he will stick to for the rest of the season.

So we watch recent performances with raised spirits by the results, a few tiny doubts about the approach taken but optimism that what the more stylish football glimpsed previously will be continued when the time is right and with better personnel (e.g. a more solid defensive platform from which to play attacking football). Right now, functionalism is the key. One hopes we’ll have fun this season too.

Macclesfield offer a much stronger test than City’s last three opponents. Without being disrespectful, there is a theory that clubs of the Silkmen’s type – that is to say clubs with low resources compared to others – tend to start seasons well, but fade away when injuries and suspensions become too testing for a small squad. Nevertheless with three wins from four and only one home loss to date, it is not the greatest of timing for City to face them.

A win for City tonight though and we’ll have our own three from four, and the mood around the club will improve dramatically. A defeat and – with tough games to come against Swindon and third-placed Cheltenham – doom and gloom will weigh heavily.

Matt Duke keeps goal despite a constant soundtrack of supporters demanding he is dropped for Jon McLaughlin (odd that, seen as at the end of last season McLaughlin was getting slated). For me, the relationship between supporter and goalkeeper is about trust and, at the moment, Duke struggles to hold ours. As such, every time a goal goes in we instantly question whether he should have saved it. When a goalkeeper has earned our trust, we don’t do that unless they make a notable mistake.

Duke was blamed by some supporters for Michael Jacobs’ thunderbolt strike for Northampton – which seems ridiculous. Equally I can’t understand why Hereford’s goals were labelled his fault the week earlier. He is getting slowly better, and we need to stick with him.

In the defence, Liam Moore and Robbie Threlfall sit either side of Luke Oliver and Marcel Seip. It was an encouraging home debut from the Dutch defender, who looked better when he didn’t have to think compared to a few occasions when he had time to assess his options. Perhaps he is the opposite of Steve Williams.  Two of the midfield four pick themselves, with Ritchie Jones and Kyel Reid both producing superb second half displays on Saturday.

Who will play alongside them is where the controversy will centre on, if the game is lost (because Parkinson has already seemingly past the honeymoon and has been attracting some strong criticism from some supporters,  so they will need some ammunition). While Adam Reed did okay on Saturday, Michael Flynn is playing far too well not to be recalled on his return from suspension. However, Reed may keep his place in the centre and Jones moved wide right.

If Parkinson does this all hell will break loose, because it means the promising Michael Bryan will have been dropped. Yet the functionalism theory dictates that playing with two out and out wingers away from home is a more risky strategy, and Parkinson does not seem shy of making such a tough call in picking Jones as a wide midfielder to give City a stronger central midfield. Personally I thought Bryan did well in flashes on Saturday, but some of the praise he received seemed a little over the top.

Up front Craig Fagan and James Hanson will continue, with Parkinson a big fan of the pair developing a partnership that showed initial promise on Saturday and at Burton a few weeks back.

There are plenty of other people waiting in the wings, but the likes of Jamie Devitt, Chris Mitchell and the injured Ross Hannah may have to wait patiently until the pressure on the team lessens to the point style can be prioritised again. Rarely has a Bradford City season being about the squad of players, rather than the first 11, in the way that this one is shaping up to be.

I have in my hand a piece of paper…

…or rather a collection of a pieces of paper stapled together in the top left corner. It was passed to me by Archie Christie – it has his first name under the staple – as part of the day we spent with him as an illustration of the work that get done at City.

I’m not going to tell you what is in the papers for reasons which will become clear, dear reader, but I can tell you what it says on the front. Under a large Bantams’ Badge reads the words “Bradford City Match Assessment” and under that – written in pen (although this is a photocopy) read the names “Macclesfield T” and “Northampton T”.

The date reads “17th of September” which was – according to the inscriptions – a dry and windy day.

For years, decades, I’ve heard about football clubs who “do their homework” on the opposition, who “have them watched” and for the first time I have the information (or a part of it) which Phil Parkinson and Steve Parkin will be looking over to plan City’s team.

It is a coincidence that paper I got was between is City’s next two opponents but probably not that scout Nigel Brown who authored the document – it carries his name – took in the match. Nigel Brown and Archie Christie talked about arriving at City and finding a filing cabinet marked scouting reports which had sub-divisions for each league and each letter in that league but absolutely nothing in them. If someone had been doing the homework at Bradford City before Christie and Brown then the dog had almost certainly eaten it.

It struck me in the weeks after embedding with him that Christie’s role at the club split down three lines none of which were having that much attention paid to them before his arrival. The first and most obvious was the player recruitment and development side which is an all encompassing one taking in watching players as well as the activities with the Development Squad. Then, most celebrated, is his deal making as seen in George Green’s move to Everton. Potentially Green’s move is the largest transfer between the fourth tier and the top tier of English football ever. Finally there is the homework side and preparing information for the first team’s manager.

Christie started the operation from an empty cabinet and was taking in a game at Halifax Town when he bumped into Brown – Brown told us that most Scouts know each other – and Christie invited him to come in and help with the network. The pair of them assembled a team of around a half dozen scouts up and down the country. There is a private scouting network which clubs can subscribe to which provides information on any team for a fee which might account for where Peter Taylor was getting his information on visiting teams but Brown is sceptical about the merits of that. It struck me that if the aim of scouting teams is to find weaknesses then a report that is freely purchased by anyone will detail faults that a manager would be a fool not to fix. Christie and Brown’s scouting – if it contains a note on how a team can be got at – is known only to City.

The scouts (including Christie and Brown) go watch League Two games, non-league games, reserve games and fill in the type of form which sits in front of me today. The approach is detailed. Reserve games are important in case of suspensions forcing a change to the starting eleven while non-league games (and higher reserve games) allow information about players who may end up being recruited by the opposition. Christie tells a story of Dagenham being undone by a player who had not featured in the first team but cropped up on a Tuesday night on the south coast to frustrate the Daggers.

There was an obvious question about what Christie’s scouting network had thought about the City teams he had faced. Christie did not say anything against anyone who had stalked the halls of Valley Parade before him but the impression I got was that at Dagenham City’s team under Stuart McCall was considered to be nice to look at but soft in the centre and easy to get at, easy to beat. I loved watching Stuart’s side’s play expansive football but I’d have to agree with that analysis.

The empty cabinet is an interesting idea but we know that in the past managers at City have talked about watching clubs – Stuart McCall’s post-game interviews would often include a reference to having seen the team before – but the image remains. John Hendrie once talked about how City would often see unknown faces around the training ground who turned out to be the opposition scouts finding out the team for Saturday.

So one assumes that there must have been paper in this cabinet at some point, files on teams and players filled by McCall (who took a scouting role for Norwich after he left City), Colin Todd or whoever, but the open space tells a story of its own.

That story involves the recruitment of a scouting network to watch teams 70% of which are based in the South. It involves a network of contacts built up who fulfil Brown demanding criteria. Brown worked with Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn Rovers having a hand in the signing of Alan Shearer for £3.5m and the sale of him for “£16.75m” (which is not the figure widely circulated, but the one Brown told us) after “getting the best years out of him.” After working with Dalglish – “He never watched games, loved his videos” – Brown moved onto Wigan Athletic as Dave Whelan started building his tier three club built to compete at the top level from the ground up. Brown is the sort of man you hope a scout is, quietly spoken but deeply knowledgeable and with a steel in his eye for a player. While Christie believes that desire is the thing to look for in a player Brown wants acceleration over five yards. The two are a great combination – Christie calls Brown “Nigel Green” and Brown smiles back. “I can’t do the negotiations like Archie can” he went on to say.

