The team that taught me football: Part One

Best teams, worst teams.

It is all opinion and opinion is no bad thing but those opinions are formed by our experiences watching teams and players week in, week out each one teaching what could and should be done, what might be avoided.

I went to my first Bradford City game in 1981 on the last day of the season when we played Hereford United and lost 1-0. Since then I’ve seen hundreds of players and about a dozen or so managers and some I could not even recall playing but others have stuck in the mind and the ones which stick in the mind most are the ones who have formed my footballing opinions.

This is my team that taught me football.

Gary Walsh in goal

I’ve seen Paul Tomlinson frustrate strikers who rushed at him one to one because Tomlinson never got beaten one to one.

I’ve seen Matt Clarke bouncing around the goalmouth like a flea seemingly able to change direction in mid-air and had my heart in my mouth.

I know Paul Henderson was a model pro who settled himself down for the season astonishingly quickly and I’ve seen Jon McLaughlin race sixty yards to lump someone who has had a go at his friend and all these keepers have taught me something.

But none of them had what Gary Walsh had.

Gary Walsh taught me that goalkeeping was positioning. That the best keepers were the best not because they were athletic but because any athleticism they did show was second defence.

First was positioning. The ability to read a game and not thing a few moves ahead and then stand where they needed to be. Good goalkeeping is about looking forward, not reactions, and Walsh was able to do that.

So when I hear Match of the Day pundits say “They hit it straight at the keeper” then I raise a smile and think of Walsh, shuffling to the right two steps seemingly for no reason and then two seconds later taking the ball into his palms.

Nick Summerbee on the right wing

No one really liked Nick Summerbee and there were plenty of good reasons for that. His faking injury against City showed poor sportsmanship and his reluctance to join the club suggested that in his time at Valley Parade he would much rather have been anywhere else but what he did have – and what I took from watching him – was the uses of quality delivery.

Of course Peter Beagrie has superb delivery – better than Summerbee but then again everything in Beagrie’s team worked well and hardly anything in Summerbee’s team including Summerbee. He did not track back well enough, did not take control of games well enough, did not get involved enough. In fact all he did well was deliver the ball and he delivered the ball superbly.

And it is that which Summerbee taught me. What to do in a situation of limited talents. Managers would use Summerbee to take corners but seemed to notice that his team struggled to win anything from the delivery no matter how good it was. A great cross headed away and it was left to someone else to try create a second phase of the attack from the edge of the box.

And so Summerbee switched to that role. Rather than trying to deliver a good ball he would be detailed to get ball after it was headed clear and create an effective second phase. To return the corner with interest so to speak. In the football economics of scarcity it was an education. If you have two jobs to do that both require one player than the most obvious job is not necessarily the most productive one.

Summerbee did that for a time and drifted away from Valley Parade and no one really cared by that lesson is there when Garry Thompson tucks inside to form a firmer midfield rather than go to his man when everyone is screaming at him to make a tackle.

In left midfield Shaun Murray

When he was fifteen Shaun Murray was the best prospect in English football. Ten years later and having been through Tottenham, Portsmouth and Scarborough he had become a player for which it was said that he had a great future behind him.

He arrived at City, played a good season or two, and then faded making a decisive contribution in the gap left by Chris Waddle in 1997 before drifting away and joining Notts County on the way down as City went on the way up.

And so it would be easy to forget Shaun Murray were it not for a legacy he left for me which has become the yardstick of any creative player.

Shaun Murray always improved possession.

When he got the ball near the touchline he would either play a pass or win a throw in. When he got the ball near the byline he would either play a cross or win a corner. In the middle of the field he would find a good pass to a man who had space to do something with the ball or he would keep the ball and move it away from trouble.

So it was what he did not do that was educational. He did not try beat a man every time and get tackled, leading to the ball flying back against his team mates who were caught coming forward. He did not waste possession by putting in low percentage crosses. He did not dump the ball onto a teammate unwilling to take responsibility for his performance.

Which was nothing to do with being England’s one time brightest prospect or even from being especially talented it was from understanding the Cardinal virtues of football. That the job of a player in possession is to take responsibility and improve in the situation.

And every creative player since is judged by that yardstick.

Never criticise for making a mistake trying to do the right thing and want them to take responsibility for ensuring that when the ball leaves their feet the team are in a better position than when they got it. A bad pass is a mistake, running into two players you were never going to beat and having your team turned around is not.

The dominative not really a winger, not big enough for a central midfielder Shaun Murray was smart enough to realise that, and in realising that I learned a lot from him.

Matt Clarke, unearthing a diamond

We have had some pretty decent goalkeepers in the last 20 years at Bradford City.

There have been one or two disasters – The £125,000 spend on Robert Zabica and ‘that’ home game against Sunderland that followed. And perhaps the Russell Howarth (now a paramedic) spring to mind.

But generally the Goalkeeper position at the club has been mostly positive through the 90’s and not really been the cause or a factor of our recent ‘ten years of decline’. Mark Schwarzer, Mark Prudhoe, the legendary Gary Walsh, Paul Henderson, Scott Loach and Donovan Ricketts (look where his career has taken him!) are some notable successes both during their time at Valley Parade and after.

But one particular ex City keepers’ spell between the sticks at Valley Parade holds strongest in the memory.

Matt Clarke was brought in as understudy to City legend Gary Walsh during our first season in the Premiership (’99-00’). After an excellent 4 years at Rotherham in the early nineties, where he was nicknamed ‘Matt the Cat’ for his excellent agility, Clarke moved on to Sheffield Wednesday where his career seemingly came to a halt after failing to displace the evergreen Kevin Pressman at Hillsborough.

But despite his unremarkable spell at Wednesday, where he managed only 4 appearances in 3 seasons, Paul Jewell spotted his potential when he was scouted in Wednesday reserve games.

Initially, Clarke was to play second fiddle to Gary Walsh. Then part way through City’s debut season in the Premier League, former Manchester United man Walsh suffered an injury that gave Clarke a chance to press his claim for a first team spot. He never looked back.

He made a massive impression from the first game he was put in. Inevitability, City’s defence were very frequently ‘under the cosh’ against much stronger opposition teams and time after time Clarke was called into action to save the concession of a goal – and memories of those saves serve well in every City fans’ memory who were supporting the team at the time.

My personal favourite was away at West Ham in our second season in the Premier League. I had just started University near North London and so jumped at the chance of seeing my beloved Bantams play away in the capital. I went along with a friend who had just got a job in London and she was dying to find out what my passion of following Bradford City was all about and to take in a Premier League game.

Despite some very high profile additions to the City squad in the ‘six weeks of madness’, we were massively on the defensive from the first whistle to last at Upton Park. David Wetherall was colossal that day, but it was Clarke who really caught the eye. Di Canio, Freddi Kanoute, Joe Cole and Micheal Carrick et al were causing us all kinds of problems at the back.

Mid way through the first half, youngsters Cole and Carrick played a neat one-two which put Carrick striding towards goal with intent.

He released a rasping drive that was certain to fly in to the bottom corner in the goal behind the City fans. But Clarke got an unbelievable reflex tip to the ball that touched it onto the post, and he was quickly up to block the follow up from Kanoute. It was the best save I had ever seen in live action.

Performances like that made bigger clubs have a look at this talented goalkeeper. There were rumours that Arsene Wenger was poised to make a bid to strengthen the Gunners goalkeeping department. City fans created a ‘Clarkey for England’ campaign to try and persuade Kevin Keegan to give Clarke an England call up. Some might have viewed the campaign as ambitious and maybe a bit ‘tongue in cheek’, but Clarke’s performances in the Premier League most definitely deserved a lot of recognition.

It felt like we had a real superstar in the making in our squad and that was a really fantastic feeling at the time. Watching him in between the sticks really serves well in my memory. He was excellent at crosses, commanding of his area, and of course he made his name with his spectacular shot stopping.

Clarke went on loan to Bolton in 2001, where he helped them get promotion to the Premier League, and a £1m move to Crystal Palace followed. It didn’t quite work out for Clarke after that and injury meant an early retirement.

I will always look back on his time at City with fond memories. He hasn’t been mentioned much, if at all, around Valley Parade in the following years, which is a shame as he provided us all with such great entertainment and excitement in a very short period of time.

This is a low

After a week of rising excitement and gushing praise towards new Bradford City manager Peter Taylor – sobriety. 

Optimism filled the air, and the away end, as the 15-week spell under Taylor’s tutelage kicked off, but the crashing-to-earth realisation there is no magic wand came long before the final whistle. If he didn’t know it already, the size of the task was coldly presented to the one-time England boss during this weak surrender.

If there’s a consolation to take, it’s that things really could have been worse. As Accrington’s John Miles was allowed to run clear on goal and slot home the first of two goals at 4.09pm, the bottom two clubs – Grimsby and Darlington – were both in winning positions and gaining ground. In the end Grimsby drew and Darlington blew an 80th minute 2-0 home lead to lose 3-2, meaning the Bantams retain a cushion barrier from the relegation scrap.

But there was little hope of an away team recovery in East Lancashire. Starting the game in a 4-5-1 formation – gasp, remember when Stuart McCall was widely criticised for being so ‘negative’ in playing like this? – Taylor’s City struggled to make any impression on a dreary game. James Hanson was the sole forward of the set up, but was so effectively marked out of the game by the hugely impressive Darran Kempson it would be no surprise if the home defender only took his sights off the former Guiseley striker as he boarded back onto the team bus.

Sure Kempson pushed his luck, shoving Hanson in the back and not being afraid to lead with elbows, but the weak manner in which Hanson allowed himself to be bullied out of the game shows how far he has to go before he can realistically hope for higher league interest to turn serious.

Yet as has been typical of City in recent weeks, when Hanson does play the over-used tactic is to hit the ball long towards his head. The midfield five were presumably instructed to read Hanson’s flick ons, but his low success ratio and poor movement from behind meant possession was regularly gifted back to the home team. And when City did play through the middle they found eager red shirts snapping at their heels, giving them little time on the ball. Such work rate simply wasn’t matched by those wearing black.

Scott Neilson and Gareth Evans were the more forward-intended players of the midfield five; but both lack in confidence which meant that, despite them notably trying harder than others, little went right. That’s not to say they ran themselves into the ground, certainly Neilson was often guilty of strolling, instead of racing, back to track runners. But if Taylor was able to avoid covering his eyes, he may seem some hope in the pair provided he can install some belief.

The other three in midfield were simply woeful, and would struggle to argue their efforts deserve anything better than relegation to the bench. Michael Flynn’s dipping of form in recent weeks is alarming and today he looked disinterested and out of ideas when in possession. The ability to ping a cross-field ball and make forceful runs – illustrated so regularly prior to Christmas – was hidden behind illogical passes and tame shots. He is supposed to be City’s general, but is going increasingly awol.

Lee Bullock was also uninvolved while Chris Brandon’s maddening tendency to drift all around the pitch and take up ineffective positions was yet again to the detriment of the shape of the team. It can be argued McCall failed to make the most of Brandon’s undoubted talent and we might expect Taylor to do better in the coming weeks, but much should come from the player himself and the impression all season is City fan Brandon lacks the commitment to be successful.

And if Taylor inherits some significant problems in midfield, the defence will surely contribute to some sleepless nights too. Zesh Rehman has struggled for form during most of the campaign, but this was perhaps his worst game yet for the Bantams. He looked panicky every time the ball came nearby. When he wasn’t hoofing the ball aimlessly forwards he was struggling to control it. He continued to lose his man when Accrington attacked and, when he did have time on the ball, often chose the wrong passing option. He was sacrificed in the closing stages as Taylor brought on Peter Thorne, a move which triggered cheers from an strangely muted travelling support.

Luke O’Brien also struggled, how he must long for the club to sign a left winger he can link up with or at least for Omar Daley to remain fit. So often the ball was played to O’Brien near the back without a single black shirt nearby to present a passing option. He had to keep taking the ball forwards only to be closed down and concede possession.

City’s five-man midfield should have meant one of Bullock or Flynn could drop deep to help, while Brandon or Evans should have drifted over more to the left flank to partner up with him. Matt Clarke and Simon Ramsden hardly enjoyed good games themselves, but at least showed more composure and urgency to do the right things.

After a dull goalless first half in which a tame shot from Brandon was the closest City came to scoring, Miles opened the scoring on 54 minutes with Clarke and Rehman having switched off. Hanson had minutes earlier fired City’s best chance over the bar from Ramsden’s free kick, but despite having 36 minutes to come back the Bantams rarely looked capable.

The introductions of Michael Boulding for Brandon, Leon Osborne for Neilson and Thorne for Rehman made little difference, and Miles sealed a deserved Stanley victory with four minutes to go after former City striker Michael Symes crossed the ball into his path. That might have been his hat trick goal, but minutes earlier Matt Glennon had denied the former-Liverpool trainee with a decent save.

The final whistle was met with loud boos and, disappointingly, some fans chose to give Flynn some distasteful abuse when he came over  to applaud the away end. For the moment no blame will be attached to Taylor, which means the players will have to get used to being on the receiving end of fans’ anger.

Which won’t help their clearly dipping confidence. It’s hard to believe these players were at least putting in some strong performances only weeks ago – usually not getting the rewards or the correct refereeing decisions. Now they seem to have little trust in themselves or each other to do the right things, and many are shying away from taking responsibility.

Even in a campaign which has featured the heavy defeats to Notts County and Rochdale, I would argue this performance and last week’s against Grimsby are the worst of the season. In fact it’s difficult for those of us who’ve being watching the Bantams for less than 20 years to recall performances as wretchedly-clueless as these.

All of which leaves Taylor with a huge amount of work to do. City have dropped to 18th, and the 14-point gap to the play offs firmly shelves any talk of a Chris Kamara-style late surge. The season cannot be allowed to drift into nothingness. The miserable outlook which has engulfed the club since Rochdale triumphed 3-0 at Valley Parade in December has to be shifted. The future has to look bright again.

The fantastic Accrington fans – who put on a magnificent home atmosphere which should shame most City supporters – regularly sang how we’d f**ked up the Premier League, the Championship and League One. The big question is whether this defeat represents a low point, or is the low point. Can it really get any worse for City than it is right now? We’ve asked that question often in recent years and later found the answer to be yes. Taylor’s task over the next three months is to at least ensure we supporters can one day look back on this afternoon and answer no, it couldn’t and it didn’t. 

But with a daunting trip to leaders Rochdale on Tuesday night, the doom and gloom is unlikely to shift quickly. It threatens to be a very long night and, on the back of this sobering afternoon, heavy drinking beforehand is strongly advised.

The legacy of Stuart begins as the Bantams welcome Grimsby Town

The pile of CVs has been sifted through, the initial interviews held. Events are moving quickly and we may have a strong idea of who the Bradford City caretaker manager for the rest of the season is to be before the weekend is over, possibly even before kick off of Saturday’s visit of Grimsby.

For the players especially, it’s a case of who they need to impress. It’s perhaps testament to just how small former manager Stuart McCall’s squad was – or his indecision – that there are no senior players rotting in the reserves. However well or badly they have performed, each player has it all to do all over again. Wayne Jacobs will be in charge from the touchline, but it may be a question of who might be watching from the stands.

And if the caretaker-to-be is able to run the rule over his new charges, he shouldn’t be too disappointed with what he to work with. McCall had to work under tough financial constraints which will have hindered his ability to build the team he wanted, but what the players lack in quality they have almost always compensated by their effort.

I’ve always found that a fair summary of how well a manager did can only be drawn after a lengthy period, and though we may in time label McCall a failed manager it would be premature to do so. Like with Nicky Law and Colin Todd, we may soon discover a change makes no difference, in which case the proportion of blame McCall would be considered to deserve for this season’s under-achievement lessens.

But what we do hope to learn in this season’s squad is that McCall has achieved one of his original stated aims, revealed during his first interview after becoming the manager in May 2007. He said then, “I think back to the first time I was here when we signed people like Greg Abbott, John Hendrie and Chris Withe…they went on to be great servants for the club and loved being part of it…I want to bring in players like that who will hopefully develop and grow with the club.”

McCall’s Monday departure ensured few people were too bothered with talking about the Bury defeat, and the post match comments of defender Simon Ramsden appear to have been widely missed. He told the Telegraph & Argus, “The gaffer has got a history with the club from playing and manager. You can see the club means a lot to him, as it does with all of us. Every time you put on the shirt you should wear it with pride and give 100 per cent.”

If three, four or five of the current crop of players can become entrenched in the hearts of us supporters in the same vein as Abbot, Hendrie, McCall and co, the departing manager can be considered to have delivered some success. If these players can continue their development and lift the club forwards, the foundations can be credited to the biggest legend of them all for rubbing off the passion he had. McCall didn’t view managing City as just any old employment, his legacy may prove to be a playing squad which shares this outlook.

The worry is the eventual long-term successor might rip this work up, rather than build on it. But if the caretaker-to-be is watching and they’re looking to do more over the next three months than merely put themselves in the shop window for a better job, tomorrow could be the day the players start proving themselves as key components of the next chapter.

Quite who’ll be given the chance to impress is another question. This is Jacobs’ second game in charge of the club after acting as caretaker for the then-Division One club’s trip to Stoke back in 2003. He certainly caused an impression that day, consigning Dean Windass to sit amongst us away fans. Second time around, Jacobs will certainly pick Matt Glennon in goal with the experienced stopper having had little to do but conceding six goals in his first four Bantams games.

The passionate Simon Ramsden was outstanding as a centre back last week and will surely continue there alongside an equally impressive Matt Clarke. I didn’t agree with the decision to push Zesh Rehman over to right back, and though Stuart could no doubt explain the logic to me I’m not sure he’d go as far as to claim it worked. The promising-but-raw Jonathan Bateson may be recalled, with Luke O’Brien at left back.

Last week Omar Daley reminded us of his frustrating inconsistency after an ineffective performance as part of a midfield three, which at one stage drew an angry tirade from Michael Flynn. In the second half a Bury breakaway was thwarted by the Jamaican racing back to clear, which emphasises how his patchy form cannot just be labelled as ‘laziness’. He should start in what may instead be a 4-4-2.

Flynn and Lee Bullock will look to continue in the middle, though this writer craves for young Luke Sharry to be given more opportunities before the season ends. Steve O’Leary skippered the reserves to a rare win midweek and may be considered ahead of Bullock. Chris Brandon and Scott Nielson, both struggling for form but not involved with the second string, will hope for a recall. Leon Osborne is back from injury and worth considering for the bench.

Up front Jacobs has the luxury rarely afforded to McCall of having four fit strikers to choose from, though form is another matter. Gareth Evans netted twice at Torquay, but still looks unconfident and is fast-becoming the main target for the boo boys. Michael Boulding flatters to deceive and James Hanson and Peter Thorne’s recent injuries leave them rusty.

Grimsby rock up to Valley Parade deep in relegation mire, winless in 19 and 13 points behind City – but if that gap has decreased come 5pm Saturday, Bantams’ alarm bells will start to ring.  The Mariners have not beaten City in 11 attempts and their last win at Valley Parade was back in 1997. They’ve managed just 20 goals in 28 league games this season; if they play half as bad as they did against City at Blundell Park earlier this season, a comfortable home win will be achieved.

Personally I would be sad to see Grimsby go down. Cleethorpes is a pretty ugly place, but there are worse away ends than the one at Blundell Park and the fish & chip shop nearby is astonishingly good. They are six points adrift of safety and former City striker Neil Woods has so far been able to turn the tide.

According to the chairmen City go into this game with nothing to play for; but with such an uncertain future for the players and coaching staff, it’s not a time to be deliberating the summer holidays just yet. McCall’s legacy does not deserve to be players who’d give up trying now, tomorrow is their first chance to honour the former boss.

The saddest of endings

Stuart McCall’s farewell lap around Valley Parade applauding supporters was a heartbreaking sight – but it was also a beautiful moment.

His actions at the end of the 1-0 defeat to Bury said everything that is fantastic about the City legend. He knew the game was up and that, whether on Monday it will be announced he has resigned, left by mutual consent or been given the sack, it was no longer up to him whether he could stay. But there was no quick retreat down the touchline; he showed typical courage and respect in going out to applaud his supporters.

And the reaction back was equally fitting. Sure there’d be typical murmurings of discontent about McCall during the match and many had exited the stadium before the final whistle, but this was a time for  putting aside misgivings and showing appreciation for the man, the legend, who will ultimately always retain the respect and adulation of City fans.

