The next generation take their first steps as City juniors take to Valley Parade

When Bradford City’s juniors run out at Valley Parade against Marine in the FA Youth Cup first round most of the players will be playing their first competitive game at City’s stadium but unlike most of their peers in the past they will do so with a mapped out career path to being a professional footballer.

Changes at the club over the summer to create a additional tier of development between the juniors and the first team aims to take the players from the ranks of the young and work with them before they join the first team squad. The youngsters pulling on claret and amber in the past have been trying to prove that they are good enough to join a squad of League Two footballers immediately, the players tonight have to show that they have the potential to, and that is a significant distinction.

Steve Thornber’s team of under 18s – the qualification is that a player has to be 15, 16, 17 or 18 in August 2011 – face a Marine side who beat Leeds in the last round with the winner facing either Burton Albion or Boston United in the second round and many of the players on show (at 19:30, Valley Parade, Admission £4/Concessions available) have been in the Development Squad already this season.

Most notably is the much anticipated Scott Brown who joined City in the summer aged sixteen and turns seventeen today. He has played alongside Michael Flynn, Robbie Threlfall and Luke Oliver in the famous game at Silsden aquitting himself well. He regularly trains with the first team and does not look out of place when doing so.

Brown’s partner in midfield could be James Nanje Ngoe. A combative midfielder Nanje is no light weight youth having battered into Kyel Reid in a tackle in training during our trip to training to talk to Archie Christie. Christie calls Nanje his Inesesta having taken the first year apprentice to play in reserve games against senior professionals and seen the midfield win the day.

Goalkeeper Callum Tongue has been on the bench for the first team this season and is expected to be the sticksman tonight. Development Squad striker Adam Baker is in line for a pace up front. Other names to look out for include Thomas Marshall who scored twice in the Development Squad’s 5-2 win over Marine and Connor Bower who will look very familiar to most City fans. While Mark was a solid central defender Connor is a speedy forward.

Picking out players in Youth football is a random science. The young Kevin Gallen broke all records but never had the career of Robbie Fowler who he put in the shade. David Beckham was the ineffectual one at Manchester United before he went out on loan to Preston. At this stage of a player’s development there is much to do before the child becomes the man and it is games like tonight which maketh the man.

Legend of Valley Parade has it that City’s juniors beat the Beckham Manchester United side back in 1994 but the dates do not add up. Nevertheless a City team that included Des Hamilton and Graeme Tomlinson progressed to the last four of this competition losing out narrowly to Arsenal in the semi-final after Tomlinson and Hamilton were drafted into the first team.

The run did much to build the confidence of those Hamilton and Tomlinson who joined the first team and quickly settled in to be positive contributors but even without them the rest of the juniors team near matched the Gunners side managed by a sweary Pat Rice who went on to win the competition. Looking over the programme for that day the only name which one might know is Matthew Rose who played five times for Arsenal but retired in 2008. The City right back on that day fitted the electrics for my boiler four years ago.

The reality is that a good few of the players who feature tonight will end up in that sort of position but for a few – the few who show the massive desire which is needed – this is the a significant step on the path to being a professional footballer.

Tonight is more than your average pre-season friendly

Tonight has being a long time coming for James Hanson. Two years on from bullying Burnley’s Michael Duff and David Edgar during a pre-season friendly when on trial for Bradford City, the 23-year-old striker makes a first return to Nethermoor Park and the club who helped to propel him into professional football.

This game has being a long time coming too for Guiseley. After Hanson’s trial proved successful enough to earn a contract at Valley Parade, a lengthy squabble over the transfer fee was only ended via a tribunal who stated City must complete a pre-season friendly against their local neighbours within 12 months. A fall out over kick off time with previous manager Peter Taylor saw a planned game a year ago called off, and it would appear City have been fortunate that Guiseley hasn’t taken action against the Bantams for failing to honour this game within the agreed timescales.

Finally it’s here though, and for Hanson – who is expected to be named captain for the evening following Ross Hannah taking the armband for the visit to his old club on Friday – tonight should be a memorable night in reflecting how far he has come. Having first appeared onto Stuart McCall’s radar following an impressive pre-season friendly display against the Bantams in 2008, a year later he was offered that trial following an outstanding record of 46 goals from 67 games for the Lions.

Hanson’s first year at City was a huge success, finishing top scorer with 13 goals from 39 games and being voted player of the season by supporters. Talk of higher league interest began to surface, and Guiseley might have been looking forward to an extra windfall following the tribunal hearing granting them a sell-on clause. Last season progress slowed for Hanson, with only 9 goals from the same number of games as the year before and a number of average performances. He wasn’t helped by a chronic lack of service from his team-mates, but finding many supporters on his back towards the end of the campaign was not the sort of second season he would have hoped for.

Like a number of players who remain at the club from last year, this is a big season for Hanson where his career can go in one of two directions. With some justification he can say he has proved himself a professional footballer, but things can quickly change and the drive to improve that has seen him rise from Eccleshill United to Guiseley to scoring a winning goal for Bradford City against Nottingham Forest needs to be rediscovered, rather than him going into a comfort zone.

For Hanson and the team-mates who line up tonight, a look into the eyes of their opponents offer stark warnings of how quickly you can fall. The Guiseley squad is awash with former Bradford City players who have fallen down into the part-time ranks. There’s Mark Bower, 10 years a Bantam, who signed from FC Halifax during the summer. Bower’s drop down the leagues still seems a huge shock, though a large reason for him becoming a part-time player was to jointly set up an Estate Agent business.

Alongside him at the back tonight could be Simon Ainge, who spent two seasons on the fringes of the City first team, plus Danny Ellis – who never made a senior appearance. In midfield there’s Luke Sharry, a bright talent who many – myself included – predicted would make it at Valley Parade. Up front there’s Danny Forrest, who nine years ago memorably burst into the first team and was so hotly rated that the club set up a special website dedicated to him. Tonight has probably felt a long-time coming for all five of these Guiseley players, who each might feel they have a point to prove.

If Hanson takes most of the attention on the field, the Nethermoor Park boardroom may also be a topic of interest as City’s pre-season programme gathers pace. Listed among the club directors on Guiseley’s website is one Steve Parkin. Last month the millionaire businessman publically revealed he was bidding to buy Bradford City, alongside the Bradford Bulls, to form a Bradford Sporting Club. Two offers to purchase the Bantams outright were rejected, before joint owners Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn offered Parkin the opportunity to join the club as a third investor.

Parkin has since cooled his interest, revealing he is in the middle of tying up another business deal that is proving time consuming. But while no takeover or new investment is imminent, the possibility of Parkin getting involved with Bradford City remains in the longer-term. With football rules stating you can’t have controlling interests in two different clubs, Guiseley must be wondering whether investment they enjoy from Parkin will be withdrawn sometime in the future.