The scouts who Brown and Christie got to join City were tasked with watching City too – the City they watched being the one which Mark Lawn commented on last week – and gave their opinions. Perhaps these informed Lawn’s comments and Parkinson’s changes since he took over. Certainly there were recurrent themes in the reports which Christie and Brown got back and it seems to me that those have been addressed, or have been attempted to be addressed.

The aim of the opposition scouting networking is to provide the manager with everything he could want. It is then up to the manager and his coaching staff to decide how much notice he wants to take of that information. Not all managers are interested but what I have in front of me makes fascinating reading and I could see no reason why a manager would not welcome this with arms open. The Damned Utd (not an historical source but a cracking read) has Brian Clough refuse to look at Don’s Dodgy Dossiers on the opposition, real life tells us he had Peter Taylor watching every inch of opponents.

Without showing the report it is hard to illustrate what it has in it but the circulated version of a report on Newcastle United written by Andre Villas-Boas when he was scout at Chelsea offers similar (although City use numbers and not pictures of shirts) and is indicative of the level of research which goes into preparing for a game.

There is no Bradford City Official Secrets Act (aside from Christie tell us not to go showing the report around, it has not left my office physically or virtually since) but I think it is best if what we know about them stays under wraps for now but I recall watching City over the past thirty years and seeing the odd event that would have been captured in this document and would not have poised a problem. The Paul Merson/Benito Carbone short corner that unlocked City in the Premier League, the wall of tiny Wigan players who created themselves in front of City’s wall at a free kick in the late eighties only to break off and leave many bemused and little else, Peter Jackson and Chris Branston’s antics from a corner at the McAlpine in the mid part of the decade.

Simple things like the fact that a number three might play in central midfield and not left back to more technical and detailed lore. The experience of watching City play Northampton Town at Valley Parade will, for me, come with a crib sheet and I wonder how that will change the way I see the game. When he was Coventry City manager Gordon Strachan was fond of appearing on Match of the Day saying how he and his players had worked all week on doing one thing and – for reasons of their own – the players had decided to do something else. I wonder if I will see the same.

Northampton Town arrive at Valley Parade on the back of a 3-0 defeat by Port Vale which saw questions asked but in generally rude form. They are seventeenth in the table.

City go into the game on the back of a disappointing result at Hereford United and have before them a familiar set of criticisms. Matt Duke is criticised because he could have been better positioned for the goals that Hereford scored (or so it is said) although the best position is always “in the way” and “not in the way” seldom has any merits. Duke’s single clean sheet was last time out at Valley Parade against Torquay United.

Luke Oliver and Marcel Seip are expected to retain the central defensive positions although Steve Williams is returning to the reckoning. Liam Moore and Robbie Threlfall will be full backs although looking at the report I might be… No, best not.

Michael Flynn’s two game suspension sees him sit out the match and allows Adam Reed and Richie Jones to take the middle positions with Kyel Reid wide left. Phil Parkinson could be tempted to drop Jamie Devitt to wide right, recall Mark Stewart for that position or give Chris Mitchell his place in the side back. City have missed Mitchell’s delivery in recent weeks. David Syers’ injury and Flynn’s suspension open the possibility of Scott Brown getting a place on the bench.

Craig Fagan is starting to be cemented into the forward line up in James Hanson’s absence though injury. Hanson may return and take a place in the starting line up although if he is not fit Parkinson may continue with his policy of having a man lead the line and another feeding off him and deploy Devitt or Stewart behind Fagan. All link men – the position in question – are judged by a standard of Peter Beardsley and Stewart seems most able to find space and move the ball on then make for an attacking position but Devitt’s game could be tweaked to do the same.

Such talk is the talk of scribbles on paper though – attacking diagrams done on beer mats – and football is played on grass and not paper. Some pieces of paper, however, certainly are worth a read before the boot sets foot on turf.

2011/2012 IV/IV: The teams

Following last season’s disappointment a new air of optimism currently surrounds the much changed, younger City squad compiled by Peter Jackson, but what can we expect from those who the Bantams will line up against in the new season?

With the loss of Bury, Chesterfield, Stockport and Lincoln from League 2 last time out, the division this year has taken on a very Southern feel with the addition to the League of Plymouth, Bristol Rovers, AFC Wimbledon, Crawley Town, Swindon and Dagenham & Redbridge. It seems that away day dedication will be pushed even further this year, with City set to clock up the miles – where are the Peter Taylor over night stays when you need them!?

The Favourites

For the first time since City were relegated to League 2 they have not been tipped for automatic promotion, that acclaim has gone to the league’s big spending new boys Crawley Town. Following last season’s romp to the Conference title and lucrative FA Cup run, only ended by the champions of England, Crawley have flexed their financial muscles once again signing the likes of Wes Thomas (Cheltenham) and Tyrone Barnett (Macclesfield) on huge salaries. Although popularity amongst other teams and fans will be in short supply, this is unlikely to phase Steve Evans who appears to have unlimited funds to see that the Red Devils make it back to back promotions. And with the likes of Dagenham and Stevenage proving that it is not impossible to make that immediate leap, it is unsurprising that the club have been highly backed at the bookies. Former Bantam Scott Nielson is still on the books and will no doubt be on the end of a ‘warm’ welcome when returning to VP, following comments he made after his City exit.

Hot on the promotional heels of Crawley are fellow league new boys Swindon Town. Over the summer they have introduced some Italian flair on the touchline following the appointment of Paolo Di Canio. Expect much gesticulation and passion when the Bantams meet The Robins in the final game of the season (and that’s just from Jackson!). In the close season Di Canio has signed the relatively unknown Oliver Risser and appointed him the club’s captain as well as several established League 1 players. Also don’t be surprised if a few hot prospects from the Premier League turn up on loan over the coming weeks – I’m sure Paolo will still have Mr. Redknapp’s phone number!

Former Torquay boss Paul Buckle will be hoping that he can use his League 2 experience to guide league newcomers Bristol Rovers back into League 1 at the first attempt. Signing the likes of Chris Zebroski (you may remember him drop kicking Matt Clarke in the face!) and Joe Ayinsah (Charlton), expect attacking football from The Pirates who visit VP in September.

As well as the new boys, League 2’s bridesmaids Shrewsbury Town have also been tipped to go well again this year. Following play-off disappointment for the past three seasons “Salop” will be hoping they can go one better and achieve automatic promotion this year. In the close season Graham Turner has signed proven League 2 players such as: Marvin Morgan (Aldershot); Andy Gornell and Joe Jacobson (Accrington) and will be hoping that these will provide the extra ammunition to get The Shrews over the line.

“Local” Rivals

With the loss of so many Northern teams from the division, local rivalries are few and far between for the Bantams this year. Nearest geographically are Rotherham United, who despite the loss of player maker Nicky Law to McGod’s Motherwell, will be hoping for a strong season under relatively new boss Andy Scott. Scott’s first priority will be to keep hold of the much coveted Adam Le Fondre, whilst quickly hoping he can get the best out of hard-working City reject Gareth Evans (‘The goal is that way Gareth…’). The Millers will be trying to make sure that they don’t fall away as they have in previous years despite promising starts. City host Rotherham in November, with the away leg early in the New Year.