It was the saddest of farewells, handled with the greatest of dignity.

There’s been a fear among many of those fans who’d been demanding a change that, if action wasn’t taken swiftly, McCall might be subject of the sort of unpleasant abuse other managers have received in the past. No one wanted it end ugly, and it sums up the bond between McCall and supporters that the parting of ways is as amicable as can be. I was close to tears as I applauded McCall’s farewell lap, and I have so much respect to him for taking the time to do it.

Once the farewell had been competed, Bury manager Alan Knill walked over to McCall and hugged him. He was humble in victory, as is easier to be, admitting that, just like at Gigg Lane a fortnight earlier, the Bantams were unfortunate to lose. Undoubtedly City, who hurled everything including the kitchen sink at the visitors during the closing stages, deserved to take something from the game.

Yet I don’t agree that City – and McCall – had been unlucky to lose this time. I was disappointed with McCall’s formation and tactics. And though I wanted him to remain as manager, there is something troubling about the evidence presented in front of us over the lack of progress this season.

Even before kick off, City seemed to have a whiff of desperation about their approach. Playing 4-3-3 is not new this season – the merits or otherwise having been debated on this site only a day earlier – but 4-3-3 with James Hanson, Gareth Evans AND Michael Boulding? Three up front worked earlier in the season due to those employed to take the two wide slots of the front three – Evans and Neilson – been able to play out wide. But Boulding and Hanson are largely better through the middle and leaving Omar Daley in the middle three meant the balance to the team wasn’t right and the style of football suffered.

It reminded me of then-Shrewsbury manager Gary Peter two years ago, realising the season wasn’t going to plan – and therefore his own future was in doubt – and just deciding to “go for it” every match. He picked a team at Valley Parade full of attacking intent, but City tore into them with two of the four goals coming on the counter attack. Peters was shortly afterwards sacked.

Playing 4-3-3 like City did yesterday suggested a lack of confidence in the players. Even in a must-win game, McCall and City needed to show patience and have a greater game plan than just going for it. It was a contrast to the visit of Bury last season, where a more measured and composed approach eventually brought a late Bantams winner.

At the back at least, recent defensive problems were partly addressed with Simon Ramsden moving from right back to centre back alongside Matt Clarke – and the pair put in as outstanding and assured defensive displays since David Wetherall and Damion Stewart dominated at the back in 2006. Luke O’Brien had a tough afternoon, but characteristically stuck to the task.

However the decision to play Zesh Rehman  at right back was curious and ultimately flawed. Zesh is a good player, but has not had a good season and there’s frustration and even unfair suspicion over why McCall is seemingly unwilling to leave him out. At right back, Rehman kept losing his man and unnecessarily diving in for challenges when he just needed to stand up and block the path to goal – often leaving him on the floor and out the game, while the winger charged on.

Rehman played at right back towards the end of last season with limited success, but that was due to some disappointing performances from Paul Arnison. As well as Ramsden, City have the able Jonathan Bateson as a natural right back who gets forward well, and he should have been included instead.

City nevertheless competed well and were unlucky to go behind, but then the desperation was too strong again. On a difficult pitch and with Hanson competing well, playing a more direct style of football had been tolerated if not approved. Yet with 25 minutes to play Daley was withdrawn for Peter Thorne, and we had the sight of four City strikers and just two midfielders. As intentions go it was clear there would be no passing and running down the flanks, but that the back four would simply be charged with launching it forwards.

This long ball football would be understandable with 10 minutes to go, but with over a quarter of the game still to play it was premature panic. Thorne added a much needed touch of class up front and his link up play saw the ball begin to stick in the final third, but for a period it seemed as though the players had lost heart, couldn’t find a way back and were at a loss of what to do next. Heavy pressure belatedly commenced in the final stages, but the team set up suggested the manager didn’t believe his players could come back by playing football.

It was perhaps the ultimate of ironies. That a manager who made his name as a player for his combative and inspirational skills in the middle of the park, had resorted to abandoning having a midfield in order to save his job.

And yes the argument goes that on chances, possession and territorial advantage, City did not deserve to lose. There’s an argument that the referee should have awarded a penalty and sent Bury’s Afe Sodje off. There’s an argument Bury didn’t look anything special. But ultimately the difference between the sides was the composure and organisation of the visitors and the fluster and anxiousness of City.

I don’t believe this is typical of McCall’s reign, but perhaps why we’re now saying goodbye to the City manager is because it is typical of McCall’s reign when things are going wrong. In his first season there was the autumn collapse of form that saw eight winless games and promotion hopes up in smoke. Last season the collapse came at the end of the season, lasting nine games, and this season’s recent run of poor form since December has been strikingly familiar.

At these difficult points we see too much indecision in the team selection and tactics. We see what initially seems a couple of set backs become a crisis of confidence. We see a slow and stuttered speed to the recovery. We see a manager trying to put a brave face on matters, but taking the setbacks too much to heart instead of instilling confidence into others. We see a football club quickly dropping down the league table.

Ultimately, as Stuart has acknowledged repeatedly in recent weeks, it’s a results business. No matter how much we supporters want him to be a success, the results simply haven’t been there. It is incredibly disappointing that it has come to this and it will take some time for many of us to fully recover and be enthused with City and football again, but if there’s a consolation it is that it has ended more painlessly than it might have.

Indeed the tone of McCall when speaking on the radio after the defeat was almost that of a relieved man. Acknowledging the circumstances of the game been so typical of the season to date, he even allowed himself a chuckle about his own misfortune. He seemed remarkably relaxed – but sad – and perhaps that was because the pressure could now be released off his shoulders. On the BBC One’s Football League Show last night, he even texted in to thank supporters again and to apologise he couldn’t have done a better job.

The special bond he has with the club and supporters remains in tact, and while for many that would always be the case the memories are at least not going to be added to by the sight of ‘McCall out’ chanting and the visible type of abuse which many of his Valley Parade dugout predecessors have endured.  It still sickens me that, after a 1-0 defeat to Doncaster in 2006, then-manager Colin Todd found his car had been attacked by City fans – I can’t imagine how I’d feel if such acts of horror had been inflicted upon McCall.

Nine months before that boxing day incident, I’d written an article for this site about why I didn’t want McCall (or Peter Beagrie) to become our next manager. My reasons were that I feared the souring of the special bond we supporters have with McCall, and that it would end with the usual suspects reigning down the boos.

A year later and, with the club in dire straits, I was prepared to abandon those fears and believe McCall’s installation as manager could have the romantic ending we all felt it would. As he prepares to clear his desk on Monday I feel devastated it was not worked out, I remain unconvinced it is the right move to part ways now, but I’m also happy that is ending relatively agreeably.

The City legend has given so much to this club across four decades, his lap of farewell at Valley Parade yesterday was yet another unforgettable Stuart memory.

Searching for an end to uncertainty as Bradford City travel to Torquay United

After a week in which it had been widely expected Stuart McCall would be given the sack, Bradford City travel deepest South with the immediate future continuing to be clouded by doubt.

The City manager remains; but should the Bantams return from the 600-mile round trip to Torquay pointless, it will surely spell the end. Then again it seemed as though defeat to Lincoln would trigger McCall’s dismissal, and before that the loss to Bury, and before that the draw at home to Cheltenham.

Uncertainty prevails. Visits to the Bantams’ official website have become more regular and tense – such is the expectation of been greeted by a statement announcing McCall has gone. Message board rumours emanated by someone who “knows someone who works at the club, his sacking will be announced tomorrow” become more regular and take added credence. A few times earlier this week, the sound of a text message  arriving has left me wondering if it’s someone letting me know he’s gone. Whether we want a managerial change or not, we’re all waiting for what seems like the inevitable – but it remains all quiet.

The silence, from the boardroom, is deafening. We’ve been in this situation four years ago with Colin Todd – who’s then-unpopularity still far exceeds the growing levels of discontent towards McCall – where growing pressure to make a change was met with no public comment from the club.

It’s clear that Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes can’t really win if they say something now – as any statement would increase the pressure on McCall regardless of what it contained, even public support would be dubbed the “dreaded vote of confidence”.  Yet the lack of comment can also be viewed as a lack of leadership and, with the local media typically falling in line, City supporters remain completely in the dark about the future of the manager.

A defeat on Saturday and it all starts over again. The continued checking of the website, the message board rumours, the bleep bleep of the phone. Perhaps this time it really would be it, but then perhaps McCall will be in the dugout at Valley Parade at least one more time, with Bury at home next. We can say with confidence that Torquay away is a must-win game for City’s already unlikely promotion hopes, but we have little idea if Torquay away is a must-win game for McCall.

Yet the significance of the result at Plainmoor cannot be understated. This week McCall has talked more than once about the importance of winning, no matter how it’s achieved, and the long-awaited delivery of three points would be the perfect tonic for the January blues afflicting everyone connected with City.

A midweek of inaction might have seen the Bantams slip as low as 19th, but instead results elsewhere left the club firmly stuck in 16th. City make their furthest away trip of the campaign with the play offs the longest distance away they’ve been all season, but the 10-point gap isn’t unbridgeable if a revival can begin quickly.

Who will be charged with beginning such an upturn is less clear, after McCall spoke earlier this week about rooting out the faint-hearted and dropping players who couldn’t handle the pressure. If the early substitutions made at Sincil Bank are any indication, that may include Zesh Rehman. The City captain has endured a tough season and may have only retained his place in recent weeks due to the raft of suspensions involving his defensive colleagues. He was badly at fault for both Lincoln goals, in almost exactly the same manner, and, though his half time replacement Steve Williams also looked a bit unsteady, the former hairdresser may take Rehman’s place.

Matt Clarke, left on the sidelines for much of the season, had a very strong second half at Lincoln and is arguably the most in-form of the three natural centre backs. The standout central defensive performance of the season to me remains Simon Ramsden in the JPT at Rochdale, and McCall may consider switching him into the middle and continue playing the promising Jonathan Bateson – subbed at half time too against Lincoln, but more than likely for tactical reasons – at right back. The only certain starter of the back four at Plainmoor will be Luke O’Brien. Matt Glennon keeps goal.

In midfield Omar Daley impressed against Bury and Lincoln and is becoming more effective with each returning game. The Jamaican was used on the right at Sincil Bank, and Chris Brandon may be moved to a more orthodox left wing position to provide balance after a somewhat disastrous first half at Lincoln in the free role. Brandon’s failure to make an impact was the fault of others as much as his, but the slight upwards curve in recent form needs to continue for him to sustain what for him is a regular run in the starting eleven. Scott Neilson is also in contention against opposition he made his City debut against last August.

Lee Bullock and Michael Flynn should take the central midfield spots with Steve O’Leary finally nearing full fitness and expected to be ready to provide competition from the bench. The usually-consistent Bullock was poor last week, while Flynn is struggling to hit the early-season heights. Former Leeds midfielder Bruno Riberio, now 34, has been linked with a move to Valley Parade, due to a long-standing friendship with goalkeeper coach Nigel Martyn.

Up front, Peter Thorne is surprisingly set for a place on the bench after scoring in his return to action for the reserves in midweek. With goals drying up of late, City are desperate for the sort of striking prowess Thorne possesses. Just remember his record at City – 69 starts 32 goals. How different might City’s season have so far been if they could have called upon Thorne more than a mere five times up to now.

Gareth Evans – who looked out-of-sorts at Lincoln and badly needs a rest – will partner Michael Boulding – who has shown decent recent form – in attack. James Hanson – his transfer fee finally agreed – is still injured.

Torquay’s return to the Football League may not be reaching the same heights as their Devon counterparts Exeter last season, but they are reasonably positioned to avoid relegation. Last week they blew a 2-0 home lead to Burton and ended up beaten. On Tuesday Barnet’s Paul Furlong netted for them to earn a 1-1 draw at Underhill. They’ve not won in five games, one less than City’s current dismal run.

Ideal opposition for City to get going again? Nothing is certain with the Bantams right now, although surely City’s winter of discontent and McCall’s reign as manager cannot both continue for much longer.

Can they?

Eastwood returns to Town

Simon Eastwood will return to Hudderfield Town following a curious loan deal at Valley Parade that saw the shot stopper both hero and villain and enhance and tarnish his reputation as a potential replacement for Stoke or Everton bound Alex Smithes in the Terriers goal.

Eastwood’s start and lowest ebb at Valley Parade came in the 5-0 defeat to Notts County while his brightest day was against the same club in the penalty shoot out saves he made to knock the then big spending club out of the JPT.

He has at times been described as a liability but has also kept the scoreline in some games respectable with impressive goalkeeping that points to the reason why Bradford City scouts would have been impressed with him in the first place.

Eastwood – like so many young players – is good at playing football but not yet a good footballer. In the last month of his stay at Valley Parade he was noticeably more vocal than he was in his opening weeks showing that the keeper was learning the necessary skills to go from being good at diving and jumping to being able to command a defence.

In thinking of Eastwood I recall the two goalkeepers who wowed for City in the Premiership. Matt Clarke was like Eastwood – full of springs and leaps – while Gary Walsh commanded a defence and had superior positioning that meant he had no need to dive headlong to palm a ball away, he was standing where it would be and could calmly claim it.

Eastwood is a Matt Clarke goalkeeper but to get on the game one needs to be a Gary Walsh. Managers need reliability from their keepers and Eastwood’s errors robbed McCall of that. His wanderings as the ball came over undermined the confidence of the defence and did nothing to help build the understanding that the triangle between centrebacks and keeper needs. One only find this out with regular week-to-week football and the ability Eastwood has to make some impressive saves justified the risk.

Eastwood has much work to do in the next few years improving the mental side of his game if he is ever going to be more than a goalkeeping acrobat.

Considering the limp that Eastwood continued with following an unnecessary and rather violent challenge from Dave Hibbert towards the end of the last match perhaps a replacement for Eastwood would have been needed anyway. City perhaps continue with Jon McLaughlin in goal or perhaps go into the loan market for another custodian – an experienced man in goal could do much to settle a defence which has talent but not organisation – and should the choice be the latter have only a couple of days to replace Eastwood before Saturday’s game with Cheltenham.

Struggling to find more

How do you get more out of 100%? As Bradford City manager Stuart McCall observed his players running themselves into the ground while attempting to get the better of League Two early-pace setters Bournemouth this afternoon, that’s the conundrum which must have occupied his thoughts.

Injury-ravaged to the point a central defender had to play in midfield and a central midfielder was deployed up front, it was difficult to find fault with the level of effort his last men standing devoted to the pursuit of earning three points. Coaxing out a greater level of application and smartness already looks key for effort to be rewarded by success.

For as extreme as the injury list seems at the moment, such circumstances appear more likely to be later repeated than addressed by sizeable team strengthening in January. As the second half began to drift into a pattern of stalemate, a look behind his shoulder at the substitute options offered Stuart few solutions.

The danger of a reduced investment in the playing squad was always going to be a lack of strength in depth. Stuart is left with no choice but to fill his bench with youngsters who may not yet  be ready for first team responsibility and are even less likely to be ready to be trusted to deliver a desired level of influence on matches. The worry is those senior players giving 100% will be allowed to get away with dropping a few percentage points, while still keeping their place. Not only does Stuart face the challenge of getting more from 100%, he must ensure 100% remains the minimum.

For the opening 45 minutes at least, City got about the Cherries in a crafty manner which might well have brought greater rewards than Gareth Evans’ cancelling out Brett Pitman’s opener. The visitors were far removed from then-manager Jimmy Quinn’s defensive stranglehold tactics which had paved the way for a 3-1 success at Valley Parade last season, commendably passing the ball around in a confident manner which ran throughout the team. Eddie Howe’s side were comfortably the best team City have entertained this season, but their attempts to play a high defensive line encouraged the Bantams to find success from playing low through balls in behind it, which might have been punished more often but for some tight offside calls.

Michael Flynn – the midfielder deployed up front – was effective in holding up the ball and working space to thread passes in the path of forward runners, while Chris Brandon and Scott Neilson – playing more as orthodox wingers in the first half – showed a willingness to make runs from deep. Evans wasted the best opportunity when a through ball had been timed exactly right and he charged clear with plenty of time to weigh up his options. His attempt to shift the ball to his preferred left foot saw the angle closed down by Cherries’ keeper Shwan Jalal and the eventual shot was screwed well wide of the far post.

Four minutes later Zesh Rehman – the central defender playing in midfield – helped to gift Bournemouth the lead after his hesitancy in clearing a loose ball allowed Anton Robinson to be played through into space between Steve Williams and the recalled Matt Clarke. With just Eastwood to beat, the former non-league player laid the ball into Pitman’s path for an easy tap in.

There were angry complaints from home supporters, who claimed Pitman had been ahead of Robinson and the ball played forwards, thus making Pitman offside. Both referee and linesman missed any such infringement, and Pitman curiously ran off to gloat at City supporters in the Main Stand.

But if heads dropped, the 100% remained and Evans atoned for his earlier miss three minutes before half time after Lee Bullock’s perfect pass enabled him the time and space to round Jalal and run the ball into an empty net. It remains a troubling statistic that only once this season have City come from behind to win – Rochdale away in the JPT; but since Lincoln triumphed 2-0 at Valley Parade last August, only one side – Crewe – has managed to score first against the Bantams and maintain a lead for the full remainder of the game.

Though City dominated the half’s final minutes they were to enjoy less territorial advantage after the break as Howe re-organised his defence so they held a deeper backline. It was at that point the effects of so many injuries were starkly visible as City struggled to execute a game plan that would lead to meaningful control of the match. James Hanson’s injury had been kept quiet – one suspects the local media are starting to become frustrated by Stuart’s economical sharing of team news this season – and City’s top scorer was especially missed once the space for Evans, Brandon and Neilson to run onto through balls was no longer afforded.

City needed someone who could hold up the ball so other players could get forward and provide options, but despite best efforts this is less Evans’ game and certainly not Flynn’s. Neilson and Brandon were able to pick up the ball out wide, but were too isolated with attempts to dribble forward ineffective. Rehman – the defender playing in midfield – largely stayed deep alongside Bullock and Flynn – the midfielder deployed up front – was too high up the park to make his trademark surging forward runs.

City went narrower in midfield with Neilson pushed further forwards and Brandon encouraged to roam, but by then Bournemouth had reverted to playing on the break and the pace in their locker compromised how far full backs Luke O’Brien and Jonathan Bateson could support the attack. It meant the best efforts to play through or or over the Cherries defence went largely without reward.

Which is where more than 100% is needed. The craftiness to try different things, switch play more often and attack with more fluency was compromised by tiring minds and legs, and the options to freshen things up were limited. Other than James O’Brien’s curious non-involvement and the welcome sight of a recovering Simon Ramsden, Stuart had three youngsters with five career Football League starts between them as his subs bench.

One of them, Rory Boulding, replaced the injured Evans with five minutes to go and looked lively, but the inevitability of the stalemate had set in long before. Bournemouth had the better second half chances, although but for the occasional slip up both Williams and Clarke defended well. Bullock might have won the game for City in the closing stages after his header from a corner was superbly kept out by Jalal.

The result leaves City exactly where they were before kick off and exactly where they were five weeks ago – four points off the play offs. With another 30 league games to play it’s a reasonable position to be, particularly taking into account the woeful start. But that the last seven league games have returned just one win suggests more is needed in the tank to stay in touch with and ultimately climb amongst the front runners.

The returning injured players will add to what’s in that tank, but getting more than 100% from the players available is the puzzle which must be solved to avoid the busyness of the physio room determining the outcome of the season.

The Crewe joke and how not to be the butt of it as the Alex come to Valley Parade

There was a joke in football in the eighties that went along the lines of asking who the strongest team in British football was to which the answer was, hilariously enough, “Crewe, because they hold the rest of them up.”

That such a jest is outmoded is largely down to the opposition manager Dario Gradi who took charge of that laughing stock club and in a near two decades made alterations which changed the public perceptions of the Gresty Road club.

Crewe, the Football League’s shining example of a well run club to writer David Conn in his 2003 book The Beautiful Game, became synonymous with the development of young players with a series of high profile internationals either coming through the ranks or were picked up following release and turned around.

Gareth Whalley, Stuart McCall’s midfield partner in 1999, came from Crewe.