All of which is for another time, but the increasing links between Guiseley and Bradford City do stir up added interest in this game beyond a typical pre-season friendly. Having watched the Development Squad thrash Silsden AFC a week ago and then the first team draw 1-1 at Matlock Town last Friday, manager Peter Jackson will look upon tonight’s game as a chance to mix together players from both games as building fitness and understandings becomes the priority.

The future of the latest round of trialists following the Hanson route are also to be resolved. Nahki Wells has figured in both games so far – netting twice at Silsden – suggesting he is being heavily considered. Danny Kerr, who showed promise against Silsden, may get another go. Those who failed to impress in that game – such as the wonderfully named Mole Kes – will have already been released.

Of more pressing concern is the goalkeeper situation, with former Aberdeen shot-stopper Mark Howard expected to be given a chance this evening as he battles with Rhys Evans and Jon Brain for a contract to compete with the still-injured Jon McLaughlin next season. Iain Turner is still training with City, but looks set to move to Preston.

Since storming out of Valley Parade two seasons ago, the stock of Evans has risen considerably among supporters following a succession of replacements failing to convince. Yet while his performances for City during the 2008-09 season were solid they weren’t exactly spectacular, and his two years away have seen him make just 14 first team appearances elsewhere.

Howard and Hanson aside, the rest of the team tonight is impossible to predict. There are less than three weeks until it all kicks off, and so a degree of significance can be attached to this evening’s events which means no one can afford to take it too casually. Besides Hanson himself is living proof of the importance of making a good impression in July.

David Wetherall and the measure of a professional

Before they started sleeping in a comedy bed as manager and chairman at Sunderland Niall Quinn had made an erudite and unequivocal damnation of Roy Keane following the midfielder’s walk out of the 2002 World Cup.

Paraphrasing Quinn he poised the question as to how professionalism was judged in football. Quinn’s contention was that it was not in the medals won or the bowls of pasta eaten – a culinary metaphor to match Keane’s prawn sandwich brigade – but how the footballer dealt with less than ideal circumstances. In 2002 Keane – it seemed – had fallen short of Quinn’s judgement.

Keane’s path crossed with David Wetherall – who announced he was leaving Bradford City after 12 years – on the pitch at Elland Road. Keane wanted to end Wetherall’s career in the same way he maimed Alfe Inge Haarland but never got the chance. Perhaps Keane looked at the decline that Wetherall’s career took as a kind of justice. I do not like Roy Keane’s way of thinking about football, or life.

David Wetherall is taking up a job at the Football League as Director of Youth Development having had a behind the scene’s role at Valley Parade for the three years since he retired. Think of David Wetherall and Bradford City and one thought comes to mind.

Go on, watch it on YouTube, we will still be here when you come back.

14th of May 2000 and David Wetherall scores the goal which kept Bradford City in the Premier League. It capped a season to saviour, his first year for the Bantams, and Wetherall lists that and his goal against Manchester United in a 1-0 win for Leeds United as the greatest moments in his career. They were golden days for the two clubs who – it might be nice – could invite him along to the League Cup First Round so that both sets of fans can celebrate that rarest of thing – pan-West Yorkshire hero.

Wetherall’s highlights are impressive but – to me – the are not the measure of his professionalism. A glorious season with Bradford City in the Premier League was the end of the good days for Wetherall in his career. From then on it was years of decline for him and for us.

Season on season of decline – every year finishing lower than previously – but a decline which Wetherall did all he could to arrest. His guidance of Mark Bower made a good player out of a player on his way to the non-league, his displays showed a level of performance which proved and example to his team mates, his leadership of the side was constant. None of it seemed to turn around the slump. He was inducted into the Show Racism The Red Card Hall of Fame for his work against racism.

He was called on to manage the side, we were relegated.

The measure of his professionalism was not in that one afternoon in May 2000, it was in his efforts after which might not have reached the same heights but showed a player ready to fight for the cause. Dealt with less than ideal circumstances, not medals and bowls of pasta.

I struggle to think of a better man to develop young players for the Football League, and am proud to have had him on our side.

A muted victory

From a fixture Stuart McCall couldn’t feasibly win, at least the Bradford City manager was able to enjoy the satisfaction of three points.

Against an already doomed home team which has lost its last two games 4-0, only a similarly convincing scoreline for the Bantams would ensure victory would truly be considered a victory. That Steve Williams’ 23rd-minute strike was the sole occasion the ball found the back of the net will have done little to ease the darkened mood triggered by the midweek Rochdale humbling. Indeed the sight of City players’ blatant attempts to time waste long before the final whistle was due offered a clear indication that, while the win ultimately reduces the gap to the play offs, a vast improvement is needed for the season to conclude with a top seven place.

Not that Stuart seemed to be overly-perturbed after the final whistle. A victory is a victory and the points reward for winning 1-0 is the same as winning 4-0. Darlington showed a degree of spirit in the second half – on the evidence of this and City’s recent trip to Blundell Park, there is more hope to be taken from the Quakers’ efforts even if the League Two table makes it implausible to argue they can avoid relegation – and with City wasteful in front of goal for the game’s first two-thirds, the home side might have snatched a late point due to endeavor if not ability. In the end it was an afternoon for getting the three points, climbing back on the coach and moving on.

A more convincing victory still appeared on after a first half easily controlled by the visitors. Back to playing 4-4-2, Matt Clarke took the place of the injured Zesh Rehman, and a more solid performance from the former Darlington centre back alongside Williams was the platform for a 45 minute period where possession was dominated by claret and reasonable chances were readily created.

James Hanson came close early on with a shot deflected over, Simon Whaley almost scored direct from a corner, the recalled and impressive Scott Neilson might have done better after charging into the penalty area and seeing his low drive blocked by home keeper Nick Leversidge.

Lee Bullock, Hanson and Williams continued to go close and soon after Williams was rewarded after popping up at the back post to head home Neilson’s corner. It was a good moment for the former non-league defender after the difficult evening he’d endured midweek, it was also the third away league game in a row he’d netted. City continued to press and Hanson headed just wide.

At the other end Darlington’s efforts to pass the ball around on the deck were admirable but largely impotent. That the half chances they created almost all came on the counter attack said much about their lack of authority on the game.

But it was during the second half where the promotion credentials of the Bantams could again be doubted. City have held a 1-0 lead at half time in eight of their 20 league games this season, but the dilemma of whether to continue in the attacking manner which had earned that advantage or sit back and protect it is one which is leading to uncertainty and awkwardness.

Initially City’s intent was to get that second goal with Hanson again twice going close, but slowly the team began to drop back and ambition became limited. Stuart attempted to encourage fresh impetuous by introducing the dropped Gareth Evans from the bench for Michael Boulding, but the former Macclesfield striker’s confidence has clearly taken a dip of late, and he did little to reignite purpose to the attack.