One time City managerial target John Coleman, will be hoping that Accrington Stanley will be able to maintain their strong form of last year despite losing their best players to other teams (Ryan, McConville, Gornell). Coleman will have to manage once again on a shoe-string budget and has so far snapped up the likes of defender Danny Coid (Blackpool) and young striker Kurtis Guthrie, whilst former Bantam Rory Boulding still features in the squad. Expect Stanley to finish mid-table this year as the loss of quality players will surely take its toll.

Morecambe (Bradford-on-sea) are entering the new campaign with a rallying cry in the hope to recapture the ‘fortress’ mentality of Christie Park at their new home ‘The Globe Arena’ (incidentally it’s not an arena, it has 3 sides!). Shrimps boss Jim Bentley will be hoping the combative style of former Bantam loanee Kevin Ellison will help them improve on a disappointing 20th position, achieved last time out. A big City following will once again will flock to Morecambe in early September, with the return fixture at VP in mid-January.

Conference Call

Gary Simpson’s Macclesfield Town have been made favourites for relegation to the Conference this year. Despite a comfortable 15th place finish last season The Silkmen are tipped to struggle, with bookmakers offering them at 2/1 to drop into non-league. The Moss Rose outfit will be hoping that new signings Waide Fairhust (Doncaster), former Bantam Jonathan Bateson (Accrington), along with others like the quick forward Emile Sinclair, will be enough to steer them clear of trouble.

Second favourites to face the drop are Cheltenham Town, following their disappointing second half to last season, which left them with a 17th place finish – one place above the Bantams. This is not a sentiment shared by the Robins new signing Sido Jombati, who claims the club should be aiming for promotion. Cheltenham have invested mainly in non-league players, much the same as City, with the hope of bringing success to Whaddon Road next season.

Once again Barnet have been backed to struggle this term, despite retaining the majority of their top performers from last year. Lawrie Sanchez continues as boss as the Bees aim to gain compensation for the move of last year’s demi-saviour, Martin Allen, to Notts County. With plenty of forward options in the form of Izale McLeod, Sam Deering, Steve Kabba and Mark Marshall (remember him embarrassing City last year?), Barnet will be hoping that they can sort out their defence which saw them leak 77 goals last season.

Hereford United will be hoping to make things a little more comfortable this year following their close shave for survival last season. Former ‘physio’ boss, Jamie Pitman, has signed the likes of Delroy Facey (Lincoln) and Stefan Stam (Yeovil) in the hope of playing attacking, entertaining football next term. The Bantams travel to Edgar Street in late October, with the Bulls coming to VP in February.

League Newcomers

Cash-strapped Plymouth Argyle will face a race against time to assemble a squad before the big kick-off on the 6th of August. With the likely take over by Peter Risdale not yet finalised and the club selling off the ground and its land to a third party: ‘Bishop International’ (sound familiar!?) it will be a success just to put a team out for the Pilgrims next season. Already potential signings have swerved away from the financially stricken club, Antony Elding (Rochdale) opted to sign for non-league Grimsby despite initially agreeing to sign for Plymouth. Survival will have to be their first priority and it is hoped that with the re-signing of influential defender Stephane Zubar, others will follow to sign up for Peter Reid’s cause.

The Crazy Gang return to Valley Parade next season and it is expected that they will bring more than 53 fans when they visit Bradford in late-September. Following five promotions in nine years, since their formation in 2002, AFC Wimbledon will take their place in the football league once again. They will start the campaign without last season’s top goalscorer Danny Kedwell, who has signed for Gillingham, but have retained the services of their player of the season Sam Hatton. Boss Terry Brown has signed up several new recruits: Jack Midson (Oxford); Mat Mitchell-King (Crewe); Chris Bush (Brentford) and Charles Ademeno (Grimsby) in hope of maintaining the club’s position in League 2 next year.

John Still’s Dagenham & Redbridge return to League 2 following only one season in League 1. The one-time City managerial target has managed to maintain the majority of his squad, but has lost key man, and former Bantams’ target, Ramon Vincelot to Championship new-boys Brighton. The Daggers are expected to finish mid-table this time out and will face the Bantams at VP in August, with the return fixture at Victoria Road in March.

Familiar Faces

Burton Albion boss Paul Peschisolido has signed several attacking options over the close season with the intention of pushing the Brewers further up the table than their 19th place finish last season. The Nottinghamshire club will be hoping to avoid the fixture congestion that plagued them last year. New signing Justin Richards (Port Vale) should be the main attacking threat and City play Albion away in October, with the home fixture in January.

Dario Gradi will take charge of Crewe for his 26th season at the helm. With the loss of Clayton Donaldson over the summer, Alex striker Shaun Miller will be hoping to fill the former Bradford youngster’s boots and build on his own 19 goal haul last season. Crewe have been internally backing themselves for promotion this year and will aim to get there playing attractive, technical football, the likes of which the Bantams experienced on the last day of the season.

Gary Johnson’s Northampton Town will once again carry high expectations into the coming season, with their expectant fans insisting that they improve on their disappointing 16th place last season. With a glut of new signings, including big striker Adebayo Akinfenwa, the Cobblers will enter the 2011/2012 season with aspirations of reaching the play-offs. City face Northampton at VP in late October and travel to the Sixfields Stadium in April.

Former City man Chris Wilder will be entering the new season in the hope that his Oxford United team can build on their promising first season back in the football league. Ex-City flop Paul McLaren will take his place for the U’s next season and will hope for more consistency in League 2 this time out. Experience seems to be the order of the day for Wilder who has also recruited former Leeds player Michael Dubbery and ex-Bury goal keeper Wayne Brown.

In a repeat of last season, Micky Adams will lead out Port Vale and will want to finish the job he started before leaving for a forgettable stay at boyhood club Sheffield United. Marc Richards remains the main danger man for the Stoke club and will hope that he can find sufficient support from new signings Gary Roberts (scorer for Rotherham from halfway at VP) and fellow striker Louis Dodds. Vale face the Bantams at Vale Park in September and at VP on Valentine’s day.

On the Buses…(or coaches)

Industrious Aldershot will be hoping to build on their solid 14th place finish last time out. The Bantams play host to the Shots on the opening day and will have to be wary of the goal-threat of defender Antony Charles who had success against the Bantams last year. Dean Holdsworth will be hoping that the recent loan deal for Reading’s attacking midfielder Jake Taylor will help get the Shots off to a flier… obviously after losing to City!

Gillingham have made several signings over the summer and diminutive boss Andy Hessenthaler will be hoping that by signing non-league success stories like Danny Ked well (AFC Wimbledon) will be enough to push the Gills one step further than their play-off spot last year. Hot striking prospect Adam Birchall, signed from Hessenthaler’s former club Dover, is already facing a 6 month lay off with knee ligament damage, which will leave the Priestfield club on the look out for another ‘Cody MacDonald’ type player from the loan market.

Southend will enter the new season hoping to gain the consistency that saw the play-offs elude them last year. Shrimpers boss Paul Sturrock has made several signings to complement last seasons top performers Antony Grant and Barry Corr. City will once again travel to Roots Hall on a Friday night (Decemeber) and will host the Essex club, again on a Friday night, in April.