This track record is largely credited to Gradi and his youth development skills but credit is shared by a whole club prepared to rise or fall on the strength of the talent unearthed. A poor crop of youngsters could see a bad season or relegation but that was never considered a failure of the system which brought rewards on and off the field and certainly not a reason to change that system.

Gradi moved upstairs after his sixtieth birthday but has been called back to the job as caretaker following the dismissal of one of his successors. Crewe, it would seem, have staggered from the light of what they did well for twenty years and perhaps that is why they find themselves back near the position of mirth.

City’s attempt at continuity in management seem to be more faltering with manager McCall given a break from the attempts to oust him as his team continue a run of ten games without defeat that was made more impressive by the changes made in the midweek penalties victory over an unamused Notts County who once again employed the technique hence forth known as “If not a win then spin.”

Ian McPartland tells the vast majority of County fans who were not at the game that they were robbed and that Graeme Lee should not have been sent off and it is not true but creating the suggestion takes some pressure off him.

To be clear City got everything they deserved on Tuesday night.

That this was the case came from a squad capable of fluidly filling in roles in a formation and take responsibility for the performance. Leon Osbourne has yet to win me over but he let no one down on Tuesday for the majority of the game and can take pride in his display.

The winger will no doubt be dropped with James Hanson ready to come back from illness but Michael Boulding is becoming increasingly hard to displace in the side and when Gareth Evans returns from suspension – and the Ref who sent off Evans would have had cause to red Graeme Lee three times despite the Magpies manager’s protestations – Stuart McCall might have to pick between Boulding and Scott Neilson on the right hand side providing an interesting pointer to the longed for day that sees Omar Daley back in claret and (reduced amounts of) amber.

Michael Flynn put in an outstanding performance on Tuesday as he continues to be the ball winning and passing midfielder of our dreams while James O’Brien is starting to look equally impressive. Lee Bullock will return pushing Chris Brandon back to the bench.

Jonathan Bateson is unlucky to have to step down following two good displays and a switch for Simon Ramsden to the middle is not out of the question but Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams are likely to return at the expense of Bateson and Matt Clarke.

Luke O’Brien has been a joy to watch of late and one recalls the Crewe idea that a team might rise and fall on the strength of it’s young players.

If Huddersfield Town rise on the back of goalkeeper Simon Eastwood then it is because of Tuesday night’s two penalty saves which galvanize a player who was mobbed coming off the field.

Mobbed with the rest of the players. Slowly building, improving, not losing. Dario would be proud.

Reserved judgement

It’s not just the legions of empty seats that invoke feelings of eeriness and suspicion during reserve team fixtures. For the Bradford City and Huddersfield Town players involved in tonight’s West Yorkshire derby reserve match,  the wide range of people stood watching by the side offered different reasons for their attention.

Impressing the two reserve team managers in the dug out might be the obvious priority, but to the wily this was secondary to catching the attention of the more senior personnel watching from further afar.  For Town, that was manager Lee Clark and assistant Terry McDermott, who plonked themselves amongst the spare crowd nine rows back, with a clear focus on events in front. Then there was the various parents who were clearly present, trying to keep warm and concentrating more on their lad impressing than which team would triumph. Finally, and perhaps most hidden of all, were scouts and the like eyeing up potential signings for their club. A certain Darlington Assistant Manager by the name of Dean Windass was sat in the Valley Parade media section for the first half, leaving one to mischievously contemplate whether the player he might be checking out with a view to his boss Colin Todd signing on loan might be Matt Clarke. Imagine Mark Bower’s reaction if the former Quaker defender, brought to Valley Parade by Todd, was to steal his place again!

But if those in the stands and in the dug out had differing focuses to their watching briefs, the agendas of those on the pitch are rarely collectively on their team triumphing. This was a typical Bradford City reserve outfit that can broadly be broken into four groups. There was the trialists, who usually capture the media attention. Tonight Tomi Ameobi played his third reserve game for the Bantams in his bid to earn a contract. Displaying a good show of strength and decent turn of pace, he impressed in small doses but failed to do enough to suggest he’d climb in front of City’s five strikers and play a first team role.

Also making a third trialist appearance was Clive Moyo-Modise, who had previously played for Rochdale and was close to signing for Stockport over the summer. The London-born winger demonstrated some nice skills to beat players, but his final pass was lacking. He kept losing the ball in promising positions and such a performance in a typical City first team game would attract vicious abuse from supporters. Those empty seats can be a forgiving bunch.

Of more interest is another group – those knocking on the door of the first team. Leon Osborne has made three substitute appearances for the first team this season and, with a lack of regular wingers at the club, may continue to receive chances before Omar Daley’s return. In the second half especially tonight, Osborne looked a menace playing down the left flank and a series of threatening crosses deserved more than to fly past some timid attempts of others in getting on the end.

Luke Sharry is a player I’ve enjoyed watching in reserve and pre-season friendly games. Tonight he again suggested he could take control of the midfield for spells, cleverly using the ball and reguarly picking out the right pass. His best moment came when he robbed a Huddersfield midfielder and played the ball to Ameobi, before finding space to receive back possession and hitting a long range lob which bounced off the cross bar.  Something is perhaps still lacking in his game and that may be gathered by the experience of going out on loan, but the day when Luke finally gets to play a first team game at Valley Parade can’t be too distant and, if and when it happens, it won’t just be his parents full of pride.

Jon McLaughlin is also being talked up for the first team with Simon Eastwood continuing to worry. Tonight he made some decent saves and couldn’t really be blamed for the three goals that flew into his net, but he still falls short of presenting a strong enough case for taking the first term jersey other than the fact he’s not Eastwood. With the on-loan Town keeper scheduled to return to Town in January, his chance may soon come.

But if Leon, Luke and Jon are on the way up, the third group would consider themselves on the way down. Not too long ago Michael Boulding and Clarke were first teamers, but having lost their place they face a battle to impress that stretches beyond playing well in a reserve match. Tonight Boulding and Clarke were judged as much for their attitude as their ability to score or keep out goals. Boulding appeared disinterested at first, but  the spark which makes him a good player was reclaimed as the first half wore on and he cancelled out James Berrett’s opener for Huddersfield with a shot that deflected past Matt Glennon. Withdrawn at half time, he will hope to continue where he left off if given the chance to come off the bench against Chesterfield on Saturday – opponents he scored twice past last season.

Clarke also impressed with the way he leaded the back four, barking instructions constantly and notably offering advice to central defensive partner Louis Horne. In the second half an upset Clarke got into an argument with McLaughlin over the keeper’s lack of dominance in his area, invoking memories of the numerous spats Clarke had with Rhys Evans last season.

Which leaves the final group of players – the younger ones, who competed keener than most throughout. 1st year apprentice Alex Flett took Stuart’s coverted number 4 shirt and put in the kind of all action display that suggests he can one day follow in his manager’s footsteps. At left back, Andrew Villermann got forward effectively and stood up well to the dangerous Lionel Ainsworth. With Luke O’Brien the only left back on the books, the scenario of Villermann or Horne getting a first team game before the season is out is far from unlikely. Phil Cutler also looked confident at right back.

Huddersfield took the lead three times – Rory Boulding bundling home City’s second equaliser following a corner after Berrett’s second – with Ameobi having the decisive touch at the wrong end after poking a Town free kick into his own net. Yet Huddersfield fielded a  strong team which included the tough tackling Jim Goodwin and Gary Roberts, who had ran riot against City’s first team in the League Cup tie last year. Midway through the first half Town reserve team manager Paul Stephenson barked instructions at his players, before looking over to Clark in an obvious attempt to seek approval. That’s the suspicion of reserve games, who exactly is trying to impress who?

For City’s four groups of players, their level of success differed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for pre-season optomism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

A tortured ending

This was supposed to be the perfect setting for the final scene of a glorious story.

Almost exactly two years since relegation to League Two was confirmed by a dismal 3-0 reverse at Saltergate, the resurrection of Bradford City was going to be sealed on the same spot. After the Derbyshire Police dogs had finished scaring away some of the chavviest opposition supporters you’ll ever see, City’s players would be presented with the League Two Championship trophy, or maybe only second or third would have been achieved which would still have given cause for wild celebrations. At the very least, we’d have sealed a spot in the play offs and be looking ahead with anticipation.

And if a film director was to tell the story of City’s triumphant 2008/09 promotion on the big screen, they’d begin it with a flashback to April 2007; to Steve Schumacher telling supporters to ‘eff off, to caretaker manager David Wetherall in tears, to tabloid newspapers proclaiming the club was going bust.

But there is no fairytale ending, not this time, yet again. It was an ending that saw City coast to the sort of 2-0 victory the backbone of promotion-winning sides are built upon. But the infrequency of such occasions – this was City’s first away win since beating Gillingham 2-0 in February and they have only won once more on the road, at Rotherham, during the last six months – is as much behind the anticlimactic ending as injuries and bad refereeing decisions. It was the sort of victory to raise spirits and prompt a good sing-along, but there is ultimately no feel-good story to the league campaign it marked the conclusion of.

City’s hopes of ending with a promotion party were effectively ended at Dagenham two weeks ago, and the feeling since has been one akin to a particularly stinking hangover. The glaring morning sunshine has forced the ramifications for failure into the spotlight. There is remorse towards what was done when the champagne was flowing, regrets when emptying the pockets and finding ATM receipts that recall how much money was spent along the way, despair at decisions made and the consequences that now must be faced. Even the good bits of news – of Stuart staying – can’t be cheered as feverishly as they perhaps deserve. The mind is occupied by so many what ifs and if onlys – and the best way of asking some now-unwanted guests to leave.

The line up for Saturday’s final game had a somewhat unusual feel, especially when remembering who had been left at home. There was no Rhys Evans, the keeper who began complaining about the lack of a new contract as long ago as February and who might now be taking Stuart McCall off his Christmas card list.

There was no Graeme Lee and Paul McLaren, two of those champagne signings who’s continuation with City next season compromises so much of the playing budget.

There was no Chris Brandon and Steve Jones, the former of whom’s City career is rumoured to be over before it ever begun.

There was no Peter Thorne, who we hope will be still scoring goals for City the next season.

There wasn’t even David Wetherall – the central character two years ago – which will do little to dampen rumours of him leaving.

But there was a team which displayed commitment, energy and guile. Jon McLaughlan took Evans’ place in goal and looked comfortable with everything thrown his way, though it must be acknowledged Chesterfield’s Jack Lester-less attack were toothless and failed to force a meaningful save from the former Harrogate Railway keeper.

Matt Clarke was recalled to partner Zesh Rehman at the back and was typically robust and strong. Occasional bouts of sloppiness apart, he and Zesh dominated their penalty area and would make for a good backline to start next season with.

Joe Colbeck was brought back on the right and looked more confident and lively than in recent weeks. A group of pathetic morons – apologies but that’s the politest term I can use – chose to chant “you’re not fit to wear our shirt” towards last season’s player of the season. That was during a rare moment they bothered to watch the game, such was there main interest in goading Chesterfield supporters. Joe did not resort to a Schumacher-style response, though that would have been too kind towards them anyway.

Up front we got to see the Boulding brothers and while the focus was mainly on younger brother Rory – making a belated debut and showing promise with some good link up play – Michael’s performance particularly caught the eye. This was every inch the player Stuart had worked so hard to pursue last summer, making effective runs here and there and charging at home defenders in a manner that suggested no one had told him this was a meaningless game. Michael was playing while the other two with clauses to leave were not, it’s to be hoped he’ll be willing to take a pay cut and remain a key player for next season.

After a first half of nothingness was shaded by City, with Colbeck shooting wide and an unmarked Lee Bullock directing a header the wrong side of the post, the visitors really stepped it up after the break and should have edged in front with Rory Boulding and again Bullock passing up presentable chances; but then Rory did well to set Nicky Law away down the left, who charged down the byline and delivered a purposeful low cross which was met perfectly by the on-rushing Dean Furman to fire City in front.

“Sign him up” was the chant towards Furman. When we reflect on where it went wrong this season, the injury that forced the influential midfielder to miss those crucial games against Morecambe, Lincoln and Dagenham will feature high up the list. In the last two games Furman has been simply outstanding and, if the rapturous reception he received at full time proves to be the last time we see him in a City shirt, we should at least be thankful we were given a season to enjoy his talents. Who knows what the future holds, but it’s not far-fetched to ponder that the next time we properly see him he could be playing for the host Country in the 2010 World Cup.

Chesterfield’s response was limited, with the only Blue passion coming from supporters chanting for manager Lee Richardson to be sacked. Drew Talbot should have equalised but fired woefully wide after charging through on goal. That would have been undeserved and, with four minutes to go, Michael Boulding sniffed out half a chance and smashed the ball into the net.

By that stage younger brother had been withdrawn and his replacement, Leon Osborne, arguably made a bigger impression after linking up impressively with Boulding senior and playing some intelligent passes. He also made clever runs, took up useful positions and might have grabbed a first senior goal had he not shot as hastily when a sight on goal opened up.

Kyle Nix also came on after Law, who was a menace on the left, took a knock. Law received a great ovation as he hobbled past the City fans with more “sign him up” chants. The odds are short on neither he and Furman being here next season, but even if one of the two could be persuaded to continue their fledgling career at Valley Parade next season there’d be cause for joy.

For now though, there is no celebration. The players came over to thank us supporters at the end, and the generous applause they received in return was well deserved. It can’t be forgotten that when it really mattered, these players choked. But at least a degree of pride has been restored following the last two performances and we don’t need to go into the summer feeling as miserable as we did a fortnight ago.

This victory won’t have cleared that hangover and the next few days promise to be particularly difficult, with tough decisions on player and staff futures needing to be made. Credible rumours are growing that Mark Bower and Evans have already left and it’s clear others will follow.

Quite how many do could yet be the key for next season, for there is enough quality and enough determination already in the dressing room to put right this season’s wrongs. The challenge is to keep those players and find new stars to deliver alongside them.

It’s also to be hoped that next season we get a more sympathetic script writer.

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.

The worst punishment

Putting aside debates over Stuart McCall’s ability for a moment, everyone should be horrified by the prospect of the Bantams manager leaving this summer. A managerial vacancy in May will mean the play offs have been missed and a resultant punishment no one connected with City will relish – more of the same.

Today’s 1-0 defeat to Port Vale was a bad advert for League Two and sadly something its biggest crowds have had to become used to. Not so long ago visiting teams came with clever game plans that often worked, this season the majority show up with limited aspirations of avoiding defeat. Five across the midfield, time waste as often as possible and, on occasions home players get through, bring them down by any means necessary.That they succeeded owed more to City’s lack of confidence than any better parking of the bus compared to others.

The only goal of the game came four minutes after the break through a neat low finish by David Howland, but the chance came seconds after City had been on the attack and Keith Gillespie, making his full debut, had produced an ill-advised short pass to Dean Furman which had too much power to control and allowed Paul Marshall to break forward. Graeme Lee stood off him too long and, when he did eventually put in a challenge, the ball spun into Howland’s path from which he beat Rhys Evans.

It was the only time Vale troubled City’s goal, though the territorial advantage the Bantams enjoyed didn’t manifest itself into many chances. Lee might have made up for his hesitancy for the goal with three attempts that were cleared off the line, Clarke had a decent half volley attempt which was straight at Valiant keeper Jon Anyon, Furman blazed over and Steve Jones stabbed a few efforts wide – but at no point in the game was momentum built up to the level of heavy pressure.

The biggest concern for Stuart will have been that the final whistle did not herald only the second home defeat of the season, his team looked beaten long before it. Confidence is draining from certain players who, only a matter of weeks ago, were in excellent form. Low confidence for City typically results in a more direct approach and an over-desperation to force a goal which was evident even during the early stages. The lack of composure in hurrying the ball forward rather than passing it around patiently meant possession was quickly gifted back to Vale, who tried their hardest to boot it back in the direction it came.

Stuart has faced the conundrum all season of two central midfielders being out numbered by three opposition and seemed to have found the solution in the boundless energy levels of Furman and Nicky Law, but even the on-loan pair looked jaded and unable to influence the game. Out wide Gillespie and Jones battled hard and caused problems, but the double-marking tactics left them struggling for space and the efforts of Zesh Rehman and Luke O’Brien to support were undermined by the former’s favouritism of his left foot and the latter’s struggle to handle the counter attack threat from his side.

Up front Paul Mullin made his debut after signing on-loan from Accrington and, though he showed some good touches and battled well, offered nothing Barry Conlon does not on a good day. The hope for Stuart will be that he has higher consistency levels. Michael Boulding looked useful with the ball at feet but finding space is a problem he’s faced at Valley Parade all season. With the ball invariably aimed at Mullin, he was forced to feed off scraps. Stuart introduced Chris Brandon and Lee Bullock from the bench, but neither had any impact.

Fortunately for City, this impact on the league table has been just as slight, with only Rochdale winning and the gap to third still only a mountable six points. Realistically the play offs are the target but the worry is this further dent on confidence will make it even harder for the players to achieve that. Next week’s game at Chester becomes even more must-win and, with The Blues winless in 17 and having fallen into the bottom two for the first time, it will be a pressure game for both sides. Losing is unthinkable and would bring the reality of missing out on the top seven and another season in League Two closer.

That we are even here in the first place owes a little to today’s whistle-happy referee who did as much to ruin the spectacle as Vale’s Marc Richards and his kicking the ball away time-wasting efforts. It’s almost two years ago to the day since Steve Bratt was last officiating at Valley Parade and on that afternoon he stopped a resurgent City effort against Blackpool by ridiculously sending off Steve Schumacher just as the Bantams were completely on top. The score was 1-1 but the game ended 3-1 to the Tangerines with the hapless referee later admitting he was wrong to dismiss Schumacher – in between City were relegated from League One.

Back at the scene of the crime, Bratt played completely into Vale’s hands by continually stopping play and awarding some bizarre free kicks. On at least two occasions City players were fouled, only for Bratt to give the decision the other way. He also displayed ridiculous inconsistencies with the advantage rule, at one stage pulling the game back ten seconds after a Vale foul hadn’t stopped Boulding charging into the area with just a defender and keeper to beat. No wonder the Vale players were so quick to shake his hand at the final whistle.

Stuart was yet to be installed as manager on Bratt’s last visit; as assistant to Neil Warnock, he had just witnessed Sheffield United lost 3-0 at Chelsea. The bright lights of the Premier League quickly became distant after the five successive defeats early into his City managerial career, last season. His immediate task is to make sure that record isn’t equalled next Saturday, as well as restore hope we might escape another year of punishment.

Deflecting viewpoints – Bournemouth v Bradford City – League Two preview

Deflections are habitually described as wicked, and the one which Dean Moxley’s cross took off Paul Arnison to loop over Rhys Evans for Exeter’s winner on Saturday was heinous in its contribution towards City’s promotion hopes.

City spent the remaining 70 minutes trying to neutralise its implication but in the end it was late drama 250 miles to the East, in Kent, which had the most telling affect. Grant Holt’s late equaliser may have pushed his Shrewsbury side above City, but the two points it cost Gillingham means automatic promotion remains a reachable three points away. Victory at Bournemouth tonight could shorten that gap to mere goal difference and deflect a season in danger of going either way back in the right direction.

Recent form is not good enough, no one would argue. Defeat at Exeter was City’s fourth in a row on the road and fourth in six full stop. It’s a measure of inconsistencies with City’s promotion rivals – Brentford apart – that a one point deficit City had after drawing at home to Darlington last month has only increased by two during a period of some of the Bantams’ worst performances of the campaign.

Much has been made online about the latest defeat with the extreme calls of Stuart McCall to be sacked aired by some. Normally I’d try to argue this is ridiculous but there seems little point, not least because their cries are not going to be acted upon by those who get to decide. Furthermore I – as, I would guess, are many others who defend Stuart – am tired of receiving the lazy and patronising put-down of wearing ‘rose-tinted glasses’ when I do.

There’s no room for debate with some supporters, if you disagree Stuart should be booted out it’s not because you rationally believe he’s doing a decent job, you are stupid; or blind and own prescribed magic spectacles – I forget which.

Back in the South, the City squad have remained from Saturday and one hopes the unusually long period of time spent together as a group will have benefited team morale and increased focus ahead of a vital encounter with Bournemouth. Stuart took a squad of 20 to Devon last week before facing a disciplinary problem with Barry Conlon and Matt Clarke, which hampered selection.