Though questions must again be pointed at Boulding, who was well shackled all afternoon by former City defender and Quakers captain, Mark Bower. His introduction from the bench against Accrington helped City to pile on late pressure and he almost won the game late on with a shot that hit the post. Boulding can consider himself unfortunate not to have started the next game against Grimsby, but having got his chance at the Darlington Arena his failure to again take it was mystifying.

Often Boulding is excused for anonymity by relative poor service, and while he was provided few sights of goal, he must surely be prepared to work harder. Boulding looked unhappy to be subbed and went straight down the tunnel, where he was followed a few minutes later by Stuart for what may have been a tongue-lashing.

James O’Brien was shortly after brought on for Whaley – the on-loan Norwich midfielder again looking the best player on the park in terms of ability, but often failing to make the most of many opportunities to cross the ball with some poor deliveries.  As the home side finally starting to exert some pressure, Simon Eastwood had to tip one effort round the post and blocked a shot from further out which was straight at him. By then the visitors’ time-wasting got too much for referee Neil Swarbrick, who booked Neilson for unsubtly kicking the ball away. City’s ball retention was poor and will not go unpunished if it continues during the next four league fixtures, all against promotion rivals.

When the final whistle was blown it was met by a faint smattering of boos in the away end, but the overall cheering and chanting of Stuart’s name suggested the general mood was that, while dissatisfied with the performance, at least a difficult week had ended in a positive way.

There are still plenty of issues for Stuart to ponder – the return to playing 4-4-2 may have made City look more solid, but the high work rate the 4-3-3 formation has been built around was curiously lacking. Little confidence can have been taken from the second half display, though the clean sheet is not to be sniffed at.

So a muted victory, and one which may be best judged retrospectively in a few weeks. The hope for Stuart must be that this the game acts as the springboard for a run of good form going into the second half of the season, rather than proving a blip which had more to do with the Darlington formbook. Perhaps, in a week where we at BfB have looked back to the last promotion season and how the team ultimately benefited from losing 3-0 at home to QPR late-autumn, this win will have provided the tweak which makes the difference.

The tweak being the change back to 4-4-2 and return of Clarke, who has surely earned the right to now keep his first team spot. It wasn’t spectacular, but the first game after the tweak in the 1998/99 season, a 1-0 success at struggling Oxford thanks to a header from a set piece in the 23rd minute, offered few clues of what was to come then.

Anything similar this time around, and this will be later judged a fixture Stuart won in more ways than one.

Accrington nearly don’t come to Valley Parade but the happy ending becomes more predictable

The heavy rain of the past few days must place Bradford City’s home fixture with Accrington Stanley in a modicum of doubt, but then the prospect of Saturday 21 November being a blank Saturday for the Bantams seemed very real a few weeks back.

Accrington, the club that wouldn’t die, almost died. Given six weeks to pay a six-figure tax bill, the collection buckets were rattling around the Crown Ground earlier this season as part of rescue efforts which brought out the best in its North West neighbours. Yet not enough money was raised and its claimed officials arrived at the club’s High Court hearing with no plan B and left with the gratitude of a local businessman stepping in to make up the shortfall. Accrington live on, and the prospect of early season results been invalidated – to the joy of those Stanley beat and the despair of those they lost to – and of a 23-team division with only one relegation spot was ended.

As Southend prepare to take on the national media’s attention as club basket case, that Accrington survived may have caused some to indifferently shrug their shoulders and consider how, for every League club that it’s reported is on the brink of financial oblivion, something always turns up and their survival is assured. And while everyone enjoys a happy ending, the reputed predictability is breeding subsequent hostility from some, just ask Darlington. Poor old Accrington, struggling to get by. Hang on, didn’t they spend £85,000 on one player (admittedly later sold for a profit) 18 months ago?

Last Saturday Bournemouth were in town with the strong criticisms of Rochdale Manager Keith Hill still echoing. Ahead of Dale’s 4-0 success at Dean Court, Hill had stated, “They overspend and it is to the detriment to clubs like ours and it is happening too often now…i’m sick of it continually happening.” Having been stuck in the basement league since 1974 and with a largely untroubled recent financial history, Hill and Chairman Chris Dunphy are clearly aggrieved at how their efforts to live within means see them lose out to others who gamble more recklessly with their future. One wonders if Hill’s pre-Bournemouth mood was influenced by his team’s home defeat to Accrington the week before.

For as Accrington seek to climb back onto a more stable financial future after the local community helped to prop it up, what’s the most morally appropriate way to progress? There were stories of a nine-year-old Accrington girl emptying the contents of her piggy bank into a collection bucket last September, would it be right for the club to spend money during the January transfer window? And if not then, when? Hill’s views on Rotherham United, with two recent spells in administration, purchasing his star striker Adam Le Fondre earlier this season probably aren’t printable.

Rochdale and their supporters don’t seem to care much for Bradford City, but the Spotland club may have a small degree of respect for the way joint Chairmen Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn cut the cloth accordingly over the summer after pushing the boat out a year earlier in the quest for promotion. City were the first club to fall into administration following the ITV Digital collapse, but while many others who followed were quickly able to brush off mistakes and get busy in the transfer market again, the self-inflicted scars continue to cause pain for the Bantams. Plenty of people lost out due to the infamous six weeks of madness, but Bradford City and its supporters remain high on that list too. Those financial woes may largely be a thing of the past, but the lesson has not been forgotten.

The conservative but sensible actions of the City Board has seen Manager Stuart McCall’s playing budget reduce by a third  but, though its widely agreed he’s used it admirably, regrettably it appears a small minority of supporters don’t appreciate the ramifications. City’s 1-1 draw with Bournemouth, joint leaders no less, should have generated a greater mood of approval if not satisfaction, but the injury list which hindered efforts was brushed off by some to make way for criticism.

Theres nothing like managers playing people out of position to trigger red rage from a certain breed of football fan, and the circumstances which saw Zesh Rehman in midfield and Michael Flynn up front were slammed in a manner which deliberately ignored the bigger picture. A reduced budget means Stuart simply can’t retain the strength in depth and the same level of quality, so the length of the injury list is likely to prove a more telling factor this season. And when it does, players will be asked to take on unfamiliar roles and performances are going to suffer to a degree. A negative perhaps, but one which has to be tackled positively.

The injury situation clears up slightly this week with James Hanson returning to partner Gareth Evans and Scott Neilson up front, which will allow Flynn to return to the attacking midfield position he is performing so effectively alongside Lee Bullock and either Chris Brandon or James O’Brien. Just one player’s return it able to make that much of a difference, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that competition for places continues to be undermined by the unavailability of Peter Thorne, Michael Boulding, Steve O’Leary, Omar Daley and Leon Osborne. No longer down to the bare bones, but Stuart is hardly flush with options. A loan signing has been suggested, at the time of writing there are no few faces.