Torquay boss Martin Ling will want his side to go one better this year to soar into League 1. In order to replace target man Chris Zebroski the Gulls have signed former Morecambe hitman Rene Howe, and have strengthened their midfield with the signing of left-sided trickster Ian Morris (Scunthorpe). City travel to the English Riviera in mid-February (Brrrr…) and host the Gulls at VP in early October.

Bradford City beat Macclesfield 1-0

Peter Jackson’s Bradford City beat Macclesfield Town at Moss Rose Ground 1-0 thanks to a first half goal from James Hanson.

The ninety minutes saw City enjoy the lion’s share of the game losing Hanson after an hour to injury. The win moves the Bantams to 15th in League Two on 47 points nine ahead of Barnet in 23rd. Last season’s 23rd placed club Grimsby Town were relegated with 44 points.

BfB has no report – transport problems – but will be back on Saturday as City face Torquay United at Valley Parade.

The usual answers to the usual questions

If there’s one recurring theme over the past decade of utter Bradford City failure, it is the futility of sacking managers. So often, it seems, a change of who occupies the dugout has been presented as the only solution to chronic under-achievement, but never has this course of action worked out in the way it was hoped. And as Peter Jackson struggles to revive the Bantams after taking over from Peter Taylor six games ago, it seems that once again the supposed remedy hasn’t cured the problem.

Jackson’s record now reads won 2, drawn 1 and lost 3. The 38% win ratio is exactly the same as Taylor delivered over 32 games. The league position remains unaltered, and is unlikely to improve enough over the final eight games to avoid a worst league finish since 1966. The cold hard facts are that removing Taylor as manager has not improved City’s fortunes in the short-term.

Of course that doesn’t mean Taylor was doing a decent job after all. He was the one who badly utilised an increased summer budget and who must assume a huge amount of responsibility for such a dreadful campaign. But the players clearly must shoulder much of the blame too, and Jackson’s failure to revive them – other than an initial short-term boost – shows that the idea under-performers could quickly become over-achievers simply by switching around who selects the formation is flawed.

Or put it another way – changing managers mid-season generally doesn’t work.

Any time this viewpoint is expressed, a counter-argument inevitably arises that points to examples of other clubs who have been transformed by giving their unpopular manager the boot. The latest one to use could be Martin Allen, who since taking over at seemingly relegation-doomed Barnet has achieved a very good come-from-2-0-behind draw against the leaders and incredibly vital win at Burton.

Indeed listening to Allen’s Burton post match assessment offered some fascinating insights. Allen has decreed that the players should simply enjoy the rest of the season, forget worrying about what they eat and the tactics of the opposition as they will simply play five-a-side in training every day. Such a dramatic change in approach has clearly worked so far, but whether Barnet stay up or go down one doubts the players will begin next season eating pies and neglecting the tactics.

It is a short-term trick because Barnet need a short-term miracle. Inspirational management perhaps, but hardly a model for other clubs to copy unless in a similarly hopeless position.

Allen’s Barnet revival is still the exception rather than the norm, and for a section of City support and members of the Boardroom to believe the Bantam’s fortunes can be altered by sacking whoever the latest unpopular manager happens to be, mid-season, after so many repeated failures remains a bone of contention. I write this as someone who had lost support for Taylor – though was not in a rush for him to leave mid-season like others. I believe Taylor would probably have turned things around had he remained, albeit no where near enough to mount a late play off charge and to be deserving of a new contract.

So what to make of Jackson? It seems unfair to dismiss his chances on the basis he has done no better than Taylor with the same set of players, because of the repeated failure of changing managers mid-season. Put Jackson in charge last summer with Taylor’s budget and a fairer comparison could be made. That is implausible of course, and Jackson looks set to be overlooked in favour of someone else who in time we hope will be a success, but over this recent six-game period is unlikely to have done any better.

City have put off putting season tickets on sale until the managerial appointment is belatedly made, and it appears the Board is looking to generate the type of feel-good atmosphere a new manager usually triggers in order to convince those yet to renew to sign up for next season. Unless Jackson can win two of the next three games between now and the big decision – starting tonight at Macclesfield – it seems highly likely someone else will get the job, as Jackson cannot provide that feel-good boost.

Is season ticket sales a fair consideration when choosing the next manager? Probably not, and it is worth recalling the negative reaction to Paul Jewell being appointed permanent manager after an underwhelming end to the season in a caretaker capacity, back in 1998. Then-Chairman Geoffrey Richmond was able to observe up close the qualities in Jewell that would become so prevalent to the rest of us that following season, after he was able to build the team he wanted rather than being stuck with a squad inherited from his predecessor mid-season.

Yet the short-term impact was a reduction in season ticket sales. Richmond remarked a year later on the decision to appoint Jewell, “We lost a couple of thousand season ticket holders…my mailbag was horrendous that summer.”

With such limited investment for next season, it’s a fact of life that the modern day Bradford City has to consider season ticket sales when deciding who to appoint. A poor return from the next three games, and it would take a very brave Board to appoint Jackson as manager next season. The loss of season ticket holders could prove even worse than in 1998.

So Jackson needs a result tonight and, after Barnet’s win over Burton, so do City. Avoiding relegation seemed all but assured after the Morecambe win, but one or two more wins are needed from the last eight matches to ensure there is no shocking ending to this disastrous season. City have two games in hand, starting tonight, but Burton’s failure to make the most of their games in hand following a winter of numerous postponements is a stark lesson of the dangers on relying upon them. When City’s home game against Burton was called off in January, Burton were considered play off candidates. Instead they face a nervous end to the campaign which City themselves hope to avoid.

Expect some changes tonight, with Luke Oliver set to return at the back and Lewis Hunt pushed to right back. Hunt has impressed greatly in the centre, but a back two of he and out-of-form Steve Williams is hardly the strongest and the commanding presence of Oliver should help a defence which has looked marginally better with him in it all season. Luke O’Brien continues at left back with Jon McLaughlin in goal.

In midfield it seemed Jackson had found a greater balance a few weeks ago as the previously overlooked Jon Worthington impressed, and the fact the last two games have ended in defeat with Worthington not involved is hardly a coincidence. Expect him back tonight alongside Tom Adeyemi or David Syers, with Michael Flynn probably dropped to the bench. Gareth Evans finds favour as a wideman but struggles for his best form, while Leon Osborne or repeated underachiever Scott Dobie will be wide left.

Up front James Hanson has had a disappointing second season and a growing minority of critics have, as usual, displayed goldfish memories in forgetting how good he can be. Who he will partner tonight is unclear, with Dobie, Jake Speight and Chib Chilaka vying for an opportunity.

The sight of Oliver up front in the closing stages on Saturday underlines how their are no new answers to the club’s predicament. Jackson must make the most of what he has, in order to earn the opportunity to show what he could really do.

Macclesfield Town game off

City’s trip to Macclesfield Town has been called off owing to a waterlogged pitch which is captured by this photograph from Shane Duff who tweeted “Can’t believe they made us travel. Back to Bradford for training.”

The Moss Rose Ground has been subject to heavy rain over night which has left the pitch unplayable.