Reaction to Conlon and Clarke’s misdemeanours is like opinions on the best way to punish children – everyone has a view but no one ever agrees. Details are unclear, but it would seem Stuart chose to keep them grounded in the stand and stop their pocket money for at least a week. Some criticise him for cutting his nose to spite his face by leaving them out, others argue the pair should never play for the club again. Both players are expected to be back in consideration again with Stuart’s reluctance to publicly criticise them hopefully being rewarded with a determination from both to make amends.

Conlon’s absence and another little injury to Peter Thorne left Stuart selecting Nicky Law up front with Michael Boulding at St James Park. Stuart is often accused of playing Law ‘out of position’, though these critics seem to ignore the fact Law’s career at Sheffield United has so far involved playing out wide or up front. A central midfield partnership with Dean Furman results in Law ultimately ‘out of position’. Some might call it clever management by Stuart to get such great performances out of him in the centre this season. They will probably be the same folk wearing rose-tinted glasses, though.

Law should return to the midfield but perhaps on the wing with Lee Bullock or Paul McLaren partnering Furman in the centre and Steve Jones on the right. The club’s failure to get returning injured players looking anything better than rusty is troubling, though Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon may be considered for starts. As will Keith Gillespie.

Up front Thorne is definitely out so Conlon should partner the hit and miss Boulding. Stuart’s failure to bring in a fourth striker is been debated by some. Tellingly up to five clubs are reported to be on the verge of administration with talk of one League Two club being unable to complete its fixtures. That won’t be City, but the still tight finances mean the luxury of signing the mythical fourth striker who’d score lots of goals probably isn’t available.

Jones is the nearest to a replacement we had for Willy Topp in terms of space on the wage bill, and may play more regularly in the striker berth if other wingers can start matching his form out wide. Gillespie was clearly only brought in because of Omar Daley’s injury and whether he is on anything more than a pay-as-you-play deal is suspectable.

At the back Clarke will be expected to return with Zesh Rehman either switched to right back for Arnison or relegated back to the bench. Luke O’Brien and Graeme Lee will hope to better recent efforts with Evans keeping goal.

Bournemouth’s recent form is amongst the best in the league and stronger than most promotion-chasing clubs. From a seemingly hopeless position, their third manager of the season, Eddie Howe, has reinvigorated belief and ten undefeated matches from 12 has propelled the Cherries out of the bottom two. They are also the only club to win at Valley Parade so far this season and present a tough prospect for City to end their away woes against.

Defeat would prompt an even angrier reaction from fans and a win would largely bring calm. Whichever there will be eight games left to play and nothing to suggest the up-and-down nature of the first 38 will cease. This is going to be the most exciting end to a season in ages and as much as they may leave us sleepness and distraught on occasions they should also bring excitment and joy.

Spectacles optional.

Another bad repeat

Shortly after half time at Spotland, Bradford City’s players found themselves rueing missed opportunities and a two-goal burst from the home side which left them chasing a deficit. As symbolism goes it was a pretty fair analogy of City’s promotion challenge to date – and of the size of the task this defeat leaves them in achieving that goal.

Fortune certainly favoured Rochdale and the three-point advantage they now look down upon City from in 3rd place is less comfortable than this three-goal victory might suggest; but while manager Stuart McCall can point to a woeful refereeing display from Scott Mathieson contributing greatly to his side’s fourth away defeat in five, he will also know much of it was self-inflicted.

Quite how the evening went so wrong is something Stuart will be pondering for the next few days. Having spent the first 20 minutes under the cosh from a vibrant Dale side who passed the ball around with fluency and alternated attacks down both flanks, City were the better team for spells during the rest of the half and could easily have gone in at the interval one or two goals ahead.

Barry Conlon, recalled ahead of Michael Boulding, ably linked up with Peter Thorne and was effective in holding up the ball and allowing others to get forward. Steve Jones carried on where he left off Saturday with some teasing dribbles and dangerous crosses. Nicky Law and Dean Furman, while never able to dominate the middle of the park in the manner they’d succeeded in the last two home games, competed well against the industrious Gary Jones and Clark Keltie.

The best chances fell to Thorne, who twice saw one-on-one opportunities against on-loan Blackburn keeper Frank Fielding blocked. The first one stemmed from good play by Conlon which left City’s top scorer with time and space to do better than the scuffed effort straight at Fielding. The second was a more difficult chance but better attempt, which needed to be pushed wide of the post. Just after half time Graeme Lee’s header from a corner was superbly stopped again by Fielding and, with other half chances created, most of the goal action fell in Rochdale’s penalty area. Rhys Evans did see one headed effort flash wide of his post.

Yet shortly into the second half Rochdale scored after Joe Colbeck, who endured another tough evening, fouled the dangerous Will Buckley and the resultant free kick was nodded home by Rory McArdle. With new purpose to Rochale’s game the tide quickly turned, although it was the dubious help from the officials in adjudging that Conlon’s attempt to clear the ball from a corner included his arm which put them in a stronger position. Adam Le Fondre, twice scourge of City last season, dispatched the resultant spot kick despite Evans getting a hand to it. When an even softer penalty was awarded following Matt Clarke’s challenge in the box – which looked clean from my position – Le Fondre repeated the feat.

But whatever sense of injustice City felt, demonstrated by assistant manager Wayne Jacobs getting sent off from the dug out and Stuart holding a long conversation with Mathieson at full time, it should not disguise another poor response to adversity. A decent performance once again fell apart and the final 35 minutes did not make pretty viewing from a Claret and Amber perspective. Rochdale continued to attack with purpose while desperation became too quickly evident in City’s forward play. Having successfully harried home players into mistakes during the first half, it was now the away team who couldn’t get time on the ball.

A premature panic on the touchline didn’t help either. As soon as Le Fondre struck his first penalty a double substitution was made by Stuart which had little effect. I’ve been told all season that Stuart “never makes his subs early enough” – funny how Todd, Law, Jefferies, Jewell et all were just as bad at this – so maybe this action was applauded by some, but considering City hadn’t done a lot wrong up to then such drastic action seemed a bit much.

Certainly Conlon was unfortunate to be taken off and, though his replacement Boulding was a willing worker, the ball stopped sticking in the final third. Substituting Colbeck was probably the right decision, though some of the abuse he is getting from some fans right now is unfair. Somehow last season’s player of the year has become the “worst player ever” and jumping up to scream when he struggles to keep an attack going is hardly going to help him rediscover confidence that has been lost since returning from a first significant career injury.

Lee Bullock came on, with Law moved out wide and doing a decent job, but the likelihood of City coming back had diminished long before the second penalty. At that point change three had been made after Paul Arnison was rescued from the roasting Buckley was dishing him and Zesh Rehman brought on. With Lee’s form notably dipping, arguments for bringing Rehman into the centre or keeping him at right back and recalling Mark Bower from Luton are being aired. Stuart must be pondering how a defence which has looked so strong at home can be so feeble away.

Something which, with two important away games in Devon and Dorset this next week, urgently must be improved on. Results elsewhere still leave City in a decent position but the team’s failure to deliver extraordinary results rather than just good results may ultimately leave it facing an extended end to the season rather than a top three podium place. There’s been too many poor performances on the road and there was no evidence at Spotland to suggest this would be the last.

Stuart did an excellent job of ensuring his team responded positively to the Barnet and Notts County set backs and the immediate challenge is to do that again. But for City to achieve promotion this season – automatic or via Wembley – his ability to get to the bottom of why it keeps going wrong will need to come through.

What should happen next – Bradford City vs Aldershot Town – League Two 2008/2009

It’s March, which in recent years for City fans has meant either anxiety over surviving relegation or disappointment at having nothing to play for.

It’s been exactly 10 years since credible promotion hopes have lasted this long into a campaign and there’s a sense of excitement at what might lie ahead. City welcome Aldershot to Valley Parade tomorrow and then travel to promotion rivals Rochdale and Exeter a few days later. It’s time for our bums, to quote Sir Alex Ferguson, to start squeaking.

Credit for what the management and players have achieved so far this season is often in limited supply from some quarters, but they have delivered more than other recent City teams in getting this far. Though there is perhaps one mental block that it’s still questionable they’ve overcome this season which will be put to the ultimate test tomorrow – the comfortable home win.

City should win tomorrow, although should is a dangerous word. In our first season out of the Premiership we should have beaten Stockport, Millwall and Sheff Wed at Valley Parade. We should have earned home victories over Gillingham and Walsall in 2002/03, Derby and Rotherham 2003/04, Torquay in 2004/05, Bournemouth in 2005/06, Northampton 2006/07 and Accrington 2007/08 – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When we should win, we invariably slip up and it’s such habits which could be looked back on with regret if promotion is not achieved come May.

City’s home record is much better this season and only Bournemouth have taken maximum points, though that was a game we should have won. There have also been draws with Luton, Barnet, Dagenham and Accrington which the team and us supporters went into confident we should win. Aldershot may have a woeful away record and go into their March with nothing to play for, but they should not be taken lightly as any points dropped by City would undermine whatever’s achieved in Lancashire and Devon next week.

After a much-needed and well deserved win over Macclesfield Tuesday, manager Stuart McCall will have a more confident squad to choose from and is likely to keep it similar. The biggest question lies up front with Peter Thorne rested and now vying for a recall and Stuart debating whether to hold him back for Tuesday. Barry Conlon came in and had his best game for some time while Michael Boulding was much improved after his frankly pathetic showing at Notts County. One may drop to the bench and the other may face that prospect a few days later.

In midfield the partnership of Nicky Law and Dean Furman did more than most to earn the Macclesfield win and both are a joy to watch at present. Furman has revealed his celebration for Tuesday’s winner was dedicated to the injured Omar Daley which is not what you might typically expect from a loan player, it also seems to go against rumours of dressing room unrest which have been circulating.

Steve Jones frustrates me for his less-than-committed attitude and it will take a while to forget the disgraceful manner he left Zesh Rehman to be slaughtered by Myles Weston at Meadow Lane last week. He is popular with some fans and can be excellent when he wants to be, but his style of running down blind alleys and woeful crossing is a little too reminiscent of Ben Murihead 2003 for my liking. He will keep his place on the left with Joe Colbeck continuing to find form and fitness on the right. The flurry of games over the next fortnight make it a good time for Chris Brandon to be almost back as it may prove too much for last season’s player of the season to start them all.

The defence should continue as they were. On Tuesday Graeme Lee appeared to be the target of the boo boys with previous victims Matt Clarke and Paul Arnison passed over, probably due to how well they both played. Such ‘support’ has yet to be directed towards Luke O’Brien, who was much better after a slight wobble of late. Rhys Evans keeps goal and will be proud of a home record that has seen him beaten only once – a deflected free kick – between the sticks at BD8 in nine games.

Aldershot seem to be enjoying the kind of season newly-promoted teams regularly enjoy in starting well before drifting off towards the end. They’ve won one in 11 and none on the road since November, although did cause Gillingham a few problems recently when they drew 4-4 at the Priestfield. They also inflicted City’s first defeat of the season back in August.

Which means there is that usual danger lurking behind thinking City should win tomorrow. We’ll turn up that bit more relaxed, get behind the team that bit less and get frustrated that bit sooner. A home win wouldn’t be earth shattering but, though we’re not used to games meaning something in this way come Spring, we shouldn’t forget that picking up maximum points as often as possible is what’s vital at this stage – whether it’s a fixture we should or shouldn’t win.

Into the final third – Barnet vs Bradford City – League Two preview

31 games down, 15 to go. As the season enters its final third every point gained and lost is going to seem increasingly crucial.

During the last week the League Two promotion race has taken added significance for Bradford City after visits from two of its main rivals. This time last week we’d all have taken four points from tricky games against Wycombe and Darlington and, though City have dropped one league position after achieving that, they remain very much in the hunt.

What the two games did emphasise is the tightness of this season’s promotion battle. Brentford and Wycombe may currently be able to glimpse daylight between them and the rest of the pack, but with only six points separating the top seven no-one can be sure of anything. Three from Brentford, Wycombe, Bury, Shrewsbury, Rochdale, City, Darlington and Exeter are likely to finish in the automatic promotion spots and, from those who don’t, only one at least can claim promotion via the play offs, if Dagenham or Gillingham don’t steal in. Those clubs ultimately celebrating in May will be well aware of how close many ran them, which will only add to the achievement.

Meanwhile at the other end one of the most non-eventful relegation battles ever is suddenly getting interesting after Bournemouth’s 1-0 win over Accrington last Saturday pushed the previously doomed-looking Cherries into touching distance of others. Luton are down but Stanley, Chester, Grimsby and of course Barnet are starting to realise that a season of underachievement might yet be punished and have much to do during the final weeks.

It means weekend fixtures such as Accrington v Dagenham, Darlington v Grimsby and Chester v Exeter are important for both sides and City’s trip to Barnet is no different. The London club has only won once at home all season and once home and away in 21. Trooping off the pitch having lost to Notts County last Saturday to discover Bournemouth are closing in should have provided renewed motivation to build on a three-match unbeaten run against the Bantams.

The biggest worry for City ahead of the game is not of the dangerous John O’Flynn and Albert Adomah, but of finding a keeper to face them. Rhys Evans’ injury on Tuesday leaves him needing to recuperate and second-choice keeper Jon McLaughlin is desperately unlucky to be ruled out because of concussion. Stuart is actively looking for an emergency loan keeper but may play Evans through the pain barrier and ask Luke O’Brien to take his goal kicks again. One hopes it won’t come to that because if nothing else defenders taking goal kicks enables the opposition to play a higher line up the park, something Darlington attempted in the second half on Tuesday.

At least the rest of the defence will be fit to carry on their impressive form with Paul Arnison unlucky to be watching from the bench as Zesh Rehman plays in his right back slot, it will be the first time during his loan spell that the Pakistan international will have stayed in the same position for two consecutive games. Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke partner in the centre with another round of groans at how much ‘hoof-ball’ the duo contributed on Tuesday. It’s a shame some supporters cannot understand football better and appreciate Darlington’s ploy of packing the midfield made it almost impossible for City to pass their way forward. As you would expect from a side looking for a 9th clean sheet in 12, both centre backs are in great form. O’Brien’s dipped on Tuesday and a leading contender for player of the season will hope to be back to his best tomorrow.

In midfield Omar Daley’s injury should result in a Joe Colbeck start. He’s now made five substitute appearances since returning from injury and has impressed, although struggled against his former club Tuesday. As did Steve Jones on the other flank, who continues to play brilliantly one week and disappointingly the next – a typical winger, perhaps. Nicky Law may be moved out wide instead of Colbeck with one of Paul McLaren or Lee Bullock brought into the centre to partner Dean Furman. Up front Michael Boulding and Peter Thorne will continue. The latter is desperately hoping for a first goal since netting against Barnet last November.

The visitor’s attacking approach impressed that afternoon, but it’s points not plaudits both sides will want tomorrow. Anything less than victory will be disappointing for City, but it’s in games such as these they’ve so often slipped up over recent years. Everyone in League Two will be keeping one eye on everyone else and, as rearranged matches are finally played and other six-pointers such as Saturday’s Rochdale v Brentford are concluded, the next few weeks will be crucial with some of the leading pack likely to lose ground.

An away win for City tomorrow may not be considered earth-shattering, but it would nevertheless be an important step towards crossing the now-approaching finishing line ahead of the majority.

That Neville Southall feeling

John McLaughlin’s injury – he will miss the game that should have have been his debut away at Barnet at the weekend after he and Darren Byfield clashed in a closed doors friendly with Doncaster Rovers and the keeper was knocked out – leaves City looking for an emergency keeper and sends fans minds racing back to a Sunday Sky TV day in 2000 when Bradford City were left scrabbling for a keeper and ended up with Neville Southall in goal.

The history of City’s need then differs to now. Stuart McCall the manager decided to have three keepers at the club: Rhys Evans, McLaughlin and youngster Matthew Convey; for financial reasons more than footballing ones – an extra goalkeeper costs, unsettles and is not often used while when McCall the player reteamed with his former Goodison Park team mate Southall in 2000 for the home game with Leeds United it was because of a set of circumstance that while common place in the madness of that Premiership season were curious to say the least.

Gary Walsh had lost his place to Matt Clarke who had in turn been injured – both those custodians having been impressive to say the least – and Aidan Davison had taken on the gloves superbly but with Clarke heading back to fitness – or so we were told – in the week before the home game with Leeds which represented a first top flight Valley Parade clash with our rivals in many lifetimes and a chance for an in form City to snatch some bragging rights.

That week saw the transfer deadline pass on Thursday and at the time Clarke was expected to be fit although Paul Jewell had seen the need to go looking for another keeper alighting at Elland Road. Recollections become rumours here and this story lacks hard confirmation but it is said that Jewell asked Chairman Geoffrey Richmond for money to spend on a promising keeper he had seen and Richmond gave him £200,000. Jewell made a bid – £180,000 – for the second string keeper at Elland Road and had it accepted on the proviso that the player – Paul Robinson – did not play on Sunday.

If that is true then one can only assume it was brinksmanship that saw City walk away from the deal. Perhaps – three months before the club’s meltdown began – it is an indication that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. Nevertheless Clarke was – it was said – fit to play until Sunday morning when it was announced to supporters, Sky and all that he had fallen down the stairs at home and was not fit.

Rumour became fact – “Clarke lives in a bungalow”, “he was never fit” – but on that Sunday morning a young keeper named Danny Taylor prepared to glove up to make his Premiership debut in the West Yorkshire derby.

Apologies to Danny if this is incorrect but the description that followed is as simple as it is brutal. Taylor bricked it.

Jewell watched as his youthful keeper quivered in the dressing room in the hours leading up to the game and knew that he had no chance to putting the player – who now runs a barber’s shop in Bradford – into a Premiership game. His only other option was 41 year old goalkeeping coach Southall.

I heard a story about Southall once that broke a man’s heart. The Everton keeper played before obscene wealth in football but still must have made a few quid but whatever he made he had squandered forcing him to – as the story I heard goes – beg his agent for public relations work to pay the bills. Before playing that game for City Southall had been in goal for Torquay a month or so before because in the frankest terms he needed the money.

So Southall took to the field and the rest is a history cruelly told. My recollection is that Southall had three saves to make all game and only got to one of them – his mobility was limited to say the least and it seemed that he could not dive – leaving Leeds to score twice with the reply of a stunning, Match of the Day title making Peter Beagrie goal. The Guardian noted after the game that City had the spirit to suggest that they might be up for a relegation fight that they eventually won. Leeds went on to the Champions League and – as a result of ridiculous investment based on that – to where they are now.

Southall – perhaps the greatest goalkeeper Great Britain had produced – became a laughing stock. It was an unfair end to the career of a legend of the game.

Unfair too on City. Leeds fans would argue the point but I believe that on that day the Bantams were the better side and that with a keeper able to perform would have been left celebrating a win over them from Elland Road. Fate is fickle but adversity bred a spirit in that side that saw Liverpool and the last day of the season escape.

Fast forward nine years and the Bantams are looking for an new keeper in the days leading up to a game that could not be further from a Premiership derby – away at Barnet – but is perhaps no less important as Stuart McCall’s side mount a promotion push and look to maintain momentum. Evans’s strain and Convey returning from loan at Salford City injured along with McLaughlin’s enforced absence after being knocked out are things that few could cater for.

Perhaps though – if there is a moral to the Southall story – it is that success in football is often subject to the arrows or outrageous fortune.

All heart

It’s at moments such as these – with the clock showing 10 minutes to go, with the chant “City till I die’ emanating from all four sides and with those who run the club having put the books to one side to join 12,689 people in watching City ultimately triumph 1-0 over promotion rivals Wycombe – that you wonder why we’re even bothering to consider leaving Valley Parade at all.

This was an afternoon where I hope I wasn’t the only person to feel the hairs on the back of his/her neck stand up through been part of such a superb atmosphere. City have won a corner and I look fondly over to fans in the Kop climb out of their seats to help suck the ball into the net. Behind the opposite goal, supporters in the Bradford End are keeping up their non-stop chanting efforts which began before kick off. The final whistle was met with huge cheers and triumphant home players hugged each other. An important three points, a potentially pivotal moment of the season, another special afternoon in our home.

Sure I’m being sentimental and romantic, but then it is Valentines Day so why not? Of course the fantastic atmosphere could be replicated – who knows even bettered – in another ground a few miles up the hill. But just like our Claret and Amber colours, fanatical supporters who will even come to the game on their wedding day (hope you didn’t miss that at half time!) and players who aren’t the greatest but who we love in our own way – Valley Parade is a much a part of the Bradford City experience. We need to use our heads when considering the potential move, but yesterday we got to follow our hearts.