At the back the big question concerns whether skipper Zesh Rehman will reclaim his place in the back four or whether Matt Clarke – impressive in the last two games – will retain the role. Rehman has struggled for form of late and Clarke’s general solidness alongside Steve Williams may give him the nod in the way he took Mark Bower’s place in the team two seasons ago after the former defender also vacated the back four to help another area of the team.

At right back Simon Ramsden should also be fit enough for a return, ahead of Jonathan Bateson. The former Blackburn youth player has struggled with his distribution of late, though continues to display a great attitude and a confidence to get forward.  Luke O’Brien is left back – and there are a couple of interesting talking points concerning last season’s player of the year. The first is that O’Brien has been asked to take on more responsibility, as part of the new-look 4-3-3 formation, with strong encouragement to bring the ball forward more.

The other talking point is how, in recent games, the lack of cover afforded to the 21-year-old from midfielders in front  has been targeted by opposition managers. At Macclesfield, for example, Emile Sinclair was instructed to use the space in front of O’Brien to cause problems. It’s for this reason the selection of James O’Brien to play in front of him, rather than Brandon who likes to drift around the pitch, is widely preferred by fans.

Simon Eastwood keeps goal and has shown improvement of late. He will need to be wary of a reasonably strong Accrington line up that will include former City striker Michael Symes. An away win would see Stanley climb above City and give rise to promotion hopes, but such success may not be considered the fairy tale stuff it would have before the tax bill reminder came through the door.

As City try to achieve more from less this season, it could be argued a Bantams’ promotion would be more romantic than a club who’s name is often-proclaimed the most romantic in football.

Back to football as City take on Barnsley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving his Mark

I remember Mark Bower’s debut for City.

Down at Carrow Road in April 1998, City had climbed into a seemingly unassailable 3-0 advantage thanks to quick-fire goals either side of half time. The first of those scorers, Wayne Jacobs, had to go off injured, so off the bench stepped an 18-year old to take the City skipper’s spot. Norwich, trying to avoid relegation from then-Division One, came back to 3-2, and we were too busy willing the referee to blow for full time to be pre-occupied with how the debut boy was getting on. He must have quietly got through it, never giving cause for a fuss.

And that’s what is both great and not so great about the long-serving defender, who today it was officially announced has been released. Bower’s City career has rarely featured controversial headlines or given managers cause for headaches, but it hasn’t included too many good times either. During his 11 years he’s generally looked solid and dependable, but when his understated presence was taken away, for manager Stuart McCall, it wasn’t missed enough.

That said there is great sadness in thinking of the Bradford-born defender out of work and facing an uncertain future right now. His presence at Valley Parade, for the past decade, was something we took for granted.

The next time I saw Bower was when we were beaten at home to Portsmouth at the end of a season his team mates had long since given up on. The following two campaigns were unforgettable, with promotion and then that exciting first season in the Premiership, but what Bower saw of it was from the sidelines or from afar while on loan at York City, near the bottom of the Football League.

He did at least get to play for City in Europe the following season, but was back at York for half a season as City sank miserably from the Premier League. A fleeting appearance here and there, including another game at Carrow Road during which he scored his first City goal, was all he had to show as City laboured to get going back in Division One. Eventually Nicky Law, already Bower’s fourth different manager, gave him a run in the side and he played a significant role in ensuring a second successive relegation was avoided, even scoring the winning goal at Wimbledon to confirm mathematical survival.

Typical of Bower’s luck, he became more part of the scene just as the bad times really begun. As the club fell into administration, Bower was one of only five players it did not attempt to sack. At times that summer City staying in existence was touch and go and, while the immediate concern for Bower the City fan would have been for the future of his club, it would equally have been on his own given he was the verge of making it. In the end City survived and Bower prospered in a reduced squad with reduced expectations the following season, playing 39 times.

The centenary that City celebrated during the 2003/04 season was marked by relegation and administration, with Bower not for the first time watching others underperform in his place. Jason Gavin was brought in and played ahead of Bower by first Nicky Law then Bryan Robson, and if there was one early thing to trumpet Colin Todd for after he took over that summer it was his decision to pick Bower ahead of the hapless Irishman.

And under the tutelage of the former England defender it seemed Bower had finally arrived. City, now in League One, bobbled about in mid table for two seasons with David Wetherall and Bower mainstays at the back. Bower picked up the 2004/05 Player of the Season award ahead of an undoubtedly aghast 28-goal Dean Windass. Yet a year later came further clues that Bower was not the kingpin to build a defence around, with Todd shifting him to left back for a time so the impressive Damion Stewart could partner Wetherall. Todd’s now-huge army of critics saw it as an opportunity to slam the City boss, while ignoring the fact Bower looked excellent charging forward down the left flank.

With the club seemingly on irreversible decline, it seemed to finally catch up with Bower a year later. Todd was sacked in February and Wetherall asked to assume a caretaker role, and the opportunity was there for Bower, newly appointed as skipper, to emerge from Wetherall’s shadow and become a rock to depend upon. He was hardly the only player to fail to reach the heights expected as the club crashed to a seemingly avoidable relegation, but the player who had never let anyone down failed to convincingly prove he could step things up and be a hero.

With two years of a four-year deal still to run, Bower stayed on for life in League Two but it has been far from kind. If asked to name regrets, Bower might just list his willingness to play in goal away at Grimsby, when an injury to keeper Evans left manager Stuart McCall without a specialist to take the role. Bower let no one down in goal, but his replacement at the back, Matt Clarke, impressed instantly alongside Wetherall and suddenly a worrying dip in form meant Bower was dropped two weeks later. There has been the occasional appearance since, but no one should be surprised that, with the club now needing to release high earners, the highest earner of the lot has being shown the door.

Much of this season has included a soundtrack of fans whining about Bower’s exclusion and Clarke’s inclusion, which is a testament to short memories and of absence making hearts grow fonder. Back in the autumn of 2007, Bower was crucified by some supporters but it’s almost been airbrushed from history as some openly questioned “what he ever did wrong?” and screamed abuse at Clarke. Bower did little to deserve the abuse he was getting back then, but he’s equally done nothing to prompt some fans to elevate him to to the status of saviour and, belatedly, chant his name at games.

Bower will be no fan of Stuart and no one can blame him. But Stuart is the manager of this club and is entitled to make what he believes to be the best decision. One can only speculate that, for how much Bower’s weekly wage was, Zesh Rehman’s contract at QPR would be comparable. Rehman has been offered a deal and I for one am delighted. Clarke has also received another contract offer and, though he’s never going to be able to win over a section of support, has largely looked strong this season.

As for Bower, he should have little trouble finding another club, maybe even one in League One. He will go onto to enjoy a decent career elsewhere because, like the last home-grown City defender to ‘make it’, Andy O’Brien, he has plenty of talent and a good attitude.