Silkmen chairman Mike Rance hit a disappointed note saying

We’ve been pumping water from the corners for the best part of two hours, but the water levels are so high that is was always going to be a losing battle. I understand Bury and Altrincham are also off and such has been the downpour I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more matches get called off.

Should Barnet win at Northampton and Stockport win at Torquay then Macclesfield would drop into the bottom two with Burton Albion – due to play Bury – put at the bottom of the division having played eight fewer games than Stockport. That is 17% of the season – including a game at City – which Burton have to play.

City will drop below either Lincoln City or Hereford United depending on the result of the game between those teams who play today but no further leaving the Bantams 19th going into next week’s home game with Peter Taylor’s former club Wycombe Wanderers.

Thinking about when Bradford City need to replace Peter Taylor

There is an increasing desperation about Bradford City’s scramble for points to turn a season that was tipped for first place into one that avoids last or second last and one is reminded about the Liverpool legend Bill Shankley’s approach to his side’s seasons.

His lessons seem amazingly apt for City – a team which bookmakers and the board believed were going to be promoted as Champions. “First,” the Scot would say, “get the points to stay up and then take it from there.”

Hindsight is easy, but the club talks about promotion to the Championship until it is forced to face the reality of attaining a number of points to stay in the Football League. This happens season on season and perhaps it is time to learn from that when thinking about where things have gone wrong.

Tuesday night could not have been clearer as to where the team faulted following an ill advised shift to 424 that exposed David Syers and Tom Ademeyi in the midfield. After game Peter Taylor did not name the man he felt was responsible for the second Lincoln goal but spoke specifically about someone having not done the job of covering Syers – Ademeyi, one assumes – and from this cascade worries about the manager’s credibility in the dressing room.

Supporters are important to a club – and so is supporter confidence – but more important is the confidence of the players that following their manager will lead to success. When this is lost – when the players no longer believe that doing what the manager says will win games – then seldom does a team perform well. This – more than anything else – what the throw away phrase “lose the dressing room” means.

Going back years to Terry Yorath’s departure as City manager captain Mark “Two Fingers To The Elland Road Kop” Aizlewood was quick to defend the manager insisting it was the players who were to blame for the results and making a note that Yorath was doing the right things, but that they were not coming off for the team.

He still believed, Yorath still “had the dressing room” so to speak.

Jake Speight – when at Port Vale on loan – was quick to say how much he favoured Mickey Adams’s techniques over Peter Taylors citing the fitness levels brought by both managers. Speight is an edge case – disgruntled for some reason which I would not care to speculate on – but he clearly does not believe that what Peter Taylor is doing will bring success to the club.

Players will do a lot for a manager they believe in. If Taylor has taken Tom Ademeyi to one side and told him that he should have been standing five years behind Syers against Lincoln in case his only midfield partner lost the ball then Ademeyi could be excused for wondering that if he were there who would be covering the rest of the midfield?

That thought in his head – as it is in mine – it is hard to imagine how belief in the manager’s instructions can be sustained.

Which is not the same as militancy in the players nor should it be mistaken for that. Omar Daley was booed off after seventy minutes of Tuesday night’s game ostensibly for the crime of following his manager’s instructions.

Daley was hemmed in, seemingly told that he needed to reduce the gap between himself and the full back (which has been a massive problem and a massive gap) and critically to not go past his full back to be hit with the kind of ball into the channel behind the full back which he so enjoys running in, and he performed that task to the best of his abilities.

He seldom looked happy with the task he was given – it is not his natural game to have the ball fed into his feet, get clobbered by the defender, and then lay it off – and his body language is more expressive than most but he was obviously doing what was asked of him.

Booing him for that – to me – is akin to booing Luke Oliver for playing up field. To boo a player for doing what he is told is a call for militancy in the dressing room and for a player to turn to the manager when given the instructions to play in a way he does not like and tell the manager to shove it.

However any one of the ten other players on the field watching Daley trundle off to boos for doing what he was told to do will have looked at Peter Taylor in the dug out and again had cause to question their belief in the manager and his methods.

The methods are not working, they will not be changed, and the players are suffering. How long until they stop believing they ever will? Have we passed that point already?

Increasingly it seems that Taylor’s flaw is in his intractability in his approach to the squad. Taylor has a way he wants the team to play but he does not have the players to achieve it not because they are especially poor (or because they are especially good) but because they are not suited to the manager’s methods.

Taylor’s system at the start of Tuesday night required the two wide strikers to get the ball back to goal, lay it off and follow play on and in Gareth Evans he has a player who can do that as can the injured Leon Osborne but Daley is less able to.

Any manager has a choice of approaches in this situation. He either resigns himself to not playing with these two players because he only has Evans who can fill the role and uses a different tactic or he plays the way he wants to play, and tells the players to adapt.

The key concept being if the manager looks at the squad and picks that approach, the tactics, the formation to suit the players he has or tries to make the squad suit the approach. Taylor fails squarely into that second camp so rather than stopping playing long balls when James Hanson is injured Luke Oliver goes into the forward line.

The players then are given a bargain. Play the way I tell you to, because that way lays success, and should success not follow and the players end up abused, booed and called “not good enough” they are given the challenge of a continued belief in the manager’s methods which are failing and leaving them as fall guys.

The return of Lewis Hunt, Simon Ramsden and Michael Flynn to starting line up contention provides something interesting to discuss but hardly provides Taylor with more options as to how to play, because he does not change how he plays on the basis of who is available. These players will come in and slot into the holes already mapped out or they will not come in.

So Jon McLaughlin continues in goal with – perhaps – Hunt at right back over Richard Eckersley. It is significant that Taylor picked up many players he has worked with previous because he knows that they have a belief in his methods (which have succeed in the past) and thus a belief in him.

Simon Ramsden may return in the place of captain Shane Duff rather than Luke Oliver who has an uncanny character to pick himself up after mistakes instantly and not let them effect his game – the irony being that if he made fewer mistakes that characteristic would make him a very good footballer – and Luke O’Brien will continue at left back.

The midfield three will see Jon Worthington anchoring behind a two – probably Ademeyi and Syers – with Michael Flynn replacing Daley in the forward and being more suited to the tasks afforded to that role. New recruit Scott Dobie is also set to come into the side but having not seen the former West Brom player since he was a much younger player it is difficult to suggest what sort of game he plays. Will the 32 year old be a balance for Gareth Evans – who returns to his former club sporting a tan which is impressive for Bradford in February – or will he be an alternative James Hanson continues that thankless task role. Time, and Taylor, will tell.

And City need three points, or one point, or just some points at some point in the future.

Sitting below City and having been beaten at home by Bury 4-2 in the week Macclesfield are the sort of team which Peter Taylor believed that his approach and formation would be steamrollering on the way to promotion.

The question now is if the players still believe it too, believe that doing what Peter Taylor tells them will bring enough points to stay in League Two at least.

Because if they do not then the club need to replace Taylor as quickly as possible.

One of those days…

The Team

Lenny Pidgeley | Richard Eckersley, Rob Kiernan, Luke Oliver, Luke O'Brien | Tom Adeyemi, David Syers, Lee Bullock, Lee Hendrie | James Hanson, Omar Daley | Jason Price, Leon Osborne

Bradford returned to Valley Parade for the first time in November and the first time since their 5-0 victory over Oxford but somehow did not manage to repeat a similar score line against Macclesfield today.