Heart that was apparent on the pitch too as both City and Wycombe gave their all to produce an absorbing contest. With Brentford, Bury and Rochdale all expected to and managing to win their games, for City this win was for self-preservation purposes in their interest of a top three finish. They started in the same confident manner which has characterised their previous two victories with Omar Daley and Steve Jones stretching Wycombe down the flanks and Dean Furman and Nicky Law again pulling the strings in the middle. Both look too good for this level with Law’s vision and ability to produce killer passes a huge asset and arguably something City have not had in their armoury since the manager himself was out on the pitch.

Wycombe, who lost central defender Mike Williamson to Watford in the transfer window, defended deeply but struggled to deal with crosses from which City came close to scoring a few times. Matt Clarke should have done better with a header from a corner and Peter Thorne – captain for the day – headed wide, Law’s long range shot was deflected wide and a Wycombe defender almost turned one cross into his own net.

Yet the Chairboys, who until Tuesday had led the table since November, got back into the game and showed what a good side they are. Their movement off the ball when on the attack was impressive with players marking late runs from deep and in the centre Tom Docherty was excelling by playing deep and pinging some probing passes forward. Furman excellently cleared off the line from striker Jon-Paul Pittman’s header, Matt Harrold air-kicked a great chance after which Matt Bloomfield wastefully fired wide and Chris Zebroski’s overhead kick attempt sailed narrowly over.

Arguably against the run of play, City struck the all important goal just before half time. It was yet another example of the devastating football this team can produce. First Jones did well to win possession before being tripped after releasing it to Furman. Referee Carl Boyeson allowed advantage and the ball was with Law to charge over half way. His pass to Daley lacked pace, but the Jamaican beat his man and cut inside before squaring to Luke O’Brien. The full back’s cross was intended for Michael Boulding but squirmed through to Thorne who beautifully laid off the ball to Jones to fire home on the half volley.

It continued to be end-to-end stuff in the second half with Wycombe inserting strong pressure in the early stages and Rhys Evans having to make some good saves. The defence in front of him was lacking their usual leader Graeme Lee and Zesh Rehman, switched over from left-back, struggled a little with his ball control though was generally solid. Clarke was outstanding and seemed to revel in the more senior responsibility while Paul Arnison’s performance could be best illustrated by the fact the usual full-back ‘experts’ in the crowd weren’t on his back. The clean sheet they would go onto earn was a seventh in ten games and only Evans and Clarke have figured in all of those; something which Clarke’s army of critics, who seem to be ignoring his recent upturn in form, might want to mull over.

Boyeson’s bizarre style of refereeing took more centre stage in the second half. He let a series of fouls from both sides go and at one stage left the impression he’d forgotten his cards – Arnison should have been booked – while displaying an anal-like determination to ensure all throw ins were taken from exactly the right spot. Frustration of the officials and from losing seemed to get the better of Wycombe players who began to self-destruct with a series of poor challenges. None more so than Docherty, who’s coolness in the first half had given way to recklessness and who should have been booked long before he eventually was.

Boiling point was reached after Zebroski’s ludicrous high challenge on Clarke which saw boot connect with face. The red card was quickly issued and the final 12 minutes were that little bit more comfortable for City. A second goal might have come before that with Boulding volleying over, but in the final stages Law and substitute Joe Colbeck went agonisingly close to ensuring Wycombe would not be able to produce a sucker punch at the other end.

It was close, but City just about edged the game and three wins in a row provide great confidence ahead of another vital encounter on Tuesday. The team is finding form in all areas – Thorne for example was outstanding leading the line and contributed more than he usually seems to – and one only has to look at who can’t get in the team to see how well the players in it are doing. Lee will presumably join Paul McLaren, Lee Bullock, Barry Conlon and Colbeck on the bench Tuesday with the clear message to those on the field that they must keep producing.

Or should Lee go back in and Arnison be dropped? Should Colbeck start on Tuesday and Daley be rested? Yesterday conversations on such matters will have filled the air instead of whether to pack up and do this all someplace else. Maybe we’re on the final chapter of Valley Parade’s history and such occasions will shortly be over, though as we listened to the radio on the journey home we heard of renewed hope that a deal to buy Valley Parade might be reached.

It was good timing, for yesterday at least the head had no chance of winning over the heart.

Getting back on the bike – Bradford City vs Grimsby Town – League Two preview

Those of us at Kenilworth Road on Saturday and at Gigg Lane on Tuesday will fully appreciate the range of emotions which supporting a football team can inflict upon you.

We left Luton ecstatic after an action-packed afternoon of football – one of this writer’s best ever – which threw up the improbable plot twist of Barry Conlon’s late penalty that left us cheering wildly and hugging each other. Minutes earlier we were in despair as it appeared we were on the wrong end of football’s cruellest way of losing – the last minute winner. Barry made the journey home that little bit quicker and the manner of City’s second half performance left plenty of optimism for the rest of the season.

Then came Tuesday.

In recent years we’ve all had to become battled-hardened to the despair of defeat and the frustration when things go wrong – but consolations can be taken when the team was unlucky, the referee let us down or some players still gave us something to cheer. On Tuesday there was nothing as we suffered from the most galling way of watching your team lose – because they simply didn’t show desire, passion or commitment to the cause.

And that’s why Tuesday hurt so much.

It hurt to see players you’ve spent much of the season sticking up for when others have criticised appear unwilling to put their body on the line when the chips were down, such as Paul McLaren. It hurt to see players with unquestionable talent look disinterested, like Omar Daley. It hurt to see players you’d seen do a good job Saturday fail to repeat what was asked of them, like Steve Jones. It hurt, because other than Rhys Evans no-one should have walked off the Gigg Lane pitch with their head held high.

The arguments over what went wrong are wide-ranging and see many accused but unsurprisingly the guy in charge, Stuart McCall, is at the centre of the criticism. How could a man who would never have given anything but 100% when a City player, who if we cut open might just bleed claret and amber, allow such a shambles to happen? What about his coaching staff Wayne Jacobs and David Wetherall who, while not without their critics on occasions during their playing career, were never accused of lacking effort? 1,800 City fans packed the away end and backed the players ferociously for 90 minutes, and while that doesn’t mean we deserved to watch a winning team it should at least have been rewarded with a committed one.

But that was Tuesday and just as quickly as the mood turned from euphoria to exasperation it’s to be hoped it can be changed back tomorrow. There is nothing that Stuart and the players can do about what happened at Bury now, but they can at least begin to repair the damage. The recent good run of form of visitors Grimsby – unbeaten in three – may make this less of the home banker it looked a fortnight ago, but just like City’s one win in nine it ignores the bigger picture. This is a bunch of players which have lost 13 of their 26 league games so far, scoring fewer goals than anyone else in the division.

City simply must be targeting three points.

Team selection was a huge bone of contention on Tuesday night and the only thing which can be said with certainty about tomorrow’s team is that it will feature Evans in goal. Luke O’Brien missed Tuesday through illness and should reclaim his left back spot with loan defender Zesh Rehman eyeing up the place of either Graeme Lee, Matt Clarke or Paul Arnison but probably having to settle for a place on the bench for now.

In midfield Joe Colbeck is pushing for his first start since getting injured at Grimsby in October and looked more sharper when introduced on Tuesday than he did Saturday. That should mean Daley, outstanding in the second half at Luton, is switched back to the left and Law moved into the centre with either Dean Furman, McLaren or Lee Bullock alongside. My vote goes to Furman with a message sent to McLaren that one excellent performance should not be followed up by an average one.

Up front Stuart must play one of if not both Peter Thorne and Michael Boulding. Thorne was not great at Luton but is never going to recapture his form if he keeps been brought in then dropped again while Boulding, facing an old club, was unlucky to lose his place too. I’ve written several times over the last 18 months that Conlon’s biggest failing is his lack of consistency and relegation to the bench should be the only reward for such a sub-standard display at Bury. Many fans, and Stuart, have kept faith in the likeable Irishman and he has some making up to do. The fact Jones was hauled off at Bury adds doubts about his loan spell from Burnley been extended when it runs out on February 9, which few City fans would argue for.

Grimsby’s leading marksman only has four goals but we all remember Adam Proudlock’s hat trick at Valley Parade seven years ago. After a slow start to the season former City loanee Mike Newell took over as manager but his influence has been limited and the Mariners are one of a clutch of clubs grateful that Bournemouth and Newell’s former employers Luton aren’t making a better fist of overturning points deductions. A ‘real’ league table would show Grimsby propping up the rest.

In many ways 3pm Saturday cannot come quick enough as we get climb back on board the emotional rollercoaster. No one wants to feel as bad about their team as many of us City fans do right now and such hurt and anger needs heeling. It won’t automatically make everything right again in the world of Bradford City, but a home victory tomorrow would certainly be a good start.

We badly hope to experience that ultimate high of achieving promotion this season, it’s now down to the players to show they want it too.

City leave with a point and much more for the journey ahead

How to make sense of this one?

Six goals, two red cards and the frustration of a poor referee were shared out between Luton Town and Bradford City on an afternoon of unpredictable twist and turns. City were feeble but also fantastic, woeful and wonderful at the back, slow then scintillating going forward and, though the point gained makes it six draws in eight, the players and management should have taken far more from it than they have from any game so far this season.

Twice the match seemed to have been lost by City. They couldn’t have made a worse start after going behind on three minutes when Asa Hall headed home a corner which had as much to do with clever off-the-ball running from Chris Martin (not that one) as it did poor marking. That had been Luton’s first attack after City started well with Steve Jones, moved up front to partner Peter Thorne with last week’s strike partnership of Barry Conlon and Michael Boulding relegated to the bench, causing problems and Nicky Law and Thorne going close.

The pattern of play continued after the goal with City pressing forward but not threatening enough with their attacks. The best chance fell to Matt Clarke – who never scores and rarely even threatens to – when dismal marking from a corner left him with a free header which he sent well over. Thorne and Jones also had attempts saved but the slow and laboured build up to City’s play and failure of Omar Daley and Jones to make an impact left players unsure at times over what to do. This was emphasised when Graeme Lee attempted a wild shot from distance with almost his entire team in front of him, which flew well over.

But then it kicked off. City were again on the attack when the ball was cleared to Ian Henderson who charged down the flank only to be stopped level with the edge of the area by a superb tackle from Luke O’Brien. Unfortunately a linesman with a perfect view begged to differ and flagged for a free kick which provoked an angry response from City players and led to the referee Trevor Kettle issuing a warning to substitute Mark Bower for yelling at the linesman. O’Brien was booked with the linesman trying to persuade Kettle he was the last man and the resulting free kick was met by Akanni-Sunday Wasiu who tapped home. Not good marking from a defence distracted by the falling out over the decision, but it should also be noted it was poor goalkeeping from Rhys Evans who was upset enough with his first half performance to spend the interval on the pitch practising.

By then his manager had been sent to the stands, not for arguing with Kettle about the decision to award a free kick, as angry as he was about it, but from encroaching out of his technical area in an effort to speak to him. I read and hear lots about the Respect campaign and have tried not to believe, like others, that it’s simply a load of PR buzzwords with no substance; but if officials are confident enough in their decisions why shouldn’t they be prepared to talk them through with those who question them? As City trooped off at half time 2-0 down without having done a lot wrong, concerns about which direction the season was heading were raised. City had done okay, as they have all season, but now they had to find that extra something and show their credentials.

Which they did.

A quick goal was essential and came when a Law corner caused panic and Paul McLaren, former Hatter, was on hand to prod the ball over the line. What followed was near total dominance from the Bantams with Lee forcing a great save from Conrad Logan after a trademark thunderbolt free kick. The pressure told when Law received the ball on the edge of the area and rolled it back to the recalled Dean Furman, who took a touch and then fired home a crisp shot for his first ever senior goal.

There was no letting up as City, well in control, produced wave after wave of attack. Jones came alive up front with some clever runs, Daley was back to his blistering form and left a trail of defenders in his wake as he cut inside and set up attacks and Law, occupying Daley’s usual left wing spot, was a revelation out wide. Free from the defensive responsibilities of playing in the centre, he stretched Luton by taking up some excellent positions to be fed the ball to and had the vision and confidence to set up chances for others. Furman and McLaren were easily winning the midfield battle and Luton were reduced to sporadic attacks on the break, which were mostly mopped up by a much-improved defensive effort superbly led by Lee. The only time Luton got through saw Evans make a brilliant save, the half time training session appeared worthwhile.

And the chances created. Daley went on a magnificent run from inside his own half beating players for fun before shooting just over, Thorne nodded just wide, Law flashed an effort just wide, Furman went for goal again and was just over, sub Conlon headed just over, Jones’ half volley just saved. The only thing that wasn’t just was the scoreline as City deserved to be out of sight.

They also missed two easy chances when first Daley’s brilliant attempt to steal the ball off the full back and quickly cross left Conlon with the sort of chance Harry Redknapp’s missus could have scored and then a great run from Jones saw the on-loan winger get to the byeline before shooting from a difficult angle when pulling the ball back would have left City players queuing up to tap it in. Such profligacy appeared to have come back to bite when, as the 4th official held up the board to reveal how much injury time was to be played, Clarke gave away a stupid free kick on the edge of the area from which Kevin Nicholls whipped the ball onto Hall’s head to send into the far corner. Absolute heartbreak.

As many City fans streamed out of the grotty away end there were still further twists to come. First Luton keeper Logan decided to celebrate his team’s ‘winner’ by running up and gesturing towards City fans before going into a dance routine that was not so much provocative as embarrassing. Cue many fans rushing to the stewards to complain. Personally I have no problem with a player making gestures to us as long as we can do it back, so I’ll take this opportunity, having missed it at the time, to insult and pick on his personal features in a way which will upset him the most – Logan is terrible dancer.

The game restarted. City tried an attack which was cleared and the ball went up to a Luton player, who was offside. Cue a long wait for the free kick to be taken as Kettle lectured a home player and when Arnison finally pumped the ball into the box you stood there believing you’ve seen this sort of moment at the end of the game so often before and ultimately it will end up in Logan’s hands and he’ll probably wiggle his backside at us as he lies on the ground clutching the ball for five minutes. But it squirmed into the area and as Jones went for it he was faintly clipped from behind and rolled over and Kettle pointed to the spot.

Cue massive protests and a sort-of-brawl between both sets of players which ended with Martin receiving a red card. Meanwhile Logan was all over penalty taker Conlon whispering sweet nothings into his ear about how the Irishman was going to miss. Four minutes later Conlon finally got the chance and showed remarkable coolness to convert the penalty and prompt wild scenes of celebration. Don’t let any of Conlon’s critics tell you his 10th goal of the season was “only a penalty.”

The final whistle blew and as we struggled to get out breath back Stuart came over to applaud us and gestured towards the players to signal they deserve our appreciation, which we did. Meanwhile the referee and his officials had to run a gauntlet of abuse from home fans as they leave the pitch and it was distressing to see them try to protect themselves from a shower of objects thrown at them. Some arrests were made and outside there was also trouble. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the 30-point penalty such a response was shameful and any Luton fan who didn’t throw an object but disagrees is just as bad. If the Respect campaign is going to work the FA must not be shy in punishing Luton Town Football Club.

I received a text just before the end of the game from a Leeds fan saying he had sympathy for Luton’s plight and we often hear how it wasn’t the fans fault, so why should they be punished? The actions of a minority of their supporters yesterday, not to mention their behaviour at Valley Parade earlier in the season, leaves me waving them cheerfully goodbye on their route to the Blue Square – and I hope they take their dancing keeper with them.

But the focus of this report is on City and what a fantastic game of football, easily the best since that afternoon at Prenton Park in October 2004. They looked down and out at stages but showed tremendous character to keep coming back – character which needs to be bottled up and used during the second half of the season.

In keeping with the craziness of the afternoon, City have dropped from fourth to seventh while moving a point closer to second and first. There was much which didn’t make sense yesterday, but one thing I do know is that if City can reach the heights of their second half performance for the rest of the campaign they will be celebrating promotion come May.

Changing teams – AFC Bournemouth vs Bradford City preview

This game has been called off because of a frozen pitch.

A pitch inspection at 12:00 today will tell Stuart McCall, Bradford City’s players and the supporters if a trip to AFC Bournemouth will be needed this weekend and while weather on the South Coast is questionable City’s desire to put right the only home defeat of the season is not.

The Bantams were bested by Darren Anderton’s inspired display for the Cherries as they had new manager Jimmy Quinn installed. Since that day both Quinn and Anderton have left the club and with them seems to have gone the form that saw them win 3-1 that day. They have suffered three defeats in the last three games and previous to that were knocked out of the FA Cup by Blyth Spartans. Struggling with a deduction it is hard to see where the points will come from to keep them in the Football League.

All of which is demoralising and something that – when the game is played – City will hope ot take advantage of. The Bantams are looking more in race trim of late but with a 4-0 and three no score draws in the last four are obviously struggling to find the net. News that Peter Thorne is back in training is heartening as is the word that Joe Colbeck will play a reserve friendly game next week. Thorne’s finishing is always welcome but the added thrust from the flank that Colbeck added in games like the 4-1 defeat of Exeter has been missed and should the trip South be called off then Colbeck’s presence in the rearranged game could be significant. Certainly the team are more dangerous with the young winger in than with Steve Jones whom McCall is said to be signing from Burnley once his loan deal expires.

Thorne is not expected to return to the starting eleven – the hard pitch and a bad back being a poor combination – leaving Barry Conlon and Michael Boulding up front. Omar Daley and Steve Jones take the flanks alongside Paul McLaren and Nicky Law Jnr with Dean Furman cooling his heels. One must feel sorry for the impressive Furman who has much to suggest him for a place in the side however the form of McLaren and especially Law is such that McCall has to stick with them.

Also impressive in the run of four games without conceding is Matthew Clarke who continues to be underrated as a presence in the City side and has given the Bantams a commanding edge. Also underrated is Graeme Lee’s organsational abilities which while never getting to the level of the Master – Noel Blake – are certainly better than the majority of defenders who have worn claret and amber including the man who preceded him as skipper and central defender David Wetherall. Paul Arnison is rated by fewer than he should be put clean sheet for defensive players should be impressive and he will look forward to the return of Colbeck and renewing the combination they had developed. Luke O’Brien has come on a million miles from the day he was skinned by Gareth Grant at Farsley Celtic and is being talked about as a player of the season.

No one’s player of the season is Rhys Evans but in the last month the goalkeeper has found his bit shouting voice – something Gary Walsh had over Matt Clarke and the reason the former was a better keeper than the latter – and the defence looks all the better for it.

Finding that something extra

The biggest worry for Bradford City manager Stuart McCall is that these are the sort of games promotion-earning sides win.

It’s not always pretty and a fair amount of luck is involved, the home side will play well and carve out some good chances which are either wasted or foiled by excellent defending. All that was missing for the Bantams was a late winner to turn one point into three. Instead a winless run stretches to five games and the chasing pack climbs that little bit closer.

Not that anyone should be panicking. This was a decent performance against a Lincoln side who have improved considerably since the last time they locked horns with City a year ago to the day. A recent come-back win against Accrington prompted manager Peter Jackson to revert to 4-4-2 and they matched City in most departments quickly closing down the ball and knocking it around confidently themselves.

Dany N’Guessan impressed on their right providing Luke O’Brien with a difficult afternoon where the defensive support from Omar Daley – who we’ll come back to – was lacking. The other three of City’s back four were outstanding with Matt Clarke continuing to rediscover form and Graeme Lee getting his head on almost every ball launched into the area. Paul Arnison had surely his best game in a Bantams shirt yet and was hugely impressive in shutting down the threat from Lincoln’s left and getting forward. With Rhys Evans also solid, home chances were limited.

Further up the pitch things were more patchy with Paul McLaren and Nicky Law involved in a hard-fought midfield battle which they just about edged. It doesn’t always look pretty and sometimes the simple ball must be played rather than the defence-splitting 40-yard pass some fans demanded, but both had good shifts. Steve Jones too was a menace on the right and his pace is blistering at times, though his final ball did sometimes disappoint.