He will be missed back at Valley Parade, but perhaps not quite enough. A player who will always be guaranteed a good reception on his return, a player who may one day be welcomed back with open arms, but sadly also a player for whom it’s difficult to associate with too many happy times.

It’s time that both he and City enjoyed a turn of luck.

McCall’s next City squad starts to take shape

Pakistan skipper Zesh Rehman has been offered a deal by the Bantams but longest serving player Mark Bower has been freed as Stuart McCall starts building his squad for 2009/2010.

McCall’s side’s failure to make the play offs has led to budget cuts – that is the short and not especially representative version of long story – and as a result four senior players have been freed with Bower joining out on loan Barry Conlon, oft injured Paul Heckingbottom, bit player Keith Gillespie and – surprisingly – Rhys Evans out of Valley Parade with the goalkeeper being rumoured to be interesting League One clubs including Leeds United.

The City boss has also prompted Paul McLaren, Graeme Lee and Michael Boulding to try find other clubs – something they can do owing to oddly one sided clauses in their contracts – but worries that should they not do the wage budget will be restricted. With times tough for many, if not most, clubs at the moment it is hard to see who will take the players on. Michael Boulding was not short of offers this time twelve months ago but traded from a position of being the leading scorer in League Two, likewise Paul McLaren negotiated with City as the most creative man in League One. Now these players go to a depressed market with a line on the CV that is read as a failure to make the top seven in League Two.

Do not be surprised if we have not seen the last of this trio.

Another trio who McCall would like us to see more of are Nicky Law Jnr, Dean Furman and Steve Jones whom the manager is trying to recapture on loan. Matthew Clarke, Lee Bullock, Luke O’Brien, Joe Colbeck, Leon Osborne Jon McLaughlin, Luke Sharry and Matthew Convey have been offered contracts while Kyle Nix is welcome back to preseason one assumes to await news of an exit for Lee, Boulding or McLaren. McCall will talk with Peter Thorne tomorrow.

All of which leave City with a weakened version of this season’s team should these machinations come off. McLaughlin seems to be fancied to be the new keeper having kept a clean sheet in the final game of last term. At 21 he is young but League Two is – increasingly for City – a learner’s league.

Paul Arnison has a two year deal and one assumes will stick at right back although his unwillingness to relocate from the North East is rumoured to have caused problems for McCall. Zesh Rehman and Matthew Clarke in the central defensive roles with Luke O’Brien at left back is an inch worse than Graeme Lee partnering either one – Lee came out of the season with more credit than most in this writer’s opinion – but Rehman is a cultured player and one who one could have confidence in. Clarke will continue to have his critics for both not being able to spray a Glenn Hoddle pass – which defender can? – and for his defensive lapses but since he replaced Bower in the side City have stopped being bullied by the usual big men forward lines we face.

Without wanting to delve into the stats of how many six foot two plus players have won headers in City game against Clarke vs Bower anecdotally one would suggest it is obvious that Clarke has plugged that gap. That he has other failings is a problem but in a League where physical prowess – bigness, if you will – is often the route to goal it is that no being bullied which is important rather than Bower’s more intelligent style of defending.

As with Andrew O’Brien before him Bower’s style suits the club less the further down the leagues we are. O’Brien’s man marking is superb on Thierry Henry but wasted in the Championship and Bower’s foot in play could – and would – do a lot at a Barnsley but does not at Valley Parade. One would have confidence that Bower could nick the ball from big men frequently but McCall obviously worries that the long serving defender would spend the rest of his time on his backside having been flattened and getting little sympathy from Referees.

Hearts are heavy though when a player with a service record like Bower’s leaves a club. He has given the lion’s share of his career to Bradford City having signed up on the 13th of May, 1999 four days after promotion and broken into the side a few years later with honest displays. He did his bit in administration and beyond and few City fans would not hope that he can establish himself somewhere else for the five or six years he could have in the game.

Uniting Dean Furman and Lee Bullock would seem to be the key to McCall’s midfield for next season with the City manager keen to see the Rangers midfielder back in the position he dominated last term – he played few games than Paul McLaren but made a more significant impact and was certainly more memorable – but Ibrox boss Walter Smith may have different ideas. Bullock is a useful player who has only shown his effectiveness in short spells while at Valley Parade. Next season McCall seems set to offer the former Hartlepool United midfielder the chance to make the position his own.

However McCall has struggled thus far in his management career to find a player to fill that number four shirt and role which he himself took at Valley Parade. Furman won the place from Paul McLaren whose season could be described as “middling”. McLaren did not take the mantel of senior professional with enough zeal and as a result on occasion looked a peripheral figure – especially when compared to Furman – just as Paul Evans the season before had failed to make the McCall slot his own.

Returning to Hoddle momentarily it is said that when England manager Glenn was frustrated with the players inability to match the magic feats of his own passing and one can only imagine the frustration that McCall – a player who lived by taking games by the scruff on the neck – has watching two players who have no shortage of talent in Evans and McLaren failing to control matches. Is Furman a better passer of a ball than McLaren or a better tackler than Evans? One could argue not but he has more cunning, more guile and it seems a stronger character that allows him to have more of a constant effect over a ninety minutes.

Defensive midfield – Furman’s nominal position and the one McCall had – is perhaps the most crucial role on the field and Furman represents a safe bet for City. We have seen that he will not shirk in the role unlike the previous two candidates who were on the face of it excellent choices for such a position and thus he is a tried and tested option for a job which I would argue the failure to fill correctly has cost us over the previous two season, and probably longer.

It should be noted that Luke Sharry has had a productive season and while not ready for the number four role should be expecting to feature in a dozen or more games next term.

The scenario on the flanks remains as it was this season: Joe Colbeck, perhaps Chris Brandon, Omar Daley when fit, Nicky Law should he return and Steve Jones if he is interested. Returning Colbeck from the jaws is poor form and the critics that wait for such to attack him is of paramount importance for McCall as establishing Omar Daley as a threat on the left was this term. McCall flits between preferring a pair of wide players such as Daley, Jones and Colbeck and wanting one wide and one more tucked in as Chris Brandon or Law offers and one can expect that method of trying to fill the middle of the midfield to continue.

Brandon has been unable to provide much of an indication as to his effectiveness this season and – based on last season – given a choice between him and Law one would take the younger man from Sheffield United. Should Brandon be edged out of Valley Parade – and indications are that the club would be able to keep him – then Kyle Nix would be an able replacement and I for one am surprised that the young Rotheraussie has not been offered a new deal offering the heart and ability the former of which was often lacking last season.

In August Stuart McCall would hope to line up with Joe Colbeck, Dean Furman, Lee Bullock and Chris Brandon across the middle and few would suggest that represents a major shift away from this term with improvement inferred from consistency with all four players having spent long periods injured. Allowing whoever is in the number four role to build up a relationship with the defenders to feed the ball in ending the long hoof of the end of last term and with the three midfielders around him who would take the ball is crucial and Furman can be trusted to do that. If he is not retained we re-enter the lucky dip of trying to bring in a cog to be the most important part of our machine. Like good goalscorers – they don’t get given away.