Taylor had opted to go with a 442 formation but as 2 central midfielders, Hendrie and Adeyemi occupied the wide men roles there was an emphasis on the full back being encouraged to attack. With this in mind Richard Eckersley came in to make his debut ahead of the more defensive minded Zesh Rehman. Fit again James Hanson returned in place of Jason Price and Lee Bullock came in for the suspended Tommy Doherty and took on the captain’s armband too.

The resounding win over Oxford seemed to still be fresh in the memory as they began the game attacking with confidence and the decision to recall James Hanson appeared to be well justified as he began winning everything in the air and in doing so also finding a City shirt with his knock downs. The pressure resulted in a couple of early half chances and top scorer David Syers showed his confidence following recent impressive displays attempting a 25 yard half volley that travelled at a high speed unfortunately straight into Hanson’s back.

A further chance from a corner fell to a City shirt in a crowded box but although the effort managed to evade the numerous bodies it was straight at the Macclesfield keeper, Veiga and gave him a relatively simple start to what would be a busy day. Then came the best chance of the early exchanges. Pressure high up the park from James Hanson won him possession down the right hand side and he quickly switched the ball to Syers 20 yards from goals. There were calls from the crowd encouraging Syers to shoot but he kept his composure and patience to wait for the onrushing Luke O’Brien and he played a perfectly waited pass into the path of O’Brien’s run but O’Brien blazed over wasting the chance while one on one.

Despite City’s early pressure there was a hint of nervousness about Bradford’s defending and the young, inexperienced back line possibly missed the leadership qualities of Shane Duff. On a couple of occasions they appeared slow making their way out of the box and lacked a certain calmness in the early stages. This cost them 25 minutes into the match as a poor clearance from Rob Kiernan was deflected into the path of Macclesfield’s Draper. Draper fired the ball low towards goal from the sort of distance you’d be encouraging an opposition player to shoot, however on this occasion the drive found the bottom left hand corner of the goal out of Lenny Pidgeley’s reach. Not exactly the tonic to calm a nervous looking defence! Bradford’s problems nearly double straight from kick off as the defence fell asleep and Macclesfield went through one on one with Pidgeley, but the goalkeeper made himself big and gave the striker little target to aim at forcing him to attempt a chip which drifted over the bar. The defence received a real dressing down from Pidgeley immediately after but it was he who was at fault moments later as he came for a cross which he didn’t make fortunately the Maccelsfield attacker failed to make good contact either and the ball drifted wide.

Injury time possibly saw possibly the chance of the half as a Bradford throw on half way saw Daley turn his man well and surge towards the opposition penalty box. Syers once again showed fantastic energy and must of run 50 yards to keep up with the lightning Jamaican but when receiving a pass from Daley he opted to shoot first time and was only able to scuff it wide from inside the box.

As the half time whistle blew it was difficult to be disappointed with the Bradford performance but easy to be frustrated by the fact they were a goal down. It did feel as though that if they could just find another gear in the second half then they’d come away with a result.

City appeared to do just that starting the second half with a real urgency and a good performance began to turn into a great one. The first opportunity came from a superb Luke Oliver pass perfectly weighted over the defence to Omar Daley. However, Daley failed to bring the ball under control first time which forced him wide and his attempt to square the ball to a free James Hanson is diverted wide by a Macclesfield defender. City though continued to apply the pressure and an almost identical pass once again found a City shirt inside the Macclesfield half, this time it was Syers. His first touch was good and his second equally good as he fired a shot towards the roof of the net. Veiga was equally good though and managed to tip the ball over to keep what was appearing a very fortunate lead for the away side.

Many more chances came and went for the Bantams who were being driven on by a crowd who sensed the equaliser was only a matter of time. The first was a move started by Adeyemi delivering the ball out to the right flank where Eckersley was growing more confident in his attacking duties. Eckersley carried the ball forward before returning it to Adeyemi who had continued his run to the right side of the box. The Norwich loanee though appeared get the ball stuck under his feet a little and took one too many touches as he was forced wide giving him only Veiga at his near post to aim at. Syers had another chance on the edge of the box but this time needed no help from the keeper to put it over the bar, then Daley found his way to the byline and this time managed to find James Hanson’s head only a few yards out but a defender managed to deflect it wide.

You began to sense that the feeling from the crowd was changing from believing it was ‘only a matter of time’ to being certain that it was ‘just one of those days’. Still though City continued to apply the pressure good link up play down the right hand side from Eckersley and Daley found Syers waiting on the edge of the box again but his effort was tame and straight at Veiga. Syers was doing everything but put the ball in the back of the net, as Macclesfield broke away he was in defence to make the important tackle and as City attacked he was right at the forefront of it. The next chance once again came his way meeting a cross from the left this time with his head only to be denied by the cross bar. Hendrie and Hanson both had opportunities to equalise before Syers boundless energy once again found him in the opposition box with only Veiga to beat. His shot looked certain to be curling into the corner only for Veiga to get the slightest of fingertips to it to push it wide.

5 minutes were added on but even if Bradford had begun this game at the start of November and continued playing until today they may have been denied! Their luck was out even the efforts of Pidgeley to sprint up the pitch quicker than Omar Daley for a corner was not enough and Maccelsfield came away with a very fortunate 1-0 victory. The effort and endeavour showed by Taylor’s players made a mockery of any rumours that some players were unhappy playing for the manager and they were greeted with a positive reception from the majority of the crowd.

The sponsors named Eckersley as man of the match and, although he became more confident and threatening as the game wore on, the fact that Syers had been overlooked was almost as astounding as the result itself. Had he managed to convert a couple of his many chances then it would have been almost the perfect performance and the Huddersfield scout in the crowd wouldn’t be returning with a report on Macclesfield’s danger men for the cup but asking sugar daddy Dean Hoyle to open his cheque book once more. For that reason at least we can be grateful he didn’t secure us three points and we can still return to Valley Parade on Tuesday night confident that a similar performance will surely earn us three points against Accrington Stanley.

A footballing evolution

The theory of evolution over creationism may be passionately disputed by some, but in football it seems there’s only one type of advancement which ultimately shapes the natural order of league tables.

Managers create their squad for the coming season during the summer, but it is rarely a seven day miracle. Instead there seems to be a constant narrative they all go through in shaping and evolving their team selection, in an effort to ensure their club achieves its realistic goals. What looked the strongest possible team in August very often doesn’t prove to be the case as the games come thick and fast. Survival of the fittest is often about which manager gets his team selection right the quickest.

One can see the process of evolving the squad after the campaign has got underway in Bradford City’s two most successful recent seasons. The forever-talked about promotion of 1998/99 was delivered by a strong squad, but a disastrous start which saw City regularly beaten if not bettered had manager Paul Jewell changing around the team until it eventually clicked and started producing consistently strong results.

As he surveyed the scene at Molineux having clinched promotion at Wolves, Jewell might have reflected on how the previous August he wouldn’t have expected to have relied so heavily on Robbie Blake, Wayne Jacobs and John Dreyer in order to achieve his goals. Similarly a year after, when Premier League survival was achieved, Jewell’s squad had evolved to the point that previous heroes Blake, Lee Mills and Gareth Whalley were somewhat discarded along the way.