As for Daley, it didn’t start well and got worse. We know the Jamaican is better than cutting inside and looking to pass the ball almost every time, instead of charging at the full back and enabling others the opportunity to get into the box. We know he is better than standing half-interested when the ball is been fought over just in front of him and may suddenly land at his feet. We know he is better than falling over easily and rolling on the ground long after the referee has dismissed his appeals for a foul and his team mates are having to deal with a Lincoln breakaway. Jackson had called upon the Premiership experience of Frank Sinclair to tame Daley and the former Chelsea man was the clear winner of a heated battle.

But still Daley was involved in much of City’s best moves. After ten minutes he’d burst thrilling into the area only to be seemingly tripped just as he rose his right leg to shoot, but referee Neil Swarbrick waved away the penalty appeals. Shortly afterwards Michael Boulding broke forward well and was pulled back inside the box, only to receive the same verdict from the Lancashire official. Boulding had done much to keep the scores level at that point having headed a Lincoln effort off the line and later dragging a shot wide. Law took free kick duties after Lee had been forced off for treatment and flashed a curling effort just wide.

In the second half Lincoln spurned two great opportunities with midfielder Lee Frecklington guilty of blasting over with an empty net the easier target and then forcing Evans into a stunning block. Boulding too should have done better after a superb charge forward by Jones saw the on-loan man whip a great cross onto his head. Rob Burch did well to tip his header onto the post, but a little more power from Boulding would surely have resulted in the net bulging.

With both sides looking even Stuart made changes to try and force the winner; Peter Thorne was brought on for a disappointing Barry Conlon and then Dean Furman – back from injury – for Boulding with Daley moved up front. Some of the physical presence was lost, although Daley saw a long range effort superbly tipped over by Burch. Daley was then involved with the game’s moment of controversy moments earlier after latching onto Burch’s weak clearance and charging through, only to be hauled down by a defender who appeared to be the last man but who got away with only a yellow card. Like last week City had a referee keen to let things go – Lee Beevers, who had already been booked in the first half, deserved a yellow card for a nasty high challenge on Jones just after the break – but the hope was, like when City had been on the wrong end of a similar incident against the MK Dons last month – the resulting free kick from Lee would sail in. Instead it smacked against the wall and the chance was wasted, it was that sort of afternoon.

As with last week’s blank against Chester, a goal could easily have come but just as the defence seems to looking stronger the attack isn’t looking as sharp. Boulding was a willing runner, but Conlon needs to show more and was once again caught offside and gave away free kicks too often. It doesn’t currently look a good strike partnership, but then it did earlier in the season. Thorne is certain to start against Morecambe on Sunday – Stuart rotating his strikers with two games in three days – and a return to goalscoring form for City’s top scorer is badly needed.

The problem for Stuart is the lack of options he currently has. Daley was poor but it would have been mad to haul off a player who can be such a threat even when not on top form – a Chris Brandon or Joe Colbeck waiting on the bench and the situation is different. Kyle Nix can play out wide but doesn’t have the pace which is needed on the break in tight away games such as this. It will also be interesting to see if Stuart succeeds with his plan to capture a fourth striker and what sort of different option they will present. Jones can play up front and, with him playing so well right now, a permanent move could give the City boss those additional options. Such thoughts will occupy his mind with the January transfer window due to re-open next week.

For some supporters, debates about his own capabilities seem to be all the rage. Astonishingly the final whistle was met with a smattering of boos from some City fans and I had the ‘pleasure’ of listening to one supporter rant that “he has to go”. Go online and you’ll find some fans argue we should sack him and appoint Jackson. No, there’s no punchline to follow – they are being serious. No doubt such arguments will continue but it should be remembered it’s very much a minority making a disproportionate amount of noise.

This was a disappointing result and slightly disappointing performance, but the game itself was great to watch and the atmosphere largely fantastic. I’m tired of people spoiling games by booing and screaming abuse and I’m tired of these people having more of a say over how this club should progress than they deserve.

The half way point of the season will be reached after Sunday’s game and City should end 2008 in a great position to make 2009 its year. Finding that extra is the immediate challenge and Stuart will look for the answers in January – from both the transfer market and the treatment room.

A bad day at the office

Straight after witnessing Bradford City’s 1-1 draw with Dagenham a fortnight ago I watched Manchester United overcome Sunderland 1-0 on Setanta. After Nemanja Vidic struck a 94th minute winner for the Champions, the co-commentator described it as a “victory for football”. I thought it was perhaps a harsh statement to make after Sunderland had done its best to gain an unlikely point by setting out the stall to defend for it.

As the ball fell to Graeme Lee six yards out from goal in the 4th minute of stoppage time yesterday, I was ready to utter similar thoughts if the back of the net had been found. Instead Chester keeper Jon Darby was the unjustified hero by making a miracle block with his legs to keep the score 0-0. No one exemplified the visitors’ negative, time-wasting style more than a man who took an age pondering and taking his goal kicks. His save was less a victory for football, more one for pushing 12,000 supporters to the limit.

Of course Chester, like Sunderland, is entitled to take whatever approach it likes. The Bantams may not be Man United but is the biggest club in the division and currently sits joint second in it. For a side who’s start to the season was bad enough to prompt a managerial change and who will end it grateful that Football League punishments administered to others left it largely free of relegation troubles, this draw will be considered a bright spot. At the final whistle cheers could be heard from their hearty followers and some players punched the air in delight. Home fans booed off their team but if this was bad at least we’ve not stooped to such depths as considering a 0-0 away draw to be a proud achievement.

But after many of us have let out our frustrations to friends or online over the weekend and we begin to calm down, it should be agreed that booing our players off was grossly unfair. Yes, City did not play brilliantly. They lacked the guile and craftiness to break down a side who, it should be noted, defended extremely well. They didn’t make Darby work hard enough and, just occasionally, the level of desire from some was questionable. Yet they huffed and puffed and battled to the end and though it leaves some question marks over their ability to gain promotion this season, they are hardly major ones.

City began the match with a good tempo and took the game to the visitors. Paul McLaren and Nicky Law were busy in the middle, Steve Jones was a threat with his pace on the right. Luke O’Brien was again in confident mood, tackling well and effectively getting forward. City varied the approach between working the ball out wide for crossing opportunities and balls up to Barry Conlon – preferred to Peter Thorne – to flick onto others. With a new contract waiting to be signed, Conlon might consider he’s achieved much this season. However he endured a frustrating afternoon where his partnership with Michael Boulding didn’t quite click, to serve as a reminder why short-term deals are being offered instead of longer ones.

Omar Daley too was off the pace, though having only just returned from injury there is perhaps a degree of explanation. Twice in the opening 20 minutes he received the ball in excellent positions to set up attacks, but twice his pass was uncharacteristically poor and the move broke down. A familiar theme for the day.

As the first half progressed it became more obvious the visitors liked the fact it was 0-0. They took their time over every throw-in and goal kick and, on a few occasions, kicked the ball away when play was stopped to slow things down further. All of this was aimed at hindering City’s ability to build up attacking momentum and keep the game scrappy. Kevin Ellison went close three times, but two of them were wildly-ambitious long range efforts from just inside the Bantams’ half. It was notable that for both he was the furthest Chester player forward and, when City attacked, a sea of blue-and-white shirts stood between them and Danby.

Ellison did create one major scare when the ball was played through to him out wide with O’Brien caught up the pitch. The balding wideman had a clear route to goal and set off with great pace, but just as he was about to fire the ball past Rhys Evans he was superbly tackled by Matt Clarke. It was a brilliant recovery from the much-maligned defender and, for all the merits of dropping him for Mark Bower which others talk up, no other City defender has the pace to have got back like that. Clarke may have struggled with the conditions at times – he was not the only one – and still needs to watch his concentration, but this was a performance more like the Clarke of early season. Something to build on.

The second half continued much like the first with City probing but struggling to break down a spirited Chester rearguard. There are comparisons to be made to how Luton played at Valley Parade in October. Stuart again tried to combat it by getting Evans to take short goal kicks to the back four, who had plenty of space, in an effort to encourage Chester forwards to push out and close them down, resulting in space being created further up the park. It worked to a certain degree but was often wasted by long balls towards Conlon instead of passing into midfield. Predictable and, with the Irishman not at his best, defendable. However as the game progressed Chester forwards began to close down the defenders on goal kicks more often and the chance to take advantage was there.

But there lied City’s biggest failing of the afternoon. The ball was often worked well out wide to Jones and Law – Daley taking a more central attacking role in an effort to break the deadlock – but wasn’t crossed in quickly enough and they were quickly closed down. On occasions crosses were made there was a lack of City players in the penalty area to aim for. Perhaps understandable with the threat of a Chester break, but more of a gamble could have paid off especially as visitors’ clearances became more panicky in the closing stages. Late surges into the box are very much Lee Bullock’s game.

Stuart too could have gambled by throwing on another striker with top scorer Thorne sat in the dugout and fans chanting his name. However it’s worth noting that creating chances – not putting them away – was the issue and Thorne’s strength is the latter. Stuart McCall also revealed Thorne wasn’t fully fit and didn’t want to risk him.

Some chances were created, with shots by Jones and Daley blocked by Darnby. At the end there was a scramble in the penalty area, with City players stabbing the ball towards goal and Chester players desperately throwing themselves in front of it. Unkind it may be, but a comparison with a non-league club defending for their lives in an FA Cup tie could easily be drawn. They held out and City at least climb to 4th despite clearly dropping two points. Chester won’t be the last to take such a negative approach and it’s something which needs to be overcome.

On another day City could have easily won and, as Stuart said after the game, claims players didn’t try enough are “a load of tosh”. Perhaps the biggest disappointment was how much the frustration got the better of the crowd. What a contrast to Bury at home, who themselves played for a draw and kept men behind the ball. On that night everyone stayed behind the team and helped them overcome the Shakers’ resistance.

When reflecting on a disappointing performance, it’s perhaps worth questioning whether we should have been booing ourselves.

Reduced choices – Bradford City vs Dagenham and Redbridge – League Two 2008/2009 preview

There may not have been any further injuries to emerge from last weekend’s FA Cup defeat to Leyton Orient, but Bradford City manager Stuart McCall has still found himself with two less players to choose from for tomorrow’s important league encounter.

Willy Topp and Tom Clarke have both departed Valley Parade during the week and, while each leave with most fans best wishes, it’s the latter one which causes the most immediate concern. Clarke looked an excellent proposition in the middle of the park and has been growing in confidence after a long spell out injured, but was recalled back to Huddersfield in time to face Walsall. He was initially signed to provide defensive cover, but leaves having successfully performed a role in the team it previously did without.

There’s been much debate at City in recent years about the merits of using a holding midfielder and, for much of this season, Stuart’s preferred to line up minus one. Lee Bullock and Paul McLaren started the season in the centre, largely sharing the defensive and attacking responsibilities. That continued when Dean Furman and then Nicky Law came in when injuries struck. After McLaren limped off at Rotherham, Clarke was brought in and the effect was a more balanced looking midfield and licence for Law to roam further forward.

It won’t work in every game, but the benefits of having a defensive midfielder on the books was shown in Clarke’s excellent showings against Chesterfield and Leyton Orient. Compare the more solid platform provided with the home games against Gillingham and Barnet, where the lack of protection provided by those in front of the back four played a huge part in the amount of pressure City wase put under. Clarke maybe gone but, with a new manager with new ideas set to take charge at the Galpharm, Stuart might be keeping tabs on how much he figures during the next few weeks with the January transfer window approaching.

Until then City will go back to a central midfield pairing sharing the roles. McLaren is expected to be fit enough to return and, though question marks over his start with City remain, his calm passing and dead ball skills will be welcomed back. Law will be reined in slightly but still expected to put his high energy levels to good use in the final third. They will sit between two widemen with much to prove. For a spell on Saturday Kyle Nix sparked City and it’s to be hoped he can recapture last season’s form as we wait for Omar Daley, Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon to regain fitness. Steve Jones makes his home league debut having impressed in patches against Orient. More will be expected of him as he finds his feet.

Up front the competition for places is fierce with Barry Conlon expected to be fit enough and Michael Boulding looking more like a player worth all that effort pursuing during the summer. Peter Thorne has been benched partly because of fitness but also partly on merit. It’s fair to say that the early season spark has been absent from his game recently, but it’s testament to the relative ability of City’s squad that, unlike two years ago when an out of form Dean Windass was still too good to be dropped, Thorne is kicking his heels on the bench. How it can be argued Topp deserved a run in the side at the expense of two of these three is beyond me.

Defensive failings still occupy many minds and last weekend’s showing was only marginally improved. There are calls for Mark Bower to return at the expense of Matt Clarke – who actually played okay last week. I can see the argument, but when some fans go to the extremes of listing Bower as our best defender and slate Stuart for ignoring him one is left wondering why it’s been so quickly forgotten that a year ago many were demanding Bower be dropped for Clarke. Lee will certainly start alongside one of them, with TJ Moncur and Luke O’Brien taking the full back roles in front of Rhys Evans.

Valley Parade is joint top with the New Meadow in League Two in terms of how many goals have been scored this season – and a visit from League Two’s top scorers is unlikely to slow that. England C international Paul Benson has led Dagenham’s surprise promotion challenge with 10 goals, though strike partner Ben Strevens isn’t far behind on eight. Twice they’ve hit someone for six but they’ve lost almost as often as they’ve won. Last year they triumphed at Valley Parade on route to avoiding relegation.

It will mean another tough afternoon for a back four which has lost some of its protection, though for much of this season Stuart has chosen attack as the best form of defence.

Overcoming the margins – Bradford City vs Leyton Orient – FA Cup 2nd Round preview

We remember Ben Murihead stupidly running down a blind alley with 10 minutes to go, losing possession and Barnsley racing up the other end to crucially equalise. We remember Jermaine Johnson’s incredible dribble from his own half before shooting wide when reaching the penalty area, then a Nathan Doyle own goal gifting Millwall an undeserved win. We remember David Wetherall hitting the crossbar with a header before, erm, Tranmere proceeded to play us off the park and win 3-0.

The previous three Bradford City seasons have featured progress past the First Round of the FA Cup, before each time falling at the Second. We’ve allowed ourselves to dream of City’s name being included in that illusive 3rd Round Draw with the opportunity of a lucrative tie. On Saturday we dream again that this could our year as Leyton Orient rock up to Valley Parade – will it be fourth time lucky?

The so-called “magic of the FA Cup” will be duly hyped all weekend and City could, by some stretch of the imagination, be considered one of the giant killers of the last round after the impressive win at MK Dons – a result which looks more impressive each week as the Buckinghamshire club climb League One.

It’s doubtful whether the magic really will touch Bradford this weekend though, the stadium will be barely a fifth full and there’s a convincing argument that, unlike the last three seasons, an FA Cup run is an unnecessary distraction. Nevertheless as memories of recent disappointments remind us of the often thin line between success and failure it’s worth noting that City have twice this week been on the right side of such margins – Rhys Evans’ wonder save at Rotherham and Jack Lester’s miss at 2-2 on Tuesday – and it’s the sign of a good side when they’re the ones regularly benefiting from such fortune.

A good side. Worth emphasising to some of our supporters who still can’t manage to do anything but criticise and moan. Tuesday’s comeback win against Chesterfield was a fantastic game of football – arguably the most entertaining of our season so far. Yet still all some can do is focus on the disappointing first 25 minutes, pick on a couple of players who didn’t reach the heights of others and, perhaps most stupidly of all, moan that City we’re hanging on during the final 10 minutes. Let’s imagine our team had fallen 3-2 behind and had a man sent off with 10 minutes to go, wouldn’t we still expect our players to force pressure in the closing stages? Why shouldn’t Chesterfield fans expect any less of their side?

We witness an injury hit City side show tremendous character and commitment to recover from an awful start and win against an impressive visiting side, why can’t we enjoy it? All some people can do is look for negatives; there’s been some over-the-top moaning about Matt Clarke (who apparently was booed by some ‘fans’ in the Kop whenever he touched the ball on Tuesday), the medical experts amongst us have managed to blame Omar Daley’s injury on Stuart McCall and there’s a certain balding Irish striker who some attempted to argue was one of our worst players. I am staggered how any City supporter could have left Valley Parade on Tuesday feeling unhappy. As Alan Hansen would say, “it’s unbelievable.”

Of course there were things which didn’t go so well and Stuart will look to address these on Saturday. I’m full of admiration for the way he stuck to his guns with the line up on Tuesday. At 2-0 the diamond formation he’d employed did not look a clever decision but, rather than panic, he got the players doing the right things and the improvement was vast. It won’t work every game and may not be used tomorrow with no Daley, but Stuart has a lot more faith in his team than many of us supporters do and surely it’s time more of us got behind them, particuarly when they’re struggling.

Stuart is unlikely to make many changes for this tie. Nicky Law and Tom Clarke have both had their loan spells extended and both arguably enjoyed their best games in Claret and Amber so far on Tuesday. They will make up the centre of the midfield with new loan arrival Steve Jones, taking Daley’s place, on the right. Kyle Nix, who did reasonably well Tuesday considering it was his first game back from injury, will push his claims for a regular spot on the left.

The back five will be unchanged with Matt Clarke still causing concern but Graeme Lee winning fans over. At 2-0 down and in real trouble on Tuesday, strong leadership was needed and Lee stepped up to the mark in more ways than just his impressive free kick. TJ Moncur must improve on his recent showings while Luke O’Brien will reflect that it was a year ago this weekend he made his debut and how far he has come. Rhys Evans keeps goal.

Up front Stuart has a real dilemma. At last Valley Parade got to see what a talent Michael Boulding can be and it would be difficult to rest him with confidence improving. Same with Barry Conlon, who’s popularity is surpassing the ‘cult hero’ status of last season into genuine ‘fans favourite’. That could mean Peter Thorne is left out again, which might not be a bad thing with a busy Christmas coming and injury niggles. FA Cup rules allow Stuart to name seven substitutes, which will give some fringe players a chance – will Willy Topp be one of them?

Of course the last time Leyton Orient were in town they cruelly smashed our hopes of avoiding the drop with a two-goal burst which had people around me crying and the boo boys curiously gloating. That day City battered Orient and wasted a hatful of chances to be out of sight by half time.

It’s those margins of success and failure that good teams invariably benefit from and poor sides are left cursing about. If City are the beneficiaries on Saturday we supporters just might start to believe in magic again.

Part two of four – Bradford City vs Chesterfield – League Two preview

There’s little doubt this is an important week in Bradford City’s season.

On Saturday it began with the low-thrills win at Rotherham and tonight’s game is a great opportunity to increase pressure on those near the top and move further clear from the chasing pack, which includes visitors Chesterfield. Saturday’s FA Cup clash with Leyton Orient carries the possibility of a lucrative 3rd round tie for the winners, while events in the days before it will also be far from insignificant.

Thursday is deadline day for loan deals until January and, with five league games in December, manager Stuart McCall has much to do to ensure he has sufficient options. After tonight, Tom Clarke and Nicky Law’s loan deals expire and, while Stuart appears keen to retain them both, it appears likely only Law will be allowed to extend his stay. With Huddersfield caretaker manager Gerry Murphy keen to give those players who he nurtured through Town’s youth academy the opportunity, Clarke is expected back at the Galpharm.

Murphy’s philosophy may lead to his on-loan option Steve Jones making the opposite journey on the M62 and former Leeds winger Seb Carole remains a possibility Clearly a right-sided midfielder is badly needed by Thursday, even if it’s just the retention of Law. Stuart may be running up a large phone bill over the next couple of days in pursuit of targets.

Clarke and Law will feature from the start tonight as City look to continue in the manner they finished at the Don Valley on Saturday. Paul McLaren’s injury isn’t expected to be serious enough to see him missing for long, but in his absence Clarke’s more defensive-minded approach should allow Law to get forward more regularly in the way he did for the final half hour on Saturday.

On the flanks Kyle Nix is back in contention after injury and made a 10-minute cameo on Saturday. He may replace Leon Osborne, who Stuart revealed was disappointed in his own performance at Rotherham. The youngster has apparently been playing well in the reserves and will look to inspiration from the likes of Luke O’Brien and Joe Colbeck as he tries to cross that psychological barrier of doing it in the first team. Whether he is ready for the test of a five-figure Valley Parade crowd remains to be seen.

Omar Daley will remain on the right wing. Many fans on Saturday were frustrated to see the Jamaican switched over from his usual spot on the left and it was fair to say he was less effective. Stuart might allow himself to feel a little smug after persisting with Daley on the left last season and receiving criticism from some supporters for playing him ‘out of position’.