Peter Thorne will talk to Stuart McCall in a conversation about “legs” and if the striker still has them and McCall will hope to move Michael Boulding on to no great distress from I. For all his hard work Boulding failed to build a partnership either with the forward he was alongside or the players supplying him from midfield. Barry Conlon officially left the club and Willy Topp is long gone leaving the City boss looking for three or four strikers for next term.

In this respect McCall is in the hands of the trio of players who may leave. Should Lee, McLaren and Michael Boulding all exit then pressure on his budget would be loosened and the City manager could get to looking for a goal getter or two – one would suggest he tries to find a fast one, a skilful one, a big one and one who can finish again but that is how we entered this year – but should this not happen then the Bantams manager will be left looking at scraps to find a feast. The ramification of Barry Conlon and Matthew Clarke’s fall out with McCall obviously preclude Conlon’s return despite a half dozen goals for Grimsby Town and one wonders if allowing the fighting Irish to leave is not going to haunt the Gaffer as he starts looking for players with passion, strength and a good track record and finds that Barry’s name comes top of the searches.

In such a situation Rory Boulding becomes an option although reports on him are mixed on the little brother while Leon Osborne and Sean Taylforth are no one’s idea of the player to lead you out of League Two. All three could be world beaters but the fact that they are – should Thorne not be retained – all that is in the cupboard for next term shows the problem Stuart McCall will have in building a side for next term.

In the season John Hendrie talked about the need for another striker and McCall tried Chris O’Grady and Paul Mullin in that role but ultimately when cutting the cloth to keep the club in business the side suffers and the forward line would seem to be where City are to take the hit.

So McCall is charged with three summer tasks. He must get the players he has offered new deals to to sign – some are given reduced terms – and will use the carrot of a smaller squad and a guaranteed place in the starting eleven achieve that with the likes of Lee Bullock.

Secondly he must work on ensuring he has the right man for the number four role with Dean Furman being nominated as the prefer choice. Filling this position is or paramount importance.

Finally he must find a set of strikers who want to play for the club and who have the ability but for some reason – probably as with Thorne it would be age – are not at a higher level and do not expect massive wages. Rumour has it David Wetherall is being moved to youth team coach. Wetherall never really got on with Dean Windass…

The budget announcement should not spell doom and gloom

In recent years, there’s being a growing obsession with playing budgets and the comparison to others. Every season one or two sides gain promotion on a shoestring budget, the achievements of which are used as a stick to beat failing clubs with larger ones.

At City we know this more than ever, manager Stuart McCall enjoyed what is widely recognised to be the largest budget in the division, but has not been able to use it well enough to claim even a play off spot. Meanwhile clubs such as Exeter and Dagenham have achieved more with less. Champions-elect Brentford have spent money they don’t have on gambling for promotion, though it remains to be seen if they will fall the way of Stockport next season.City have gambled to a point as well this season, and now we have to face the consequences.

There’s no doubt Stuart has had the luxury of a large squad to choose from this season, and the news the playing budget will be cut by a third for next season is understandably prompting concern. The noises coming from the Chairmen hardly seem the most positive, though given how often big budget results in big failure in football, it shouldn’t mean approaching next season in trepidation.

It’s traditional for City to release a high number of players at the end of each campaign and, with cuts to make and new signings to think about, Stuart’s attention will already be on which of his players deserve another contract in the likelihood of him staying on as manager. Rhys Evans made it known some months ago that he would like a new deal and the stability concept that has seen many of us argue for the man in the dugout to stay can also apply to the man between the posts.

All five of Stuart’s present centre backs could leave this summer, with captain Graeme Lee one of the four players with a clause in his contract allowing him to leave due to the club’s failure to go up. Lee has been criticised, but is a good League Two player and seems a committed enough person to stay around to me. Matt Clarke is unloved by many and it must be acknowledged that the previously struggling back four looked stronger in his absence on Saturday. Zesh Rehman took his place and was outstanding. His loan is up, but so is his contract at QPR. If it came down to a choice between keeping one of the two my vote would narrowly go to Rehman.

When Mark Bower signed the four year deal which is about to expire, back in 2005, it was for a club with ambitions of a quick return to the Championship. He is likely to be City’s highest earner, a position not befitting someone who has made only four appearances this season. If the long-serving defender is offered a new deal, it will be for far less money. Simon Ainge and Paul Heckingbottom are likely to depart.

In midfield Paul McLaren is another with a clause to leave and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he took advantage of it and, with rumoured high wages, it would probably be for the best. Lee Bullock is out of contract but may have done enough in his last two impressive Valley Parade appearances to convince he could be a regular next season. Chris Brandon is rumoured to face an uncertain future, which is a shame as we’ve yet to see the best of him due to those injuries. Kyle Nix’s surprise inclusion against Rotherham looks too little too late, while we could only dream of keeping Dean Furman and Nicky Law. The former is reckoned by some Rangers fans to be ready for first team football at Ibrox next season, the latter’s future may depend on whether Sheffield United earn promotion to the Premier League. Even if surplus to requirements at Bramall Lane, he can play at a higher level than League Two.

Joe Colbeck’s sub cameo was uplifting and it’s unthinkable that he will be allowed to leave, Peter Thorne too has another year left in him and the 17 goals he’s bagged so far this season is impressive considering the number of injuries he’s picked up firing them in. If he stays, his decreasing fitness reliability means he cannot start the season as the main striker. Michael Boulding can leave but probably won’t. Rory too can go but again probably won’t.

Of the other loanees, Steve Jones was outstanding up front against Rotherham, but his inconsistency is maddening. Nevertheless an attempt to keep him should be made. Paul Mullin will not be missed by anyone but there’s little doubt another big forward will be signed up in his place. Keith Gillespie’s time at City will be quickly forgotten.

Stuart will be on the look out for new signings, but it shouldn’t be a case of ripping things up and starting again. This team has ultimately disappointed but it was the closest towards delivering promotion than any others we’ve had in recent years. Stuart has the summer to consider why it didn’t prove close enough and find the answers to ensure it goes closer next time.

For, while expecations may dampen for next season, there is no need to believe we can’t make a better fist of challeging for promotion with fewer resources. The economic climate that will start to truly impact on football next season, should result in clubs in a stronger position to negoiate with players over contracts. A smaller squad will hopefully result in a settled team. Injuries may undermine efforts, but the emergence of Luke O’Brien should provide confidence to try other youngsters. There may be less loan signings, but that would be no bad thing.

Stuart will hardly be left with a shoestring budget to build next season’s team, success as manager will come from making less go further.