For most teams it doesn’t usually end up so gloriously. Over the course of shaping the squad, managers may discover – self-inflicted or otherwise – that they don’t have the players to fulfil expectations.

Sometimes a team starts perfectly only to fall away, with the manager struggling to work out where it’s going wrong and desperately trying to fix it. Often the solutions are realised too late or are the best of a bad situation. Colin Todd, for example, belatedly managed to shape his 2005-06 City team into a winning one and the club enjoyed a strong end to the season – but it had come too late to change the fact pre-season expectations of a play off spot had not been delivered.

In the modern day and particularly at the top end of football, squads rather than just 11 players are crucial in clubs achieving their aims. Part in response to increased intensity of matches, part due to a higher number of injuries than in the past, teams that succeed can’t afford for the absence of players to undermine their prospects. Of course every team has players they struggle badly without – witness Chelsea’s heavy defeat to Sunderland on Sunday with John Terry and Alex were injured – but never has the team been less about the individuals.

Peter Taylor’s has this season moved Bradford City to as close of a squad game as we’ve ever seen at Valley Parade. So often we’ve welcomed a new batch of players in the summer who’ve shown initial promise; but as the strikers went on goal droughts, the wingers revealed their inconsistency and defenders began to tot up mistakes, the season’s objectives were all too soon not going to be met.

This summer’s recruits by Taylor haven’t all worked out so far – rarely, if ever, in football does a manager not make bad signings – but as his recent evolution efforts have lifted the club out of nosediving form, the benefits of a squad approach are becoming clear. City are progressing through the sum of their parts.

Take the defence as the most obvious example. Convention in football is that you must have a settled back four in order to build understandings and prosper. If and when on-loan Burnley full back Richard Eckersley makes his City debut, he will become the 12th different defender deployed this season. That’s three separate sets of back fours.

Yet while City’s defensive record this season is far from exemplary, they have kept four clean sheets in their last eight league matches – and in another three only conceded one goal each time – despite a whole range of different defenders playing. Even the goalkeeper has changed; but even through so much enforced chopping, the backline has remained largely strong.

And the evolution of tactics has seen some curious changes. In the last two league games on the road – Bury and Wycombe – it’s been notable that the towering Luke Oliver has been instructed to attack any high balls into his penalty area, with central defensive partner Steve Williams (at Bury) and Rob Kiernan (at Wycombe) marking the spare striker and on hand to mop up any Oliver slips. Traditionally we view central defenders as marking a man each, but the effectiveness of Oliver in the air is being used to greater effect. Few would rank him our best defender, but in terms of this role he does it better than anyone.

In midfield we saw previous manager Stuart McCall move away from traditional wingers by lining City up 4-3-3 last season; but despite Taylor restoring 4-4-2 in recent weeks, wingers don’t form part of his set up. For so many previous seasons, City have lived and died by the form of their widemen. The lack of consistency and ease opposition teams can double up on wingers has limited their success. While as England proved so dismally on Wednesday, the use of wingers can leave the centre of midfield overrun.

Taylor hasn’t played out-and-out wingers all season. During those difficult days in August and September, it looked a poor policy as City struggled to create meaningful chances, but now the logic of wide midfielders rather than wingers appears sounder. Lee Hendrie and Tom Adeyemi, widemen of the last two games at least, have been able to come inside and help City become more defensively solid when they don’t have the ball. The more narrow four also encourages closer range passing, which is harnessing the ability of Tommy Doherty.

The closest the Bantams now have to wingers  are the full backs, who have a licence to roam forward knowing the midfield will cover for them.

Not only are the defence and midfield working closer than we’ve seen for many years, the forward line is linking up well with the team. Omar Daley’s City days looked numbered under Taylor, but his impact since moving to a free role playing off the targetman has been terrific. Taylor is not the first manager to deploy Daley up front, David Wetherall moved him up top for the final game of the 2006-07 season, at home to Millwall; but he is the first to ensure Daley’s talents aren’t wasted by being too far up the pitch.

Daley is regularly popping up all over the final third, dropping deep to get the ball and charge at defenders. For the opposition a major problem – who on earth is supposed to mark him?

This switch was a great leap forwards in the team evolutionary progress, because Daley has the space and freedom to take up the wide positions traditional wingers would normally occupy; and, if City played out-and-out wingers, it would probably reduce his effectiveness.

A target man is vital to City’s approach and, with the greatest respect to stand-in Oliver, it’s no coincidence form has truly lifted off after forwards James Hanson and Jason Price became available to perform that role. Hanson’s fitness remains a concern, and so Price has aided the squad approach by being available to stand in when needed.

Like Jewell at Molineux in May 1999, would Taylor have thought his team would look like this last August? We’ve seen Louis Moult, Jake Speight, Gareth Evans, Lee Bullock, Robbie Threlfall and Scott Neilson fall by the wayside, and the best hope Moult and Speight now appear to have of getting in the team is to be able to perform Daley’s free role when he is not available. For Evans the future is surely wide midfielder.

The strength of City’s vast improvement is reflected when looking at the injured list. Simon Ramsden and Michael Flynn are big players for this club, but Taylor and the rest of the team have learned to cope admirably. For now things look good, but the competitive nature of League Two means the evolution of City is unlikely to be complete. In time the opposition may formulate effective plans to contain Daley, for example, and there is the very real threat that Lee Hendrie, Tom Adeyemi, Williams and Price will depart in January.

However Taylor’s squad approach – his stated philosophy during the summer of having two players for every position – is so far working. It’s clear he’s brought in players who he didn’t plan to start every week, and the lack of public discontent suggests every player knew the score pre-season.

For the Macclesfield game, the team will remain largely the same to that beaten in unfortunate circumstances by Wycombe last Saturday. Lenny Pidgley will continue in goal in front of Zesh Rehman, Oliver, Kiernan and Luke O’Brien. The midfield will see changes with the absence of Doherty, and the smart money is on a David Syers and Adeyemi central partnership with Hendrie and Evans/Leon Osborne wide midfield. As Hanson is still bugged by a slight injury, expect Price to start in what could be – but is highly unlikely to be – his final game on loan, with Daley as a partner.

Potentially as little as three players who started the opening game at Shrewsbury will be in Taylor’s starting XI tomorrow. There are many good reasons for this, with evolution one of the biggest.

No Doc in the house this Saturday

Tommy Doherty’s sending off at Wycombe will see the cultured midfielder miss the next league match. With the treatment room containing too many defenders and strikers’ James Hanson and Louis Moult sitting out Saturday’s defeat, the last thing Peter Taylor needed was problems in the middle of the park. Resources are stretched, but City can’t allow a lengthening absentee list to adversely effect results.

Exactly a year ago Stuart McCall’s Bantams side were recovering from a slow start, but still struggling to close the gap on the promotion pace-setters. Taylor’s City are now remarkably in almost exactly the same position. After 16 games, City are two points worse off than last season, but the gap to the play offs – four points – is identical. McCall was unable to reduce that disparity as autumn rolled into winter, picking up only seven points from a possible 15 in the run-up to Christmas. Over this same period, Taylor will hope to avoid a similar stuttering of form.