What is clear is the service to City’s forwards needs to improve. Stuart may wish to chop about after Saturday and recall Barry Conlon after his introduction indirectly saw the team score two quick-fire goals. Michael Boulding would be favourite to be left out with Peter Thorne possibly taking his turn for a rest on Saturday.

At the back Rhys Evans and O’Brien will be in high spirits while Matt Clarke and Graeme Lee will be hoping for their first back-to-back clean sheets since August. TJ Moncur will be looking to get forward in the same effective manner as O’Brien, though has the added defensive responsibility of playing behind Daley.

The last time Chesterfield were at Valley Parade their supporters taunted their manager Lee Richardson with the chant “you don’t know what you’re doing”. The former Halifax and Huddersfield midfielder is still in charge, with his team unbeaten in seven and climbing the table after a slow start. Having been injured for both meetings last season, Jack Lester (35 goals for The Spireites from 53 appearances) will line up against City and scored for Nottingham Forest on his last visit to Valley Parade. Jamie Ward, who had a superb game on that horrible afternoon 19 months ago is winning plaudits and attracting attention.

He will be with Chesterfield until January at least but who will be lining up for the Bantams over the same period isn’t fully clear. We wait for Chris Brandon, Colbeck, Lee Bullock, Dean Furman and now McLaren to return from injury and, while it leaves a larger reliance on loan players than Stuart would probably like in the short-term, it’s nothing on the situation two seasons ago where so much of Colin Todd’s long-term plans depended on them.

If it’s to be good bye from Clarke and Law tonight, let’s hope it ends in the same way their loan periods started.

What’s next?

It wasn’t pretty, it was far from convincing and it will be quickly forgotten – but the most relevant description of Bradford City’s 2-0 win at Rotherham would be ‘job done’.

The open manner of attacking football which manager Stuart McCall is largely pinning City’s promotion hopes on was rarely exhibited, but some of the other equally important qualities that any side with promotion aspirations was. It may have been played out in the unusual and somewhat soulless setting of Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium, but Rotherham provided that familiar awkward test and the Bantams had to display steeliness, grit and determination. Ultimately the three points earned by Luke O’Brien and Nicky Law’s second half strikes will be all that matter come May.

Not that it was a bad performance from the pre-season League Two favourites. Rotherham United supporters might consider that their entire home crowd can be dumped into one stand of their temporary home as an indicator of their place in the world, but they will also know their team would be battling with City for promotion were it not for that 17 point deduction. For 70 minutes the Millers dominated possession and posed plenty of questions of a defensive line which has being needing to provide answers.

Rhys Evans made an early low save and the City stopper had a busy afternoon. With widemen Jamie Green and Dale Tonge causing plenty of problems, numerous balls were fired into the box and Matt Clarke – who appears to have heeded the wake-up call from losing his place in the last home game against Barnet – and Graeme Lee stood up to the battle.

Not that Stuart would have been happy with how much they had to do. In the middle of the park City were second best for much of the game and possession was too easily squandered. There’s seemingly been a learning curve all season about the best way to play, with many players often taking the direct option of launching the ball forward as quickly as possible. While it’s effective at times – some of City’s better first half opportunities coming this way – it needs to be used in the right way. In the early stages there was a reluctance to slow the tempo and pass it around, instead the ball quickly sent forward and invariably returned just as fast.

Questions continue to be asked of Paul McLaren, who it’s felt can do more. This is the sort of game where a midfield leader, a Stuart if you like, is badly needed and McLaren is the closest we have. His manager must be looking to McLaren to demand the ball off others to then deliver sensible and, when the opportunity arises, killer passes which set City on their way. McLaren was guilty of taking the wrong option too often in the first half and moves broke down. Like with other City players who’ve struggled, the management is capable of coaching more out of him. Should Stuart succeed, McLaren will be a better player for it.

Two widemen were employed, with Leon Osborne brought in on the left and Omar Daley switched to the right. It was unusual to see Daley on this side and served to only remind us that, while his pace and dribbling skills are such a potent weapon, his final ball into the box can sometimes be poor. Daley was City’s best attacking outlet but Osborne too was a willing worker.

The second half became a fascinating battle as Rotherham continued to exert strong pressure and waste some good chances, but City slowly began to play in the right way. Possession wasn’t feebly squandered seconds after been won. There was some impressive passing with some moves agonisingly breaking down when one pass wasn’t quite good enough. City also seemed to work out when to go direct and when to slow it down. In short – they began to play like a good away side.

So while heavy pressure in City’s box continued, more and more gaps began to emerge at the other end and the counter attack was on. The ball was played quickly to Osborne or Daley, who used their pace and the space to get City on the attack. Nothing was to come of it at first, but as Rotherham showed a degree of naivety in how far forward some of their players went, the opportunities were increasing. After Tom Clarke was brought on for the injured McLaren, Law suddenly had the licence to get forward even more and this made a difference.

Seconds after Barry Conlon also joined the action, City got their counter attack spot on. A Rotherham corner saw plenty of red shirts forward, but the was played towards a galloping O’Brien, who burst forward to the edge of the area and hit a low shot which appeared to leave Rotherham keeper David Stockdale unsighted as it flew into the bottom corner.

Two minutes later Rotherham fans thought their side had equalised as Drew Broughton’s header from close range was magnificently pushed onto the bar by Evans, but then another counter-attack delivered a killer second goal as Law’s shot from distance flew past Stockdale into the same corner of the net as O’Brien’s.

With the game effectively won City were able to slow the tempo and pass the ball around in a calmer manner. An O’Brien dribble forward was illegally stopped and the resulting free kick fired over, while a great passing move resulted in TJ Moncur wastefully stabbing the ball well wide of the goal. A third would undoubtedly have flattered City.

Those sat near this writer will have to excuse my over-exuberant celebrations for both goals, particularly the first. For most of the game the cold air around me was polluted by one supporter who’s non-stop moaning about his team was not only moronic and largely unrealistic (they are League Two players, but I doubt even Premiership players could manage what he expected our players to do), but his choice of players to ‘target’ was ludicrous. All game long I watched an excellent performance from our young left back, O’Brien, and all game long I listened to irrational abuse about how rubbish he was, with this fan often calling him a four letter term beginning with T. That was when he wasn’t yelling equally ridiculous abuse about Osborne and demanding Stuart sub him.

Is this the way we should be encouraging our younger players? No one says we should gloss over if they fail to reach the standards required for first team football, but when they’re not even having bad games it was hard to listen to this fan’s clueless rants. So when O’Brien struck the first I had to fight every urge to turn around and call my fellow supporter a four letter term beginning with T, though my mouth dropped to the floor in astonishment as he joined in when others later started a chant praising O’Brien.

But in some ways it was that sort of afternoon. The Don Valley stadium is a horrible place to watch football and the freezing conditions had us longing for the final whistle well before it was due. Any attempt to build an atmosphere by the 1,600 City fans was largely lost in the wide open space and, for those of us with limited eyesight, it was difficult to see the ball at the opposite end of the pitch when it got darker. It can’t have been much fun for the players either, with three sides of the ground completely empty. It was a matter of getting the win and moving onto the next game.

Rotherham’s 17 point deduction should mean the Don Valley stays on the fixture list for League Two sides next season – another incentive for City to get the ultimate ‘job done’ and earn promotion.

Unfamiliar familiarity – Rotherham United v Bradford City – League Two preview

This is the seventh season out of eight to feature Rotherham away on Bradford City’s fixture list, though there will be nothing familiar about Saturday’s trip.

The financial difficulties which the Millers have struggled to overcome during the last few years has resulted in a temporary move to Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium. With a running track around the pitch and the stands – of which for only one side is there a roof – positioned well back, it will certainly be a contrast from the intimacy of Millmoor.

For Rotherham the move was born out of necessity as Millmoor’s landlord, former Chairman Ken Booth, demanded too much rent and not enough access to its facilities for it to be financially viable. Attendances have slightly dipped through the six-mile relocation, though with only two home defeats so far it’s clear the players have adapted to new surroundings quickly.

For us Bradford City supporters, it should be a case of being thankful for our lot. Clearly the Bantams have suffered from financial troubles in recent years and the two relegations since leaving the Premier League can be blamed on it to varying degrees. Yet both City’s spells in administration came before the sort of point deductions which have been inflicted on Rotherham for three consecutive seasons. As for a former chairman owning the ground and the struggle to make rent payments, a move to Odsal looked a possibility back in February 2004.

Which goes to show that, if there can be positives to take from what this club went through, it’s the timing of it. Pity the marketing men at Rotherham, who this summer had to work out how to sell season tickets for a club which had moved to a nearby city, which wasn’t fully guaranteed to be allowed to continue by the Football League and who even then started with a 17 point deduction. The self-righteous whining from Leeds United supporters last season has ensured many of us hold little sympathy for clubs who break the rules by getting in such debt, but things could have been much worse for us during those dark days and at the time that didn’t seem possible.

For City at least, such difficult times are now part of the history books and they approach the only proper League Two Yorkshire Derby of the season with strong promotion aspirations. Last week’s defeat to Wycombe may have tempered confidence among supporters, but manager Stuart McCall will know the true quality of a good side is how it responds to set backs. So far this season the players have made a good fist of it.

The team is likely to be similar after Stuart’s attempts to bring in a right winger on loan drew a blank. Rhys Evans keeps goal behind a back four slowly recapturing its early season solidness. Paul Heckingbottom came through the reserves unscathed midweek and Stuart may consider giving Luke O’Brien a breather. TJ Moncur seems to be comfortably first choice ahead of Paul Arnison on the right and Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke continue in the centre.

The other Clarke will continue in midfield. City’s line ups this season have largely not featured an out and out holding midfielder and the hope has to be that Paul McClaren, alongside Tom, can get forward more than he has been afforded to. Lee Bullock is close to a return to fitness and McClaren may be aware he needs to show more in order to keep his starting place. Nicky Law will play on the right with Omar Daley likely to provide the team’s main source of attacking inspiration from the left.

Up front Michael Boulding will be hoping to get the nod over Barry Conlon, with the latter still sweating over a new contract offer in the new year. There are some concerns over Peter Thorne’s recent performances, but there’s no one you’d rather have on the end of any decent chances the rest of the team can create during the game.

Rotherham are not without their problems having lost experienced keeper Andy Warrington to injury and with only Steven Cann, who played his first senior game midweek and was on the end of a 3-0 defeat, to call upon between the sticks. Manager Mark Robins too has been left frustrated by the loan market and, unless any late attempts prove successful, it will be a big day for the 20-year-old South African. They also have their own Omar, who is perhaps more Willy Topp.

One familiar face will be Alex Rhodes, who joined the Millers from City during the summer. The winger was an excellent proposition on his day, as Rotherham themselves know only too well, but lacked consistency. Had Stuart kept him on it’s likely he’d have barely figured for City this season up until Joe Colbeck’s injury, so his regularity for Rotherham suggests City would be finishing above them even if they’d not suffered that heavy points deduction.

Like City, Rotherham will be aiming to put their financial troubles behind them but the impact which the credit crunch has had on so many parts of UK life has yet to be realised in football. With the UK heading for recession tough times may be ahead and typically its lower league clubs who will suffer.

If United had trouble with season tickets this season what about the next, when people’s spending will become even tighter? This week Rotherham announced half-year season ticket prices which are still more expensive than it cost for a full City season ticket. If levels of support are to be maintained in 2009/10 season clubs are going to have to consider the sort of innovate pricing approach which has succeeded at Valley Parade, though that might be difficult for clubs like Rotherham to implement with money in short supply.

If City can march onto promotion this season they should have few problems retaining their support should they keep similar prices, which would once again leave us pleased with our timing and thankful for our lot.

Where we want to be – MK Dons v Bradford City – FA Cup 1st Round preview

The chances are that those of us at Stadium MK this Saturday will witness a City defeat – but I hope to still make the 162-mile journey home feeling happy.

I will be happy if I see commitment from those who don Claret and Amber for this FA Cup 1st Round tie. Injuries, in midfield in particular, are severely limiting Stuart McCall’s options. There are already plenty of excuses which can be made if defeat occurs, but if those who are fit to play show anything less than full commitment towards the cause of City’s name appearing in Sunday’s 2nd Round draw those excuses will lose credibility.

I will be happy if Stuart is able to learn something from the game. Those injuries allow others their opportunity and, with seven substitutes allowed in the FA Cup, there will be plenty queuing up to take it. Injuries to Dean Furman and Kyle Nix – added to Joe Colbeck and Chris Brandon – open up a hole in midfield. Stuart may move Nicky Law across to partner Paul McClaren in the centre, which should leave Leon Osborne or Willy Topp battling to take the vacant right midfield role.

Osborne made his debut for City against Millwall in May 2007, but got off on the wrong foot with Stuart that summer which hindered progress. Topp’s contribution this season has been two appearances from the bench. He played reasonably well out wide during pre-season, through Stuart may wish to bring him in up front tomorrow.

If Law is kept on the right, Luke Sharry could make his much-anticipated debut for City having impressed in pre-season and for the reserves this season. At the back Huddersfield’s refusal to let Tom Clarke play should mean a return for the other Clarke; though Paul Arnison could be recalled and TJ Moncur moved to the centre to partner Graeme Lee. Luke O’Brien, who made his senior debut in the FA Cup this season, will hope to recapture his promising form at left back, with Rhys Evans keeping goal.

Up front it seems unlikely Peter Thorne will be risked into action, with City’s top scorer seemingly picking up as many niggling injuries as goals. The in-form Barry Conlon should partner Michael Boulding, although don’t rule out the 4-3-3 formation adopted against Leeds in the Johnstones Paint Trophy which would see Boulding and Omar Daley assume the wide forward roles. Otherwise the latter will return from suspension in his familiar left wing role.

The MK Dons are far from unfamiliar opposition and it’s barely six months since they sealed the League Two title with victory at Valley Parade. Currently 4th in League One, they are nicely set up to achieve Julian Rhodes’ ambition for City of back-to-back promotions.

And that’s where the real happiness could be gained, even if City make it a hat trick of first round cup exits this season. They are not there yet, but we hope this City side can be as good as last year’s MK Dons and follow their path towards the Championship. That doesn’t mean we’ll be good enough to win, particularly with significant injuries, but we want to at least see our team compete with them.

There were many impressive facets to the MK Dons side which beat us at home April, right up there was their resilience. We travel South in the hope of an upset, but even if the best our patched-up side can achieve is to run the Dons close it would speak volumes of the character and strength of this squad. There’s no excuse for the players who’ll get a rare opportunity to show anything less than their all, but that should go for the remaining regulars too.

Do you remember, remember the 6th of November?

Eight games without a win and only 12 points picked up from the first 14 games – the 2-1 victory which Bradford City managed over Chester City a year ago today was certainly much needed. A season of incredible high hopes had begun disastrously and recently appointed manager Stuart McCall was struggling to turn things around. On the night Omar Daley and Alex Rhodes scored two memorable goals to kick-start the campaign.

12 months later and, while all isn’t quite well at Valley Parade, the picture is certainly different. The Bantams are 3rd in the league, rather than three points above the foot of it as they were on November 5th last year. Peter Thorne isn’t anxiously hoping to get off the mark in Claret and Amber, he’s on course to equal last season’s tally of goals before Christmas. City aren’t playing catch up, they’re out at the front – 15 points better off this time.

Yet it’s by looking at the last 12 months as a whole which really demonstrates how much City have progressed. Including the Chester win, the Bantams have acquired 78 points from 45 games – good enough to seal a play off spot, judging by last year’s final League Two table, with a game to spare. It’s certainly an improvement from the measly 37 points achieved from the 45 league games which preceded it.

Such stats show just how much that Chester victory a year ago was a turning point – not just for that season, but in the seemingly unstoppable decline in the club’s fortunes. There have been ups and downs since, and there will continue to be, but this last year has seen a continuing upwards curve of improvement in the direction the club is heading.

Much of the credit belongs to Stuart, who would have learnt much that night against Chester and plenty more since. It’s difficult to know what was going through his mind during that miserable autumn run last season, but he appeared unsure how to turn it around. Significant changes – with Paul Evans and Matt Clarke brought in– were made that night and both played a significant role in the victory. The former may be long gone and there are currently big questions centred on the latter, but their presence that night added some much needed grit to a team which looked too lightweight for the rough and tumble of League Two.

Many of the subsequent signings have added to the team’s physical strength and, while any one who has witnessed City’s better moments this season will know this is a team which can play good football, that extra steel has made a difference. Sometimes we groan at the more direct style City have adopted, particularly in away games, but its often proved an effective strategy over the last year. Those who believe Stuart wants to play football this way are only half right – it’s more about doing what’s needed to succeed at this level.

Stuart didn’t stumble on the magic formula that night against Chester, and it’s clear a lot of hard work has been carried out since and is still required for success to be achieved. Only seven of the fourteen players involved that night – which includes the recently-returned Nicky Law – are still on City’s books. Some fans have recently suggested Stuart’s summer signings have all been disappointing, but this harsh generalisation ignores the signings he’s made over the last year and the improvement he’s got from those players who were here already.

But most of all what Stuart has learned over the last year is how to be a better leader from the touchline. During last year’s autumn slump post-match interviews revealed the City manager to be taking defeats very badly. Famously, after losing at Morecambe, he said he “felt sick to the stomach” and almost contemplated walking away from football for good. At the time it was comforting to know the manager felt as hurt by defeat as us supporters, but in hindsight it’s dubious what his players would have gained from it.

When trooping in after a defeat they needed to hear their leader tell them what was wrong and how they can put it right, blast individuals who had let down others and then go outside and confidently tell the rest of the world where the club will go from here, defending the players if appropriate. Listen to the audio of Stuart after the Darlington defeat last month and there’s a world of difference in tone. No blind defending of the team, but fair reflections and a positive look ahead. Seven points from nine since suggests the players responded well to it.

Some of the results and performances during this year’s early autumn slump have tested the faith of many of us in regards to Stuart’s managerial abilities, but the bigger picture shows progress is being made. A few of us could certainly do with viewing our pints as half full and enjoy the typical ups and downs which life as a City fan continually presents.

The last time City were challenging near the top of a league was October 2004 – but by November 2004 hopes had quickly faded. City may not be promoted in May, but all the indications are they will be challenging for it all season. So can’t we enjoy the ride a bit more and not focus so much on the negatives? An up and down promotion challenge has to be more enjoyable than an up and down relegation battle, after all.

The top of League Two remains very tight – and the six league games between now and Christmas are likely to prove significant as larger gaps will begin to emerge. If City are still a point behind the leaders, or even better off, when they visit Lincoln on Boxing Day, the prospects of a successful season will be extremely good.

A one year anniversary to note, though it’s where City are come Stuart’s second anniversary as manager which will ultimately matter.

That’s character

It wasn’t a night where the attacking swagger of football which characterised Bradford City’s excellent start to the season fully returned, but nevertheless manager Stuart McCall will have been delighted with those answers his players did provide to the questions raised of them.

In the wake of Monday’s disappointing defeat at Darlington, Stuart had stated he needed big characters to reverse a season in danger of slipping away and, after Matt Clarke’s controversial early sending off, the remaining players had 78 minutes to prove how much resilience they had. Whether the feeling of injustice helped spirit or it was a strong determination not to let things slip again, they responded by scoring a further two goals and then put in an excellent defensive shift which partially answers increasing accusations they aren’t good enough at the back to last the distance.

After the match Stuart admitted the referee had no choice to send Clarke off, though he did not have the benefit of such a good view of the incident as the 803 travelling City fans behind the goal. Grimsby’s Nathan Jarman had charged through only for the former Darlington defender to produce a risky, but clean, tackle to stop his route to goal. As both players laid on the ground referee Graham Salisbury consulted with his assistant before producing the red card and awarding a free kick.

It means that, in each of Sailsbury’s last three occasions he has officiated a City game, a red card for a player in claret and amber has been produced. The other two – Jermaine Johnson at home to Yeovil in January 2007 and Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu in last season’s FA Cup win against Chester – were also questionable decisions and one is left to wonder how credible the term ‘coincidence’ can be to the decisions Sailsbury has made against City. Though given Clarke’s challenge had been inside the box, the home side will also feel aggrieved they were not awarded a penalty.