Stuart’s biggest failure

There are only 25 miles between Dagenham & Redbridge’s Victoria Road and Wembley – but after this crushing defeat Bradford City manager Stuart McCall might as well to start working on that trip to the moon.

An image of the front page of the first upload of BfB

to fans at te final stle.

This was one mustn’t lose game too many, one which pushes City below the victorious Daggers, one which puts City below the in-form Morecambe, one which, after Shrewbury’s surprise away success at Rotherham, leaves City four points off the top seven with two games to play. Mathematically it may still be possible, but only if a sequence of results so improbable they would be rejected by the writing team for Doctor Who occur.

Which won’t happen, because this lot aren’t good enough.

City weren’t particularly poor for the first 58 minutes that preceded Sam Saunders’  opener, but just like recent weeks the wheels fell off too quickly. Of all the failings which have been on evidence during the end of season collapse, it is the poor response to conceding which has hurt the most. There was a spell of ten minutes after conceding where possession was surrendered more quickly than ever and ideas to come back were in short supply. Testament to a lack of confidence, but most tellingly it betrays desire and passion.

Because just like other recent defeats, most notably at Morecambe, the opposition simply wanted it more. Dagenham were not a bad side but their direct approach made them predictable and defendable. Yet when they did not have the ball, home players harried and pressurised those in white shirts for it back. Their workrate was best summed up by a second half City corner which they not only cleared, but chased up the loose ball that went to Luke O’Brien, forcing the younger defender to pass it back to Rhys Evans. Even then the City keeper found his attempt to launch the ball back into the area compromised by a Daggers striker charging at him. This level of work rate was not shown by the visitors.

For a time that might not have mattered as City started reasonably well and created two glorious chances for Chris Brandon and Peter Thorne, which were both headed over. Steve Jones was initially, at least, a threat on the left and the recalled Paul Arnison looked comfortable bringing the ball forward at right back. With Dagenham giving a debut to 20-year-old on-loan Tottenham keeper David Button, who looked nervous with his catching and kicking, the initiative was waiting to be taken.

Dagenham, starting the day with faint play off hopes, were a threat going forward and Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke were kept occupied by the dangerous Paul Benson and Ben Strevens respectively. Work had clearly been done on defending set pieces with Paul McLaren assisting Lee in cutting out Benson’s flick-ons from throw ins and corners. Evans had to make one good save from a scramble in the box and the first half ended with City needing to step things up.

They did just that, with Thorne having a goal disallowed after Paul Mullin tangled with Button and City’s top scorer had an empty net to head the loose ball into. Stuart was angry about the referee’s decision not to award a goal and the list of close refereeing decisions against City in recent weeks is growing. However, unlike the chalked off strike at Morecambe, the two penalties at Rochdale and the foul in Lincoln’s opener, this was the least convincing case to feel aggrieved.

Shortly after Saunders struck for Dagenham after cutting inside on the flank and firing a curling shot from the edge of the box into the corner. Hardly great defending in closing the impressive winger down, but the strongest emotion was one of envy at how few current City players seem incapable or unwillingly to try something as opportunistic.

The response was slow and Benson rattled the bar, but eventually pressure at the other end began to start up again. Nicky Law was introduced for the disappointing Brandon, while an injury to Lee saw Mark Bower brought on for a first City appearance since September. I hope City’s longest serving player is supposed to be our vice captain. The alternative, which saw Lee pass the armband to McLaren, who looked at it with disinterest and waited for Bower to run past so he could pass it on, doesn’t bare thinking about.

Law was a typical menace on the left and set up a chance for Mullin, while another cross resulted in Lee Bullock heading against the post. Stuart gambled by going 4-3-3 and bringing on Michael Boulding for the long-since anonymous Jones, but the City sub is in poor form and failed to make any impact.

Instead Benson beat the offside flag and fired low past Evans to put the game out of sight and, after a terrible mix up between Bower and Evans, Strevens was left with the easiest of chances to make it 3-0. Maybe that flattered Dagenham, but such was the poor response from City’s players it’s difficult to argue they even deserved a lift back to Bradford after the final whistle.

As scores were relayed around the away terrace there was one which stuck out more sorely than even Shrewsbury’s success; Grimsby’s 3-0 win over Port Vale included two more goals for Barry Conlon. There are good reasons why Conlon was shipped off, but his replacement Mullin has not worked out. We hope loan players can put in as much effort as the rest, but it’s hard to believe this is the best the on-loan Accrington striker can muster. Caught offside continually and casual in his distribution, Bradford City may look like a nice addition to his playing CV but the words “going through the motions” should appear next to his appearance record. Jones is equally guilty of a lack of commitment and cannot be relied upon to always deliver when the chips are down. Law and the injured Dean Furman are loan players who give their all, but when Stuart allowed Conlon to leave he needed to sign a player to match the Irishman’s commitment.

But that isn’t Stuart’s biggest failing. At the final whistle the City manager ran over to us away fans, which took courage and character. The anger from some fans was temporarily suspended as we listened to what he had to say.

He asked us if we thought Thorne’s disallowed goal should have stood, he apologised for the performance and when a “Stuart, Stuart” chant started he asked us not to, saying something like, “I’m sorry lads, I’m not good enough and I’m sorry.” A typically up-front assessment from the City legend, but it is an accusation which first and foremost should be directed at those in the dressing room.

And that is Stuart’s biggest failing as manager. Two years ago, in his first interview after taking the City job, he told the Telegraph & Argus,

“I think back to the first time I was here when we signed people like Greg Abbott, John Hendrie and Chris With…no one had ever heard of them but they went on to be great servants for the club and loved being part of it. You still see them coming back because of that special bond. I want to bring in players like that who will hopefully develop and grow with the club.”

Stuart apologised to us supporters at the end, but Thorne was the only player who bothered to come over and thank us at the final whistle. The rest half heartedly clapped by the half way line and scuttled off. Let their manager take responsibility, let them hide away, let them treat supporters who have travelled some 250 miles to cheer them with no respect.

If anyone is leaving the club during the summer, let these players be first in the queue.

Return To Form Needed Fast

Bradford go into the game tomorrow knowing a loss could seal the fate of their season and Stuart McCall’s tenure as manager for good. City’s opponents, Dagenham & Redbridge, would themselves leapfrog Bradford should they secure all three points, with a game in hand still to come. With the teams surrounding Bradford seemingly happy to throw away points along with ourselves, we are still in a good position to sneak into the play-offs with the possibility of fighting it out with Chesterfield on the final day for the crucial seventh place.

Monday’s result against Lincoln may not have been the best tonic to our recent run; another home draw is the last thing the fans wanted to see. Nevertheless, there were positives to be taken from the game. Lee Bullock returned to the heart of the midfield in the continued absence of Dean Furman and grabbed himself a goal in the process. Bullock can count himself unlucky this season to have been the forgotten man, with injuries and the form of loan duo Furman and Nicky Law putting in excellent performances even when others around them were not doing likewise. Graeme Lee and Matthew Clarke looked a little more confident and were unlucky to concede the goal in the manner it came with referee Fred Graham failing to spot two fouls in the build up to the game’s opener.