The upwards momentum which led to four wins from five games has been slowed somewhat by the two defeats down south, but two home games in quick succession offer a great opportunity to close in on the front-runners. With ground excellently made up over the past month, a realistic aim between now and Christmas is surely to break into the top seven positions.

With each victory to make up for the season’s poor start, the climbing of the table towards a position closer to where the club expects to be has restored degrees of optimism. But when a defeat sees City slide back down the league like on Saturday, success can again seem a dispiriting long way away. Typically when a team makes a strong start it can afford a few dodgy results and still maintain its high position; for others to catch up and overtake them, it usually takes promotion form.

The four wins from five was a good start and places City third in the form table, but realistically the Bantams need to keep going on runs of successive wins if they are to at least make the play offs come May. The Wycombe setback now put to bed, it’s crucial the winning habit is quickly rediscovered and maintained over the coming weeks.

The coming of two home games over a Saturday and Tuesday – like we now have with Macclesfield and Accrington due in town – usually prompts much anticipation and expectation towards picking up wins, but City’s record of converting such fixture sequences into maximum points is poor. The best sequence in recent times was a 1-0 victory over Morecambe and 1-1 draw with Barnet at the end of the 2007/08 campaign. Usually City endure defeats and draws, the last time a Saturday Valley Parade win was followed by a Tuesday home success was the Crewe and Crystal Palace victories in January 1999. Four months later City were promoted.

So while these two quick-fire home games look a great opportunity to grab two wins in quick succession, history suggests it will be a tough task. That said Macclesfield haven’t won away for almost two months, while Accrington sit at the bottom of the form guide having failed to win their last seven games. For any team with promotion ambitions, these two games are opportunities which cannot be passed up.

But City will have to negotiate the Macclesfield game without Doherty, and his increasing influence during recent weeks leaves a big hole for Taylor to fill. There are options on the sidelines at least, but all may involve a slight element of compromise to the team’s overall set up.

For Doherty is relied upon as the tempo-setter of the side, and City don’t have anyone with quite the same vision and passing ability to compensate – at least not with Michael Flynn still injured. Lee Hendrie could be moved to a central role as the next best thing, with Leon Osborne, Gareth Evans or even Luke O’Brien asked to play wide left.

Alternatively Osborne or Evans could play wide right so Tom Adeyemi moves to the centre with David Syers. That would leave a very inexperienced central midfield pair; so quickly building an understanding over who would take up the more offensive and defensive side of the partnership would be crucial, otherwise the opposition might overrun them. The duo performed well together when City were reduced to ten men on Saturday.

Finally there is the forgotten Lee Bullock, who has not started a game since the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy loss to his former club Hartlepool. Last season Bullock was converted to defensive midfielder and showed his best form since joining in January 2008; but he has struggled to hit such heights this season. A recall could free up Syers to play a more forward role and to be asked to dictate the tempo rather like Doherty, though this could be a big ask of a player who has still only made nine starts in professional football.

Such considerations will occupy Taylor’s mind for much of this week, but he at least will be thankful to have a range of options to cover for the loss of Doherty. As Doherty benefits from an unscheduled break, the challenge to the players is to ensure he isn’t badly missed.

League Two 2009/10 review – Rochdale, Notts County and Bournemouth’s scrap for promotion and the moral high ground

Even during Keith Hill’s finest hour, the Rochdale manager couldn’t resist taking a swipe.

As Dale celebrated sealing their first promotion since 1969 by defeating Northampton in mid-April, Hill looked ahead to his side’s up-coming Tuesday night visit to title rivals Notts County – which represented their last realistic chance to overturn the Magpies leadership – and declared, “If we can’t catch them, I’m sure the tax man will.”

The Meadow Lane club’s own promotion celebrations had been somewhat tempered by their Board having to fight back against critics’ claiming County had cheated their way to promotion, and Hill received an angry reception from Magpies fans during his team’s subsequent 1-0 loss. But as County attempted to defer the blame for signing players on wages they couldn’t afford onto the previous Munto Finance regime, Hill had a point.

Rochdale’s promotion was more than just the triumph of a small club finally experiencing their day in the sun; Chairman Chris Dunphy and Hill believe it was an achievement for doing things properly. League Two has long being a home to basket case clubs on the brink of financial ruin, often playing up to the nation’s media to attract sympathy about the unbalanced nature of English football. But for clubs who are more prudent in managing budgets and paying the bills, such tales of woe are becoming increasingly wearisome.

For Rochdale there is some gleeful irony in swapping divisions with neighbours Stockport this summer. In Hill’s first full season in charge at Spotland the two clubs reached the League Two play off final, with Stockport triumphing at Wembley. Less than 12 months later, Stockport entered administration after over-stretching themselves financially in recent years. Given that over-stretching had led to promotion at Dale’s expense, the perceived injustice was easy to understand.

Not that Dunphy and Hill are alone in feeling angry. Earlier in the season Macclesfield chairman Mike Rance, who’s club get by on the smallest gates in the division, talked about the unlevel playing field which sees others overspend to the detriment of the Cheshire club’s chances. “Last year, in August, Darlington came here and beat us heavily with a team we couldn’t afford, turns out they couldn’t either.” he told the BBC’s Football League Show. “And this year Notts County came here first game of the season with Sven and beat us heavily with a team we couldn’t afford, clearly they couldn’t either.

“Until the game sorts that out then it’s not going to have any integrity. I think it’s very important we play on a level playing field and some sides just don’t, and we find that disappointing.”

Though no League Two club has gone into administration this season, the emergence of other clubs from difficult times to enjoy some success has left others feeling bitter. While the media has heaped praise on the rebirth of Bournemouth, Rotherham and Accrington, Dunphy and Hill kept up their indignation which had previously led to them calling for clubs who go into administration to booted out the Football League.

Rotherham may have lost their stadium and failed to pay all their creditors during three consecutive seasons of points deductions, but this campaign put financial problems behind them and spent relatively big. This included signing Dale’s star striker Adam le Fondre for an undisclosed fee. Hill’s thoughts on this matter were kept private, but ahead of a trip to Bournemouth last October he hit out at the South-coast club over how unfair he felt it would be if they were promoted. The attack failed to spur on Bournemouth, who lost the game 4-0, though ultimately they did finish above Rochdale.

Meanwhile Accrington faced a winding up order last autumn and had to rely on their local community to donate money into collection buckets. Two months after that crisis was averted, relegation-bound Grimsby reportedly had a six-figure transfer bid for Stanley’s top scorer Michael Symes turned down. It’s hoped the nine-year-old girl who emptied her savings into a bucket to help Accrington last autumn understands the reasoning of “faint play off hopes”.

But while Notts County have pulled back from the brink of administration earlier this year, the wolves may still be at the door. Rumours of having to soon go into administration keep cropping up, and at best County will surely need to ship out their high earners who will still command a wage bill too large for League One. Tough times may lie ahead; Sven’s ‘project’ was yesterday’s dream.

And though Rochdale – who themselves may not be whiter than white – ultimately triumphed alongside in-debt County and Bournemouth, in time others who did not gain promotion this season may eventually look back on Nott’s triumph and begin to feel aggrieved, should the Magpies go on to enter administration.

Dale have shown that more conservative principles of balancing the books and slowly building can eventually succeed; but for more to be encouraged to follow their lead, there must be greater deterrents from taking shortcuts and gambling on success.

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