The red card punctured City’s excellent start to the game. Having taken the lead after six minutes when Omar Daley latched onto a weak headed clearance, beat the full back and charged across the penalty area before unleashing a fierce drive into the top corner, a convincing away victory looked probable. Graeme Lee caused panic in the area soon after and the home defence struggled to clear their lines following another corner. Paul McLaren and Dean Furman looked busy in the centre and Daley was a constant menace.

The sending off saw that particular threat deactivated as Stuart sacrificed the Jamaican for the on-loan Tom Clarke to make his debut at right back, with TJ Moncur moved across to the centre where he looks more comfortable. Both were kept busy as Grimsby sought to take advantage of the extra man, though the chances they did create were often wasted by poor shooting.

To City’s credit they did not sit back either and tightened their grip with a second goal on the half hour. McLaren set Colbeck away on the right and his burst towards goal was blocked on the edge of the area. Ex-Mariner Michael Boulding was following up and unleashed a superb low drive which flew into the bottom corner. It was Boulding’s fifth strike of the season and, the impressive manner he’s been tucking away chances when presented to him only adds to the frustration at the lack of service he’s been getting in previous games. City are still working out how to get the best of a player who scored 25 goals for a relegated club last season.

Unsurprisingly Grimsby exerted strong pressure at the start of the second half in an effort to get back into the game and Rhys Evans made two excellent saves, but it was heartening to see how many balls into the box were cleared by a City head. The Bantams more obvious quality going forward was soon rewarded again when a rare corner was met by Lee’s diving header at the far post. Had he and his colleagues been marking so badly at the other end a home win may have resulted, but captain Lee’s exuberant celebrations for his first City goal were much deserved during an evening that he led his team so well. Special mention should also go to the corner taker McLaren; he’s received a lot of criticism recently but his last few performances have shown improvement. Think back to some of City’s goals in recent weeks and consider how many have featured City’s number 4 in the build up.

With the game seemingly over Grimsby suddenly pulled a goal back through Liam Trotter’s header to set up a final 25 minutes of pressure, but it would be the only blemish on City’s defence all night. Evans hasn’t fully convinced in goal since joining during the summer, but had an excellent game with the confident manner he deals with high balls into the box something which can only spread through the rest of the team. It was also heartening to see Luke O’Brien stand up to such a big test and, with each recent game, he is blossoming.

The final whistle was met with some ugly scenes in the home end as some Grimsby fans tried to charge onto the pitch, with Mike Newell recently put in charge it was presumably the players who were the target of their anger. It’s 20 games since they last won; but while that might lessen the impressiveness of this result for City, how victory was earned and the recent dismal record when facing teams on such poor runs means the 10-men deserve plenty of credit.

It wasn’t a game won through the attacking ability the team processes – it was shown on occasions, but it’s nothing we didn’t know before – but the way in which the players, particularly at the back, stood up and showed a robustness which has been lacking. Promotion is not ultimately won during games against struggling teams, but it can easily be lost.

So it’s back to Valley Parade for games against Bury and Barnet and the target must be six points to continue the recovery. Expectations will be allowed to creep up again and, with the Shakers having enjoyed an excellent start themselves, the Valley Parade support needs to be rediscover its own early season form on Tuesday and offer the sort of backing which so impressively helped the team at Blundell Park.

Matt Clarke will be suspended, as too will Omar Daley after picking up a fifth booking of the season. Joe Colbeck is also a doubt after been stretchered off with ten minutes to go. It all adds up to a few headaches for Stuart, though after Friday’s win he can be confident his team has the character to still deliver.

Beating failure – Bradford City vs Luton Town – League Two preview

Come 5pm Saturday Bradford City’s promotion hopes will have either been strengthened or weakened – but one thing they certainly won’t be is over.

Two successive defeats is disappointing and three would be considered “unacceptable”, but with City’s home vulnerability resurfacing that is entirely possible as would-be-11th-but-for-crazy-points-deduction Luton come to town. After a week in which talk of failure has emanated from some quarters – preceding any actual failure itself – it’s worth reflecting on what it would look like. A home defeat would probably push City out of the play off positions; but, at worst, City would be six points behind the leaders, with 37 games to go.

It’s said by some that the fear of failure led to Stuart McCall playing 4-5-1 at Shrewsbury last weekend and, largely ignoring three key injuries and an appalling referee display, the City manager’s perceived negativity has resulted in some of the strongest criticism towards him yet. Whether or not the system worked in the way he intended; Stuart will obviously be moving back to 4-4-2 for this one.

Top scorer Peter Thorne, who’s absence in defeat has further highlighted his importance, is expected to be fit enough to lead the attack alongside Michael Boulding. Barry Conlon will be back on the bench having been made scapegoat by some for last week’s failings. Some of the criticism is unjustified but it’s hard to argue that the Irishman has done enough, when given the opportunity, to warrant a contact beyond January and it’s up to him to prove his worth. Willy Topp, fresh from a wonder goal in the reserves and closer to fitness, is also likely to be among the subs.

Lee Bullock’s injury will allow the promising Dean Furman to keep his place and Stuart may look for him to share more of the defensive responsibilities with partner Paul McLaren than Bullock has been. Former Hatter McLaren joined City in the summer having topped the League One assist chart the previous season, but the more withdrawn role he’s playing has lessened his impact going forward. Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley will be patrolling out wide, with some disappointment this week that they won’t be pushed as hard to keep up their excellent form as they might.

At the back Paul Heckingbottom, Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke will be looking to rediscover their early season swagger and, unless Paul Arnison makes a miraculous recovery, Simon Ainge will get a chance at right back. The 20-year-old made his City debut two years ago but has had few opportunities to push on, his last one ending in failure. Stuart’s decision to give youth a chance instead of making yet another loan signing is applauded on this site and Ainge will aim to make it a quiet afternoon for keeper Rhys Evans.

For Luton, former Bantam Lewis Emmanuel makes a second return to Valley Parade since leaving two years ago. Briefly it seemed he’d gone onto better things in the Championship but, despite having trials at Birmingham and Southend during the summer, Lewis has fallen with the troubled Hatters and could feasibly be playing non-league football next year. It’s to be hoped Don Hutchinson won’t carry the influence his fellow ex-Premiership star Darren Anderton managed two weeks ago, while ex-Chelsea striker Sam Parkin will need to be watched.

Yet the biggest threat of failure will arguably come not from the visitors, but in the stands. Considering we were topping the division two weeks ago, the criticisms levelled at City by many supporters this week have been unnecessarily high. Conversations before this match are likely to contain the phrase “we’d better win today” and, judging on past form, the chances of supporters getting behind the team if they don’t start well are highly slim.

A delve into City’s recent history adds further reason to fear such failure. During the past two seasons, promotion hopes looked credible going into the middle of September – and were all but extinguished when October was over. It’s easy to pin point the respective defeats to Huddersfield and Hereford as the moment things went wrong, but defeats are always going to happen and it was the later ones at home to Brighton and Accrington which really tipped the balance towards another season of failure. During both these games the crowd quickly turned on the team and worked against it – and a similar reaction if things aren’t initially going to plan on Saturday could prove similarly damaging.

Earlier this week one fan wrote they were sick of hearing the management and chairmen falsely building up our promotion hopes each summer, as though pre-season optimism has nothing to do with us supporters. Well promotion this season is my dream, promotion this season is your dream, promotion this season is Stuart McCall’s dream, promotion this season is Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn’s dream, promotion this season is even Barry Conlon’s dream.

If we all channel our efforts in the same direction, accepting we succeed and fail together, the chances of us all achieving those ambitions will surely be greater. So, should City fall behind on Saturday, how are you going to react?

Flying colours

In the end the result disguised the fact it had been Bradford City’s biggest test of the season.

Going in at half time a goal behind having collectively played average, supporters unrecognising and undermining efforts, a disgruntled manager to face and the first questions over their ability to muster a promotion challenge – the players had much to prove.

An hour later they were leaving the pitch to wholehearted applause after a second half performance Stuart McCall would label “awesome”. Quickly finding an equaliser and not looking back, the players found a previously unused high gear to notch three more goals through some devastating attacking football.

All of which leaves City sitting top of the league and, while it may be early days, coming 11 years to the day of the last time a divisional summit was reached after August – a 2-2 draw against Middlesbrough in the old Division One – shows it’s a rare enough occurence to enjoy. Now the challenge is to stay there.

If the second half blitz provided plenty of evidence to believe this could finally be City’s season, the doubts cast during a disappointing first half performance shouldn’t be discounted. Home games against so-called lesser sides have proved City’s Achilles Heel to often in recent years. Usually on the back of a decent away win, the expectation is more over how many goals will be scored than merely whether the game would be won.

Newly promoted sides can be dangerous to play early season, as City discovered a fortnight ago, but Exeter appeared content to keep men behind the ball and attack on the break. The initiative was there to be taken but, as chances were created and a feeling a goal would inevitably arrive grew, the warning signs which have formed part of so many home failings in recent years were again neglected. Grecians strikers Marcus Stewart and Adam Stansfield provided Graeme Lee and Matt Clarke with some uncomfortable moments, with one slip from Lee resulted in City’s crossbar rattling and Rhys Evans earlier been forced into an excellent tip over.

The Bantams had chances too, with an Omar Daley rocket from distance been touched onto the bar by keeper Paul Jones, but when the visitors went in front it was far from the shock it might have been considered at 3pm. Midfielder Matt Gill fired home via a post after Clarke woefully sliced a clearance into his path. It’s not the first time the former Darlington centre half has cost City a goal through poor distribution, but his steady second half recovery offered a reminder of the qualities which make him a firm fixture in the side. A mistake can be forgiven, if it’s not repeated.

Up until this point the game had been played out to a rather muted atmosphere, save from the Bradford End, but in response to going behind the volume dramatically increased from the home crowd. Not, sadly, in support of their team, but to complain and boo. Firstly a loud crash could be heard as hundreds of City fans seemingly threw their toys out of the pram in unison, then it was the players turn to take cover.

The eight minutes between Exeter scoring and the half time whistle were easily City’s worst, and it can be no coincidence it occurred with many City fans vocally criticising everything they did. I don’t understand the thought process which concludes everything must suddenly be bad just because we’d fallen behind. As City attacked in Exeter’s box one fan near me loudly screamed they were not capable of scoring so what was the point. “Stop playing long ball!” yelled another. Two minutes later City knocked the ball around patiently just inside Exeter’s half and the same person demanded the ball be “put into the box.”

At half time his assessment was that City had been “rubbish” but this was simply not true. Faint booing could be heard and I pondered how our old home failings emanate from more than just our players and wish we’d provide them support when they need it most. Still a mistake can be forgiven if it’s not repeated, right?

So the test was set up, and passed with flying colours. Stuart later revealed that at half time he’d told Joe Colbeck to up his game and spark the rest of the team into life and, while it’s testament to last season’s Player of the Year that such expectations can be placed on him, the fact he delivered in such style shows it’s not just Daley we should be worried about receiving bids for come January. Colbeck ignited by picking up the ball on half way and charging forward, beating three covering defenders and firing in a shot across goal which was tipped out of Thorne’s reach by Jones. Next time the former Leyton Orient keeper would not be so lucky.

Minutes later the ball was worked to Colbeck, who unleashed a stunning shot from distance that Jones could only palm into Thorne’s path. City’s top scorer athletically shifted his body into a position to tap in the rebound and City were level. As the home fans roared in a mixture of approval and relief I thought back to the words I’d heard just as Colbeck’s shot flew towards goal from someone nearby, “What are you doing shooting from there?”

Four minutes later City went in front after another well-worked attack. Paul Arnison was invited to cross and his beautiful delivery was met by Michael Boulding at the far post, who headed home. Finally Exeter had to commit more players forward and they continued to pose awkward questions at City’s defence, though the likelihood of more City goals was always there.

The killer third arrived after Daley’s great close control and clever pass set Colbeck away and, though his low shot across the keeper looked to be drifting narrowly wide of the opposite post, Thorne prodded the ball across the line to make sure. Not the greatest of his eight goals this season, but the kind of poaching which leaves him on course to smash the 20-goal barrier by Christmas should he steer clear of injuries.

Daley’s contribution should not be devalued and he laid on the fourth after another lighting burst forward – was I the only one who felt a bit sorry for Exeter full back Steve Tully in facing the in-form Jamaican? – and clever setting up of Boulding to fire home his second. There could have been more with Boulding and substitute Barry Conlon going close before the end. If the home side had ended the first half desperate for the whistle, it was now the visitors anxious to be put out of their misery.

So top with only 40 games to hold out. The squad’s ability to cope with injuries and suspensions has yet to be proved, but as a settled side continues to grow so to do the expectations of what it can achieve. Few teams in this division will cope with City’s attack on this form and it should be noted that worse sides than Exeter are still due at Valley Parade.

Another test passed but, increasingly, it’s the rest of the division who’ll be considering the Bantams their biggest.

A team game

Among the strong bluster of disapproval which resulted from Tuesday evening’s Carling cup nightmare at Huddersfield, there was one line of criticism which particularly stood out.

In response to manager Stuart McCall’s post-match omission that their League One opponents had been a class above during their 4-0 triumph, some argued that this shouldn’t have been the case because the summer recruitments – the majority from the division above – should leave us with a team which could hold it’s own in England’s third tier. Given the club’s ambition is be competing at the top end of League One next season; doubts were raised at the team’s ability to achieve it.

No one would argue Tuesday was anything other than woeful, but it was the way City collapsed having fallen behind – rather than his players capabilities – which will have concerned Stuart the most. It’s a squad still needing time to gel and, as a test of what it is capable of, playing Huddersfield was too much, too soon. Everyone can see we have good players, but it will take time to become a good team.

The basic surroundings of Moss Rose proved ideal for rebuilding battered pride and switching focus back to the season’s main objective of promotion from League Two. City will face tougher games over the coming months than a poor Macclesfield side could offer, but this comfortable victory will help build confidence for them.

Right from kick off, with City quickly winning possession and straight on the attack, it was clear the players were determined to make up for Tuesday’s disappointment. Two early goals made for a comfortable afternoon as City went up and down the gears, rarely threatening to lose grip of the game. If a more emphatic scoreline looked probable at one stage, it was still an impressive 90 minutes from the Bantams.

Unlike Tuesday, City played like a team. A team with an impressive forward line; Peter Thorne again the hero with a second double strike in two starts. The first a looping header from a delightful cross which flew into the far corner, the second a poacher’s effort after poor control by Silkmen defender Sean Hessey allowed him the chance. Last season’s top scorer had to wait until November to net his first goal and, with four already, the prospects of a bigger return this campaign look good.

Alongside him Michael Boulding looked more the part after an underwhelming full debut at the Galpharm. He made some impressive runs and took up clever positions. It might not be the kindest comparison, but he is the first City striker since Michael Branch with the ability to run the channels, popping up all over in and around the penalty area. The former Aston Villa striker had chances to open his Bantams account, most notably hitting the post in the second half.

A team with wingers who excite if also frustrate. Joe Colbeck returned from suspension and, while quiet by his standards, set up Thorne’s opener and played a part in his second. Omar Daley was back on form and terrorised Macclesfield’s shaky backline on several occasions. Just like against Notts County the week before, he almost scored from a mazy dribble which began in his own half, just taking too long to get in his shot after reaching the penalty area. Opposition managers will become increasingly wary of Omar’s threat on the break and, like Boulding, he was unlucky to see a second half effort come back off the woodwork.

A team with a capable central midfield. Lee Bullock hasn’t torn up any trees during his first two games this season, but caught the eye with an impressive display. Paul McLaren continues to play things simple and some his best work isn’t always noticed. It might not work every game, but the duo controlled the tempo and set up several attacks.

A team looking solid and mobile at the back. Macclesfield, who’s first half wretchedness was probably best summed up when, on the end of heavy pressure in their area, a defender managed to clear the ball to their striker on half way only for the flag to go up, showed more fight in the second. Substitutes Izak Reid and Francis Green made a difference, the latter unlucky not to pull a goal back after his shot was tipped over by the impressive Rhys Evans.

The home side had a strong penalty shout rejected, but otherwise found City’s defence too strong. Paul Arnison has been criticised for his performances so far, but defended efficiently and got forward well. On the opposite side Paul Heckingbottom has made a bright start to the season while Matt Clarke continues to look solid, his distribution improved from Tuesday.

But it’s his central defensive partner and club captain Graeme Lee who fans were raving about at the final whistle. His best moment in an outstanding display came in the second half when, with Macclesfield adopting manager Keith Alexander’s trademark tactics of pumping the ball into the box, he headed the ball clear four times in quick succession. Just like Peter Thorne with Dean Windass, Lee is showing there is life after a club legend and his on-looking predecessor, David Wetherall, would have been proud.

All of which ensured Macclesfield were out of ideas well before the end and City could have easily had two or three more to reflect their superiority. Billy Topp – who’s dominated the post-Huddersfield discussions – came off the bench for his first appearance of the season and looked sharp. A look at the unused subs is another reason to feel optimistic.

This is a team which isn’t fully there just yet, there were still moments where players could have done better and understandings still need developing. In the closing stages Evans and Daley had an argument after the Jamaican gave away the ball in a bad position and Lee, as captain, had to get involved. Daley has managed to lose his cool at some point in each game so far and while that might be a concern it’s also a sign he cares. As does the way Evans and Lee argued with the winger and other players helped to later calm him down by talking to him.

What sort of season City will enjoy is still unclear, but the indications are positive from the two league displays so far. This is team with great potential and, when it is up to full speed, should prove difficult to stop. Tuesday’s shocker will take time to forget, but this team looks capable of celebrating something far more significant than a place in the second round of the Cup come May.

What It All Comes Down To – Wycombe Beat City in the Final Game of the Season

The first thing to say about this game is that it is proof that City should have got out of this league at the first attempt.

Well perhaps not should have but could have. Wycombe Wanderers are in the play offs but they are no one’s idea of a good football team and if they do go through the play offs I wouldn’t expect them to last a season in League One.

If only… is the theme of the day.

If only City had not had had that really poor spell in October. If only Stuart McCall had got to grips with managing earlier. If only Mark Lawn and McCall had been installed before Darlington had signed nine players. If only…

Delroy Facey’s goal in the first five minutes was a big if only. If City are to move on then this venerable naivety needs to be stamped out by McCall. Leon Knight got a second and City were not that the races. A penalty came when Diddy David Brown was thrown to the ground and Luke Medley scored but next season if City don’t want another season of If Onlys then we need to make sure that when we come to places like this that we put up more of a solid defence. Teams that go places don’t concede in the first five minutes.

But this is end of the season and who cares? We have been in preparation for next year for a while now and this was the Bantams more of less on the beach for the summer.

Eddie Johnson already is away somewhere now we have released him. I’m going to miss the idea that Eddie Johnson more than watching him. I always got the feeling watching Eddie that he was at 80% and that he had no idea how to unlock the other 20% and nor did Colin Todd or Stuart McCall. It was probably because he had come through Man United. Had he been Eddie Johnson signed from Farsley he would have been “could be good”.

Next season McCall has to bring in a good quality of player if the likes of Eddie Johnson get turfed out. He needs two new keepers and I liked Scott Loach but I won’t miss him if he goes for good. He flaps at crosses too much and I don’t like loan players. I like Ben Starosta and I hope he can sign for us next year but if he can’t then I don’t see Simon Francis’s name on the team sheet as often at Southend as I should do…

Mark Bower and Matt Clarke at central defense? Ok then. Paul Heckingbottom? Sure. He is good enough if the players around him are good enough and no one ever didn’t go anywhere because of the full backs. Stephen Wright after all.

Joe Colbeck on the right hand side and Lee Bullock in the middle are not a midfield. Stuart needs to pull out some impressive signings here. He needs to find a Peter Beagrie to supply crosses and he needs a Stuart McCall to win the ball and without wanting to put too much stress on the Gaffer that is the most important position on the field. Whoever he get there needs to work out a Hell of a lot better than Paul Evans.

But if McCall can get a McCall and a Beagrie in then the sky is the limit cause City have an attack that no one else in the league can match. Peter Thorne is smart and finishes brilliant, Barry Conlon has the effort, Willy Topp the skills and Omar Daley who is more of a striker than a winger cause strikers should be greedy has the pace to beat anyone in the league. Something to beat any defence in League Two next season.

So it call comes down to if Stuart McCall can find a Stuart McCall…

Recent Posts