Dagenham & Redbridge showed in the reverse fixture this season that they are a team that like to get the ball down and play through the midfield. How tempted Stuart McCall will be to field a five-man midfield remains to be seen, as he will undoubtedly shuffle the pack. Michael Boulding may be one of the unlucky few that depart from the starting line-up with Paul Mullin impressing as part of a three man strike force that completed the last half hour or so against Lincoln. For all his persistence, Boulding has shown a tendency to be played off the ball a little easily at times, though, as against Lincoln, he was playing against a beast of a defender in the shape of Janos Kovacs.

City fans will be hoping that City can match the result from last season when Nicky Law grabbed a brace, though on that day the final score flattered what was otherwise an average performance. Dagenham are hampered by the loss of experienced goalkeeper Tony Roberts and have signed David Button on-loan from Tottenham as cover. Bradford are boosted by the return of Mark Bower are Luton terminated his loan following their losing battle against relegation. Bower was unfortunate to miss out on a place in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, with his only start for Bradford this season against Leeds in the competition restricting his first taste of action at Wembley. The Bradford stalwart will be hoping to force himself into Stuart McCall’s plans in the final few games and possibly even get his own victory at Wembley.

Realistically, Bradford need all three points just to stay in touch with Chesterfield, who face their own tough challenge against Gillingham. Optimism may be at a low with the fans at Bradford, but a win at Victoria Road could just be the tonic that the travelling supporters need to keep the belief going into to the final few games of the campaign.

The Most Important Man

Stuart McCall and Peter Jackson – two big figures in the recovery from the fire of 1985 in a game between these two teams – joined the silence honouring the departed.

McCall manages Bradford City taking the opportunity to when offered two years ago while Jackson is in charge of Lincoln City having knocked back the job at Valley Parade on Boxing Day 2001 having agreed to be our on Christmas Day. McCall would spend this anniversary or sorts with boos directed at him by some.

Some would have Jackson as Bradford City manager rather than McCall and others would not. Those in the latter camp could point to McCall’s match changing substitutions which brought about the aforementioned jeers at the time but were vindicated. Are these two thus the most important men?

The jeering for McCall came after substituting Michael Boulding and Joe Colbeck. Boulding had a game not atypical for him running into channels and working hard while never gelling with strike partner Peter Thorne. One could not fault Boulding’s work rate but would could take issue on how much of that hard work goes into the squad and how much goes into making sure that Michael Boulding has a good game? His impressive goal tally for Mansfield Town which made him League Two top scorer last season came when The Stags were relegated.

None of which is to say that Boulding is not a good player but rather than he is not foremost a good team player and – frankly – Bradford City are not foremost a good football team but rather a collection of good footballers. Does this make the job of managing the side into the job of getting Michael Boulding to play in a more knitted up way? Is Michael Boulding the most important man?

That City are good footballers would be debated only by dullards and that Joe Colbeck is a talented footballer would equally only be opposed by those who lacked wits. Colbeck has managed to return to being the target of Valley Parade’s defining characteristic – the vitriol heaped onto individuals – after being last season’s Player of the Season.

I have no respect for someone who will stay silent when a Colbeck is being cheered laying in wait for an opportunity to continue a campaign against him. Colbeck this season has cut defences apart yet he is booed today not for not making effort but for those efforts not having results. There is no doubt in my mind that Colbeck will go on to be a very good player at this level and at levels above but there is significant doubt that he will do that at Valley Parade.

After being player of the season Joe Colbeck is not the most important man.

One would think for all the attention given to Matthew Clarke that he was the most important man – one would think that Peace in the Middle East would emerge on the news he was dropped so dedicated are some against him – but it was telling that as some City fans sung “One Mark Bower” to criticise Clarke following Andrew Hutchinson opener for Lincoln.

Clarke was wrestled by Geoff Horsfield as a nothing ball that was hastily cleared by relieved Imps defenders who had worried that a clip of Boulding’s heels would result in a free kick and near 21 players on the field stopped – indeed when Hutchinson put the ball in it seemed to be more an act of time wasting than goalscoring – but the game continued and the visitors had their goal.

Five minutes into the second half “One Mark Bower” sang some City fans to chastise Clarke. “1-0 to The Referee” retorted the Lincoln fans to make some things clear.

City’s equaliser came when Peter Thorne was able to stand strong in the penalty area and work a ball on to Lee Bullock who finished from close range. Peter Thorne and Lee Bullock could be the most important men. Keeping Thorne fit all season has proved to be impossible and sure enough City have suffered when the switched on striker was not playing but Bullock – my man of the match today – has been a mystery in and out of the team all season and hardly ever allowed to continue the relationship he started with Paul McLaren at the start of the season.

As an engine room Bullock and McLaren are useful only if they have outlets for their possession and too often they do not. Steve Jones had a lively display – especially following McCall’s switch to a 433 which put him in the forward line alongside Paul Mullin who simply never loses an aerial ball – but this team has not been the same since an injury on a Tuesday night two months ago.

Omar Daley – in the stands and out until Christmas – is not the most important man but sometimes when City huff and puff and want for his creativity it is difficult to remember that.

Daley though – like McCall with his substitutions, Colbeck showing the nerve to difficult things even if they might make him look foolish rather than shovelling the ball off sideways and saving any blushes, Clarke in the side to stand up to a Horsfield who would have eaten Mark Bower for breakfast – split opinion with those against jeering.

Perhaps those who jeer are the most important men. They certainly seem to hold the power at Valley Parade grumbling away to get their way they are the exiled Cubans of Bradford City and Mark Lawn needs to convince Stuart McCall, and himself, that their is a future for a club when with twenty minutes left of a game at 1-1 three games off the play-offs which even after this draw there to be scrapped for the loudest sounds at City are the negatives and the jeers.

Which is not to say that they are the only sound, that they are the only fans, that they are people who need to be pleased but the voice that comes from Valley Parade is an overtly negative one and until this issue is tackled and resolved then the club is hobbled.

Certainly that negativity has taken chunks out of the club. Dean Windass – here today to watch the game after reports that he would bend transfer deadlines and return to the field – suffered untold abuse and his exit and the clubs relegation to this level were not unlinked. Windass is at Valley Parade and Paul Jewell has started to crop up in the media more and more.

Maybe they are the next most important men but they are not today.

For today this is League Two football and at the end of the game with three very clear incidents when crosses or shots hit hands of Lincoln City defenders in the penalty area and a goal caused by being the only man in the stadium who did not see the foul of course the most important man was Fred Graham the referee.

Depressingly, in League Two the most important man is always the Referee.

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